On yer bike

Posted On: 
5th December 2013

More people than ever are taking to two wheels to get around Westminster. Jon Stone looks at the growth of pedal power in Parliament

Cycling is on the agenda in London: banker-blue rows of hire bikes spring up overnight on street corners, while the Mayor zooms around the city on two wheels with characteristic abandon. More and more Londoners are turning to pedal-power to get around, saving themselves money on both tube fares and gym membership in the process. In Parliament, things are no different: in September, around 100 MPs held a strikingly well-attended backbench debate on the way forward for cycling, marking the launch of a report by the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group that made a series of recommendations on the same subject.

“I used to cycle in London as a student in the 1980s, and you were very much on your own,” says Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston. “There were much fewer cyclists around and there was no cycling provision whatsoever. Now you feel like you’re traveling in a peloton some mornings. There are a lot of cyclists on the road.” The evidence isn’t just anecdotal: Transport for London’s 2013 survey of traffic in central London found nearly one in four vehicles on key routes during the morning rush hour are now bicycles; they make up one in six vehicles across the entire day. 

The numbers may be up, but there are still big barriers to people who work in Westminster opting for two wheels. The burgeoning number of cyclists on the capital’s roads has brought out the network’s flaws, with fatal accidents featuring all-too-often in the capital’s evening news. Injuries dealt out to cyclists within sight of Parliament over the last few years include broken backs; even more seriously, on Victoria Street, two riders, both women, have been killed in separate incidents. 14 people were killed on bikes in London in 2012, out of 122 nationally – a five year high. In one particularly awful period in November this year, six London cyclists were killed in less than a fortnight.

Boris Johnson’s first term as Mayor saw the construction of a number of ‘Cycle Superhighways’, which he said were designed to ensure people on bikes would “no longer have to have to dance and dodge around petrol power”, making riders safer. But in an inquest into two deaths on the routes, which offer little physical protection for cyclists, Coroner Mary Hassel described aspects of their design as “an accident waiting to happen” and sent Transport for London back to the drawing board.

“What a lot of colleagues say to me is that they just wouldn’t be confident to cycle, they don’t feel safe,” explains Wollaston. “If we look at the barriers for new cyclists coming in, then that’s still the biggest.” But the problem of safety hits people working in Parliament particularly hard: “They often don’t feel safe because literally the most unsafe part of their journey is when you first step out of the gates of Parliament: Parliament Square.”

Dr Julian Huppert, who co-chairs the cycling APPG, agrees: “Parliament Square is really problematic, there’s no doubt about that,” he says. Even the Liberal Democrat MP, who describes himself as a “keen cyclist”, says he tends to get off and walk the last bit of his journey to work, on account of it being “very, very unpleasant”.

The London Cycling Campaign’s Mike Cavenett is less diplomatic about the square’s shortcomings: “I think Parliament Square is an embarrassment,” he tells The House. “As a Londoner, when I cycle around there, especially when I see all the hoards of tourists all crowded onto the pavement, I think it’s disgusting. It’s an absolute waste of space. In Paris or Berlin or New York, one of our competing major cities, they would have turned it into a beautiful public space.”

“I don’t see many kids cycling through there, but I know there’s schools in every direction. I don’t see many elderly people going through there. I don’t actually see many female cyclists through there; in rush hour it tends to be men, youngish men: people who are willing to jockey for position with the motor traffic coming around like that.”

Wollaston’s experience corroborates this; she says the demographics of the typical London cyclist are a symptom of the fact the capital doesn’t properly cater to mass bike use. “Most of those cyclists are men, most of them are in Lycra. We should push to have more women on bikes. I make a point: I cycle into work in my working clothes, in my heels, and I cycle a little Brompton.”

“We’ve got to look at facilities for people so that we are a bike-friendly city, and we’re absolutely not there yet,” she explains. “Yes, it’s great that there are more people cycling; yes, I can see dramatic change; but we need far more provision: let’s attract people who aren’t cycling at all at the moment. This shouldn’t be a campaign for making life easier for really keen cyclists, because they’re going to cycle anyway. It’s about the people who are currently too afraid to cycle, and making them feel welcome.”

There are good reasons for London’s authorities to want to promote cycling: in a city where space is hard to come by, fitting more people on the roads using bikes is increasingly being seen as a serious and cost-effective transport solution. The Mayor’s Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan has been justifying a proposed new east-west route on the basis of it having the capacity of four London Underground District Line trains per hour.

“Gilligan quite cleverly pulled that figure out,” Cavenett explains. “How expensive would it have been to increase the tube capacity by 20%? You’re talking billions, and years of works. Whereas for a relatively small amount you can increase the capacity above ground on the streets by the same amount.”

One place that does seem to be getting cycling broadly right is the Parliamentary Estate itself. “I know when Sir George Young used to cycle here it was a rare and perhaps slightly eccentric thing to do, whereas now it’s just a normal thing that people do,” Huppert says. As a result of the gradual shift in attitudes, cyclists can expect a competent welcome at the Palace of Westminster.

Wollaston is particularly impressed: “The bike provision on the parliamentary estate is fantastic: there are many places you can park, I love the fact that at work if I need to pump up my tyres there’s a great big foot pump that I can use. I like the fact that we have Doctor Bike coming in regularly.” But Huppert says small things can spoil the experience for cyclists, like the new requirement to use a keycard to leave the building rather than the old button – inconvenient when you’re pushing a bike.

