Cycling in London on the decline?

By Richard Peace | Friday, January 4, 2013 12.26pm

Figures buried in Transport for London performance reports are forecasting a decline in cycling levels on the capital’s main road network for the year 2012-2013.

TfL measure cycling levels both quarterly and annually, and the 2012-2013 forecast shows main road cycling levels dipping after a decade of steady and impressive growth.

The levels are measured against an index of 100, which is the level of cycling in March 2000. The 2010-2011 figures showed an in index of 250, indicating cycling levels two and a half times higher than in March 2000. The 2011-2012 figures had an index of 273 but the 2012-2013 forecast shows a slight dip to 270.

The number is perhaps surprising given that recent trends have been impressive indeed. Growth averaged approximately 11 percent per year during mayor Boris Johnson’s first term, which came to an end with his re-election in May 2012. One media commentator claimed that "by the end of 2011, more people were cycling in London than at any time since the beginning of mass car ownership".

Of course, it’s dangerous to draw hasty conclusions from figures. As this TfL map shows, cycling levels are monitored on only the most major roads, so the drop could simply mean riders are turning away from main roads onto quieter routes.

There were also some exceptional circumstances at play from April to September 2012. In the first quarter (January to March 2012) growth was above the levels seen in the same period of the previous year, but the second quarter saw a slump, very likely because spring 2012 was the wettest in recorded weather history.

The third quarter (July to September) saw a mini revival of 3.7 percent growth, though this was well below target. Figures for the final quarter are awaited but it seems unlikely to rescue the stats from a slight dip, as winter months are less statistically significant than spring and summer, when most cycle trips are made.

The Olympics will also have affected levels, but quite how remains a puzzle. Of course, there was a large influx of visitors to the capital, sending bike hire usage to record levels. But bikes themselves weren't allowed on or around the main Olympic site at Stratford, and off-road commuter routes in the area were shut for security reasons.

Is this the start of a trend or a statistical anomaly? Of course, only time will tell, but, if it is the start of London falling out of love with the bike, recent history suggests major new developments may be needed to reverse any such trend.

The previous big boosts to cycling levels were the introduction of the congestion charge in 2003 and ‘Boris Bikes’ in 2010. So, irrespective of the underlying causes of the latest disappointing figures, it will be interesting to see if Mayor Johnson’s promised investment in infrastructure over the next decade provides a welcome shot in the arm for cycling levels. 

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