Will Cycle Superhighways really be super?

Boris Johnson's dream for London met with skepticism

A map of some of the 12 proposed Cycle Superhighways for London

The first two of twelve ‘Cycling Superhighways’ throughout London (click here for a full map) were recently announced by Transport for London, but several quarters of the cycling world have greeted them with skepticism.


The first two Superhighways have not been built yet: they are due as ‘pilot projects’ that will be in use from May 2010. The remaining ten are timetabled for introduction before the 2012 Olympics.

The two routes will be between 10 and 15 kilometres in length and will run from South Wimbledon to Bank and from Barking in East London to Tower Hill.

Little concrete detail has emerged, however, regarding the exact standard of construction and design of the Superhighways. The main points revealed so far appear to be that, where possible, the cycle lanes will be separated from motor traffic and painted blue, and will closely follow the line of several main roads.

London Mayor Boris Johnson has talked up the quality and usefulness of the intended lanes: “I’m not kidding when I say that I’m militant about cycling, and these Superhighways are central to the cycling revolution I’m determined to bring about. No longer will pedal power have to dance and dodge around petrol power – on these routes the bicycle will dominate and that will be clear to all others using them.”

The artist’s illustration accompanying the news on the Transport for London website – the official body charged with building the Superhighways – shows an ordinary looking cycle lane painted blue. It even has dashed lines to demarcate it from accompanying traffic meaning it could legally be parked in and obstructed. Only solid lines mean it is illegal to park in a cycle lane.

Other concerns flagged up by pro-cycling groups such as the CTC and the London Cycling Campaign include the following:

Several of the routes as shown on Transport for London’s own outline map stop short of the North Circular Road and many of the outer boroughs are not served at all by the Superhighways.

Critics such as the Green Party’s Jenny Jones have highlighted the fact that cycle funding in some areas – such as money for ‘cycle hubs’ planned for outer London – have been removed to pay for schemes such as the Superhighways and the forthcoming Cycle Hire Scheme.

There is a lack of detail about the standard of design and construction that will be employed in the Superhighways. Indeed, whilst the path of the first two Superhighways has been broadly outlined, TfL themselves have admitted that the actual course on the ground is still being studied.

Will the Superhighways tackle problematic areas that will need major engineering works to make them safe, such as gyratories? These barriers to cycling have long been highlighted as a major problem to safe cycling in the capital by the likes of the London Cycling Campaign.

Speaking to BikeRadar, Charlie Lloyd, Cycling Development Officer for London Cycling Campaign, revealed that LCC members had been involved in exploring the possible exact routes of the first two Superhighways. But the exact detail had not yet been decided on – despite the tight May 2010 deadline for delivery.

He said: “Our biggest hope is that Superhighways will overcome barriers to cycling, such as gyratories and major junctions. The concept of Superhighways – routes that are continuous and safe and comfortable to use – is good. However, the fact is that many of the planned Superhighways are on or near main roads and the so-called fine network of routes linking into them also needs help.”

Is there any real legal obligation that could be made to guarantee the quality of Superhighways? BikeRadar spoke to Alyson France of Bikeline solicitors, who have dealt with several court cases where it has been claimed very poor cycle lane design and construction has contributed to accidents. Such cases, as yet, have never succeeded.

France said: “The difficulty concerns lack of any kind of commonly accepted and commonly practiced guidelines for the design of cycle lanes – when bringing a case, you need to show that the design goes against commonly accepted principles. The same applies to cases brought trying to claim for accidents due to badly designed road layouts – but there are few of these because if roads were designed as badly as cycle lanes, there would be a national uproar!”

France believes the lack of rights for users of cycle lanes is a fundamental fault: “Unfortunately, from the case law that exists, cyclists seem to have fewer rights when they’re in a cycle lane than they do on the roads. There are various examples I’ve come across. For example one in relation to cars exiting their drives when a cycle lane passes: various decisions have adjudged contributory negligence against cyclists for not proceeding with caution past drives when they have claimed against cars which pull out and a collision ensues. Quite clearly this wouldn’t happen to a cyclist (or a car driver) if they hit a car which pulled out of its drive into a road. Such cycle lanes are worse than useless.”

The funding of cycle lane networks and signed routes also has a controversial history within London, the London Cycle Network being a case in point. It began as a highly promising idea in 1997 for several hundred miles of high quality cycle route across Greater London. In 2002 its budget was slashed, as was the total mileage it aimed for.

A statement from Mayor Boris Johnson on the LCN’s website suggests it has finally been abandoned in all but name: “My view is that, as the final parts of the network increasingly require expensive and unpopular traffic schemes, efforts should be focused on my new direction … towards more integrated and targeted interventions to make cycling safer, easier and more appealing. These include Cycle Highways.”


As yet, TfL has not confirmed what proportion of the Superhighways will be segregated from motor traffic and what proportion will be on road.