As part of my clichéd dive into premature midlife crisis, I’ve taken up cycling. But one thing they don’t tell you when you first don a cycle helmet, is just how complicated it is to navigate London’s labyrinth of cycle-paths. To the uninitiated, the capital is currently a mixed collection of backstreet Quietways, Cycle Superhighways, informal lanes and everything in between.
So why is cycling in London so complicated? What separates your Quietways from your Cycle Superhighways? And why does it matter?
For many Londoners cycling is defined by the collection of segregated cycle superhighways built under Boris Johnson. Following in the time honoured tradition of stealing the ideas of whichever mayor came before you, this scheme was actually first suggested by Ken Livingstone, but we’ll ignore that for now.
Under Sadiq Khan, the main focus has been these “Quietways”, a name that sounds like it took a PR team an unhealthy amount of time to come up with. In essence these cycle-paths escape the bustle of main road-adjacent superhighways, and are situated on quieter (get it) side streets. The hope was this would make them more appealing to less confident cyclists.
Both Transport for London (TfL) and the mayor’s office have made much of the roughly 100km of Quietways built over the last three years. When you look into it more closely, however, things become a little less inspiring.
The central London cycleway network, such as it is. Superhighways are blue, quietways are purple, rebranded cycleways are green. Image: TfL.
As it turns out, the word “built” has very little actual meaning anymore; simply renaming existing cycle paths counts. That’s what happened with both East London’s Greenway and the Thames Towpath, both existing routes that now make up 26km of these “new” cycle-paths. All in all, over half of the routes were rebrands of existing cycle lanes, whilst those bits that were “new" frequently face their own problems.
On Islington's cramped Quietway 2 a faded line of paint is the only thing that marks the line between cycle lane and road. There’s barely room for two bikes to pass each other on the bumpy, ageing tarmac of Quietway between Wimbledon and Raynes Park. Across the network riders frequently face crossing busy road at open, unmarked junctions. The lack of markings, protection and signals that define many of these routes stretch the meaning of the word “built” even further, and put cyclist’s safety at risk.
This is not exactly ideal for a project that chewed up a sizeable chunk of the £86m spent on cycling last year. While this does show some will to improve London cycling at City Hall, good intentions fill no potholes: indeed, it’s a damn sight less than the £214m a year previously promised by Will Norman, Sadiq Khan’s walking and cycling commissioner. Suffice to say, the Quietway programme is a mess.
Complicating things further is the recent news that all London’s cycle routes would be merging into a whole other scheme called “cycleways”. But only one of these new cycleways is finished, C6 (formerly CS6) from Kentish Town to Elephant and Castle, so we’re currently left with a mix of systems across London. Oh – and many of these new cycleways will be getting their third set of new signs in recent years, despite little to no construction work.
Why exactly we suddenly need this integrated mesh of differing cycle paths is still a mystery. According to TfL, people were being put off by the excess “brand names” and that “their experience on the routes do not always match their expectations” of current paths. But none of these problems seem to be solved by just re-organising existing cycle-paths. Indeed if the idea of Quietways was to provide a backstreet alternative for less confident cyclists, I’m not entirely sure how merging them with busy superhighways achieves that.
In many ways this very concept of a Quietway highlights everything wrong with London’s current cycling policy. Meekly they navigate old paths, side roads, and pedestrianised areas, inoffensive and inconvenient. It entertains the idea that you can radically improve cycle paths and encourage cycling without even slightly inconveniencing drivers – or even in this case, your own bottom line. In reality, however, not every policy can be liked by everybody. You can only entertain both sides for so long before you run out adequate space, money and support to deliver your ideas.
Not only can we do better but we need to. From reducing air pollution and emissions to relieving pressure on a tube system that is frequently overcapacity, well-funded cycling is in best interest of all Londoners. Something more radical is needed than underfunded side streets and a mix-mash of cycle lanes barely different from the superhighways Ken Livingstone suggested over a decade ago.
Popularity is hardly a question anymore: just look at the never ending piles of dockless bikes, so popular that boroughs like Hackney are actually having problems keeping streets clear of them. Indeed since 2000, there’s been a 154 per cent increase in cyclists in London, according to TfL.
Nor is feasibility the bar: cities like Amsterdam, Antwerp and Copenhagen have not only invested substantially more but trialed new schemes like subsidised bicycle parking and wide scale pedestrianisation. Thanks to this work each city ranks on the Copenhagenize Index for the world’s best cycling hubs.
The last time London featured on the list was in 2011. Even here, however, “mini-Holland” infrastructure schemes in Enfield, Kingston and Waltham Forest have managed to encourage cycling and improve the local environment, and set a precedent for the rest of the city.
What does remain the question, though, is when political promises will translate into real action.