Prime Minister Boris Johnson has heralded a “new Golden Age of cycling” as the government prepares to relax some lockdown restrictions, with further details of its plans set to emerge as soon as Sunday. His comments come on a day when his successor as Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has unveiled plans for temporary cycling infrastructure in locations across the capital.
Johnson made the remark in a reply to former transport minister Theresa Villiers during his first appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions since his release from hospital last month following treatment for coronavirus.
Villiers, whose Chipping Barnet constituency includes several stations on the Northern Line, had urged the Prime Minister to put pressure on Khan and Transport for London (TfL) to “restore public transport capacity” in the city.
The Conservative MP was also critical of signs and announcements suggesting that only key workers should travel by public transport in the capital.
Johnson replied: “We will certainly be working with the Mayor to try to achieve that, although there must be – we will come to this on Sunday and next week – mitigations to help people who, for reasons of social distancing, cannot use mass transit.
“There will be a huge amount of planning going into helping people to get to work other than by mass transit.”
He added: “This should be a new golden age for cycling.”
Further details of how that may be achieved are likely to be forthcoming on Sunday, when Johnson is due to address the nation regarding the first easing of the lockdown restrictions in force since late March.
Measures announced specific to cycling are likely to include making money available to local authorities throughout England, outside London, for pop-up cycling infrastructure, an initiative already introduced in Scotland.
Sadiq Khan unveils London Streetscape plans, including pop-up bike lanes
Meanwhile, across London at City Hall – which Johnson would commute to regularly by bike from his Islington home when he was Mayor – his successor today confirmed the installation of London’s first pop-up cycle lanes on Euston Road and Park Lane, roads normally choked with traffic and which deter all but the most confident cyclists.
Temporary infrastructure using cones and barriers will also be put in place on routes including the planned Cycleway 9 from Brentford to Olympia, both of which are currently under construction, as City Hall predicts that cycling levels will rise tenfold once lockdown restrictions are relaxed.
The ‘London Streetspace’ programme will also see pavements widened across the city, with modelling predicting a fivefold increase in pedestrian movements and capacity on the TfL public transport potentially being just a fifth of what it was prior to the lockdown.
Khan said: “The capacity of our public transport will be dramatically reduced post-coronavirus as a result of the huge challenges we face around social distancing.
“Everyone who can work from home must continue to do so for some time to come. The emergency measures included in our major strategic London Streetspace programme will help those who have to travel to work by fast-tracking the transformation of streets across our city.
“Many Londoners have rediscovered the joys of walking and cycling during lockdown and, by quickly and cheaply widening pavements, creating temporary cycle lanes and closing roads to through traffic we will enable millions more people to change the way they get around our city.”
He added: “I urge the Government and boroughs to work with us to enable Londoners to switch to cleaner, more sustainable forms of transport – and reduce the pressure on other parts of our transport network – once the lockdown is eased.”
London Cycling Campaign CEO Ashok Sinha said: “As the lockdown is eased, London will need to get moving again, but in a manner that maintains social distancing.
“The only way to do this effectively – whilst also avoiding a calamitous return to toxic air, high carbon emissions and traffic-choked streets – is to make it easier and safer for millions of people to walk and cycle.
“Large numbers of Londoners have already taken to cycling for essential travel and exercise during lockdown; the demand is there, and the Mayor’s new Streetspace plan can and should be the start of a permanent transition to a greener, healthier and more resilient city.”
Not the first pledge to transform cycling by a Conservative PM
While we may be living in unprecedented times, this is not the first time a Conservative Prime Minister has promised a step-change in the government’s support for cycling, with David Cameron promising “a cycling revolution” back in 2013 when he launched the first wave of Cycle City Ambition funding.
While some cities and regions, including Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Birmingham, did benefit from significant sums to invest in cycling infrastructure, most of the country missed out.
Nationally, levels of funding remain woefully low, while a promised review of the investigation, prosecution and sentencing of road traffic offences launched back in Cameron’s tenure following campaigning by organisations including British Cycling and Cycling UK seems to have disappeared as time and energy at Parliament and in have been eaten up by Brexit for the past four years.
> Opinion: More money to come for cycling?
If there is some hope for a brighter future, it’s that while Mayor of London, Johnson oversaw his own “cycling revolution” with the introduction of the capital’s first Cycleways, then named Cycle Superhighways, and does see cycling as an essential means of getting around towns and cities for everyday journeys.
However, the initial designs of those Cycle Superhighways, painted blue to reflect their sponsorship by Barclays, were strongly criticised by campaigners as providing minimal protection and also being dangerous in the wet.
Following a spate of deaths of cyclists in London in late 2013 and pressure from groups including the London Cycling Campaign and Stop Killing Cyclists, the approach changed, resulting in the high-quality infrastructure such as the two protected Cycleways that cross the centre of the city from east to west and north to south being built.
Influential in that change in approach was the journalist Andrew Gilligan, appointed earlier in 2013 as London’s first cycling commissioner and who must take much of the credit for the Cycleways subsequently built or olanned during what was left of Johnson's second term.
Last year, he was reunited with Johnson when he was recruited as transport advisor to Number 10 and one would expect him to be involved in the current planning of what will happen at national level.
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