Why we need [to] clear space for cycling on London’s main roads

In July, London Cycling Campaign (LCC) members voted overwhelmingly (58.4%) for ‘Go Dutch‘ to be our single-issue demand for the 2012 Mayoral elections. Our chosen strapline is ‘clear space for cycling on main roads’ – which has attracted some negative comment from those who consider it ambiguous or dilatory in some way. There is particular criticism at the choice of the word “clear”.

Personally, I think the choice of the word ‘clear’ (first proposed by Ben Tansley, Co-ordinator of Brent LCC) is a master stroke. What some seem to have missed is precisely that “clear” is deliberately ambiguous: it is both an adjective and a verb – and the latter form is the most powerful.

Let’s stick the adjective, first. To me, “clear space for cycling” means:

  • Clear from the dangers of cycling in motor traffic: On the busiest roads I expect this to mean separate bike paths, on other roads it might be possible to divert motor vehicles elsewhere (e.g. by closing to through-traffic); most importantly it means not having to play chicken at junctions.
  • Clear from conflict with pedestrians: No-one wants any more painted pavement rubbish.
  • Clear from obstructions: Cycle paths that are properly maintained, free of debris, and certainly no parked cars.
  • Clearly visible: Well sign-posted so it’s easy to know where I’m supposed to go.
  • Clear air: Always a relative thing in London but… cycle routes shouldn’t take me through a load of smog where there’s a convenient, non motor-vehicle clogged alternative.
  • Clear from weather effects: Unlike Islington, remember that cycle paths need proper drainage; unlike Camden, remember to grit them in winter!
  • Clear from slower cyclists in my way: wide enough for me to overtake on my commute to work.

    That’s just a few off-the-top-of my head. I’m sure one could think up many more and indeed LCC will be publishing our comprehensive policy position for Go Dutch, in due course.

    But remember, “clear” is also a verb – that’s where it comes in most useful: Proper cycling facilities cannot be made from thin air. On London’s roads that means space needs to be taken away from other purposes (motor traffic lanes, on-street parking, overly-wide footpaths, etc.) in order to provide good quality, cycle paths that most people would feel safe riding on. The Mayor of London’s Cycling Superhighways have been poor primarily because that political will isn’t there to take road space away from private cars. Lobbying highway engineers to create good facilities is like banging one’s head against a brick wall when the politicians are unwilling to provide them with the road space to do so.

    The cycle paths of Copenhagen are the most visible aspect of that city’s cycling revolution. However, what they hide is the more important enabler – the removal of on-street car parking that previously used to be where many of those cycle paths are today. I can’t find a reference just now but I believe the then Mayor of Copenhagen cited ‘on-street car parking’ as both the single biggest barrier to cycling – and its removal as the single most important step they took. Without creating space they could not have built those cycle paths – which whilst good are still not up to the standards of the Netherlands.

    How much is it right to constrain car use to provide for good cycling facilities? Rightly this is a political issue. Car use is an important part of life, especially in outer London, and politicians risk voters’ wrath if they are seen to unfairly constrain people’s freedom. However there are some points that our representatives need to digest and understand:

    1. Current levels of car use are unsustainable. As London’s population inevitably grows (and remember the working population that commutes in from the shires is far greater than the residential population) we have to find better ways of making use of scarce road space. Private cars just take up far too much of it.
    2. Increasing cycling is much cheaper than building mass transit – and even then there are only so many tube lines we can dig.
    3. Londoner’s want to cycle more but don’t feel it is safe to do so. Transport for London’s 2008 survey showed that 58% of residents of outer London wanted to cycle more and that 32% of outer London households don’t own a car. Providing good cycling facilities will give all these people the freedom to cycle safely.

    Ultimately, the thrust of the campaign is about the verb, not the adjective: we are asking the next Mayor (and the wider public) to clear space for cycling on London’s main roads. We don’t want the same old junk in the gutter.

    Anyone still unclear?

1 Response to “Why we need [to] clear space for cycling on London’s main roads”


  • Exactly. I think to win this argument we have to talk about giving freedom, not constraining it – and make it clear that maximising the efficient use of roadspace is an economically and environmentally superior goal to maximising motor traffic flow.

    So what we should be asking for is the freedom to choose to make a journey by cycle if we want to. RIght now, we don’t have that freedom. Most people will choose not to make a journey by bike, because it isn’t safe enough, or doesn’t feel safe enough.

    The freedom to choose to cycle is also the freedom, for many people, to make the most efficient choice of transport. Cycling doesn’t pollute – and a cyclist takes up a something like a fifth of the roadspace of a private car. So, if taking a relatively small amount of roadspace for cycling also allows people who would otherwise drive to choose to cycle, this will actually reduce congestion (and pollution), and allow those who really need to drive to reach their destinations faster.

    I think we are in a much stronger position, at least right now, if we are making the argument that drivers, too, can benefit from the construction of good cycle facilites, rather than talking about taking space away from drivers, constraining them, etc..

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