Cycling in London
Gradually, the capital is becoming a better place for cyclists
TWO things are commonly seen atop the head of Boris Johnson, London's mayor: a mop of unruly, peroxide-blond hair and a cycling helmet. Since coming to office in 2008 Mr Johnson has tried to make London a better city for two-wheeled transport. He has been only partly successful. But on February 4th Transport for London, the city's road and rail authority, signed off on two “cycle superhighways” that will be the mayor's most visible legacy to his city.
Cycling in London is less pleasant than in many European cities. Main roads teem with lorries; winding back streets are hard to navigate. The number of bicycle journeys has nonetheless doubled since 2000. Nationally, just 2% pedal to work. In Hackney, in London's East End, fully 9% do. But the capital's cyclists mostly seem to resemble Mr Johnson. Only 2% of women cycle to work in London, compared with 5% of men. Blacks and other ethnic minorities are reluctant to do it, too.
The mayor oversaw the introduction of a bike-hiring scheme, which was started by his predecessor but quickly became known as the “Boris bike”. He pushed for bright blue cycle paths on some busy roads. But the new cycle highways are far more ambitious and permanent. One will run east-west through the City and the West End. Another will run two miles from Elephant and Castle in the south to Farringdon in north London.Four existing routes will also be improved, while around 30 of the city's busiest junctions will be made a bit less perilous.
The new superhighways ought to be much safer than London's existing cycle lanes. A raised pavement will keep cyclists away from cars and lorries. Junctions will be redesigned and some parking bays—including a few for the disabled—will be removed. Cars will be prevented from turning down certain streets. Similar schemes exist elsewhere: since 2007 around 30 miles of protected cycle lanes have been created in New York. In Amsterdam, where lanes have existed for decades, old people and women are far more inclined to cycle.
Greens have long lobbied for cycle paths on the grounds that moving people out of cars cuts air pollution. A series of highly publicised accidents, including one involving a newspaper journalist, and several deaths in the city have also put pressure on the mayor to make London safer.
And the social transformation of the capital has encouraged officials to smile on cyclists. The population of inner London is rebounding as affluent folk move in (see article). The new inhabitants want cleaner streets and fewer cars, which are viewed as suburban. Cycling was once a means of transport for the poor. But it has become an important marker of an affluent world city, argues Isabel Dedring, the deputy mayor for transport. “There's more pressure on cities to be nice places to live,” she says.