Has growth in London cycling flattened out?
Wet weather to blame for drop in Q1 2012/13, but do TfL's forecasts reflect reality?
A forecast drop in the number of journeys made by cyclists on the Transport for London Road Network (TLRN) is being attributed to atrocious weather in Spring last year, the wettest since records began. However, the focus on cycle safety over the past 12 months or so has also been cited as a potential reason for the stalling of growth in journey numbers by London journalist Andrew Gilligan. But since the figures only focus on major roads, they don't take account of cyclists potentially using smaller, quieter roads for some or all or their journeys.
Based on cycle flow counts from some 60 locations on the TRLN, levels of cycling are running three times higher than they were in March 2000, the base point for the index Transport for London uses to calculate changes in the number of people travelling on bikes on those roads, which comprises major routes in the capital, as shown on this map.
Writing in his blog on Telegraph.co.uk, Andrew Gilligan says that predictions that year-on-year cyclist numbers on the TFLN are principally due to the poor weather seen in the quarter between April and June, which led to a 10.8 per cent drop compared to the same period in 2011.
Gilligan, a longstanding and vociferous opponent of Mayor Boris Johnson’s principal rival in last year’s mayoral elections, Ken Livingstone, claims that the present mayor – coincidentally, also a Telegraph columnist – has not been given enough credit for the increase in cycling during his first term, with cyclist numbers on the TLRN rising by an average 11 per cent annually.
Part of that is attributed to the launch of the Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme, and while it’s true that the ‘Boris Bikes’ were launched under the present mayor’s watch, Ken Livingstone had already unveiled proposals for such an initiative prior to losing office in 2008. London’s Liberal Democrats have pointed out that they first proposed such a scheme way back in 2001.
With transport being the major policy area in London for which the mayor is directly responsible, the issue of cycle safety in the wake of a series of fatal incidents in late 2012 became one of the key campaigning areas in the run-up to May’s elections.
According to Gilligan, who himself claims to ride 100 miles or more each week in the city, that focus on cyclist casualties, and the headlines it generated within the capital’s media, may have deterred some Londoners from getting on their bikes.
He asserts that cycling in London is getting increasingly safer, citing casualty figures that suggest that when comparing the numbers of cyclists killed or seriously injured on London’s streets against growth in cycling in recent years.
That’s something he says November’s cross-party Greater London Assembly report into cycle safety failed to acknowledge, also criticising it for basing its findings on all cyclist casualties, and not just those killed or seriously injured.
In fact, what the GLA report said was that while the casualty rate had dropped in the years to 2006, it had resumed an upwards trajectory since then, and the numbers reveal that while all casualties rose by 52 per cent between then and 2011, growth in incidents resulting in death or serious injury wasn’t far behind at 46 per cent.
What isn’t discussed though by Gilligan is one of the main reasons there has been such a focus on cycle safety – the fact as cycle campaigners and opposition politicians point out that conditions can be improved, and that recommendations to introduce safety features at locations such as Bow Roundabout were ignored and are only now belatedly being implemented.
He concludes his blog by saying: “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.”
One other potential explanation, also linked to safety, is that cyclists who formerly travelled on roads making up the TLRN have switched to travelling on quieter streets or off-road cycle routes for some or all of their journeys, and are therefore not included in the latest figures.
As TfL itself says in a note to its data, “the sample count figures are not equal to the total amount of cycling taking place on the TLRN,” and as ever with numbers relating to supposed levels of cycling, which are notoriously difficult to capture, they need to be taken with a large pinch of salt.
There’s also the fact that short-term changes are not necessarily indicative of long-term trends, something that is essential to consider when looking at a period that is anything but typical, whether because of that wettest spring on record, or the once-in-a-lifetime impact of London hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games.