Cycling in London is peculiar. It is characterised by commuting several miles into central London. LCN+ and the Superhighways have – in different ways – both been aimed at providing for this middle-distance commuting market, partly to help relieve overcrowding on the tube. Unfortunately, these routes are often incomplete, or compromised. Key junctions remain risky, especially in central London, and inner south and east London. Fixing these junctions is proving very difficult, due to the volume of traffic using them.
While this type of middle-distance cycling is certainly found in the Netherlands or Denmark (or in Oxford or Cambridge) it is not the norm in those places. Normal cycling is short-distance, little more than a mile or two, and includes a wide range of journey purposes. Commuting only accounts for a quarter of journeys – there are more trips for shopping than commuting.
The situation in London is peculiar, but not inexplicable. The conditions for cycling aren’t good, so it is largely confined to the braver sort of cyclist. You need a certain level of commitment to even consider it. Public transport is very good, and crowding is tolerable over short distances, so people don’t tend to bother with cycling for short distances. Providing routes for longer bike journeys is easier, because you can avoid the difficult bits. And to top it all, key attractors for short journeys, such as town centres, are often in those difficult bits which cycle routes avoid.
If cycling is to be normalised, the focus has to change to short-distance journeys, and for strategies to be more centre-based than route-based. Why hasn’t that already happened? In outer London, it hasn’t happened because there isn’t the demand for it. Most people drive, few cycle, and there isn’t much demand for that to change, alas. In inner London, the demand is there, but space on the main roads is too highly contested, making it very hard to get started on the difficult bits. Providing a fine-grained network for short-distance cycling is clearly a job for the borough, but on main roads TfL effectively has a veto, with traffic taking priority. So there’s a stalemate.
To break out of this stalemate, some fairly substantial change will be needed at main road junctions – the sort of change that would cause traffic chaos if we weren’t simultaneously getting a substantial number of people out of their cars. So we need to change quite a lot in fairly short order, as a package. The change needs to be convincing enough that it leads to substantial modal shift, with fewer people driving, leading to less congestion, and fewer people using the tube for short journeys, leading to less overcrowding.
Ideally we need to find an area where cycling is already fairly established (if not normalised), where car-ownership and use is quite low (but with scope to be further reduced), where the TfL trunk road network is fairly sparse, so there aren’t too many huge junctions to deal with, and where there’s a lot of short-distance tube overcrowding, ready to transfer to bike (or bus) if conditions on the streets improve.
The best opportunity looks like Camden/Islington/Hackney. That isn’t to say that some other parts of inner London aren’t in need of a similar approach, or that work on key problem junctions (such as Aldgate and the Elephant) should stop. If the approach can be made to work in inner north London, it should certainly be attempted in other parts of inner London as well. But the best chance of success is in the north.
What needs to be done? TfL, with the boroughs, needs to look at the main road network, and work out how much room can be made available for cycling, how much impact that will have on other modes, and how much traffic reduction will be required to make it work. And then they need to go for it.