London builds 'cycling superhighways' under plan to become one of the world's great bike cities

Europe's great cycling cities: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin … London?

This was the pledge of the newly elected mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who says he wants make Britain's capital "a byword for cycling around the world".

It's certainly been a recent byword for infrastructure development.

For the past week, my social media feed has been swarming with images and videos of people on bikes forming phalanxes on London's bike paths, with much celebration as the latest "cycling superhighways" were opened.

It was in part a swansong for the outgoing mayor, Boris Johnson, whose regular appearances on a bike were backed up by a commitment to cycling investment.

"With London's population growing by 10,000 a month, there are only two ways to keep traffic moving," Johnson said last year. "Build more roads, which is for the most part physically impossible, or encourage the use of vehicles, such as bikes, which better use the space on the roads we've already got."

I've been watching London's velo evolution with fascination (and dollops of envy) from afar for years, plus a week-long visit by bicycle last September.

Of course, the full story is vast, complex, ongoing and still being debated, but here are a few things worth considering - especially as Australian cities wrestle with the issue of cycling provision. 

Laying the groundwork

London's congestion charge, brought in by former mayor Ken Livingstone, is seen as an early impetus for bicycle use. As a measure for limiting traffic in Australian cities, it was back in the news last week.

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The bombing attack on London public transport in 2005 is also thought to have caused a surge in bike use - as have major Tube strikes since. 

Livingstone flagged a bike share scheme for London, but the initiative was a signature project of his successor, Johnson, who launched it in 2010. Unhampered by helmet laws, the blue-hued "Boris Bikes" were for many people an introduction to the joys of transport and utility cycling, while swelling the numbers of riders in the city.

Meanwhile, Johnson began building a network of "cycling superhighways" across the metropolis. However, some of this work was criticised for being little more than blue paint on busy roads, offering limited protection. A campaign called "Love London, Go Dutch" and protests after a spate of cycling deaths spurred demands for better infrastructure.

With a commitment to spend almost £1 billion ($1.95 billion) on cycling over a decade, Johnson appointed a cycling commissioner to help with the arduous, often controversial task of building separated cycling routes in the capital.

Good sports

Like Australia, Britain has been home to a sports cycling resurgence, boosted by the nation's success at the Olympics and the first British winner of the Tour de France, Sir Bradley Wiggins.

Of course, sports cyclists are ripe for conversion into commuter riders.

The national body for cycle sport has also provided one of the more passionate advocates for infrastructure change – British Cycling policy adviser and Olympic medallist Chris Boardman.

The push for bike lanes "is a battle about health, about noise, about pollution, about the kind of cities we want to live in," he wrote, while one stretch of superhighway would be capable of carrying 3000 people an hour - "the equivalent of running 41 extra buses an hour, at a fraction of the cost in road space and emissions".

Boardman also caused controversy with an appearance on BBC Breakfast TV, riding his bike on city streets bareheaded in dark, casual clothes while the presenter accompanying him wore hi-viz and a helmet.

He later said the "cries of horror" at his choice of clothes were "both understandable and unfortunate because it obscures what I believe are the real issues" – such as the creation of safe environments for people to ride in. 

'A pretty big fight'

When I visited London last year, Victoria Embankment, on the north side of the Thames, was a building site for a broad, black cycling superhighway, while similar construction projects were dotted around the city.

Unsurprisingly, controversy was rife – especially as the unfinished, unusable lanes looked so very empty. During their construction, the works have been a target of sustained criticism in the media and opposition by various groups. One House of Lords peer said the cycleways were "doing more damage to London than almost anything since the Blitz".

As London's mayor, Johnson had significant power to get things done (compared with, say, Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore, whose bike path plans have been a constant source of conflict with the state government, which controls the city's roads). But it has been a battle.

"The amount of politics that went on around this was unbelievable," said Johnson's Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, when new routes were opened last week. "It came very close to not happening on a number of occasions, and as you know it was a pretty big fight."

Cycling goes mainstream

"Cycling is now a mainstream policy in London politics," wrote the BBC's transport correspondent on the eve of the mayoral election, noting that the main candidates had made strong commitments to bike lane development. "That is quite a story."

It's also an increasingly mainstream transport choice. Transport for London says people commuting by bike to central London will outnumber those going by car in a few years, based on current trends.

If new mayor Khan wants to define London as a "great cycling city", it seems he's got good momentum to build on.

Johnson, meanwhile, has one key regret: "Knowing what I do now, we would have blasted ahead with our new segregated cycle lanes from the beginning."

What can Australia learn from London's cycling developments? Tell us in the Comments section. 

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011. He has won a Cycling Promotion Fund media award and is a regular voice for cycling on radio and television.

Follow Michael on Twitter or Facebook, email him or read more of his blogs.

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