Is TfL scared of mass cycling?

A few nights ago, I cycled from Barbican to Waterloo in 15 minutes, at a leisurely speed and along a convoluted route of mostly quiet streets.

I can ride from Waterloo to Kings Cross in 20 minutes, it’s mostly uphill and entirely via a complicated route of back streets. (These journey times are on a London hire bike, which aren’t the speediest bikes around.)

If it was safe for everybody to ride a bike, and the routes were convenient and direct, would fewer people use the tube? Would the bus operators lose customers?

To get from Waterloo to Kings Cross on the tube takes 20 minutes — if you’re lucky. I couldn’t get from Barbican to Waterloo in 15 minutes by any means except bicycle — although a taxi probably could do it if the roads were quiet, but it would cost much more of course.

I wonder, is TfL scared of the effects that mass cycling would have on the existing transport network? Is it so reliant on income from crowded buses and over-capacity underground trains, and so in thrall to the taxi drivers, that suppressing cycling is the real goal? (If that is their plan, then they’re doing a great job of it!)

In a London with good cycle infrastructure, would we need the multi-billion pound tube upgrades, or Boris’ new Routemaster? Would we need as many buses and taxis? Would the Victoria Line need 33 trains per hour?

Is it a problem that cycling is essentially free, and there’s no clear way to charge for it per-journey?

Funnily enough, I don’t think the taxi drivers have anything to fear from mass cycling. The type of journeys for which taxis are used — tourists with luggage, business people, drunk groups of friends — are less likely to change to cycling than those journeys which are currently made by bus and, to a lesser extent, the tube.

Of course, someone living in Morden but working in Edgeware would probably still take the Northern line, but those making shorter journeys would be more likely to change to bike. For example, I reckon that Camden to Waterloo could be done in 20 minutes with the right infrastructure.

I can say with certainty that if London had Dutch-style cycling provision, I would use my Oyster card far less than I do now. I’d probably hardly use the buses at all unless the weather was bad.

So where does this leave London’s future? Is TfL scared of mass cycling? Why wouldn’t they be? It would massively change the face of transport in London, all those new bike journeys have to come from somewhere — and they would come mostly, I think, from current bus users.

Are they keeping us imprisoned in the tube and on the bus, just so the status quo can continue? Is it too much to expect the authorities to have the citizens’ interests at heart, rather than the financial interests of the privately-owned bus operating companies? Or do they feel that their jobs are reliant on all that money we top-up our Oyster cards with?


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39 responses to “Is TfL scared of mass cycling?

  1. Carolyn

    I don’t know about london specifically, but in most cities, the public transport is massively subsidised by the council/govt.

    • I’d thought about this but still came to the same conclusion — the buses are operated by powerful, private, profit-making firms who have enough clout to lobby and influence public policy. If the authorities always acted in tax-payers’ best interests then everything would be great, but I’m not convinced that they always are — especially where huge sums of money are involved.

  2. PaulM

    If travel volumes in London were projected to remain stable, I think you might be right. We already know that the principal effect of the hire bikes has not been, as predicted, to take travellers away from taxis and cars, but to take them from bus and tube (although not to any catastrophic effect – the percentages are just too small). You just have to look at the queues which build up of a morning at Waterloo’s bike dock waiting for a new truckload of bikes to restock the docks which were emptied by 8am.

    However, passenger volumes are not expected to remain stable. The City of London currently estimates 340,000 incomers each day, of whom some 94% arrive by public transport, 2% by bike and 4% by private car or taxi. They predict that by 2020 that will have risen to 420,000 per day and in theory at least they are preparing for 10% of those arriving by bike (you should see their cycle parking strategy – it illustrates the scale of the challenge by suggesting they would need a four-storey cycle park covering the entire Guildhall land site).

    I assume Westminster, RBKC etc must have reached similar conclusions. To carry all these extra people, the public transport system would explode at the seams unless some serious capacity enhancement is provided, and fast. The investment required is enormous. Anything which helps to mitigate that must surely be really good news, even if the impact on car/cab densities is modest.

