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Got to hand it to him, Boris is good on cycling

Boris opens the Cycle Super-Highway at Blackfriars Bridge/Embankment

February 12, 2020 - 11:49am

First things first: I am not a fan of Boris Johnson, and I am hugely sceptical of his programme for government.

With that said, I’m excited about his proposals to improve British cycling. He’s suggested putting £1 billion a year into bus and cycle routes for five years. Most of it, apparently, will be going into buses, but still, even a fraction could be a big deal. A report for the Department for Transport found that it’s about a million pounds per kilometre of real, segregated “cycle superhighway”; a bit more in some places, a bit less in others. The Times reports that they intend to build 250 miles — 400km — of such cycle lanes. Currently there are 36km (22.5 miles) of the superhighways in London.

Better still, they want to introduce more “mini-Hollands”: small regions with more cycle infrastructure, including cycle parking. Waltham Forest has had one for years and it has been a huge success: greater cycling uptake, reduced air pollution, safer streets. A key thing has been preventing through-traffic: cars can drive into the centre, but not through it, thanks to bollards and signs. So there’s no “rat-running”: cars shooting through residential areas. That means traffic is slow and rare, so cycling is safe on many normal roads, with no need for segregation.

Most policies have trade-offs, costs as well as benefits. This will too, in terms of individual inconveniences. But the gains are huge. Cycle lanes are much more efficient than roads, moving roughly five times as many people per square metre per second as the main carriageway. Cycle lanes look empty because everyone moves through them so fast. And that’s in London, where the infrastructure is only OK: in Copenhagen it’s eight times. And reducing car traffic increases, rather than decreases, footfall in local businesses. All this is before we even mention health improvements from a more active populace, and the sheer *much nicerness* of a town with fewer cars.

This should be the sort of thing that a small-c conservative approves of, I think. Improving local communities, protecting children, making town centres accessible and streets safe. So it is nice to see a Conservative government – one that I don’t think of as especially “conservative” — doing it. Johnson’s time as mayor of London was not brilliant, but he did improve cycling infrastructure; he seems to genuinely care about cycling and pushed it through at some political cost. Andrew Gilligan, his transport adviser, is a cycling obsessive too – he turns up at all sorts of cycling pressure groups in Oxford.

It’s only a fraction of what gets spent on roads, or what will be spent on HS2. But it’s real money spent on a hugely cost-effective, hugely beneficial thing. Johnson may yet turn out to be a terrible prime minister, but he’s doing something good, and assuming it eventually materialises, he should be praised for it.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.


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