The Soft Innovations of London’s “Cycle Superhighways”

trixi.jpg"Trixi" mirrors help drivers of large vehicles see cyclists at intersections. Physical infrastructure is only one component in London’s "cycle superhighways" initiative. Photo: I Bike London

Earlier this week, London launched its first two "cycle superhighways" to decidedly mixed reviews. First announced by then-mayor Ken Livingstone in 2008, the cycle superhighways haven’t quite lived up to the expectations for safe and fast bike travel implied by their name, as you can see in this BBC News video.

The superhighways are quite vulnerable to intrusion from motorists and they look like pretty standard bike lanes — albeit
with improvements at intersections, enhanced way-finding and some nifty
new safety features like "trixi" mirrors at traffic signals, which improve
cyclist visibility for the operators of bigger vehicles like trucks. They’re also a very
bright blue, which at the very least will raise awareness about cycling.

The current mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has a lot riding on the cycle superhighways. He’s declared 2010 the "Year of the
Bicycle," and the new bikeways will be paired this summer with an ambitious bike-share system — 6,000 bicycles at 400 stations. Together, these two projects are expected to result
in an extra 62,000 bike trips per day in London, making a big
contribution toward the mayor’s target of a 400 percent increase in cycling
by 2026. But the question remains whether the superhighways will justify the hype and the investment. The first two superhighways cost about $35 million to implement.

If you only look at the bright blue bike lanes, though, you’re only getting half the picture. The real innovation behind the cycle superhighways may not lie in the improved physical infrastructure but in the supporting "softer measures" to promote their use. Transport for London (TfL), the mayor’s transportation agency, has been working closely with businesses, schools and households along the route of the superhighways to encourage people to cycle.

With businesses, TfL has shared expertise to help develop workplace travel plans which encourage staff to use more sustainable forms of transport, including cycling. A lack of workplace amenities for cyclists has been identified as a major barrier to people commuting by bike, so grants have been given to provide additional workplace bike parking and changing facilities such as showers and lockers. Businesses have also been encouraged to join "Dr. Bike" programs, where companies hire mechanics to help their employees maintain and repair their bikes.

For many potential cyclists, safety is the biggest barrier, so TfL has provided additional funding for cycling education and training for households near the superhighway routes. To encourage novice cyclists who might not be used to riding on busy roads, group rides led by experienced cyclists have been organized along the superhighways.

This approach builds on Transport for London’s existing "smarter travel program," which has been very successful in promoting more sustainable transportation through extensive use of personalized travel planning. In a three-year pilot in the London Borough of Sutton, these kinds of initiatives have supported a six percent mode shift away from cars, increasing cycling by 75 percent and bus use by 16 percent [PDF].

It will be interesting to see how much of an impact these softer measures have and what other cities can learn from them. Transport for London is closely monitoring the impact of the cycle superhighways on bicycling rates and will report back when the initial findings are released. 

Jacob Dunbar is a London-based transportation planner living in New York.

  • s

    The pictures in the BBC link of cars using these “cycling superhighways” are markedly similar to the photos I’ve been taking of the new 1st & 2nd ave NYC bike lanes.

    I have to say, being a longtime NYC cyclist, I have never felt safer on a bike in a city street than in London.

  • LN

    One of the biggest thing that got people biking in London is the Cycle Tax Scheme. I believe they can take 1000 pounds off their taxes through their work place on cycling related supplies.

    The prices of the bikes are geared to it – that’s why everyone is on a Brompton there http://www.cyclescheme.co.uk/

  • LN, I don’t really understand the cycle tax scheme. It’s not like cycling is an expensive form of transport needing a subsidy. Sometimes a cheaper bike is more practical, since you don’t worry so much about it.

    I agree that Bromptons are nice bikes though…

  • Max

    Erik- I think the idea is that other fomrs of transportation are subsidized more greatly (not to mention negative externalities that aren’t accounted for), and the tax break for bikes is an effort to even that out.

    That being said- the UK does a much better job of making cars pay their fair share than the US with congestion pricing in London and higher gas taxes.

  • Max, I think the most nefarious car subsidy is that it’s illegal to build buildings without car parking. Streetsblog has covered this:

    At Flushing Commons, NYCEDC’s Fuzzy Math Superceded PlaNYC Goals
    Smart Parking Policy Makes a Difference, Even in Livable Streets Utopias

    Abolishing such requirements should appeal to greens, liberals and conservatives alike. In Stockholm, the land office says that each underground garage spot costs $30 000 – $60 000 to build. So a big chunk of the cost of building an apartment.

  • patrick

    I’m not really clear on what’s so impressive about these lanes, they just seem like typical colored bike lanes where there is little enforcement to prevent drivers from encroaching. These have been around all over the world for many years at this point.

  • Dave

    Look how nice and limited these lanes are and of course the British will respect them and only go in the appropriate direction of travel. Let’s compare to the god-awful-ugly-space-hogging lanes on our avenues. Which bikers ignore out of defiance or ignorance. Is it really beacause the city won’t buy narrow snow-plows for the bike lanes? Is it true a cyclist won’t be ticketed for not using a bike line when there is one available (thereby reducing two lanes of traffic) and the biker pays no fee to travel on the shared paved space in Manhattan?
    Shrink the bike lanes. enforce their use by bikers and ticket bikers who harrass pedestrians, other bikers and cars in their lawless world.

  • Herzog

    LOL. I have no idea how you stumbled onto this blog, Dave. Anyway, bike lanes are meant to keep cars out rather than cyclists in.

  • Herzog, not entirely true, cars are allowed to enter bike lanes to access street parking, make right turns or enter driveways.

    Dave, what fee do cars pay to travel on the shared paved space in Manhattan? Gas tax…? Nope, that money goes only to interstates and other highways, and doesnt even manage to pay for that. Local shared paved space is payed for with property taxes. Unless you’re saying that all cyclists are homeless, then yes, cyclists pay just as much to use the road.

    And why should cyclists be restricted to a bike lane? That’s like saying a car drivers can’t use US route 1 because interstate 95 is available next to it for the entire length.

  • flp

    @patrick and others who seem to fail to grasp how effective the seemingly “prinmitive” london cycling infrastructure is:

    yes, such bike lanes have been around for a long time and cars can enter them, but what americans do not realize is that in europe, not just germany, drivers are far more cognizant of the boundaries and respectful of them than most tri-state metro drivers. yes, many europeans might drive fast, but in contrast to many americans they, particularly northern europeans, know how to drive, i mean REALLY now how to drive well, not just press the gas and sort of steer. at the same time, this attitude applies to cycling as well. cyclists on the road know how to bike and and pay attention to what is going on rather than drift and weave willy nilly.

    i guess what i am getting at is that there are HUGE cultural differences between europeans and americans when it comes to road usage, among other things, such that europeans show more respect for recognized physical boundaries.

  • Martin

    The problem is with many London Roads, is that they are barely wide enough for two buses pass each other. So in a lot of places you get these tiny bike paths are all that can be fitted. Segregated lanes have been in quieter roads, where they parallel busier roads.

  • Very detailed criticism on London’s ” Bicycle SuperHighways”

    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2010/07/more-on-londons-superhighways.html

    Hembrow has a few posts about london’s cycling infrastructure and superhighways.

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