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London is one of the great loves of my life. It’s a place where everybody and anybody belongs, and I was proud to belong there for twenty-five years. Although I no longer live there, I’ll always have a special fondness for our capital. It’s beautiful, diverse, vibrant, occasionally frustrating ,and always interesting.
One of the other great loves of my life is cycling. For twenty-five years I cycled regularly in London, and when I first started, I certainly didn’t feel it was a cycling city.
That said, I felt relatively safe because I chose my routes carefully, often cycling further to avoid mingling with busy traffic. I spent many hours pouring over maps, seeking out off-road and quiet routes. But cycling some of these, such as the Thames Path or through London’s numerous parks, elicited horrified looks from angry (and sometimes shouty) pedestrians.
Snap forward to 2019 (when I left), and things had changed. For cyclists, London is not the same city that it was two decades ago.
London Cycling Investment
The past fourteen years have seen significant London cycling investment, with an extensive network of official cycle routes being introduced. These have included Cycle Superhighways, Quietways, Orbital, Radial, and Greenway routes, and routes that make up part of the National Cycle Network.
Serious investment in London’s cycling infrastructure began with Ken Livingstone, the first elected Mayor of London, who pledged to spend approximately £400 million on initiatives to improve cycling (and walking) in London.
In 2008 Livingstone proposed the construction of twelve ‘Cycle Superhighways’ – fast routes to connect inner and outer London. In the same year, he lost the mayoral election to Boris Johnson, who promised continued cycling investment.
Only seven of the proposed twelve cycle Superhighways materialised, with the first two pilot routes ready in 2010. These were initially criticised as being a “paint job”. Much of the routes in Boris Johnson’s inherited Cycle Superhighway scheme weren’t protected. Blue cycle lanes were simply painted on existing roads, exposing cyclists to heavy traffic.
However, in 2016 the first segregated superhighway was opened. This was an example of high quality cycling infrastructure that was immediately popular.
In addition to Cycle Superhighways, ‘Quietways’ were introduced in 2015. These routes were for cyclists who wanted to avoid heavy traffic.
In 2018, the Mayor’s Transport Strategy for London incorporated the Cycling Action Plan (published in December 2018). This outlined details of significant investment to improve London’s cycling network. The old Cycle Superhighways and Quietways were to be merged into a single network, branded as ‘Cycleways’. From summer 2019, Cycleways have expanded on the previous routes by over 86 miles.
Cycling in London was further promoted by the Central London Cycle Hire Scheme, which was launched in 2010, with 6,000 cycles available to rent from stations in nine Central London boroughs. This has since expanded, with 800 docking stations and over 12,000 bikes.
Over the past five years, Transport for London (TfL) and local councils have promised over 50 separate Cycleway routes. Many of these have only been partially delivered with unknown completion dates. Some of the Cycleway schemes have been cancelled completely, for various reasons, including lack of money or disagreements between the TfL and councils.
In terms of money invested, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much has been spent on cycling. Money “pledged” and money “spent” is not always the same. But according to the government, £1.2 billion had been invested (in cycling and walking) by the end of 2018/19.
Is London Now “Bike-Friendly”?
London is undoubtedly more bike-friendly than it used to be. The current mayor, Sadiq Khan, has greatly improved the cycling infrastructure. In his first term (since May 2016), he delivered around 160 miles of safer cycle routes, including more than five times the protected routes he inherited.
A “protected route” is one where a continuous curb is put between the cycle track and the road, so the cycle track is literally separate from traffic. It’s a great improvement from the first days of the Cycle Superhighways, where painted sections of the road offered no protection, and were often blocked by parked cars.
There have been proposals for new cycle routes in addition to improvements on existing ones. Many of these, however, are under construction with unknown completion dates, due to Transport for London’s current funding crisis following cuts.
By the time I left London I felt that it was a much safer place to cycle, but this was because I had experienced the changes. I also opted for quiet routes and tended to avoid the fast-paced urgency of the Lycra-clad commuter cyclists who seemed to make up most of the Cycle Superhighway traffic.
But relatively, London is still far less bike-friendly than many other cities – Amsterdam being a notable example. Many of London’s cycle routes are still not separate from roads, whereas Amsterdam has around 320 miles of dedicated cycle lanes.
Amsterdam also has proportionately less cycling accidents and fatalities, even though, ironically, only approximately 0.5% of Dutch cyclists wear helmets.
Between 2008 and 2014, there were 95 cycling fatalities in London. In 2002 there were six cycling fatalities, up 12% from five in 2019. But the overall risk of being injured or killed while cycling was lower by approximately 25%, due to the increase in cycling numbers.
Cycling infrastructure has improved in London in recent years, and hopefully will continue to be developed in spite of monetary setbacks. But in 2020, the third wave of the National Travel Attitudes Study showed that 65% of adults felt it was too dangerous to cycle on the roads.
Even though cyclists now make up more than 80% of traffic on certain London streets, there is still evidence to suggest that 87% of motorists break 20 mph speed limits when they have the opportunity.
In order to compete with world class cycling cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, London needs not only more investment in separate cycle lanes, but greater enforcement of traffic laws.
Are More People Cycling in London Now?
TfL data shows that there is a significant increase in people cycling in London now, particularly at weekends. Some weekends in 2021 showed a 240% increase compared to 2020. The London Bike Hire Scheme also hit record user-levels in 2021, when 11 million bikes were hired out.
During the pandemic, the proportion of journeys in London made by bike increased by 48%. There is data to suggest that leisure cycling has boomed since the start of the pandemic, with shops literally running out of bicycles.
As a response to Covid 19, the Mayor of London introduced Streetspace for London to support the increase in cycling during the lockdown. This included pop-up cycle lanes and filtering more residential streets to create low-traffic cycle routes. Over 70 miles of extra cycle lanes have been added since the start of the pandemic.
But whether they will remain in place, and whether the boom will continue, is uncertain. There have been many positives in recent years, but London cycling still has a long way to go before reaching the levels in cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam or Berlin.
Number of Cyclists in London [Year-by-Year]
The numbers of cyclists in London are obtained through strategically placed cycle counters, which give a good impression, although it’s difficult to gain accurate figures for all of Greater London.
The following table shows the approximate (known) data from the TfL Travel in London Report for cycle flows across strategic cordons in central and inner London.
|Cycles per day (thousands)
Bear in mind that during the pandemic, less people were making journeys, but proportionately more journeys were being made by bike.