Turning London into a Cycling City for all

By Louise Gold,
cycle routes integrate with train stations

Dutch infrastructure encourages incidental active travel by allowing bicycles on trains and stations being designed for easy access with a bicycle to and from the platform.

cycling bridge

Dutch cycle and pedestrian suspension bridge, which runs next to the railway bridge, crossing over the Waal River.

cycle overpass

Along the Super Cycle Highway we arrived at motorways where cycle under and overpasses allowed us to continue our journeys uninterrupted

The Mayor’s Transport Strategy proposes to turn London into a city where more people want to walk and cycle. Louise Gold, Senior Project Officer, reflects on how we replicate the success of global Velo-cities.

This year I attended the international Velo-city conference in the Netherlands. Velo-city is an annual conference bringing together global transport professionals in a carefully selected ‘cycling city’, to showcase the best in sustainable transport policy, infrastructure and behaviour change. The official opening ceremony of Velo-City 2017 in Arnhem Nijmegen, aside from having all the requisite bells and whistles for an event of its’ size, was genuinely inspiring. “Dream big!” Cried Leo Bormans, one of the opening speakers. “Don’t go for liveable cities. Go for happy cities!”

How do we make London a happier city, where more people want to walk and cycle?

For the conference, I stayed in a Bed & Breakfast in Arnhem, where just down the road a street had been shut to through traffic with temporary road blocks. In the evening, the result was a street full of people talking and a bar fit to burst. On Holland’s cycle streets, cycles are king and cars are guests. The result is a country where 53% of adults do moderate physical activity 4-7 days a week and a Cycling City like Amsterdam where 85% of adults cycle at least once a week.

In Holland this type of people-centered infrastructure is everywhere – no wonder it consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world.

To achieve Dutch cycling levels Ruth Oldenziel, a Dutch academic and co-author of the conference book "Cycling Cities: The Arnhem and Nijmegen Experience", says we must look at five things:

  1. The cultural status of cycling
  2. The urban setting
  3. Access to other modes of transport
  4. The wider political context
  5. Social movements

1. The cultural status of cycling

To become a cycling city, “cycling requires cultural status”, explained Oldenziel at the beginning of the conference. And in Nijmegen, Holland, where King Willem-Alexander opened the show, cycling has cultural capital in abundance. 

I went to Velo-city to give a presentation about a project I recently finished in Marks Gate, a housing estate in East London, and a place where the car is king. The borough is connected to the rest of London by two large dual carriageways, its own population severed by them.

My presentation was part of a session entitled “Tips and Tricks on Behaviour Change”. I spoke in the main hall of the conference, in front of hundreds of participants, showing both the international interest in and the seriousness with which the conference organisers regard softer measures for change.

While other speakers were academic in approach, I talked about the practical application of the project, which addressed challenges facing the culturally diverse East London community, including poverty, high unemployment, obesity and low activity levels.

I described the keys to success as being the combination of active travel initiatives, community-led street design, and infrastructure that we employed in Marks Gate. A combination we need to replicate across London if we are to become a Velo-city.

But Marks Gate is no longer the norm; The status of cycling in London has begun to change. The London Mayor’s draft Transport Strategy (published in June 2017) put active travel at the heart of its message, quoting the Chief Medical Officer in the annual report 2011, when he said:

“London’s streets should be for active travel and social interaction, but too often they are places for cars, not people.”

2. The urban setting

After the first afternoon at the conference, Tom Sharland, Head of Infrastructure Delivery at Sustrans, and I cycled through Regio Arnhem-Nijmegen on the fully segregated 15.8 kilometre Super Cycle Highway. The route involves cycling along a cycle and pedestrian suspension bridge, which runs next to the railway bridge. This crosses over the Waal River, which stretches out to the horizon.

Along the Super Cycle Highway we encountered motorways where cycle underpasses allowed us to continue our journey uninterrupted. Lighting along the route is shaped like chain links, to help cyclists recognize the route and act as an advert to drivers that the route is there. A cycle service station was being built along the highway and on the second day we were subject to a stunt to promote it, where cheerleaders dressed as Emojis shouted, “You’re amazing!” as we rode past. It’s hardly surprising Tom described cycling this route as one of the best experiences he has had on a bike!

The London Mayor’s new draft Transport Strategy puts a Healthy Streets approach at its heart, which bodes well for creating the kind of urban setting where people walk and cycle. A new type of thinking is required to put into practice the theory of reducing car dependency and increasing active and sustainable travel. It requires an understanding of how Londoners interact with their city and what defines their quality of life, with particular attention to the streets where daily life plays out.

Two brand new cycle superhighways are on the cards for London: You can help make them happen by taking part in the consultation by 31 October 2017.

3. Access to other modes of transport

Toward the end of my week in Holland, I visited Basisschool De Hoeven, a school situated on the fast cycling route Nimegen-Beuningen. Having direct access to an off-road route and access to parking being placed away from the school entrance, has meant 60% of children cycle to school. It also means Basisschool De Hoeven doesn’t have the problem of poor air quality engulfing it, which we have to toxic levels at the entrances of London’s schools.