The distinct lack of ‘Boris bikes’ on the Parliamentary Estate does cause some disquiet: the nearest rank is located on Abingdon Green, quite a walk from the main entrance. Labour MP Ian Austin, who co-chairs APPG Cycling, says adding a rank closer to Parliament could allow more visitors to arrive by bike: “The nearest Boris bike stand is miles away. Why can’t we have a Boris bike stand outside Portcullis House or Boris bike stands coming through the gate into Parliament itself?” he says. “If we had our own Boris bike stand, people who are visiting Parliament could cycle.” 

Huppert says hire bikes would be “nice to have”, but aren’t crucial. “If you’re going to do a route regularly it’s more sensible to have your own bike,” he explains; the general feeling around Parliament seems to be that the cycling facilities for people bringing their own bikes are at least decent. 

Outside Parliament, though, Westminster City Council’s offering to people on bikes gets more mixed reviews. LCC’s Mike Cavenett is particularly critical of the council: “Westminster is not doing a brilliant job. I think if there was a league table of councils, Westminster would be worried about relegation. They’re right at the bottom,” he says.

Danny Williams, a member of the Mayor’s roads taskforce who runs the popular Cyclists in the City blog, isn’t keen either: “Westminster is by far the most regressive borough in inner London when it comes to cycling. There is not a single safe bike route through central London: all the bike route maps come to a halt when you enter central Westminster,” he says.

Austin notes that “there’s a Cycle Superhighway that comes along the Embankment and then just stops when it gets past Milbank tower and Lambeth Bridge… it just stops.” Boroughs control about 90% of London’s roads, with TfL only in charge of certain main routes, so cooperation is essential for a city-wide policy.

Indeed, neighbouring local authority the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea complained in April 2012 that Westminster’s car-focused city management policy ”would inevitably produce additional traffic congestion within Central London including the Royal Borough”. Cavenett summaries concerns about the council, which controls the largest chunk of central London of any local authority: “Westminster doesn’t just affect Westminster, it affects people from all over Greater London; people from all over the country, all over the world cycle in Westminster.”

Westminster’s poor provision for bikes shows why consistent cycle infrastructure standards are needed across London, says Williams: “At the moment, each borough makes up its own standards. You cycle on a really busy, safe and segregated bike path through Camden. As soon as you enter Westminster, the bike path turns into spaces for car parking and you’re on your own.”

APPG Cycling’s ‘Get Britain Cycling’ report is clear on what those standards need to be to keep people on bikes safe: busy roads need cycle lanes protected from motor traffic by physical kerbs or barriers – so called ‘Dutch style’ because of their prevalence in the Netherlands – while quieter roads should have 20mph speed limits and traffic calming measures.

The kind of segregated lanes being proposed also benefit people travelling in cars, says Sarah Wollaston, because they get cyclists out of drivers’ hair and allow the two modes of transport to “live with each other much more comfortably”. On paper, the Mayor’s ‘Vision for Cycling’ document, released this year, commits to introduce more of this kind of provision.

Westminster’s City Commissioner for Transportation, Martin Low, argues that the city presents unique challenges when it comes to cycling. “It’s extremely difficult in Westminster to try and cater for the needs of all road users, so a balance has to be struck,” he tells The House. Low cites “a huge amount of kerbside activity” – in particular hotel taxis and business deliveries – as one of the main things standing in the way of widespread cycle lane provision.

Low does seem to think changes need to be made to the way Westminster provides for cyclists. The council is welcoming the Mayor’s proposed new east-west route – sold as ‘Crossrail for bikes’ – which runs down Victoria Embankment and right past the Palace of Westminster, through Parliament Square, and up Constitution Hill. It has also used its new cycling strategy to lay out its initial thoughts on how it might make a contribution to the Mayor’s 300km central London ‘bike grid’, another pillar of his ‘Vision for Cycling’ plan.

Low also tells The House that the council is in the early stages of working with TfL to re-vamp Parliament Square, and says the council may create more bike lanes, feeding off the Mayor’s new east-west route (see map). Segregating the lanes with kerbs would be possible, he says, because Parliament Square has plenty of space – but whether it makes it onto the final designs is yet to be determined. “There are peers and MPs who need to get quickly to the House to vote; not all of them are cycling or walking there, some of them are driving there,” he explains – aspects of the plan for new lanes could require removing a general traffic lane and thus possibly inconvenience people traveling in cars. 

Low says he would welcome feedback from MPs and peers on the plan for the square, as well as wider suggestions about where the central London bike grid should go, and which parts of Westminster could do with more cycle parking. 

At least on paper, the Council seems to making some effort to comply with the Mayor’s ‘Vision for Cycling’: If that plan were fully implemented, London would be a “significantly better place to cycle”, says Mike Cavenett. “That’s not happened: we recognise it’s going to take time. But that vision, from a policy point of view is a very strong document.” Julian Huppert shows a similar cautious optimism: “I think the Mayor’s vision is very good, we need to make sure it’s delivered and actually becomes reality. There’s more to do, and there will always be more to do, but it’s good to see that there is some real drive.” 

Ultimately, only the coming months and years will tell whether planned improvements make the jump from blueprints to concrete. Until that happens, Westminster’s cyclists would do well to follow Boris Johnson’s advice on riding around some of the capital’s nastier roads: “Keep your wits about you”.