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London Pushes Through Stiff Resistance to Cycle Superhighways

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London Pushes Through Stiff Resistance to Cycle Superhighways

Two new segregated bike paths will crisscross the city and open up speedy, safe cycling that will ease pollution and traffic for everyone, non-cyclists, too, Boris Johnson says.

London is a big huffing puffing city, so Mayor Boris Johnson’s success in pushing ahead with his plan to build cycle superhighways right through the heart of it seems nothing short of a small miracle.

They won’t be finished before May of next year, but the concept, as Boris Johnson said in March at the inauguration of the building, goes far beyond simply smoothing the ride for cyclists: “Getting more people on their bikes will reduce pressure on the road, bus and rail networks, cut pollution and improve life for everyone, whether or not they cycle themselves.”

The “Crossrail for the Bike” will be 21 miles long and almost completely separated from motor traffic: 18 miles travelling east-west (from Barking to Acton) and 3 miles running north-south (from King’s Cross to Elephant and Castle). When completed in 2016, it will be Europe’s longest segregated bike path.

TfL Image — CGI Cycle Superhighway Blackfriars Rd

Transport for London’s superhighways are not without their detractors, however. The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) had threatened legal action, but ultimately backed away when it became apparent that a judicial review of TfL’s plans would simply delay rather than stop the new routes. Property firm Canary Wharf Group had also been vocal, producing an anonymous briefing (which it later acknowledged) that called the planned route “extremely damaging for London.”

Their complaints hinged on concerns over gridlock, increased congestion, restricting delivery vehicle access and adversely affecting business in general.

Also, some of London boroughs have been fierce opponents only caving under huge pressure and, in one case, threats to seize control of its roads, says London’s cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, who characterized the city as “still in the foothills” of being cycle friendly.

Although Johnson has been a huge booster of cycling in London, putting £900 million ($1.4 billion) toward the project, the original idea has been a long time in the making. His predecessor Ken Livingstone, who became mayor in 2000, was vocal and active in pushing the cycling agenda and in 2008 announced £400 million ($624 million) in initiatives. Even before that, there was a long and steady campaign to raise the profile and the possibilities for cycling in the city.

Perhaps one of the most visible initiatives has been Barclays Cycle Hire bike share program that came to life in July 2010 with 6,000 bikes spread among 400 docking stations around the city. Although late to the bikeshare game, the city’s program, popularly known as Boris bikes, was a success. Now renamed Santander Cycles after the Spanish bank took over sponsorship earlier this year, there are 11,500 at over 700 docking stations.

At the inauguration for Santander Cycles in March, the mayor said: “With my Cycling Vision about to bear fruit in new Superhighways, Quietway cycle routes and better junctions, there will be more opportunities than ever for Santander Cycles….It couldn’t be a better time to get involved in cycling.”

Boris Johnson — Getty images for Santander

Even so, the sharpest criticism remains that large chunks of inner London are underserved. And the bike share program’s popularity slumped in part because of the lack of an extensive, safe cycling network.

The two new cycling superhighways will go some way to remedying that.

But regular fatalities — eight so far this year — maintain London’s image as far from safe for cyclists. Big trucks rumbling through the city’s streets are one of the main culprits and the cause of almost half the deaths — particularly when they make left turns.

Different boroughs have taken on the challenge, cutting speed limits and redesigning major junctions. The superhighway itself has been carefully engineered to protect cyclists as much as possible.

Transport for London’s nine-week consultation period addressed many of the concerns of residents and businesses about the “Crossrail for the Bike”. In a subsequent poll, Londoners backed the project 64 percent to 28 percent.

Perhaps what the superhighways will prove is that if a city as huge and complex as London, and with as many vested interests, can welcome the bike, then there’s little to deter others from following suit.

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Tech journalist, electric engineer. Based in Barcelona, covers international tech events, and Smart Cities.

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