A vicious cycle: the problem with tokenistic bike lanes

22 November 2020

6:30 PM

22 November 2020

6:30 PM

There’s an old joke from the nineties: The A1 walks into a bar. The barman says ‘Are you with him?’ and nods in the direction of the C1. ‘I’m not going near him,’ the A1 replies. ‘He’s a cyclepath.Ho ho, how quaint – combining the novel idea of cycle lanes with the un-PC evocation of ‘psychos’.

I mention this because the government’s big non-Covid idea this autumn, the so-called ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, contains a key provision ‘to make our towns’ and cities’ cycle lanes worthy of Holland.’

I broadly think this is a very good thing – as long as they don’t waste any more money building tokenistic ones. Because a lot of existing cycle lanes are, to put it bluntly: dangerous, pointless or directionless rubbish.

I think we’ve all heard motorists sounding off about cycle lanes, but what may surprise you is that we cyclists are hardly in unequivocal raptures about them either. Well, certainly not all of them.

My favourite is at the dystopian junction where Bishopsgate, Commercial Street, Great Eastern Street and Shoreditch High Street meet in a chaos of staggered lights, bus-only lanes, filter lanes and no-right-turn signs – with pedestrian hipsters teeming everywhere in between.

For the cyclist heading north there are road markings directing them to occupy a space in the middle of this maelstrom of vehicles, sandwiched narrowly between two lanes of raging traffic to their left and a third to their right – with the only protection a narrow strip of flaking white paint with an eroded bicycle symbol. That barely visible emblem on the tarmac, ignored by all on four wheels, represents a triumph of city planning wishful thinking over hard reality – the hard reality being potentially run over by a double decker bus. It’s as if classical architects had erected signs in the Bosphorus saying ‘Argonauts this way’ in the channel leading to the clashing Cyanean Rocks.

At the other end of the scale – but still resolutely dire – is the preposterous lane outside the suburban park where I walk my dogs. Barely 30 yards long, leading from nowhere to nowhere, and located very much in the middle of nowhere, it serves only as a parking space for motorists who’ve never seen a bike on it, and have long forgotten what it’s actually for. But it’ll be counted as a cycle lane provision in official records, regardless.

This week I saw the greatest living amateur urban cyclist, Jeremy Vine, hailing the success of a new cycle scheme along Kensington High Street and I was heartened to hear that it’s apparently taking off.

But it’s no good to me. This year I entered my fifth decade of cycling in the capital. I have the metal plate in my wrist and protruding collarbone to prove it. In the last decade alone I could have circumnavigated the globe twice in the London commuting miles I’ve pedalled. But almost none of those thousands of miles were along cycle lanes. Because none of them go my way. My local council spent months building an elaborate and properly designated lane that started almost outside my house – but that went in the wrong direction for my journey.

That is and remains the chief problem – if you’re on a good cycle route, you are as happy as an Amsterdam boy. The best cycle lanes are transformative and genuine superhighways, a joy to use (take the one along Victoria Embankment or over Blackfriars Bridge).

But they still represent just a fraction of the city’s commuting routes. So if you don’t have a convenient one, you’re still faced with toughing it out on the mean streets. And though, personally, I do find it exhilarating and life-affirming to occasionally exchange shouted profanities with bus drivers and cabbies, I concede that it’s not for everyone.

There are, of course, many stretches where cycle lanes simply can’t be accommodated for reasons of space. But in those circumstances I’d rather have no dedicated lane at all than insulting and pointless token ones. The ones which go nowhere, provide no physical barrier between you and an 18-ton skip lorry, or that start well but then just cease to exist with a shrug, saying: ‘Cyclists dismount here’. These are worse than nothing, a sop, a waste of money, an offset.

Back to the subject of old jokes and cycle lanes, I think of the Woody Allen line from Annie Hall: ‘The food here is terrible… and the portions are so small’. Cycle lanes: they’re frequently awful and there aren’t nearly enough.


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