On the tour of Basisschool De Hoeven primary we learnt about changes the municipality have made to the route, for instance allowing cyclists to have priority at busy junctions. Interestingly, construction often went ahead despite local residents’ opposition. When I asked how they were able to implement the changes when there was community opposition to designs, our guide looked at me blankly and said, “Cyclists were getting hurt”.

In the London Mayor’s draft Transport Strategy, Transport for London describe the pressing need to increase and improve access to different modes of transport: Unless new ways are found to plan the city as it grows, overcrowding will see some public transport lines and stations grinding to a halt, air quality will get worse and streets and public places will become ever-more dominated by motor traffic.

4. The wider political context

On the Wednesday morning of the conference, Tom Sharland gave a presentation about the Sustrans London Quietways programme. London’s Quietways are a network of new cycle routes following quieter streets, parks and waterways opening across the capital. At Sustrans, we’re proud to be helping to make Quietways happen, in our role as Transport for London’s delivery agent.

To make Quietways a comprehensive network across the whole of London means working with all 33 local authorities, across the political spectrum, which is a challenge unique to London. Quietways interventions include traffic calming, road closures and development of new cycle paths. 

A wide range of people attended Tom’s session, from cities all over Europe and as far away as New Zealand. Most attendees’ interest was around transport planning but there was also curiosity around the political commitment from the London Mayor and the level of funding available.

Cycling transport planning has often been seen as an “add-on” for local authorities. But with strong political will in London and Transport for London’s Healthy Streets agenda, things are improving. The London Mayor’s new draft Transport Strategy renews a commitment to cycling routes. As well as improving environments for local walking and cycling trips, better connections must be provided over longer distances so that London can become truly connected for walking and cycling: An expanded network of cycle routes on both busier roads and quieter streets will be developed to help Londoners use cars less and cycle more.

5. Social movements

There is a burgeoning social movement for change in the UK, which Sustrans is a part of, along with other organisations, campaigners, community groups and individuals.

Like in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s, car ownership in the Netherlands dramatically increased, and congestion on the streets left no room for cyclists. What was exceptional was that when deaths increased with car ownership, people in Holland rallied against the form of transport that in 1971 killed more than 3,000 people, 450 of them children.

A social movement, emotively named Stop de Kindermoord (Stop the Child Murder), was born. Fuel was added to the fire (or not) during the Middle East oil crisis in 1973 when oil-producing countries stopped exports to the US and Western Europe. This forced the Dutch government’s hand in deciding whether to invest in cycling infrastructure. Everywhere else in Western Europe progress was seen as driven (sorry) by the motor vehicle but Holland was now sceptical of a reliance on foreign oil. And by the mid-1970s the social movement for improved cycling infrastructure was in full swing. The city had responded to the challenges and adopted a pro-cycling policy.

While London and the UK are seemingly a long way behind Holland, this story just shows that roads for cars can be adapted for cycling and walking use and campaigning does work.

A London for wellbeing

Leo Bormans, speaker at the Velo-city event, asked a philosopher he knows to describe happiness in two words. Initially his friend regarded it as an impossible task. And yet after consideration, he came to the conclusion it can be described as “other people”. Bormans therefore identified “connection” as the means to happiness and cycles as connectors. “The greatest threat,” said Leo, at the beginning of the conference, “is not lack of security. It is isolation.”

Isabelle Clement, Director of Wheels for Wellbeing, spoke toward the end of the week, in a session about All Inclusive Cycling. Her talk was entitled "Beyond the Bicycle: Toward a True Cycling Revolution". “Isolation kills people,” she echoed Bormans words. Access to move, meet people and exist in a city is therefore integral for everyone’s quality of life – children, elderly and disabled people alike.

Part of the vision for Healthy Streets includes a Mayoral ambition that Londoners walk or cycle for at least 20 minutes every day – currently only 34 per cent of Londoners manage to do this.

The Mayor of London’s Healthy Streets for London document also highlights the fact that in London, a quarter of men and a third of women aged over 65 do not leave their house at all on a given day. New analysis this year shows that if every Londoner walked or cycled for the suggested 20 minutes a day, it would save the NHS £1.7bn in treatment costs over the next 25 years. This includes 19,200 fewer people suffering from dementia, and an estimated 18,800 fewer Londoners suffering from depression.

The Mayor’s Strategy takes us a step closer to a connected London and makes it clear that improving our city for walking and cycling will turn it into a more liveable, happy city for everyone:

The Healthy Streets Approach does not just benefit health through enabling people to be physically active, it also helps to reduce the negative health impacts of transport noise, air pollution, road danger, social isolation and the ‘severance’ effects of busy roads.

Making our streets more welcoming places to spend time, walk, cycle and access public transport helps to strengthen our communities and reduce unfair health inequalities.

Find out more about London's Quietways

Take part in the new London Cycle Superhighways consultation closing 31 October 2017

Read the Sustrans response to the Mayor's Draft Transport Strategy

More blog posts by Louise Gold