I cycled the length of all London’s Cycling Superhighways. Here’s what I learnt

Safe, bruv. Image: Getty.

The blue lane. The blue lane is what you concentrate on as you ride the cycle superhighways: the one or sometimes two metre thick painted channel between the pavement and traffic, between safety and danger. Sometimes the blue lane is segregated from the road; more often, you’re just part of the road, but with your own space clearly designated.

Sadiq Khan has promised to spend £770m on cycling over the four years of his term - £17 per Londoner, a record amount for the city – part of which will go on two new cycle superhighways. Ahead of that, it’s seemed reviewing the current cycling infrastructure in London. So I decided to cycle all of the superhighways, and take in just how much they’ve changed London.

I love cycling in London: there is something thrilling in going so fast in a city, especially when there is traffic congestion all around. This is what the superhighways are supposed to do: allow the cyclist to speed by, separated from the main road traffic and all the danger that entails.

There are seven current cycle superhighways, helpfully numbered CS1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8. The network stretches from Tottenham in the north to Colliers Wood in the south, and Stratford in the east to Lancaster Gate in the south. The missing CS4, heading from London Bridge towards Woolwich, is supposed to go into consultation this year; there are also plans for CS9 from Hounslow to Olympia, and a CS11 heading north west from the West End, through Regent’s Park. (What was planned as CS10 may end up as a western extension of CS3.) The point of the new routes is to make cycling safer, faster, and more appealing in the capital.

The plan as of 2012: not all these routes survived. Image: TfL.

The jewel in the crown is CS3, especially the section from Tower Hill to Westminster, which snakes around the curve of the Thames and completely segregates the bike rider from the main flow of traffic. Cycling along it, one can really appreciate the majesty of the Victoria Embankment – something that was previously impossible as you focused on dodging buses and lorries.

The best parts of the network are always those with separated cycle lane: CS3 along the Embankment and into Wapping, and the north-south superhighway CS6. What you soon learn though, riding the blue lanes, is that it is not always like this. For every safe, well built stretch of superhighway, there is a poorly managed part.

On CS7, as it passes through Balham towards Tooting, there are cars constantly parked in the cycle lane, along with drivers who don’t appreciate the sanctity of your metre-wide blue haven. On stretches like this, the superhighway might as well not exist. You find yourself needing to dodge buses anyway – what’s the point, when all that is different is the colour of the tarmac and a name?

While the scheme is a mayoral project, the infrastructure is actually put in place by each individual borough. That’s what creates this fantastic mismatch as you hurtle through London, and CS7 is the perfect example: Southwark and Lambeth seem to care about the cyclist; Wandsworth, on the other hand, seems to think the cycle lane is an afterthought, something to be shoved onto the side of the road.


CS1 is the newest route to be fully completed, running from Tottenham to the City. But it doesn’t seem to be very ‘super’: it’s more like a glorified Quietway (another form of London cycle route, linking up quieter back roads), only with blue branding. It’s also a genuinely confusing route, requiring careful checking of signs and road markings.

Superhighways are easy to follow when they are just a blue lane; a bit trickier when there are only occasionally reminders of their existence. The sight of someone stopping just to attempt to decode a blue sign isn’t a particularly edifying one, especially when you’ve had to pull over to the side of a main road to do so.

Cycling infrastructure in London still has a long way to go to make cycling safer: cars still turn without checking, or drive straight into the cycle lane. This is something that can be solved with segregated sections and separate traffic lights for cyclists, like there are on other parts of the network. Nonetheless, according to the London Cycling Campaign, 6 cyclists died on CS2 between 2011 and 2014; since then the route, formerly of the blue paint variety, has been largely separated from the traffic.

CS2 highlights another problem: how to cope with pedestrians blindly wandering into the cycle lane after they are disgorged from buses at bus stops. Inevitably, all they want to do is swear at you, and explaining that they’re standing in a cycle superhighway doesn’t particularly help. The route also features signs that can take a long time to understand – “turn right in two stages only”, “go left in order to go right” – all very entertaining as you attempt to cycle quickly into the wind.

The best superhighway has to be what used to be CS6, now more often termed the “North-South superhighway”, which at the moment  runs from Elephant & Castle to the Holborn Viaduct. The route is clear, the cycle lane stands completely apart from the traffic, and the dedicated traffic lights work without a hitch. You even get a fantastic view of St Paul’s as you cross Ludgate Circus. It is no wonder that Blackfriars Bridge resembles the peloton of the Tour de France on a weekday morning.

Cycle Superhighways are in their infancy, and there is no doubt that those that exist leave a lot to be desired. Yet everyone should have a go at riding within the blue line and explore London. It made me go to Colliers Wood for the first time in my life: there’s no reason why others can’t do the same.

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Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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