    So I don’t think Boris or TfL’s cycle policies are shaped by public transport considerations at all. No, they are, as we have always suspected, shaped by their slavish adherence to the current paradigm, that motor vehicles are the solution to everything, whether that be personal freedom and mobility, the future of the economy, employment, etc. That paradigm is vigorously promoted of course by the motor industry. The truth is, if you peel away the layers, that the auto industry has been massively supported by public subsidy for its entire history – the first roads which made cars viable being built to satisfy the needs of cyclists, then a series of rescues of bankrupt car manufacturers, under-the-counter subsidies eg overpriced military or public utility vehicles, a general taxpayer subsidy of the cost of building, maintaining and controlling the roads etc. The industry will do whatever it takes to keep this situation alive, and it will do everything in its power to crush anything which threatens its hegemony. And that includes cycling – if it is true that half of all urban car journeys are less than 5 km, and so ripe for transfer to bike, and if that translated into an actual modal shift of even a half of that, the total car mileage would actually be much more slightly reduced (as half of all car journeys are more than 3 miles, and the average is nearer 8-10 miles) but the effect would still be profound. Cars would do less mileage, and their remaining mileage would be of the less wearing type, so cars would last longer and be replaced less often. Like all industries in our age, the message is expand or die – without constant sales and profits growth, a business ceases to be attractive to investors, its value expressed as a multiple of earnings declines, and the top executives see their pay and bonuses decline with it.

    The apparent interest in bicycles from the auto industry strikes me as comparable with the position of the tobacco companies a couple of decades ago – promote “low tar” cigarettes with an implication that they are “healthier” (ie kill you only slightly more slowly). As a long-reformed smoker I pay no attention to fag ads these days but I don’t recall seeing the low tar message on a billboard for quite a while. Tobacco companies are fighting for their very survival – in the developed world at least – so such illusions are pointless.

    I hope for a similar paradigm shift in the motor industry – not to the same extent because actually, cars do have their place as long as we don’t over- or mis-use them and that we govern them, and not vice versa – which sadly like tobacco will probably mean, dies already mean, peddling their wares in the developing world. Whatever happened to all the bicycles in Beijing?

    • ” To carry all these extra people, the public transport system would explode at the seams unless some serious capacity enhancement is provided, and fast. The investment required is enormous”

      Er, it is. Northern Line capacity upgrade, Subsurface capacity upgrade, Bank station rebuild, Crossrail, Thameslink – all serve the City and all are pretty much in the nick of time for this predicted upsurge. There are already predictions that further out (particularly on SW commuter rail) they’ll run out of capacity before they can build it, but that’s beyond cycle range for most people (Surbiton/Wimbledon?). One option is actually to pursue policies encouraging people (particularly young people getting their first city jobs) to live closer in and cycle, of course. This actually sort of happens already.

    • Hi Paul, your comments are always informative and well-written, a blog post in themselves!

      I agree that it’s very likely the motor vehicle industry is also inherently anti-bike. I wonder if the life-cycle of cars is the same in the Netherlands as it is here, or whether they keep their cars for longer (as they’re not using them as much as we do). It would therefore make sense that while the Netherlands has about the same car ownership per-head that we do, fewer cars are sold. (This is just conjecture though – I wonder what the real figures show.)

      The ray of light for me is that central London at least simply can’t handle many more people without resorting to the bike – everything else is pretty much at capacity. Maybe TfL’s hand will be forced by circumstances beyond their control?

      • Paul M

        I don’t know about the Netherlands, but I have often observed of France (where I live part of the time) that cars remain in use to much higher mileages and older ages, and they retain their resale value with much lower levels of depreciation. You can’t put that down to more cycling (perhaps a little more, but not on a Dutch scale) but it is noticeable that attitudes to car ownership are diffrerent, just as driver attitude towards cyclists on the roads is – mainly – more civilised.

  3. Jim

    It’s not a static population though, is it? London’s population is growing rapidly – by about 100,000 in the last year and expected to pass its previous peak of 8.6m within the next five years or so. Cycling has grown a lot in the last decade but so has public transport use. And much of that cycling is complementary to public transport use (e.g. Bromptons and Boris Bikes). So I think it’s more likely that TfL wants cycling to grow in order to take some of the pressure off the public transport system, which is already very overcrowded at many points at peak times.

    That said, I also wonder whether TfL is a bit scared of mass cycling, but for other reasons. Firstly they just don’t know how to design for it, and secondly there is a good chance that any high-quality infrastructure they put in will immediately be swamped by the release of pent-up demand. I know, that would be a lovely problem to have, but I suspect it is at least at the back of their minds.

