visions in suburbia

Nobody ever went for a ride on a policy statement but if bicycle madness can spread into Outer London nowhere in Britain will be safe from contagion.

Back in 2009 on a flying visit to London, street photographer and Godfather of ‘Cycle Chic’ Mikael Colville-Andersen, in a somewhat vulgar metaphor, spoke of the “dick-measuring competition” going on between World cities to see who can be the most cycle-friendly. Last week Boris brandished his ruler.

The incumbent Mayor of London – who Comandante Chávez likened to an electrocuted polar bear – has put his name on a Vision for Cycling in London which boldly states…

“Cycling will be treated not as niche, marginal, or an afterthought, but as what it is: an integral part of the transport network, with the capital spending, road space and traffic planners’ attention befitting that role.”

It’s important not to get too carried away – nobody ever went for a ride on a policy statement, and most of London’s roads are controlled by local Boroughs not the Mayor – but this ‘Vision’ is a step forward and an opportunity.

Greater London contains the best urban conditions for cycle travel in Britain. In Central and Inner London the bicycle is now an obvious choice. If you don’t have one you can borrow an example for a nominal fee and all around you’ll see role-models in all shapes and sizes. Nobody is surprised to see cycle-traffic on the roads of Inner London, which are mostly of a scale that is easy to dominate on a push bike.

In the London Borough of Hackney more people now commute to work by bike than try the same stunt in a car. There are many reasons, historic – as a former coordinator of the London Cycling Campaign in Hackney I, naturally, take most of the credit – geographical and demographic for this situation but a steady growth in cycle-traffic in Hackney has been nurtured by – and encourages – a favourable municipal climate. Check Hackney Councillor Vincent Stops’ new weBlog for more details of what’s been – what’s being – done to turn the Borough into bicycle paradise.

Pedal a few kilometres out of town, into the great doughnut of inaccessibility that isolates Inner London from the countryside of the Home Counties, and you’ll find Britain’s worst conditions for cycling. Outer London is cut by highways engineered for the benefit of motor-traffic, many destinations have extensive car-parking. In Inner London bicycling is unremarkable. Out in the doughnut motor-dependence still makes sense, cycling is odd, transgressive and troublesome. The close proximity of these regions creates a revolutionary situation along their jagged border. There’s a chance for the bicycle awareness of Inner London to bleed outwards into areas where conditions for cycling are currently hostile.

“Cycling in Outer London is mostly low, with great potential for improvement. We will increase cycle spending specifically dedicated to Outer London from £3m to more than £100m.”

It would have been easy for the Vision to concentrate only on the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of the inner zone where cycling is growing and popular. Taking on the less promising territory of the ‘burbs is something to applaud. The Vision proposes to…

“…choose between one and three willing Outer London boroughs to make into mini-Hollands, with very high spending concentrated on these relatively small areas for the greatest possible impact. In many ways, this will be the most transformative of all our policies.
This is a fantastic opportunity for these boroughs to achieve dramatic change – not just for cyclists, but for everyone who lives and works there.
The idea, over time, is that these places will become every bit as cycle-friendly as their Dutch equivalents; places that suburbs and towns all over Britain will want to copy.”

Suburban street sign

Public opinion in Outer London is not known to be particularly pro-bike, local politicians and municipal officers usually lag behind, bicycle advocates and activists to encourage, monitor and badger decision-makers are sparse. Implementing this last ambition – undiluted and free of alibi facilities won’t be easy. But if bicycle madness can spread into Outer London nowhere in Britain will be safe from the contagion.