London Mayor Unveils Ambitious, $1.3 Billion Bike Plan

Coming soon to one of New York's global competitors. Image: ## of London##

In some ways, London and New York have each leapfrogged the other when it comes to bike policy in the past few years. London’s bike-share program launched back in 2010, but its bike lanes remain largely sub-standard, with little in the way of physical protection. Here in New York, the bike lanes are gradually forming a safe, useful network, while bike-share is a few years behind London.

If New York’s next mayor doesn’t keep up the pace on bike infrastructure, though, London may soon take the lead on both counts. Yesterday, Mayor Boris Johnson announced an aggressive plan for a comprehensive bike network, including protected bike lanes.

“Cycling will be treated not as niche, marginal, or an afterthought, but as what it is: an integral part of the transport network,” Johnson said. “I want cycling to be normal, a part of everyday life.”

The plan includes big changes, including new types of bike lanes for the capital:

  • The flagship initiative, a 15-mile separated crosstown route connecting western and eastern suburbs via central London and business districts including the West End and Canary Wharf.
  • A network of “quietways,” akin to bike boulevards, that will connect suburban and central London neighborhoods.
  • Adding physical separation to the existing “cycle superhighways,” which sometimes offer little more than a stripe of paint on some of London’s busiest roads.

The plan also has a broad policy framework to transform biking in London:

  • A promise to invest £913 million — that’s more than $1.3 billion — in cycling over the next decade.
  • A competitive funding program, inviting London’s 32 boroughs to apply for funds to transform their streets.
  • Appointment of a new Cycling Commissioner to oversee the program within Transport for London, the city’s transportation agency.

Johnson has always identified as a cyclist, but until very recently he has mostly disappointed bicycling advocates, especially with his “cycle superhighway” implementation. Over the past few years, a robust advocacy effort has led the mayor to change direction, starting with minor changes to existing projects and culminating in this week’s big announcement.

The local press has also played a major role. In the run-up to last year’s election, The Times of London launched a campaign for street safety after one of its reporters was seriously injured in a crash, and mayoral candidates vied to be the most bike-friendly.

New York’s crop of candidates — and our daily papers — certainly have some catching up to do.

  • I’m in a perhaps unique position to comment on this. I reported on transport issues in London – and cycled around 4,000 miles a year there – until last August. I’ve now moved to New York City and am cycling rather more here (my daily commuting’s increased from 11 to 18 miles). It’s pretty complicated comparing cycling in the two places and official attitudes. Both leave a considerable amount to be desired.

    The biggest difference between London and New York is, I think, that it is much easier to cycle on the road in London. The roads are mostly on a more human scale than those in New York City (which initially came as a big culture shock to me: ). Traffic in London generally moves at a slower pace than in New York and there is at least some enforcement (via speed cameras) of vehicle speeds. On top of that, city administrators prior to Boris Johnson developed a network (known as the London Cycle Network) that took cyclists along quiet back streets, often filtering bikes through areas that stopped cars. The network could be tricky to navigate but was superb for anyone who, like me, had developed a mental map of how it worked over vast swathes of the city.

    So it’s true to say that London has far fewer protected bike lanes than New York – it’s also facilitated on-street riding much better than New York.

    The big disruption has come since Boris Johnson took over. It’s true that he is personally an enthusiastic cyclist, unlike Ken Livingstone, his predecessor. However, he is also an impatient person who lacked the patience to navigate the London Cycle Network (I describe my once riding with him on the network here – ). He has neglected the London Cycle Network in favor of Cycle Superhighways down busy, busy main roads (I descibe their shortcomings here: ). In New York terms, it’s as if a mayor had neglected a growing network of routes going down traffic-calmed nearly car-free cross-streets and parks and instead opted to put blue, unprotected paint along one side of 6th avenue and invited cyclists to ride there. Unsurprisingly, the Cycle Superhighways, while attracting growing use, have also killed quite a lot of people. Boris Johnson has had little choice but to find an alternative. Given that he’s skeptical about the London Cycle Network, this was pretty much the only way he could go given his professed enthusiasm for cycling.

    I hope the new network gets built on a proper budget (unlike the Cycle Superhighways). I hope it isn’t all rebranding of existing projects (some of it, for instance, seems to follow existing, excellent routes through Hyde Park). There are excellent grounds to distrust many of the individuals involved. But the difference in the atmosphere for cycling between London and New York is substantial. New York needs protected lanes because motorists are so intolerant on the busiest roads of cyclists. New York should, in my view, learn more from London’s experience of calming traffic in side streets and making ordinary roads more cycleable. That will make it easier for people to make door-to-door journeys to and from places that don’t yet have protected bike lanes. London, meanwhile, can learn from the experience of superb infrastructure like the Hudson River Greenway to create more proper Cycle Highways.

