With heaving rush hour traffic, congested roads and public transport bursting at the seams, it is no wonder it takes just five days for London to reach its annual air pollution limit.

What’s more, with the city’s 9 million population growing by the day, this situation is only expected to become worse.

Royal HaskoningDHV’s Jasper Homrighausen, Sustainable Mobility & Urban Development Consultant, recently spent three weeks on a secondment placement at Sustrans – the UK sustainable transport charity.

During this time he was able to examine London’s transport complexity in more detail and explore solutions to counter the city’s transportation and sustainability challenges. Jasper posed the following question during the process: Just how can we transform London into a more accessible and cleaner city?

Although this question has a wide scope, the solution could be relatively easy: transforming London into a cycling city could help to counter its transportation and sustainability challenges.

To successfully pursue this shift, attention has to be given to three distinct strategies: working around the complex political organization of London’s authorities, making use of dedicated infrastructure and changing human behaviour.

Working around the complex political organization

Policy making in London is difficult due to the fact that London is not just one city, but is actually comprised of 32 local boroughs as well as the central City of London area.

Transport for London (TfL) is the government body responsible for the arterial infrastructure in London and public transport services in all London boroughs, whilst the local governments own the smaller roads.

Furthermore, varying cultures and political backgrounds of the boroughs affect and limit the process of shared decision making regarding improving and accelerating the development of cycling infrastructure.

Top-down and bottom-up:

Breaking these limitations requires reinforcing top-down and bottom-up forces.

Top-down can be achieved, for example, through leadership among borough councils. The boroughs should take responsibility to contribute to accessibility and sustainability challenges that exceed their borough borders. Promoting cycling should play an important role due to various beneficial effects, including improved accessibility and liveability as well as the facilitation of economic development. These benefits go way beyond the often desired outcome of just more cyclists or installing infrastructure.

Bottom-up: We must keep reinforcing initiatives via community engagement, such as cycling lessons and street trials. Top-down policies will only work effectively if accompanied by bottom-up forces.

Rules and laws:

Two current UK laws limit cycling opportunities. The first concerns liability; there is no distinction in liability between motorists and cyclists although the liability potential of motorists is far greater. In the Netherlands, for example, motorists are liable for a cyclists’ damage without the cyclist having to prove the fault of the motorist. In the UK on the other hand, the same rules apply to all road users potentially resulting in motorists taking more risk, passing closely or cutting cyclists off because they don’t have to fear damage liability.

The second UK law limiting cycling as a mode of transport states that parking is allowed everywhere except when an area is marked as forbidden to park. As cycle lanes are currently not marked as parking-prohibited areas, cars are frequently found in cycle lanes causing dangerous situations for cyclists.

Exemplary for London: cars blocking cycle paths | Royal HaskoningDHV

Image: exemplary for London: cars blocking cycle paths

Dedicated infrastructure

Current cycling infrastructure in London is neither uniform nor continuous, and is planned in bits and pieces. The Quietways are an example of a great effort and are creating safer cycling paths, but they are still a combination of many individual, non-connected schemes. The only cycling infrastructure in London that meets high quality design standards are the Cycling Superhighways; distinguishable and largely continuous, but unfortunately not yet ubiquitous.

Since dedicated cycle areas have been shown to increase cycling levels and improve cyclist safety, a complete street approach in which cycling is truly part of the road design could be a solution. Therefore, courage among policy makers and planners is needed. Sacrificing a bit of road space that is currently allocated to motorized transport helps to improve safety of cyclists. Moreover, in a busy city such as London it will most likely result in an increased number of cyclists. The cycle paths should form a connected network throughout the city, be easy to use for everyone and be a place where way is given to cyclists instead of the other way around.

Quietway in downtown London | Royal HaskoningDHV

Image: quietway in downtown London

Changing human behaviour

Finally, the local community should be involved in decision-making concerning infrastructure in their neighbourhood.

For example, street trials should be held to temporarily transform streets into areas to encourage cycling. By doing so, new designs can be tested in a relatively low-cost, but highly effective manner. Furthermore, local school children should learn about sustainability in practice. These initiatives are crucial in demonstrating to young children the importance of road safety and making them aware of how a street might have more potential than purely to provide a place for motor-based transportation.

Children playing in the middle of the street during a street trial organised by the borough and Sustrans | Royal HaskoningDHV

Image: children playing in the middle of the street during a street trial organised by the borough and Sustrans

Additionally, the critical mass of cyclists in London is growing all the time. It is a popular pastime and has great support – Great Britain ranked as the best cycling nation in recent Olympics. This success and popularity has resulted in a group that has to be taken into account and should result in a stronger voice in policy making. On the other hand, there is a substantial group of cyclists who do not adhere to traffic rules, but who merely follow their own (often rather dangerous) plan regardless of other road users. Cyclists running red lights, passing along, under and over cars are unfortunately a commonly encountered phenomenon in the crowded streets of London.

On its own, changing infrastructure is not enough to make cycling a safe, sustainable and economically favourable mode of transport. These changes need to be accompanied by a shift in focus of city officials and a change of attitude of both motorists and cyclists in order to achieve what was thought to be impossible: the cycling city of London.

Cyclists during rush hour on Cycling Superhighway 6 in the City of London | Royal HaskoningDHV

Image: cyclists during rush hour on Cycling Superhighway 6 in the City of London