A recent survey by Sustrans, a cycling advocacy group, found that almost 4 out of 5 residents support building more protected cycle lanes, even if that’d mean less space for vehicles. On top of that, almost two-thirds noted that these additional safeguards would help them either start cycling again, or cycle more.
The report from Sunstrans comes as a pleasant surprise, especially considering the latest cycling statistics that I’m familiar with, which paint a far more depressing picture. According to Cycling UK, only 4% of England’s workforce commutes by bike, a far cry from some of European peers. Perhaps even more concerning is that almost 70% of legal-age Brits never cycle nowadays, even though more than 40% have access to a bike.
The reason I’m encouraged by Sustrans’ report is that reallocating road space - from cars to bikes - is often, as the group itself admits: “seen by decision makers as a politically unpopular move likely to lead to public outcry”. It’s an open question if these types of polls can actually lead to a significant paradigm shift in that regard, but they certainly seem like a step in the right direction.
Life and limb
So why are UK’s cycling numbers so low?
It’s a complex question with myriad factors, but safety remains one of the main reason behind the country’s enduring cycling complacency. Each year, about 100 cyclists are killed on UK’s roads, with another 3,400 seriously injured (and about 15,000 injured slightly). And although Mayor Khan’s Vision Zero for London sounds aspiring enough, the current road setup remains a strong deterrent for many cycling enthusiasts.
Which begs the question - how would protected bike lanes impact the stat line above? Well, according to John Pucher, a professor emeritus of Urban Planning, bike-lane segregation is quite clearly a superior solution safety-wise.
Mr. Pucher compared accident statistics (similar to those for UK’s roads) from 10 different US cities which pioneered ‘building physically separated cycling facilities’. In Portland alone, the rate of severe injuries or fatalities dropped by 72% between years 2000 and 2015. At the same time, the overall number of bicycle trips taken in the city grew by an astonishing 391%.
The similar effects were recorded in NYC, Chicago, Washington and many others that introduced protected bike lanes to their roads. In all 10 cities whose data was analysed, the combined numbers of dead and severely injured cyclists fell sharply.
A real crowd pleaser
It also makes sense that new protected bike lanes would incentivize people to cycle more. In the first five months following the opening of the East-West and North-South Cycle Superhighways in central London, the number of cyclists using those routes increased by 50%.
As Sunstrans boasts: ”In London at peak times, the new East-West and North-South Cycle Superhighways occupy only 30% of the road space and yet move an average of 46% of people along the route at key congested locations”.
Overall, the corridors are now moving 5% more people each hour than they could without bike lanes, suggesting that these segregated pathways are not just a safety mechanism, but could be a strong ally in London’s continuing battle with congestion. As the Guardian recently reported, the streets will only get more clogged as London continues to grow. If we don’t find a solution quick, by 2041 three days will be lost per person every year due to congestion.
We recently wrote about why we feel the future of urban transportation lies with bicycles rather than autonomous cars. Needless to say, city overcrowding and the ensuing congestion is a big part of the argument, and the sentiment seems shared by many local authorities around the globe.
Several prominent cities, including Madrid and Oslo are already going a step further, and working on banning cars entirely from their city centers or busiest streets. While it’s far from likely that London will follow suit any time soon, building new, segregated bike lanes could achieve a (proportionally) similar effect - eliminate congestion, while saving lives in the process. And with an apparently overwhelming public support towards the idea, it should be fairly easy to put such a plan into practice.