As someone from London, I can tell you that it’s not a particularly great place to ride a bike. The infrastructure might have improved in the last decade, but it doesn’t hold a candle to many smaller European cities. Bike “lanes” often consist of barely painted lines on the road and many routes are broken up with intersections where it’s hard to make out the way. In general, getting anywhere requires extreme attention and a little bravery, which explains why cycling is still something mostly for young men and
some young women (though, statistically, it’s mostly young men); it’s not a mode for everyone.
Not yet anyway. Under plans recently finalized by Mayor Boris Johnson, London may soon have two “superhighways” that would carve out long, uninterrupted routes for cyclists and make a substantial improvement. The first, running south to north, would go from Elephant & Castle, across Blackfriars Bridge, and wind all the way up at King’s Cross. The second would go east-west, from Tower Hill to Acton. Staying north of the Thames, it would run through the financial district (“The City”), follow the river along the Embankment, then skirt around Westminster, saying ‘hello’ to Big Ben and Buckingham Palace on the way. It would then continue through Hyde Park and go further west than most tourists realize London goes.
Three things make the plans remarkable. One, London is a very congested and contested city where changing anything is difficult; it takes nerve for Boris Johnson to dedicate swathes of real estate to cycling. Second, the superhighways are “segregated.” They’re not routes where cyclists have to compete with motorists; they’re designed to attract people who’ve been put off cycling previously. Third, they’re extensive. The east-west route is 18 miles long, meaning you could get to many locations without ever encountering a car.
The plans are unpopular with cab drivers and some business groups. But most Londoners seem to support them. A “consultation” of more than 20,000 people showed that 84% approved. Construction could begin this March.
If the bicycle superhighways do go ahead, they would bring London up a few notches in the race among cities to build better cycling infrastructure. They might also give strength to other mayors who want to do something grand but have been cowed up to now. Cycling advocates point to the importance of separating cars and bikes if you want more marginalized groups on the road. London’s plans would really put that theory to the test, as it’s currently a place where lots of people would never dream of cycling.