19 November 2013

Has local government in London left cycling in the wrong lane?

A couple of months ago I wrote to the Crown Estate about its bike-unfriendly redevelopment of London’s Haymarket area, and was rather surprised when their London team offered to meet me and set out Crown’s cycling credentials. I was encouraged to see the company's new Central London developments have fabulous facilities for bike commuters, with showers, lockers, and ramps that allow you to ride straight into the basement parking space.

The past decade has seen an explosion in two-wheeled travel across the capital, while car use has declined. Recent data shows that cyclists make up to two thirds of traffic on certain parts of London’s roads. This is hardly unexpected, given the cost of tube travel and packed conditions. So Crown knows that letting its buildings means accommodating the rocketing numbers of people who ride to work.

But, as we discussed the Haymarket redevelopment over coffee, I realised that the challenge facing Crown is that while car use is falling, budget freezes mean parking revenue has become much more important to the balance sheets of London’s inner city authorities. This is problematic for new cycling infrastructure, as installing bike lanes comes at the expense of income-generating street parking.

Catering for cars might superficially help local authorities’ coffers, but a string of studies have shown that bike lanes, locking points, etc. give huge boosts to local businesses: New York City’s recent flagship bike lane on 8th and 9th Avenues led to local shops enjoying a 49% increase in sales. Saving the £1,216 cost of a Zone 2 annual travelcard frees up money to spend in the local economy, and gets people off our overcrowded tubes and trains during rush hour.

None of this washes with Westminster City Council (Crown’s local authority counterpart). The council would be hauled in front of the Competition Commission if its parking business model was the product of anything other than geography – incidentally only a third of Westminster’s households have access to a car. Sadly, as things stand, it’s difficult enough trying to find somewhere to lock up a bike before going shopping in the West End, wasting valuable time that could be spent in the shops and cafes that pay the council’s rates.

The recent spate of cyclist deaths on London’s roads is, obviously, terrible news. But I fear that the cycle lobby’s focus on fixing the Mayor’s flagship Cycle Superhighways misses a deeper problem: how we get the various tiers of local government to confront the sustained change in our transport use. The private sector manifestly gets where the market is at, as was clear when I saw Crown’s magnificent cycling facilities. Unfortunately, our politicians are stuck making rational decisions based on the perverse incentives of the city’s disjointed government structure. With London’s population gaining an extra 600,000 by 2020, this muddled approach is clearly unsustainable. Bold decisions are required.

First published by Coffee House on November 19th, 2013