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The recommended route for a cyclist heading north from Vauxhall, in central London, across the river Thames used to be confusing and intimidating. Official maps directed riders first on to a series of narrow paths that wound round pavements by Vauxhall’s busy streets. Then the cyclist was pitched out on to a bus lane to ride amid six lanes of dense traffic on Vauxhall Bridge itself.
But since November, the experience has been transformed. A well-built, mostly wide, two-way cycle track now runs through the maze of junctions on the south side of the river before leading riders on to a wide path segregated from traffic on the bridge.
The work on the route — part of what will soon become a network of protected bike lanes, or cycle “superhighways”, around the UK capital — illustrates London’s determination to have bicycles make considerably more than twice their current level of trips in the city by 2026. It is an aspiration similar to those of scores of other cities around the developed world — including such conventionally car-oriented metropolitan areas as Los Angeles and Houston in the US.
Many city leaders are keen to encourage cycling because bicycles make far more efficient use of scarce road space than private motor vehicles. Encouraging cycling is a far cheaper means of expanding transport capacity than building new roads or rail lines. Increasingly, too, the public demands it.
Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, which campaigns for better walking and cycling access in New York, says residents of any world-class city now demand protected bike lanes of the kind that now crosses Vauxhall Bridge.
“Protected bike lanes are today like city parks a century ago,” Mr White says. “They’re something you have to have if you want to be a city where people want to be, where people want to raise a family.”
In London, the efforts to build protected lanes come after more than a decade of steady growth in usage has made the bicycle a significant part of the transport mix. Lilli Matson, head of strategy and planning for Transport for London (TfL), the London mayor’s transport agency, points out that more than 600,000 daily trips are made by bicycle in London, or about a fifth of the number of journeys made each day on the London Underground.
In many cities, a combination of opposition to a shift to cycling and reluctance to encourage it has stood in the way. Although there was significant growth in cycling in New York while Janette Sadik-Khan was transport commissioner from 2007 to 2013, official census figures show only about 1 per cent of commuting trips are by bike — against about 4 per cent in London.
Mr White says it has become clear in recent years in New York that there is — although many long doubted it — a true demand to move round the city by bicycle. “The real limiting factor is the Department of Transportation’s ability to deliver projects,” he says. “They aren’t keeping up with demand.”
At the heart of the rising demand for urban cycling is a reversal over the last three decades of the earlier confidence that private motor vehicles could provide effective, flexible transport in big cities.
Many urban motorways have turned out to generate so much new traffic that they have been congested almost since opening.
Tom Bogdanowicz, senior policy and development officer for the London Cycling Campaign, makes reference to TfL’s commitment in its business plan that come 2026 Londoners will be making 1.5m cycling journeys each day. That would commit TfL to providing equivalent capacity on other means of public transport, if cycling growth fell short of target.