Cycle Superhighways

28th July 2010 by

Last week the first of London’s 12 slightly painfully bright blue Cycle Superhighways was launched, with aims of improving safety and increasing numbers cycling. But is this really what is needed to make cycling in London safer and more appealing? Are the changes in infrastructure really improvements? And do positive moves to advocate cycling detract from other important issues surrounding environmental sustainability and social justice?

According to Boris Johnson, the superhighways’ blue represents freedom. I see a striking similarity to the Barclays logo (sure, the match isn’t perfect but those Dulux colour-matching paint mixers never do turn out quite how you might have liked and they probably couldn’t return that many thousands of litres of paint to Homebase).
Associations involving corporate greenwash aside, a bright colour should help drivers notice that the lanes exist, which is particularly important on the superbusy roads these superhighways often follow. Unfortunately, either a lot of drivers seem to be colour blind or they are choosing to ignore the cycle lanes. Keeping other traffic out of the cycle lanes is necessary to ensure the safety of cyclists and other road users alike – but this is just one of the issues.

Cupples and Ridley wrote a paper called ‘Towards a heterogeneous environmental responsibility: sustainability and cycling fundamentalism’. Directed towards this article with the comment ‘if you’ve ever hated cyclists on expensive bikes this article is for you’, I was somewhat dubious about reading it. However, there are many interesting insights and the authors raise important issues rarely considered when individuals or institutions advocate cycling. They argue that ‘cycling advocacy displays totalising tendencies which obscure social and cultural difference, ignore the embodied and affective dimensions of transport practices and fail in part to apprehend the heterogeneity of environmental responsibility’. Within environmental policy making there is often an unquestioned assumption that cycling is fundamentally good: for the planet, for our fitness and for our bank balances. This message is spread by government and related institutions and becomes an accepted truth, whilst not cycling develops into a recognised sin. This portrayal may marginalise those unable to cycle as well as those who choose to make other positive environmental choices but do not cycle – the article draws on a comparison between a vegan driver who recycles everything and always takes her own cup to cafes etc. and a carnivorous cyclist.


A couple of motorised vehicles with identity issues – plenty more in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQDNIalvoqQ

The case study used by Cupples and Ridley is the town of Christchurch in New Zealand. Very much like in London, a core aspect of sustainable transport policy focuses on increasing the number of people cycling and it is believed that the key change needed to achieve this goal is to improve infrastructure. Here in London, TfL (Transport for London) are investing £111 million in cycling and the cash is predominantly being spent on cycling infrastructure. Cycle superhighways may often be wider than their lesser green counterpart (the humble cycle lane) helping cyclists feel safer, however evidence (above) suggests that motorised vehicles do not always respect this space, and additional measures such as a physical barrier between bikes and cars could represent a further improvement in infrastructure. Simply painting sections of the road blue fails to tackle issues such as cycling competence, physical fitness or bicycle ownership. Of course, the TfL budget does stretch to 17,000 hours of cycle training, but split between around 10 million Londoners and commuters that’s (if I’ve got my maths right) about six seconds each!

Another thing cyclists in any town have to deal with is pollution. In Christchurch active government encouragement to cycle is juxtaposed with the introduction of free parking in the town centre and increased development of suburban shopping malls designed to be primarily accessible by car. In London a similar policy contradiction is apparent.  When Boris Johnson became Mayor of London, he scrapped Ken Livingstone’s plans to increase the Congestion Charge for the worst polluters and extend the zone, and motorbikes were suddenly allowed into bus lanes.

If infrastructure improvement is the route we’re going to take, other policies need to complement not counteract the changes. Similarly, if the aim is environmental sustainability, policy equally needs to support those unable or unwilling to cycle. With only one and a bit superhighways to date, it may not quite be time to analyse the routes chosen, and whether they offer fair and equal access, but it is an issue requiring consideration. We also need to recognise that greener commuting options to predominantly unsustainable and non-environmentally friendly jobs only represents the beginning of changes that need to be made. Like with green consumerism, often argued to make people believe they’re doing their bit and so less likely to engage with other activities to reduce their environmental impact, it is important to promote the need to make changes outside the transport sector.

So there’s a long way yet to go: these glorified cycle paths may not cut it for safety and simultaneous policy implementation (or lack thereof) may decrease the viability of cycling in London but a quick look at these photos and we might all feel a little better about the improvements that have been made.

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