On Monday London launched two new “cycle superhighways” designed to give bike commuters secure and direct access to the city centre. Ten more will be put in by 2012 (see above link for the map). Mayor Johnson is quoted on the BBC calling for a militant “cycling revolution.” Johnson? Militant cyclist? Really?
There is no question that we are seeing a transition in the way that cities see cyclists. London is following in the footsteps of cities like Montreal, Portland, and New York City, that have been strategically expanding transit oriented bike infrastructure. London is also introducing Montreal's successful BIXI bike-sharing system this summer. In Montreal, the success of BIXI has a lot to do with a rapid expansion of high-quality bike paths throughout the city. London's plan is attempting to recreate that synergy.
But watching the initial videos of London cyclists using the new “superhighway” they still look a bit, well, endangered. The most glaring problem is that the blue painted lanes are “advisory” not enforced. There is no penalty for London drivers who cruse along in the lane; the same driver in NYC would be liable for a $115 fine (or at least some taunting from a clown).
The city's official line is that visibility and volume of riders will keep drivers clear of the lane. I'm sceptical, but there are other people better placed than me to judge. Andreas Kambanis who writes a prominent London cycle blog has given the system a lukewarm reception. He, like most of the local comments I've read, is supportive of the new routes but sees them as a modest start more than the “revolution” Johnson has been trumpeting (read his interview with the mayor).
At an ideas level, it's clear that cities are coming to see cycling as a significant mode of transportation (not just recreation). The potential for reducing congestion and increasing air quality, while also bringing down GHG emissions, is huge. Not to mention the fact that it's more fun that driving.
Cyclists don't emit anything (except perhaps early morning coffee-breath). And, after you do the slightly awkward conversion from joules of energy to gallons of gas, it turns out that they get the equivalent to 653mpg (the TGV gets 500). Currently 20% of London's GHG emissions come from transportation. To capture that potential people need to take to bikes en masse, and for that they need rights of way that are sensibly routed and properly protected. That can mean fines, curbs, or creating separate bike routes that take cyclists off of busy roads all together.
Other cities have done it. Here's hoping that that future is the real destination of London's new blue network.