Urban cycling: the Big Apple vs London

(via Cyclists in the City whose own post inspired this one)

Sadly – it is quite some years since I was last in the States (10 years ago this year, I think). Regardless – I had never imagined there would be much ‘urban cycling infrastructure’ over there. My preconception for most of the US, including its cities, is that ‘the car is king’. And of course that must still ring true overall.

However – watching this video was a shot in the arm. London’s ‘sister city’ – New York – is a lot further ahead than we are here (250 miles of bike lanes put in over the last 4 years). There is so much spin when it comes to investment in London’s cycling infrastructure. Sure, we have some painted cycle lanes and the Boris Bike (cycle hire) scheme – but that’s about it. It’s surface-level stuff – literally. There is no fundamental shift in the promotion of safe cycling through urban planning. Of course – Boris (and Transport for London) cannot do anything that could conceivably be to the detriment of ‘bizness’ (i.e. by introducing infrastructure that would necessarily reduce the flow of motor vehicles in the city – just think of all those white van men, taxi drivers, buildings going up, etc, that would be affected). The knock on effect would be on jobs, investment, the City’s commercial edge, etc, etc, etc. We are spending billions of pounds on tube upgrades but very, very little is spent on making the roads safer or doing something radical like introducing Dutch style road layouts (which separate different road users).

I ask so many people at work why they don’t cycle. I get told the same answer over and over again: “because it’s too dangerous”.

I lived in Japan in the late 90s (teaching English). Everybody cycled. All school children, housewives, the elderly. Everybody. People are sometimes surprised when I tell them that, because they think Japan is ‘too advanced’ to have the bike as such a fundamental part of its transport infrastructure – but it does.

Because there is massive congestion as well as no separation of vehicles, ‘everyday’ cycling in London remains the preserve of the brave and foolhardy (aside from leisurely weekend cycling on Boris Bikes which do not require much bravery). Children cycling to school? Home-makers (to use the American term) and the elderly cycling with their shopping in the front basket? No chance.

Of course, having said all of the above – I do myself cycle, and most of the time it’s not that bad. But you really do have to be intensely aware and have your wits about you pretty much 100% of the time. This is different to when I lived in Japan (the city I was in had a population of circa 535,000) where cycling just felt easy and stress-free (we would often cycle home drunk in the early hours, post-karaoke and following yet another evening spent at the gaijin bar – but that’s another story and yes, I’m aware that cycling whilst under the influence is irresponsible!). We all cycled. Everywhere. But being a cyclist in London feels very much like being part of a minority group.

All in all I think it’s a sad state of affairs and one that seems unlikely to change any time soon. I have voted for Boris in the past – but will not do so again. Like Obama – he doesn’t live up to his own rhetoric.

And please don’t get me started on comparisons between London and Continental European cities… that’s too depressing to go into.

3 thoughts on “Urban cycling: the Big Apple vs London

Add yours

  1. I think New York has a much easier time than London because it’s set out on a grid pattern. Driving in NYC is considerably easier than in London and the traffic flows much more smoothly. The streets are of uniform width and the intersections are of uniform shape and are also spaced uniformly apart.

    Boston is built on a “European” street pattern — i.e. random. And driving here is considerably more dangerous, messy, and crazy than in NYC — a joke I like to say is that “every driver in Boston is like a New York cabbie” — in fact I think NYC cab drivers are tame by comparison. And cycling — although it is quite common here — is a nightmare, for everybody: for the cyclists themselves, for the drivers who have to avoid hitting them, and even for pedestrians who sometimes get hit BY them.

    That said, you’re right that Continental European cities are further ahead despite having the random street patterns, so that can’t be the only explanation.

  2. Justin – love Boston! Yeh, the grid system of NYC must help in terms of transport infrastructure. I just like that they also have a more ‘can-do’ attitude than we have here.

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