    • Good point about the increase in population. I too would have thought that TfL wanted cycling to grow to take pressure off the buses, trains and tube, but I’ve yet to see this policy put into action!

      From a financial perspective, buses and trains filled to capacity are great, surely? If cycling seriously threatened that, there would be some worried shareholders at the very least.

      • ” If cycling seriously threatened that, there would be some worried shareholders at the very least.”

        ? TfL’s a public body, there are no shareholders. Bus companies are awarded concessions to run bus services where payment is linked to service quality, not ridership. The tube is a wholly publicly run system. The only form of mass transport in London that genuinely has shareholders is commuter surface rail, which as I said above mostly serves people outside cycling range of the centre and has severe problems providing enough capacity, not getting bums on seats.

        • Sorry, I wasn’t clear – I did mean the bus operating companies. If cycling reached 10% or even (dare I say it) 20% commuting share, then surely fewer buses would be needed on those routes, and the bus companies would lose out financially? (This blog post is just a hypothesis, really – I’m just trying to figure out if there are more reasons than meet the eye behind the government’s apparent lack of interest in cycling.)

  4. graystar

    I have considered this theory myself. I used to buy a monthly travel card – now I cycle to work and use pay as you go. I save £50-60 a month which is no longer going to TFL. Cycling is a competitor to existing fared based infrastructure.

    • Absolutely – hundreds of thousands of people would do the same as you given the right conditions, and that must be worrying to somebody along the money chain!

    • I live in North London and work in Victoria. Travelcard for Zone 1-4 would be £168 a month but for me it works much better to cycle 3x a week and rest on Tuesday and Thursday and go by Tube. This works out to be around £10 a week (£45 a month) so essentially cycling is taking away their profits by £120/month or £1400/year 🙂

      • Thanks, that’s a good example of why cycling infra would be a massive disruption to the current transport model. It must have occurred to TfL that income from Oyster top-ups and travelcards would drop massively if cycling was safe and easy.

  5. You raise some very interesting points – I agree with Jim that it’s more likely that TfL just doesn’t really understand how to design effective bike infrastructure, and sees that in places where it does exist, it would likely be heavily used, increasing the pressure to get it right. But with a welcoming, viable alternative, events like the Olympics, tube maintenance, and strike action become much less of a problem, and people can choose the transport that works best for their particular journey, not just the one that feels safest.

    • I would hope that those in power have “good quality transport choices” and “quality of life for citizens” at the top of their to-do list, but I suspect these points are currently placed well below “more car use equals more fuel duty income” or “lunch with Stagecoach bosses at Ritz”!

  6. Oh, I think TfL understands full well what effective cycling infrastructure looks like but the number one consideration is Boris Johnson’s “Smoothing Traffic Flow” agenda. He may ride a bicycle but he doesn’t care for other cyclists and he is also a petrol head, don’t forget that – driving a car in London is a basic human right to him.

  7. “In a London with good cycle infrastructure, would we need the multi-billion pound tube upgrades, or Boris’ new Routemaster?”

    Boris’s new not-really-a-Routemaster isn’t about capacity, it’s undersized in comparison with normal buses and costs more to run, so it’s unlikely anyone’s actually thinking about it in terms of where it fits into London’s actual transport needs. Given that it’s a flagship Mayoral project, this does say a lot about the prospects for any serious strategic thinking on the subject.

    • Yeah I was thinking that as I was typing that bit! I should have put “…or as many buses on the roads” or something. The new Routemaster is a bit like Boris himself – full of flaws and yet mysteriously a vote-winner.

  8. Mark

    Smoothing traffic flow is Borispeak for reducing impediment to private car use. That and Portas telling us we need parking at shops, it is music to Outer-London politician’s ears. Congestion is the issue that nobody wants to solve either by building roads (not that I agree, it just fills up ) or fully prioritising buses and cycling which must be a cheaper option. Cycling can replace many shorter bus and tube journeys in the central area. The main issue for me is that politicians see no further than the next election, are tied up with moneyed lobbying and in truth, there are no proper plans in place. The problems we have are due to a total absence of leadership.

