What to do about cycling in outer London

A guest article from David Arditti

We know there is a particular problem with cycling in outer London. We know this from the figures. While the cycling modal share (proportion of all trips) in Hackney, the highest-cycling  London borough, is 6%, for Bromley it is only 0.5%, and for 18 of the other outer London boroughs it is below 2%. This is not to say that cycling is absolutely high in inner London. Dutch cities have cycling modal shares between 20% and 60% – so even Hackney has nothing particularly to boast of on the European scale. But it has been the case that, while cycling has undergone a significant revival in inner London in the last four decades, it has stagnated or declined in outer London; the “Cycling Revolution” proclaimed by Boris Johnson (which was in fact occurring in inner London long before his mayoralty) has not touched the suburbs.

The borough of Brent is a particularly interesting case, running from within easy cycling distance of central London, in the dense suburbs of Queens Park and Kilburn, to the very different environment of semi-detached, big-garden, rail-commuting “Metroland” in places like Wembley and Kingsbury. Figures for the proportion of people cycling to work for the different wards of Brent show a huge variation, from 4.2% in Queens Park to 0.5% in Kenton. In such places as Kenton, cycling may be said to have fallen to a level of mere “noise” in the transport background: no longer a significant element of transport at all, the 0.5% probably represents an irreducible minimum level of people temporarily trying cycling for a while, before giving it up again owing the hostility of the environment.

While people who live in outer London and work in central London might not be expected to commute to work by bike in significant numbers, given the efficiency of rail services, it should also be borne in mind that most workers in the outer boroughs do not now commute to the centre. Outer London has developed strong local economies and associated travel patterns between residential areas and local town centres, and many of the resulting commutes could be easily cycled, but are not, because cycling is not felt to be an attractive option. In addition, there are a great many other short journeys that outer Londoners make, for shopping, leisure, and particularly school trips, and other journeys that children may make, that could easily be cycled, if conditions were right. But for the whole of Brent, shockingly, cycling only accounts for 0.3% of journeys to school.

To make cycling a viable option for the very high number of short trips that outer Londoners make, we need to look hard at what has been shown to work to increase cycling in urban environments of similar density in other countries, in particular, the high-cycling countries of Europe: the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Finland, Switzerland and Austria, which give the closest parallels to our culture and human, physical and economic geography. In so doing, we need to be evidence-driven, and to throw out the “witchcraft” approach to promoting cycling which has for so long dominated thinking on the subject in the UK. By “witchcraft”, I mean all those traditional ideas about training people to cycle in a vehicular manner to fit in with a motor-dominated environment (known as Cyclecraft or Bikeability), the emphasis on propaganda through “encouragement” and “awareness-raising” that forms such a large part of local authorities’ cycling strategies, and the emphasis on protection and visibility for cyclists (helmets and dayglow) and on telling cyclists to stay out of the way of lorries. Forty years of promoting such ideas have resulted in the virtual death of cycling in the suburbs.

For what the continental experience teaches us is that none of these do any good without providing cyclists with usable, effective networks of cycle-specific space in our cities. Continuing to promote a “sharing the road” (with deadly motor vehicles) approach simply marginalises cycling to a tiny part of the populace consisting mostly of fit young men who can cope with the stress and risks of vehicular cycling. This segment of the population is not capable of expansion. To get mass cycling we need to get everybody else cycling: the mothers, grandmothers, children, businessmen, students; and all ethnicities, social groups and classes.

The Dutch and Danes have achieved this by forty years of consistent infrastructure development that very largely separates cyclists from motor traffic. Solutions have been developed that create this separation in all environments: dense, old city centres, twentieth-century, open-plan, formerly motor-dominated suburbs, new developments, and all types of semi-urban and rural environment. There is a huge range of such solutions. Some of these are obvious when looking at a streetscape, such as the presence of cycle lanes and cycle tracks, but some are not, such as the way traffic movements for cars, lorries, public transport, and cyclists have been arranged in areas with narrow streets so that the routes for the different modes are still separated without separate infrastructure for cyclists. We need to be able to understand all these solutions in context, and to be able to apply them appropriately.

The Dutch long ago recognised that there is no reason for cyclists to have a “right” to cycle on all roads, irrespective of their suitability. The same was conceded when we built our motorways. What cyclists do have a “right” to is safe, convenient and pleasant routes to all the places they need to get to. The Dutch have provided this, we have not. There is absolutely no loss to cyclists in the Dutch paradigm, only gain for both them and pedestrians in better, more human-friendly townscapes. Importantly, for gaining wide public support, there is no serious loss to motorists. It is still practical and quite inexpensive to use a car where necessary in Dutch towns, cities and suburbs. The difference with the UK is that, where it is not necessary, people in general don’t do it, as they have been given a viable alternative.

