Paul Scully is the MP for Sutton and Cheam.
Two of the biggest challenges for any London Mayor are how to keep London from grinding to a halt and improving the air quality around the capital. There are many ways to tackle both but increasing the take up of cycling helps with both. British cycling policy adviser and Olympic gold medallist Chris Boardman said of Boris:
“We meet no end of politicians who say they are supportive of cycling, and who recognise the benefits that an increase in cycling levels can bring to society. However, we are also well aware that short-term disruption can sometimes overshadow long-term gain, and that we need strong-willed, decisive political leaders to make decisions which take the bigger picture into account. Boris Johnson has been a great example of this, and his determination to turn London into a truly great cycling city has been admirable. While there is still much work to do, he has given his successor the perfect platform from which to continue to improve the lives of ordinary Londoners by promoting and funding sustainable transport.”
For much of Boris’s eight years in City Hall, blue ‘Barclay’s Hirebikes’ being pedalled around London were conspicuous examples of his aim to get people out of their cars and joining him in taking the two-wheeled option. He has been a keen cyclist, leading from the front even when it left him exposed to the frank views of black cab drivers and fellow cyclists.
It is testament to the popularity and symbolism of the bike hire scheme that the original sponsor Barclays barely got a look in with ‘Boris Bikes’ becoming the popular nickname for the solid Cycles Devinci bikes dotted around the capital. He did offer to change his name to Barclays Johnson if the bank paid £100 million to extend their sponsorship. The bank was not tempted. Neither did Boris need to change his name to Santander by deed poll to get them to take over sponsorship in 2015.
Based on the Parisian Velib network, the hire scheme was not without its teething problems. Until pay as you ride was introduced, the scheme used a membership system which was predominately taken up by commuters. This led to cycles being picked up at stations and left at particular docking stations close to offices with little demand to cycle the opposite direction until the evening. As the pattern emerged, TfL started to redistribute bikes using lorries, the need for which was reduced when non-members were able to use their credit cards to take one, thus opening up the scheme for casual users including tourists. Now up to 73,000 journeys are made each day in relative safety.
Sir Bradley Wiggins was quoted as saying the scheme was a ‘disaster waiting to happen’ with users unable to ride a bike, creating more danger on the road and drivers getting frustrated. However a Transport for London study found that bike hire cyclists were three times less likely to be injured per trip than other cyclists in London.
Forty-nine per cent of bike hire members say that the scheme has prompted them to start cycling in London. Although the idea was imported and first investigated under the mayoralty of Ken Livingstone, it is the relentless enthusiasm, the big personality and unflagging support of Boris that has brought this project to life. We now have 10,000 bikes and 700 docking stations with few thefts sparking an interest in cycling which TfL hopes will lead to more bikes on the road than cars.
If that ambitious target is to be met, safety and convenience needs to be at the top of the agenda. A number of high profile fatalities in 2013 exposed the dangers that remain on London’s cramped roads with HGVs being involved in many of these accidents, especially at junctions with cyclists caught in a lorry’s blind spot when turning left. London’s construction boom has seen more trucks on the roads, many of which lack safety features that may avoid such tragedies. Boris has spoken out about the blocking of a proposal to ensure safer HGV cabs at a European level. France, where truck manufacturer Renault is based, and Sweden, home to Volvo and Scania, have been among member states seeking to delay revised regulations permitting larger windows and rounded cabs which would make it easier for drivers to see cyclists and help prevent people from being dragged under the vehicle in the event of a collision.
The 12 cycling superhighways planned by Boris, a Quietways network of orbital and radial routes using back streets, along with 100 junctions shortlisted for cycle safety improvements have been the Mayor’s answer to the obstacles to greater participation. Last month saw the opening of the first stretch of 18 miles of segregated superhighway planned to run east-west across the capital. Smaller north-south segregated cycling superhighways are also planned to open over the summer.
Given the limitations of the powers of the London Mayoralty compared to other major global cities, this is a significant achievement. For example, New York has a budget of £45 billion compared to London’s £17 billion with executive powers being less fragmented than in London. Almost £1 billion has been spent on improving conditions for cyclists on the segregated routes in the face of vocal, well-funded and aggressive opposition. Some road users have understandably been frustrated by the prospect of disruption but Boris has used the strategic role of the Mayor to good effect looking to deliver a long term vision.
London 2012 enthused a new generation of cyclists with 75,000 children in London learning how to ride a bike. Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott, and Sir Chris Hoy have done much more than increase the sale of Lycra clothing. Along with Tour de France winners Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, they have made cycling appealing again at a time when London’s streets need the relief of alternative transport, buckling under the weight of cars. Boris has capitalised on this, starting the process of making cycling a realistic choice for more Londoners through his personal drive. Building on the Freewheel events, he has helped make Sky Ride now Prudential RideLondon bigger and better free events year on year, allowing participants both to enjoy amazing views of London unencumbered by congestion and to get involved in promoting cycling.
British Cycling campaign manager Martin Key said: “Boris Johnson’s accomplishments on cycling during his tenure as mayor of London show what can be achieved when bold, ambitious ideas are combined with significant funding and a determination to see plans through.’’ Although the Boris bikes – as they’ll still be known for some time – are turning red, it will be important that the cycling strategy for London doesn’t shrink back away from the entrepreneurial, visionary and mixed approach to behaviour change towards a prescriptive, paternal style. A year ago, a cyclist was snapped giving the Boris the bird whilst passing him on a cycle lane. In a year or two, I hope the cyclist will salute him, thanking Boris for the changes that will help embed cycling, not just as a credible safer, convenient alternative, but as a first choice for an increasing number of commuters.