World of Tomorrow
Changes in infrastructure, technology and law will have a major impact on the future of cycling, so how will riders fare in the ongoing battle for road space?
There was a time in the 1960s when we had the future all worked out. Elevated highways would allow spaceage cars to whiz around our cities at 120mph, while pedestrians would be transported on a system of escalators. There wouldn’t be a cyclist in sight.
Movie-makers, architects and policy makers all had a similar vision of the 21st century metropolis, and it was fast-paced and motor-centric. Had they looked into their crystal balls and seen the gridlocked roads, and the rise in popularity of cycling, our cities might look very different.
Now, in a bid to ease congestion, cities all over the world are trying to retrofit a transport system to cater more for cyclists. In London, successive mayors have seized upon cycling as a solution to the great problem of transport. Boris Johnson introduced the cycling ‘Superhighways’, which provided segregated cycling tracks across the city. Despite being a bike rider himself, his reasoning was all about efficiency, rather than an empathy for the joy of cycling.
Rachel Aldred, Reader in Transport at Westminster University and an expert on the study of urban cycling, explains how politicians came to realise the future might not be car-shaped: ‘In the 1990s, academics and practitioners within transport studies began critiquing the “predict and provide” idea. We couldn’t continue to say because we have more car use we should build more roads. That’s because the increase in roads simply creates more car use. Instead, we have to restrain demand.’
The underlying problem is outlined by the Lewis-mogridge Position, which shows that where more roads are built, more traffic is generated to fill them. ‘The idea derives from the use of coal in British manufacturing in the Industrial Revolution,’ Aldred says, where increasing supply of coal led to increased demand and depleted the resource.
The logical conclusion of meeting demand for driving with the supply of roads is a boundless tarmac plain saturated with slow-moving traffic – which has become a near reality in a number of US cities. As the song says, LA is a great big freeway…
In the UK, though, constantly adding more roads simply isn’t an option. ‘We have historic city centres with narrow streets and we’ve got increasing car use,’
Aldred says. ‘If you want to allow everyone to drive, we have to destroy the historic city centres.’
That’s why suddenly cycling is the topic of the day. ‘TFL [Transport for London] isn’t investing in cycling because it’s a nice, fluffy thing to do,’ says Aldred. ‘They’ve looked at population projections and realised that if everyone wants to drive, or even use the bus, we’re stuffed.’
Six degrees of separation
London’s Cycling Commissioner during Boris Johnson’s time as mayor was Andrew Gilligan, and his solution to increasing the speed of the city was to cut away part of the road to make space solely for cyclists. Gilligan asserts that it was a more than fair redistribution of space.
‘There are 1.3 million people coming into central London each morning, but only 59,000 do so by car, making up less than 5%. Yet those people get a vast share of the surface of London,’ he tells Cyclist. Nevertheless Johnson and Gilligan paid a hefty price in criticism. The slowing of traffic in London has become a national headline – the average speed at the end of 2016 fell below that of a horse and cart, and the cycling Superhighways got the blame.
‘That’s ridiculous,’ Gilligan says. ‘There are 15,000 miles of road in central London, of which just 12 miles are fitted with segregated cycle lanes.’
He’d hoped to build more, and is disappointed more have not been built since he left office, but resistance has been considerable from motoring groups, residents and politicians. That’s perhaps an unfortunate consequence of the fact that a car driver’s time is considered more valuable than a cyclist’s – a perspective enshrined in official Department of Transport policy.
The ‘Value of Working Time’ calculation was devised by authorities and planners to assess just how much the time of different types of commuters or working travellers is worth to the economy. This information was then used to judge the value of different projects accordingly. In 2014, the value of a cyclist’s working time was put at £17.47 per hour, compared to a car driver’s £22.74. So slowing drivers down to speed up cyclists flies against conventional thinking.
Predictably, many suggested the ideal solution was not to change the roads, but instead move cyclists onto hitherto non-existent space.
Pie in the sky
Numerous fanciful ideas have been dreamed up to accommodate cyclists in London, including floating paths on the River Thames. Gilligan is somewhat sceptical, though.
‘It was the bane of my life,’ Gilligan says. ‘We kept getting approached by these people with absurd schemes, such as elevated bikeways above railways lines. Then there was another proposal to create bike lanes in disused underground tunnels. I remember saying, “Where are these disused underground tunnels? And how would you get down to them? Aren’t most of these stations only accessible by escalators or lifts?” That ended that.’
The real solutions are simple, unglamourous and often unpopular, according to Gilligan: ‘There are no magic solutions, there are simple solutions easy enough for everyone to support, but you just have to have the balls to do them.’
There is considerable risk involved – in some cases hugely expensive cycle networks have been torn up to make way for cars once
again. That very thing is currently happening in Adelaide in Australia, for instance. The other risk is that once cyclists have their own paths, they may not be allowed back on the road.
‘I’ve heard senior police officers say cyclists should be required to use cycle lanes regardless of their conditions,’ says Martin Porter QC, a Queen’s Counsel barrister specialising in cycling-related litigation.
He highlights that mandatory use of cycle lanes was almost enshrined in law as recently as 2004. ‘The last time the Highway Code was revised, the original draft said that cyclists “should” use infrastructure wherever it was provided, so you would be in breach of the Highway Code if you didn’t,’ says Porter. ‘It was only vigorous work by the CTC, as Cycling UK was then known, who persuaded the Minister of Transport to tone it down to what it currently says – that it depends on your experience and it “may” make your journey safer.
‘When Boris Johnson built this infrastructure, he guaranteed there would be no law requiring cyclists to use them, but the aim was that they would be so good that cyclists would choose to use them, which has got to be the right approach,’ Porter adds.
That doesn’t solve the problem of the motoring majority, who have seen road space chipped away and are unhappy when a cyclist uses the road (cue furious Daily Mail headline).
As good as the Superhighways may be, they are far from perfect, which is mainly down to the problems of retrofitting major British roads with separated tracks.
‘They use a bi-directional cycle track on one side of the road partly because of space, and because that overcomes some of the difficulty of getting decent priority at the junctions,’ says Roger Geffen, policy director at Cycling UK. ‘That is a suboptimal solution – not one you’d see on the Continent. If you travel south on the north-south Superhighway, your journey starts and ends on the east side of the road, so you’ve basically got to cross that road twice. A better solution would be to change the UK’S traffic laws by offering priority for cyclists.’
Changes to the broader laws of driving could remove the need for segregation altogether. ‘Totally segregated infrastructure is almost like an admission of defeat,’ says Porter. ‘In the sense that if everyone drove well and in accordance with the law all the time you wouldn’t need the infrastructure because people would feel, and be, perfectly safe riding and driving along together on the roads.’
For Porter, the law is a big factor in influencing behaviour: ‘I wouldn’t be a lawyer if I didn’t think the law was important and capable of improving society. People say that change relies on infrastructure and anything else is a waste of time and effort, but I don’t think it is as black and white as that.’
‘There’s a massive industry of lawyers who will almost guarantee to get a motorist off losing their licence’