  • Joe R.

    @twitter-915537378:disqus I’m going to hazard a guess here that cyclists in London encounter far fewer traffic signals than in NYC. Unless we take out most of the traffic signals along bike routes (or grade separate at intersections), the sheer number of traffic signals cyclists here encounter will remain a major impediment to cycling. Outside of the greenways, on most bike routes a cyclist is left with two not so attractive options-stop and wait at red lights every few blocks, effectively doubling or tripling travel time while greatly increasing energy usage, or rolling through reds every few blocks, risking an expensive traffic summons. Any good cycling infrastructure must take account of the fact that cyclists can’t stop as often as motor vehicles. Ideally, a cyclist shouldn’t have to stop at all on properly designed infrastructure, the idea being to decrease variability in travel times as well as make bike travel faster/more pleasant.

  • Joe R.

    And by the way, the amount being invested in the London cycling infrastructure is easily enough to pay for full grade separation wherever it’s needed. NYC should spend a comparable amount over the next decade.

  • Joe,

    You’re quite right that the number of traffic lights is a big difference. On the quiet, 5 1/2 mile route I used to take to work in London via my son’s nursery, I used to encounter 10 sets of traffic lights controlling intersections (as opposed to just pedestrian crossings). In New York, obviously, one encounters that many within 10 blocks. The number of traffic lights is one of the things I noted specifically in one of my first blogposts on starting cycling in New York: It undoubtedly makes it far, far harder to cycle on New York City streets. For what it’s worth, I’d favor getting rid of traffic lights at quite a lot of intersections in outer boroughs or perhaps install pedestrian crossing lights and nothing else (a common approach in the UK, where the pedestrian lights tend to be mid-block). These would be huge cultural changes, however. The tight grid and heavy use of traffic lights definitely argue for more distinct cycle infrastructure in New York.

    You’re obviously correct, meanwhile, that the sums of money being discussed in London should make just about anything possible. But I hope you don’t go away with the idea that anything like that will actually be spent. I’ve just looked through the mayor’s plan and note a complete absence of maps. I also note that Westminster City Council has already started coming up with excuses today (it says the segregated bike lanes can’t be installed because the bright paint isn’t allowed in conservation areas, for example). There are two actual new segregated sections under discussion, half a mile or so along the embankment in central London and a section along the Westway in west London. It sounds like nearly everything else they’re discussing already exists in some form (the long routes through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, for example, and the segregated route that already runs from the City of London down to Canary Wharf). The £913m over 15 years will, I strongly suspect, cover all the money spent on the roads involved over those 15 years and will, I imagine, be full of caveats (the UK Treasury demands, for example, that the cost of any project have 60 per cent added on top to account for over-optimism).

    It’s fantastic that London is starting to plan better for cycle use. In the last few years, I saw enormous growth. Numbers have nearly doubled since 2002. There’s something energizing about finding oneself in a crowd of 20 bikes waiting at a junction in the morning. But the tradition of these things in the UK is that grand “vision” documents of this kind very seldom end up converted into actual, useable infrastructure.


  • For anyone that’s finding the big money numbers exciting, incidentally, I’m seeing estimates that the “Bike Crossrail” scheme in the picture above will actually cost no more than about £15m ($22.5m). My suspicion that the sums involved will not match the headline are growing stronger.

  • Erik Griswold

    A much better way to spend over US$1 Billion here:

  • I have to say that I find this New York vs. London thing quite amusing. “London may soon take the lead” ? What “lead” ? Neither London nor New York has a high modal share for cycling, and neither city is doing remotely enough to achieve it.

    Five days ago, London’s “cycling czar” admitted that London is 40 years behind the Netherlands.

    The “ambitious plan” that you report on is a proposal for London to spend a third as much as the Dutch spend per capita each year and to do it for just ten years. That’s no way to “catch up” on being “40 years behind”.

    That’s just for London. The Dutch are doing this over the entire country. So what will be the position of the UK and London in another ten years ? Will they then then be fifty years behind the Netherlands ?

    And in New York you think that what London is doing looks advanced ?

  • Anonymous

    I think the use of “competing” with London is that people are likely to think of London and New York as comparable: they are both huge metropolises with populations of the order of 10 million and some cultural similarities. In contrast, comparisons with Amsterdam get you nowhere because people throw up their arms and say: “but New York [is not/can’t be/will never be/we don’t want it to be] Amsterdam!” or “yeah, but Amsterdam is a quaint little town!” (fairly or not). Comparisons with Chinese cities the size of New York get reactions like “those crazy commies” or “so you want us to become a third-world country?” (again, fairly or not). Plus, people are more familiar with London because you see it more often on TV. 🙂


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