  9. Gareth

    I think its actually the case in Dutch cities that increase in cycling rates took passengers away from short haul public transport. But I guess its really down to people opting for private transport where it is a viable option more than anything else.
    I see no reason why the UK would be any different in that regard, other than the fact that a sizable chunk of the population has an irrational dislike of people on bikes and presumably wouldn’t opt to ride one if it were more convenient/safe/etc.

  10. Hi London, i think you should find answers to these question: How do you want to maintain streets? Who should pay for it, a Bike taxe? Do you want too rescue people in emergency bikes? How do you guarantee the mobility of people that aren`t able to bike? Do you agree that there are also a lot of pedestrians in London? In Germany you could see that bikers are not able to respect pedestrians on sidewalks and pedestrian zones. They are leaving there bikes ore want to carry the bikes into the shops… So i`m glad that we have no mass cycling in Frankfurt, and there is still a quier space on the sidewalks, ( if it rains,…) How do you want to solve the problem, that street “fighters” on cycles cant be identified, or drunken cylists arise?. I dont want mass cycling – i want bicycles, cars, busses, subways.

    • Gareth

      If people are cycling on pavements, it means you need more cycle paths.
      Street fighters on bicycles can be identified the same way that street fighters who walk or run are identified, or are you against mass walking too?

      • I’ve experienced people cycling on pavements right next to on-road cycle paths many, many times.

        • I’m not sure where to begin with this.

          If it’s on the road then it’s a cycle lane, not a cycle path. A white line on the road is not cycling infrastructure. If the proper Dutch-quality infrastructure was there then pavement cycling wouldn’t be a problem. Nobody would choose to ride on the pavement if there was a better alternative!

          Seeing people cycling on the pavement should make you demand good cycling infrastructure, to get those cyclists off the pavements and encourage non-cyclists to take up cycling so that it becomes a normal activity with social rules, like walking, rather than a niche enthusiast/scofflaw activity.

          It’s insane to suggest that just because some people ride their bike inconsiderately then everybody should be punished.

        • Gareth

          On road ‘cycle paths’ in the UK are more often than not used used for car parking.
          And what the cat said.
          I can’t for the life of me remember time I cycled on the pavement during my childhood in the Netherlands, and I wasn’t a particualry well behaved teenager.

          • This is on a London A-road which I’ve walked up down several times a day during the week for 12 years, taking kids to and from school – yellow lines enforced during the day, so no parked vehicles, and cycle lane painted green.

            Segregated provision is the way to go, in my opinion. I’ve made many trips to cities in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Germany in the past decade and cycling is an integral part of the highway planning, not an afterthought as it is in London.

          • I’m glad we agree on that, Helen!

    • Hi Fuhriello,

      I think you’re misunderstanding the phrase “mass cycling”. It’s not a call for 100% cycling modal share, but something like the Dutch model, where people have a genuine choice about their travel options, and where walking, cycling and public transport dominate in cities. Motor traffic is ruining central London and is allowed to dominate almost everywhere in the UK, at the expense of our quality of life. Currently here in London, our Mayor is obsessed with getting more cars to drive through the city, which is not good.

      Mit freundlichem grüßen,

      • I `m only asking questions, that arise by a increasing number of cyclists in Cities. I ´m not afraid of mass cycling. I can`t see that a higher number of cyclist could solve the paradox of individual mobility: You can`t solve it, only describe it by asking my questions. Netherland is not a model for al other countries and in London the “Maut” is used to finance subway and busses, so why shouldn`t a bike tax via RFID and penalty for “Kampfradler” finance the infrastructure of bike lanes?

        • Roads in the UK are paid for out of general taxation – the VED (vehicle tax) doesn’t cover the cost of the roads, especially for lorries with the amount of damage they do. (Every UK taxpayer is subsidising the road haulage industry.) So motor vehicles, as well as trains and buses, are subsidised but you’re saying that cycling – the least polluting and most space-efficient mode – shouldn’t have to pay for itself?

          Not that I’m ideologically against generating some sort of income specifically for Dutch-quality infrastructure – a £10 tax on all new bikes sold or something. (Note: I haven’t thought that through, I’m sure there would be down-sides.) But hypothecated taxes aren’t that fashionable in the UK, I don’t think.