This is all rather general, so let’s look again at outer London, and see where the specific problems lie. We find that we have a network of major roads which gives no dedicated space for cycling, being dedicated to multiple lanes for motor vehicles, including buses, plus service roads and much parking. But if we look at the minor roads, we see conditions that are, if anything, more hostile to cycling, with high speeds on through-roads with very restricted space, with traffic-calming, where it exists, that positively creates more dangers for cyclists, and a vast dedication of public space to private car parking that has taken away the most useful space that cyclists had at the time when these suburbs were constructed, when car ownership was a tiny fraction of what it is now.

The 19th century transport networks, of the railways and waterways, that these suburbs were simply built around in the unplanned expansion of the 1930s, without the creation of sufficient crossing-points, suppress cycling by forcing cyclists into close proximity with heavy traffic at the few crossing-points. Further, a legacy of major road schemes from the 1960s and 1970s has created junctions and linear barriers that give cyclists no viable, safe options. Lastly, as the icing on the cake of cycle hostility, we find that cycling is banned in many of the large suburban open spaces and parks, with virtually no dedicated cycle paths, even when they would be easy to provide. Cyclists forced, officially or unofficially, into sharing inadequate and under-engineered space with pedestrians simply creates more unnecessary hostility towards them and serves to make them more of an “out group”.

Brent demonstrates these problems in particularly acute form. The southern, relatively high-cycling part of the borough consists of Victorian and Edwardian terraces, with some post-war high-rise social housing. These streets were laid out before some of the railways were put through, and, as a result, there are quite a lot of minor road crossing points. But north of the North Circular Road, which totally severs the borough in two in sustainable transport terms, there is simply nowhere for cyclists to go. Cyclists attempting to cross the North Circular Road must cycle illegally on pedestrian bridges or share an inadequate underpass, or mix it with high speed traffic on motorway-style interchanges with merging streams of fast traffic on low-angle of approach slip roads.

The main town centre of north Brent is Wembley, which is rendered inaccessible to cyclists by the combination of railway lines on three sides of it, the North Circular Road to the south of it, other semi-major roads carrying heavy traffic to industrial estates, and even the River Brent, which despite being a tiny stream, has never been provided with many bridges. Nearly all the traffic between north and south Brent is funneled over the Brent on one bridge, Kingsbury Bridge, as it has been since mediaeval times, when the population of the area was numbered in the hundreds, not hundreds of thousands. Cyclists attempting to get between any of the Brent town centres, Wembley, Willesden, Neasden and Kingsbury, face a nightmare of being squeezed into lanes of heavy traffic on narrow crossing points across these railways and the river and canals. It is the same in other parts of outer London – witness the ridiculous squeezing of all traffic between Walthamstow and Tottenham onto the narrow bridge across the River Lea. Here, cyclists have been provided with cycle lanes on the pavement a full 18 inches wide. With such abysmal quality infrastructure, no wonder cycling in the outer London suburbs languishes in the zero to two percent mode-share range.

Make no bones about it, bringing such infrastructure up to a standard where large numbers of cyclists would use it requires serious investment over a long period, and a willingness to seriously overhaul the suburban fabric. A few blue-painted lanes on the roads won’t cut it. We need a programme to built new bridges and tunnels to overcome the main road, railway and water barriers, to connect the suburbs together for cyclists and pedestrians. We need a programme to gain public land, through development gain, whenever possible, to make space adjacent to main roads available for adequate, direct, prioritised cycle paths. In the meantime, we need to reallocate space on main roads, re-designing the whole width of the roads, including service roads and pavements, to give cyclists clear, protected space. We need to learn from the junction designs the Danes and Dutch have developed over forty years that avoid conflict between cyclists on separate paths and other traffic.

We need to move away from our current concept for minor and semi-major roads as being alternative arteries for motorised through-traffic connecting the suburbs. This just leads to rat-running, parking chaos, and cycle and pedestrian-hostile minor roads. We need to do what the Dutch have done with such roads, using mode filters and cycle-excepted one-way systems to push private through-traffic back on to the main roads, where it belongs, returning minor roads to their communities. They can then become pleasant routes for cycling and walking again, without any big engineering changes. We need to open up wide, practical routes for cyclists through open spaces and along waterways, integrating these properly and seamlessly, as the Dutch do, with the on-road cycle network.

