By the time Boris Johnson’s term as London’s mayor is over, the latest generation of “cycle superhighways” will be close to completion. Yet his vision of a city criss-crossed by segregated cycle lanes divides opinion.
Sir George Iacobescu, chief executive of Canary Wharf Group, spoke for many when he called them a “20th-century solution to a 21st-century problem”, saying they would exacerbate rather than solve the capital’s congestion problems.
“I hesitate to say a 19th-century solution because in the 19th century they knew what they were doing,” added Sir George, head of the property developer. “To strangle the traffic is not beneficial …If you come to Tower Hill any morning, there is a tailback of commercial vehicles several miles long.”
But Andrew Gilligan, a journalist who is the mayor’s cycling commissioner, said polls and consultations have shown a majority of people want improvements for cyclists. “There always is noisy objection, but they always turn out to be from the minority,” said Mr Gilligan
Cycle superhighways, a pet project of Mr Johnson, were meant to foment a cycling revolution. Yet the first versions consisted mostly of new signs and blue paint on the road, and did little to shield cyclists from cars, lorries and buses. One of the routes, which led to a junction with a motorway, became notorious as a danger spot; in 2013, six cyclists were killed in London in two weeks.
Over the past few months, however, large chunks of London’s arterial roads have been made into segregated cycle lanes, and ambitious plans have been drawn up for safer cycling infrastructure to be installed throughout the city.
Thirty of the busiest road junctions are to be redesigned to make them better for pedestrians and cyclists as part of a £4bn “road modernisation plan”. Mr Johnson would love cycling to be a key part of his legacy as mayor.
“Some people think traffic is like rainwater and the roads are the drains for it. If you narrow the pipe, they say, it will flood,” said Mr Gilligan. “[But] traffic isn’t a force of nature. It is a product of human choices. If you make it easier and nicer for people not to drive, more people will choose not to drive.”
The changes have been helped by the growth in cycling’s popularity, thanks in part to the success of British cyclists in the Olympic Games and the Tour de France. “The average City banker doesn’t come into work in his Maserati anymore, he comes in on his £4,000 carbon fibre road bike,” said Mr Gilligan.
The number of cycling journeys on London’s main roads is up 63 per cent since 2008, according to Transport for London, and in the morning rush hour, one-third of vehicles on the road are bikes.
Mr Gilligan added there was a generational divide when it came to support for the lanes, saying: “It’s an age thing I think — anyone under about 50 gets it. We saw this in the City — the middle-level people in City companies, they were really keen. It was the chief exec-type people who were not keen. That group is a minority, but it’s got access.”
MPs were also unhappy at the prospect of the superhighways, as parliament lies in the path of one of them. “MPs were constantly tugging at [the mayor’s] sleeve, saying ‘this is a disaster’,” said Mr Gilligan.
But Sir George said the issue was not the benefits and popularity of cycling, but the solutions the mayor and his team came up with.
While a very small proportion of Londoners still drive in the city centre, those people “have no option”, he said. “You have shop deliveries, you have commuter buses, you have construction traffic, white van man, you have the black taxi, you have the disabled, you have garbage collection, ambulances, dignitaries, Her Majesty …this is not about private cars.”
Construction of the new segregated lanes has affected traffic, causing some to question why so much work has been done at once — as well as to point out that it will finish just before the end of Mr Johnson’s eight years as mayor.
“Everybody lives hoping that things are going to improve, but right now, you have a single lane coming eastbound [into central London along the embankment]. We don’t see how it’s going to work properly,” Mr Iacobescu said.
Mr Gilligan countered that traffic will revert to normal once the work is finished. “What we will see is that the superhighways open, and meltdowns do not occur. That will create the political space for whoever is [the next] mayor to do more.”
Letters in response to this article:
Get alerts on George Iacobescu when a new story is published