Clear Our Roads of Cars and Make Way for More Guys in Lycra

Last year marked an auspicious anniversary for urban cyclists. In 1934 transport minister Leslie Hore-Belisha opened the UK’s first dedicated cycle lane. The 2.5-mile track ran alongside a stretch of the A40 in west London, known as Western Avenue.

The same year saw the first commercial electronic television sets using cathode ray tubes. While the technology of television has advanced to the point where we can watch TV on flat screens, laptops and mobile phones, cycling infrastructure has, if anything, gone into reverse.

The Western Avenue bike lane has long gone and anyone cycling down the A40 now puts their life in their handlebars. Meanwhile the almost always more enlightened Dutch and Swedes have moved ahead in leaps and bounds with bike-friendly initiatives, such as the Maastunnel in Rotterdam that takes thousands of cyclists every day down by escalator to travel in a bike-only tunnel under the Maas River.


Yet Britain’s cities are in the grip of a cycling revolution. Anyone commuting to work by road in London and other major conurbations cannot fail to miss the throngs of bikers at every traffic light.In the 10 years between the 2001 and 2011 Census, London saw a 101 percent increase in commuters, while Brighton saw a 109 percent increase. Sales of thigh-hugging Lycra shorts and lurid fluorescent tops among middle-aged guys that should know better have gone up by a gazillion percent.

There are a number of factors behind this. People want to get healthier and cycling is an inexpensive way of achieving that. Rising petrol costs - until recently at least – and soaring rail fares have highlighted the cost benefits. Employers increasingly provide bike parking. Public events such as GB’s medal-winning performance at the 2012 London Olympics and the high profile launch of the 2014 Tour de France in Yorkshire put cycling on mainstream TV.

So far, so good. But every silver lining has a cloud. There is little sign this has been matched by investment in infrastructure. In other words, the government is failing to keep up with the people. British Cycling — cycling’s governing body — told the transport committee in Parliament that total spending on cycling is just £2 per head, compared with the equivalent of over £24 per head in the Netherlands. The committee called for it to be raised five-fold to £10.

Innovations have been cosmetic, involving paint on the Tarmac rather than new infrastructure. These include painted boxes for cyclists to gather at the front of traffic light cues, and bike lanes running along the edge of roadway, separated from the traffic by a line of white paint.

In some cases this has actually made riding more hazardous for cyclists, according to critics. The bright blue Cycle Superhighways that run from outer London to the centre of the city have been criticised for bringing cyclists into the path of traffic while giving them a “false sense of security”.

The well reported episode of the deaths of six cyclists on London’s streets over 14 days in November 2013 highlighted the issue. So far the death toll is not rising: there were 14 cyclist deaths in London that year and 14 in 2012.

However the number of pedal cyclists killed or seriously injured has risen by 16 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to Transport for London. TfL points out this increase should be seen in the “context of a considerable increase in cycling over this period”. But surely that’s the point – if cycling is becoming so popular then it needs to become safer.

Turn of the wheel

Extra spending is a great idea but is only part of the answer and, in times of fiscal austerity, likely to fall on deaf ears. What is needed is a complete change in attitude – what academics call a “social turn”.

This has taken place among users: it is now seen as normal to turn up to work in a high-vis jacket with clips around your trousers and a fold-up bicycle under your arm. But as far as the transport system is concerned, cyclists are still an oddity that can be pushed - literally – to the side of the road.

This is simply a reflection of the fact that since World War II towns were consistently designed and redesigned to accommodate the dramatic rise in car ownership.

If you live in any major town and city think about how it is organised: networks of roads linked by roundabouts, shopping centres accessible primarily by cars, pedestrians kept away from the roads other than at “green man” crossings and occasional cycle lanes . The car has priority in all but a few limited occasions.

Before the rise of the motorcar roads were shared between all users – walkers, carts, horses, buses bicycles as well as the occasional car. The car was the odd one out. This demotion of the car to being just another road user is the secret of cities such as Helsinki, Amsterdam and Rotterdam just as much as the money spent on infrastructure.

While any article like this usually ends with a list of very useful measures – more segregated bike lanes, filters at traffic lights – what is more important is that politicians and urban designers make clear the car is no longer the number one priority. This means ensuring all new urban developments are built around cyclists (and pedestrians) rather than motorists.

Just as infrastructure adapted to make life easy for cars at expense of others, so it should now adapt to favour cycles over cars. The private sector has responded to the growth in cycling with parking facilities, cafes, clubs, shops &c). Now it’s the public sector's turn.

Phil, who is very discrete in his choice of cycle wear, is an economics journalist and author of Brilliant Economics and Great Economists

More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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