To generate the political will for all this to happen, cycling organisations need to build bridges not only with pedestrians, but with those who currently feel they have no option but to drive. The millions of parents who currently feel they have to drive their children around the suburbs to keep them safe need to be mobilised to press for the measures that would liberate them and their children from their cars. The campaign needs to be broadened into a campaign for more liveable suburbs, a campaign that even many dedicated motorists might support.

We need coordination of environmental transport planning. It is unlikely that the patchwork of under-resourced local authorities, odd “leftover” governmental organisations responsible for bits and pieces such as the Royal Parks, City of London-run open spaces, waterways and railway lands, plus Transport for London, with its limited powers and remit over only a small part of the highway network, will ever be able be able to co-ordinate, let alone fund, the scale of improvement we need in the London infrastructure. The Department for Transport needs to get a firm grip on this, and establish an agency with powers, resources and expertise to do the job.

This may all seem like a tall order, but the consequences of going on as we are now are very grave: increasing pollution, increasing ill-health and obesity, increasing transport inequality and community isolation, increasing CO2 emissions, increasing gridlock, increasing fuel costs, and decreasing independence and mobility for children, the elderly and disabled.  Britain doesn’t kill a lot of people on its roads, relatively speaking, but what it does do is to force nearly everybody who uses the roads to do so in an unsustainable, expensive, and not very enjoyable manner. The arguments ultimately are not about transport, but about sustainable quality of life for everybody who lives in the city and suburbs. We can get around now. We can cram ourselves into bursting tube train carriages, walk on broken pavements, drive on big roads carving a graceful path through retail shed estates, and cycle on traffic-choked high streets now. It’s about quality of life. We could start to enjoy our travel, if our suburbs were better designed.

David Arditti blogs regularly as Vole o’Speed

3 thoughts on “What to do about cycling in outer London

  1. David, this is a brilliant article. I agree with Stephen and Londonneur though regarding the importance of cycle-training. I guess what you’re saying is that cycle-training is promoted in a political way by vehicular cyclists who think that training is the panacea alternative to dedicated infrastructure. My view is that I support top-quality infrastructure in the right places and good transport planning as you do, but cycle training is and always will be *part* of the answer, especially during the long transition to Nirvana. It should certainly be compulsory for drivers and engineers.

    During the period I ran LB Newham’s 2012 travel plan, we trained 116 members of staff, two-thirds of whom had never ridden a bicycle at all. Many of these people are now cycling with some confidence on quieter streets–whereas they wouldn’t have contemplated this before; several have told me that they’ve coupled their cycling with weight loss and other exercise. The travel plan started a big discussion about cycling amongst politicians, and perhaps now as a result Stratford High Street will be turned into a Copenhagen / Dutch cycling street with some of the best draft infrastructure designs I have ever seen in the UK. When I introduced Road Danger Reduction policies to Brent, I tried (unsuccessfully) to create a compulsory course for our engineers that would include discussions about current cycling infrastructure practise–I’ll keep on trying at Newham.

    Cycle training has a big role to play in delivering sufficient cycling to generate a “critical mass” that builds public support for the mode. When children get cycle-trained it starts a conversation–parents worry about safety but their kids try to persuade them that they want to cycle. We need to turn that conversation into a Kindermort campaign that links children’s desire to cycle with parents’ concern about safety and liveability and societal concerns about pollution, health impacts, loss of community cohesion and so on and how these issues can be turned around.

  2. I’m a huge fan of cycle training, and a vehicular urban and touring cyclist for decades. I ride around inner London for pleasure. And still I agree with Arditti.

    The “witchcraft” isn’t cycle training – let’s have more of it – but the ‘magical thinking’ that we can recreate a cycling culture – Britain used to have one – without investment in serious infrastructure.

    And Arditti’s makes a point of huge importance. This isn’t primarily about cycling, but about how we want our cities to be. Context is decisive. If the context is cyclists campaigners pressing for concessions, progress will remain slow. But if the context is having a liveable city, if we align with the growing rejection of the past three decades’ obsession with getting and spending, then much more becomes possible.

    More at my blog Civil London: civillondon.wordpress.com

  3. Nice article. But describing Bikeability as “witchcraft” kinda lets you down. Perhaps you should do some cycle training so you are talking from experience? There is so much more there then “vehicular cycling”. Almost all my trainees are not middle aged men… In fact, until Barnet cut.the program, I was training mainly suburban mums. Exactly the group that we need to get on bikes. They are still riding too…. I see em about! We arn’t going to turn the burbs round with training, I quite agree, but training is not the reason cycling has declined either. You do us way too much credit, David!

    Democracy innit. There isn’t the mass of people demanding better infrastructure so its a big ask.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s