A question of speed: why you're better off by bike

This poster from 1915 extols the virtues of the London Underground, pointing out how fast their trains are compared to the traffic crawling along at street level up above.  Nearly a hundred years have passed, and things have changed.  Horse and carts (and barrel organs with monkeys onboard!) have become a very rare site on our streets, and the buses, taxis and motor cars of London now crawl along even more slowly...

The London Congestion Charge, introduced in 2003 by previous Mayor Ken Livingstone, allowed vehicles to begin moving more quickly again by reducing the quantity on the road, though not by enough to avoid This Is Local London publishing the immortal headline "London cars move no faster than chickens"!  

In the first year of its operation, Transport for London estimate over 60,000 journeys by car "evaporated"; moved to public transport, car sharing, and more trips by walking and cycling, against a background of growth in the city, as detailed in Tom Barry's excellent Street Talk on the state of London transport.

A decline in the volume of traffic kilometers travelled in London against a background of a growing city continues even today, as evidenced in the most recent Travel in London report from TfL.  Whether it is inside the inner London congestion charging zone or elsewhere, the distances journeyed are decreasing.  Traffic speeds during peak hours in inner London continue to hover around 15km/h (about 9.5 miles per hour, or a very gentle bike ride).

Fellow blogger Mark from As Easy As Riding a Bike has all the data that's fit to print on the fluctuations in vehicle speeds and volumes in an excellent blog post here.  

And even the motor-headed cast of the BBC's Top Gear have shown that when it comes to a race across town, the bicycle wins.

If less traffic in London means there is more space (and certainly there seems to be enough new space to justify ridiculous carriageway narrowing schemes in the City and in Westminster), then that space could be put to good use getting more people around more quickly.

The "Speed" poster from 1915 is not just a charmingly aesthetic relic from a city of another age.  It shows there have always been smarter and faster ways of getting about than by filling the city with traffic.  I'm as interested in the economics and efficiencies of cities as I am in cycling and cycle infrastructure, and it seems clear to me that not only is there latent demand for more safe space for cycling, but that it makes very good sense to introduce it: not just for the cyclist, but for the sake of the city itself.

Even if you spent billions burying half the roads in London there will never be enough space to allow many motor vehicles to be driven here at any useful speed.  But creating a city that allows people on bikes to move around quickly and safely is an easy goal to win.  As London Underground's poster shows, time is of the essence.



bikemapper said...

About fifteen years ago, I did an experiment with some friends. We went from Waterloo to Bank, one of us by Tube, one of us by bus, and one of us by bike. The experiment was conducted at 1 o'clock in the afternoon in order that no one had an unfair advantage, but even so, we showed that the bike was about 85% quicker than the Tube, and about 200% quicker than the bus.

People ride a bike for all sorts of reasons, not least because it is good for the heart, the head, and the soul. Arguably the main reason, however, is that door-to-door journey times are quicker. In order to make the most of this natural advantage, it is necessary to develop a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network.

The LCC writes: "At a basic level the routes selected for investment must be underpinned by a clear vision of a coherent, direct, safe, comfortable and attractive network." As I see it, I think it is possible to develop routes which are coherent and direct now, or routes which are safe, comfortable and attractive now, but not all at the same time. In short, I think it is necessary to prioritise (e.g. see here and here).

This route I took from Waterloo to Bank does not feature on this map. I have marked it in green on this map.

ibikelondon said...

Thanks Bikemapper! That sounds like an interesting experiment (and you were well ahead of the Top Gear boys and their little run across town!)

You're right of course that people ride for different reasons, and cycling has many many benefits. I often think many of these, like heart health and indeed better mental health are "nice to haves" for the city but that the time factor and efficiency is the "big win" to get nailed first, after which all the nice to haves will fall in to place of their own accord.

I suspect that achieving this will involve a little of the LCC's approach and a little of yours, and that a combination of both existing and new routes will be the way forwards. Indeed, the much lauded "quiet ways" which are due to start construction later this year will include a lot of already existing heavily used cycle routes, or so I understand.

Anonymous said...

Up here in Sunny Sheffield my 4 mile commute to work is quickest by bike. In fact, bring into the equasion that I can't leave for work until I've waved my son off to primary school at 8.30am, I can't actually get to work in time at 9am by car or bus.
Given that Sheffield is a very hilly city (the hills are cited as one of the main reasons people don't ride hear along with the more usual fear of road conditions) more and more are taking up cycling as transport, though the modal share is still quite low.

ibikelondon said...

It's great to hear things are going well in Sheffield and more and more people are waking up to the time economy of cycling!

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