          Implementing a bike registration and tax scheme would probably do more harm than good though, by increasing the barriers to cycling. Maybe it would work in the Netherlands where cycling is already very popular, and it would help identify abandoned and stolen bikes too. But here in the UK I fear cycling just isn’t popular enough to weather such legislation.

          • Paul M

            There is only one hyothecated tax in the UK, and that is the TV licence which is hypothecated to fund the BBC. Even national insurance (social security) is not actually hypothecated to unemployment/welfare/health provision, which is why some tax experts advocate merging it fully into the tax system.

  11. Cycling can’t be privatised and doesn’t make much money for corporations, which is why it will never be seen as a priority. You can see this in Boris Johnson’s crazy ‘Skyride’ idea – he’s prepared to build expensive infrastructure, but only if cyclists pay a toll to use it.

    The political leadership required is completely lacking, even though building cycling infrastructure is a no-brainer, and cheaper than expensive upgrades to the tubes, trains and roads. London’s population is increasing and more people will be cycling, regardless of infrastructure which may or may not be built. It’s possible there will come a time when the critical mass of cyclists becomes so great that car drivers, bus drivers and taxi drivers will be forced to support cycling infrastructure themselves, in order to improve their journeys.

    I don’t think TfL are worried about a threat to revenue…they’re more worried the massive expansion in passenger numbers and the fact they can’t afford to build everything London needs. Which is why it is mystifying that they don’t appear to want to use cycling to take some of the pressure off. It’s a failure of TfL leadership – led by the Mayor – and with a board stuffed mainly full of corporate & establishment figures, ex-rail industry bosses & bankers….which comes back to my first point: you can’t privatise cycling, which is why these guys don’t understand it.

  12. An interesting point of view, but I suspect that network efficiency gains resulting from the putative cycling revolution would result in little net change. More people would cycle, but people who are ‘never cycles’ would potentially be attracted out of their cars onto the bus network. Also, increased efficiency would allow routes to function below saturation, reducing overheads.

    I think they are scared of mass cycling, but only because they can’t understand it. Without even looking abroad, a model for a mass-cycling city can be found in the history of our cities. Once mass cycling provided most suburban transport, augmented by public transport. Very few private motor vehicles existed and the primary use of motor vehicles was to transport heavy loads, as commercial vehicles. I believe that a return to this balance would not be entirely unrealistic, although it would require a near dictatorial approach vehicle registration.

  13. Cecil

    And, in amongst the range of reasons, perhaps there is also:
    Dutch infrastructure = fewer on-street car parking places = decreased revenue (and even decreased fine revenues I suppose) + a noisy political backlash

    • Mark

      I haven’t read the evidence, but apparently, TfL has research to show that over time, people on foot (including cyclists) spend more than drivers at local shops (little, but often spend). The theory is that the reason “shopkeepers” want more parking is that they remember the occasional big spending car driver who is able to carry the purchase in the boot!

  14. This is a very clever point you’re making (admittedly at first it seemed like a bit of a conspiracy theory), coming from the North East I can’t really relate as much as I would like but from what I have seen through visits it seems like a lot of people seem segregated to the tubes and buses rather than making their own way around. This is down to the convenience of the tube, and maybe even laziness of the people, which is played upon heavily by the huge firms running it. Personally I think that as long as these people are making these huge sums of money they will have the upper hand and it will be difficult to persuade people otherwise. A lot of factors to think about.

    • Hi Angela,

      Thanks for the comment. I was a bit worried about sounding like a conspiracy theorist so I’m glad you changed your mind! I’m really just trying to figure out the real reason why the authorities talk so much about cycling (and have done for decades) but nothing ever actually happens, and musing on the idea that there’s a reason that’s not immediately apparent.

      Even though the London Underground is publicly owned, there are private contractors working on it and upgrading it (as far as I know) and that’s not cheap work, there must be plenty of money flying around. The contract for London Overground was awarded to a private company too – £1.4bn apparently.

      Not that I’m saying those things are necessarily bad, but it stands to reason that a massive increase in cycling will hurt someone’s pocket, somewhere down the line. It has to, as cycling is free to do, and those people who will lose financially must surely be aware of this threat, and would certainly be working against it.

      Outside of London, private bus operators often have a stranglehold over entire towns – the bus fares in Leeds are twice that of London, for example – and increased cycling would surely hit their profits (although I don’t know if they receive subsidies too).


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