The latest figures for cycling levels on the Transport for London Route Network (TLRN), London’s TfL-controlled main roads, are given in the depths of a paper to the TfL board (page 9 of this PDF). They show that the previously stellar growth of cycling in London under both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson has ended, maybe even gone into reverse. Cycling on TLRN roads is actually forecast to fall this financial year for the first time since 2001/2.
It’s a big change from the enormous growth rates achieved in Boris’s first term – an average of just under 11 per cent a year, and more than 15 per cent in the single year 2010/11 alone, for instance. More new cycle journeys were made on the TLRN in 2011 than in any other year. By the end of 2011, more people were cycling in London than at any previous time since the beginning of mass car ownership. The Boris bikes have introduced hundreds of thousands of new people to cycling.
Not that Johnson is ever given any credit for this, of course: during the election campaign, as I mentioned at the time, the London cycle lobby chose to ignore the figures in favour of claiming that everything was terrible and it was all the mayor’s fault. I predict, however, that various opponents of Boris will be only too quick to blame him now the numbers have turned the wrong way.
That would not be entirely fair, because the quarterly breakdown for 2012 makes clear that the principal culprit was almost certainly the weather. In the first quarter of this calendar year, January to March 2012, TLRN cycling continued to grow, by 6.1 per cent over the same period the previous year . The weather in January to March was OK, or at least not much worse than usual.
Growth then resumed in the third quarter, July-September. TLRN cycling rose by 3.7 per cent on the previous summer, though this growth rate was well below TfL’s target.
Figures from the last quarter of 2012 are still awaited – but based on the spring and summer, when the majority of journeys are made, TfL is now projecting a 1.1 per cent drop in TLRN cycling for the financial year (April 2012- March 2013) as a whole.
In a funny way, the summer quarter’s figure is the most worrying. Yes, growth returned: but at a much slower rate than in previous years. True, July was pretty wet, too. Then there were the special events – the Jubilee, the Olympics – which disrupted normal travel patterns. But according to a Standard story before Christmas, the two-week period of the Olympics actually saw dramatic rises in the number of people cycling. That must mean that performance in the rest of the summer was even poorer than the overall figure says.
Cycling is a signature policy area of the mayor’s – according to Victory in London, the recent book written by Alex Crowley, political director of his successful 2012 re-election campaign, voter focus groups done during the election identified (again perhaps rather unfairly) the Boris bikes as Johnson’s principal achievement. But the figures underline that in cycling, as in anything else, you have to innovate to keep growing. The numbers show that the two big boosts to London cycling came in 2003, with the congestion charge, and 2010, with the Boris bikes. Apart from an extension of the Boris bikes to Tower Hamlets, there were no significant new developments in London cycling in 2012. TfL needs to deliver the same consistently high levels of innovation and improvement in cycling as it has managed in heavy-metal transport with the congestion charge, the Oyster card, the Overground, the new Routemaster, Crossrail, et al.
As TfL research makes clear, there remain enormous untapped reserves of pent-up demand to cycle in London. There are some good signs that radically pro-bike measures which could tap these reserves are on the way. A big increase in the cycling budget has been secured; an east-west “super corridor” through central London (which I am told will be fully segregated) has been announced. The mayor has promised to implement three flagship “Dutch-style” cycle schemes with “segregated bike tracks where motor traffic is heaviest;” agreed to complete the cycle superhighway programme and all future junction improvements to “Dutch standards”; and pledged that cycle links through the new Nine Elms development in Vauxhall will be “better than Amsterdam.” Not all TfL’s latest schemes live up to these promises, frankly (though there are some signs of improvement.) But the summer’s anaemic growth figures suggest that such improvements, and others, are very necessary if the success of the past is to be sustained.
I’d say only one other thing. I can’t help wondering if last year’s almost all-consuming political and media emphasis on safety has helped suppress cycling. Most of what Londoners read in the paper or saw on TV about bikes in 2012 was variations, with different degrees of subtlety, on the theme that by mounting a bicycle you took your life in your hands.
Cycling in London is clearly not as safe as it should be. It is not as safe as it could be. But it is, in fact, far safer than it was. Between 2002 and 2010, per journey, the rate of London cyclists killed or seriously injured – the standard measurement –fell by more than a quarter. That was another little fact that tended to get overlooked in the excitement of the election campaign.
In the last twelve months sensible people, like Simon Hughes MP, have used words like “carnage” to describe the cycling death rate. But in 2011, the year Mr Hughes refers to, there were 180 million cycle journeys in London. Of these, 16 ended in death: that is, one journey in every 11.25 million. That is not carnage. I have seen quite enough real carnage in my day job, and I promise you can tell the difference.
An otherwise admirable report by the London Assembly made the headline-grabbing statement that cycle casualties had “increased by 50 per cent” between 2006 and 2010 without making any allowance for the growth in cycling over the period, and without making any distinction between slight casualties (where the rate per journey rose) and serious casualties (where the rate per journey fell).
But a sprained wrist should not count the same as a fractured skull. And indeed, the seriousness of casualties declined over that period. In 2006, 86.7 per cent of London cycle casualties were slight. By 2010, 88.3 per cent were.
There was, I know, a worrying increase in deaths and serious injuries in 2011, both in absolute terms and in rate per journey terms. And the emphasis on safety might end up being beneficial if it creates the political space for radical improvements to the cycling experience in London.
So we should never stop talking about safety. It is and always has been the biggest reason why people do not take up cycling. But perhaps we should think a bit more about how we talk about it.