Dave Horton on Cycling in London

Date: 21 October 2011

Dave Horton (LEC and CeMoRe) is featured on the TransportExtra website, following a letter he submitted about cycling in London.

"I concur with almost everything which David Dansky says - and with such eloquence and so persuasively - about cycling in London (Viewpoint, LTT581).

I was privileged to spend last weekend as David's guest in London. David and I, along with Andy Salkeld of Leicester City Council and others, rode all over the city, witnessing recent changes to London's cycling environment.

I was hugely impressed by how it felt, cycling in London in 2011. The cycling experience has undoubtedly improved dramatically over recent years. I was particularly impressed with how, as people on bikes, we were treated by other road users, including perhaps especially by those who drive for a living (taxi and bus drivers); rather than rushing to overtake, many drivers waited patiently, and at a respectful distance, behind us. Such tolerant behaviour is crucial to the development of a more cycle-friendly (and more generally, civilized) urban environment.

David and I share a vision for mass cycling across urban Britain. Where we differ is perhaps in London's status. He sees the English capital as a model. How I would love that to be so! And, just maybe, he is right.

But my disagreement with David is I think based mainly on our different experiences. Whilst he has industriously been participating in London's cycling boom, I have been researching the state of cycling in other parts of the country. And if his participation in British cycling's good news story has made him optimistic about this mode's prospects, my explorations into cycling elsewhere have made me extremely pessimistic, unless something changes.

Put bluntly, when it comes to cycling, Leeds (one of the Understanding Walking and Cycling project's four case studies) is not London, and very definitely not central London! Instead, Leeds remains a city which is strangled by cars, and where only the most committed, fearless or desperate dare to cycle.

Of course, London still has a long way to go before the majority of people will give cycling a go - it clearly remains 'a work in progress'. But that aside, given how far Leeds is behind London, how do we get from one to the other?

If we're serious about building cycling's modal share (and I think we must be), and if we're also impatient to do so (as I also think we must be), then cycling in a city like Leeds must be 'fast-tracked'. To do this, the kinds of interventions which David describes in London are all of course important. We need cycle training, we need cycling to be marketed, we need a whole range of affordances to cycling to be implemented alongside a range of deterrents to driving. But still, I struggle to see how more people in a city such as Leeds will be nudged into cycling without the provision of continuous, high-quality and segregated cycling infrastructure along the biggest and busiest arterial roads. Although many of the people we have talked to over the past few years were clear that they will not cycle in a mixed traffic environment, I admit that it is plausible that bringing the speed limit of such major roads down to 20 mph could have a similar effect, but is that any more 'realistic'?

In case it doesn't go without saying, the Understanding Walking and Cycling project sees the provision of dedicated cycling infrastructure as part of a broader package of measures (as set out in the Project's summary report) designed to normalize cycling whilst de-normalizing the car for short-urban journeys. Until we make these changes, driving will for the majority of people remain the default option, whilst cycling will remain simply too difficult to contemplate. And we will remain stuck with the kinds of dirty, dangerous and uncivilized urban spaces which, over the last half-century especially, we have so effectively built.

David Dansky is right, the measures proposed by the Understanding Walking and Cycling project will cost. But even given the current economic climate, I don't see this as a major problem. Perhaps such measures are too costly from a mindset which sees the car as king, but when it comes to designing urban space for the twenty-first century such a mindset should be - and is fast becoming - anachronistic; and transport spending needs to adapt accordingly.

Lastly, I really must mention the spirit with which David has engaged with the findings of the Understanding Walking and Cycling project. From a position of profound disagreement with our call for segregated cycling infrastructure along big, busy urban roads, he has encouraged the development of thoughtful and respectful discussion and reflection on the way ahead for cycling across Britain. It is precisely this spirit of engaged and respectful collaborative inquiry which we should be fostering, in order most effectively to get Britain on its bike.

And having explored and inspected 'cycling in London' by bike, we are soon to do the same - this time as Andy Salkeld's guest - in Leicester. Long may this wonderful spirit of mutual exploration - of cities and of ideas, in the pursuit of more sustainable urban futures - continue and flourish!"

Dave HortonLancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University

News website: http://www.transportxtra.com/magazines/local_transport_today/opinion/?id=28497

This item was reported in: Transport Extra website on 21/10/2011


Further information

Associated staff: Dave Horton

Associated departments and research centres: Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe), Geography, Lancaster Environment Centre, Sociology

Keywords: Cycling, Mobilities