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“I am certain that the bicycle will once more fill a social role and again become a means of transport and not just an object of leisure. “ Eddie Merckx, the great Belgian racing cyclist.
London does not go in for big revolutions – we leave that to Paris. We have small ones instead. They might seem small, but they can change the very nature of the city – like the extraordinary cycling revolution, largely peaceful, but not necessarily without bloodshed.
A Londoner returning after a 10 year absence might by struck by the many thousands of cyclists pounding the streets from early morning till late at night. How did this happen? A number of reasons have been put forward. Firstly, the staggering cost of public transport in London – the highest anywhere. Add to that the severe challenge of driving and parking a car and cycling seems a sensible alternative. Then, the terrorist attack on the subway in 2005, which made Londoners wary of travelling underground, and later the eight cycling gold medals won in the Beijing Olympics by British cyclists and a cycling revolution is understandable.
London is not however Copenhagen or Amsterdam, where Eddie Merckx’s prediction has long come true. Cycling there is a sedate activity, as normal as walking.
In contrast, cycling in the great metropolis during rush hour is more like a race out of Ben Hur, with riders, male and female, mostly young, at near the urban speed limit, frequently in lycra, usually wearing a helmet, and, if they can afford it, on a super fast bike weighing just a few kilos with cleats to clamp the foot to the pedal, all competing for road space – very different from countless Dutch, Danish, German and Belgian towns and cities, where the average bike weighs a tonne, and has a basket in front, or a box to carry the kids and few bother to wear a helmet.
Yet in London too the bike is becoming increasingly the normal way to go shopping, to take the kids to school or just to wander around, not only to commute to work in lycra and helmet.
Yet, perhaps it’s not so much a revolution, but rather a return to the past. In Britain according to statistics published by the Government’s Department for Transport, 11% of all journeys in the United Kingdom in 1952 were made by bike as opposed to 27% by car, van or taxi and 42% by bus. By 1970 just 1% used a bike, but 74% used a motor vehicle and in London that percentage continued until quite recently.
Oddly, the two great cycling capitals, Copenhagen and Amsterdam have a similar story – until the 1970s. One of the best accounts of the north European cycling renaissance is by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler (Cycling for Everyone: Lessons from Europe, Pucher and Buehler, Rutgers University, October 2007). They point out that from 1950 to 1975 journeys by bike in Danish, Dutch and German cities fell by two thirds as car use expanded and cities in response began expanding road capacity and the supply of parking. In the mid-seventies there was a reaction to the dominance of the car and cities began improving facilities for cycling. The average daily kilometre cycled per person rose steadily in each country in the period 1978 to 2005. In the Netherlands now bike share of urban travel is 27% – the equivalent in the USA is 1%. In north European cities, especially in Amsterdam and Copenhagen the motorist seems an endangered species. Everyone seems to be on a bike.
London started later, and has a fair way to go though it is now around the level of an average French city. Cycling is still mainly for the young and the middle aged, and older pedestrians tend to look on cyclists as silent killers. Even so, London is moving to revolution stage two.
In July 2007 the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë launched a bike hire scheme across the city – the Vélib’, or the freedom bike. It has proved wildly successful. London followed in 2010, with a scheme introduced by the Mayor Boris Johnson, though the idea is credited to the previous Mayor, Ken Livingston. The scheme is backed financially by Barclays Bank which has had an unrivalled opportunity for free advertising on each bike. Unfortunately for the bank, they are known universally as Boris bikes, much to the delight of the Mayor who is facing re-election in May of this year. At present there are around 6,000 bikes in use, with 137,000 members of the scheme, and up to 240,000 casual users in the summer months – all you have to do is swipe a card at the bike terminal and get on your bike. 93% of trips last for less than 30 minutes, a free period and ideal for a quick trip to a shop or some exercise in the lunch break. The scheme is being extended across the whole city. The Paris scheme in contrast give the impression that, though also backed by commerce, it is a public service belonging to City Hall, and the bikes are painted in an unobtrusive grey and merge into the city fabric.
Cycling in the UK is now regarded as a Government transport priority in cities and in the capital there are cycle lanes everywhere, generally rather worse than useless, but in 2011 four so-called cycle superhighways were introduced, painted in Barclays Bank blue. Another eight will be introduced by 2015. However, they are far from perfect as cars frequently stray on to them, and when they meet an intersection the consequences can be deadly. London is not Amsterdam or Copenhagen, at least not yet.
The cycling revolution poses the eternal question to which we do not always give an intelligent answer – to whom does the city belong? The motorist, the subway or bus traveller, the cyclist or the pedestrian? Presently they all live separate lives. However, the idea of shared space is beginning to emerge in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer who died in 2008, was an original thinker. He simply reversed the accepted wisdom of separating road users. His first designs were in the Netherlands and gradually they have spread into other countries. He removed road signs and traffic lights wherever possible so that people had to negociate their way through shared space – which at first can be a disconcerting experience. The reasoning is that signs and traffic lights serve only to distract and remove the ability of people to react to each other. Above all, perhaps is the wish to reduce the dominance of the car which for the best part of 100 years has ruled cities the world over. Basically, the philosophy is: two wheels good, two legs even better, but four wheels not so good.
Not everyone can cycle – the very old and the disabled are two groups who can have a problem. But only because bikes are designed for the physically able. Why not a bike with three wheels which needs no skill in balancing? Or a bike adapted for the disabled? Few problems are insoluble. The really big problem of course is sorting out the competing claims to space and making cities places we want to live in because they are agreeable. Making cities exciting is not the job of City Hall, and there is no recipe for excitement – it happens. London is exciting, but rather chaotic and not necessarily agreeable. Thinking of ways of making life in the spaces between buildings less chaotic and more agreeable and then getting the right solution is a pretty good activity for City Hall and its politicians.
Contributed by Ian Jones