Local chambers of commerce protested that the then-mayor’s plan was being “railroaded” through without a full study of traffic and economic impacts. Taxi drivers were furious about losing lane space. Politicians whose commutes were impacted by construction pushed back fiercely: One former chancellor described the lanes, in the House of Lords, as “doing more damage to London than almost anything since the Blitz.”
From the city’s perspective, Johnson’s bike schemes were designed to make transport cleaner, safer, and more efficient for a growing population (and boost the mixed legacy of a controversial mayor). But the pushback that dominated public discourse in the early years of planning and construction came as no surprise: Typically, the hardest part about building bike lanes isn’t laying paint or installing bollards. It’s the politics.
Chris Kenyon, a longtime London tech worker and bike commuter, believed he could help the city win more hearts and minds, but knew he’d have to be savvy. So in 2014, Kenyon and three other civic-minded bike commuters launched a campaign called Cycling Works. If they got the city’s largest employers to pledge support for just two specific curb-protected projects, they could push back on the claim that new infrastructure was “bad for business.” Over eight weeks,* volunteer activists hit the streets to speak with tens of thousands of London cyclists, asking them to tell their bosses and the city’s CEOs to publicly support those two routes.
Over two years, with that grassroots method and a simple website, Kenyon and his collaborators collected letters and signatures from CEOs of 200 of the largest businesses in the city, including Microsoft, the telecom company Orange, Unilever, the Financial Times, and Coca-Cola. The effort garnered media attention, and the support was transformative for City Hall and Transport for London, Kenyon says. “It changed the tone of the discussion,” Kenyon told Streetfilms, in a new short documentary about the effort. “We know from having talked to them a year later that it was incredibly important at that time to making sure the plans were not watered down.”
Now that much of Johnson’s vision has been realized, rush-hour cycling in central London is up nearly 200 percent over the past two decades, from just 12,000 riders pedaling in the inner city in 2000 to 36,000 in the same area in 2014. With congestion pricing winnowing the number of private cars, bikes may be on pace to overtake automobiles, representationally, in the center city: As of 2016, about 32 percent of all rush hour vehicles on central London roads were bikes. That share seems to be rising.
But London’s bike-lane build-out might not be enough to keep cycling growth on track. As my colleague Feargus O’Sullivan has written, the city’s expenditures for cycling are still vastly outweighed by other transport modes; meanwhile, jurisdictional complications have delayed parts of the city’s plans that would extend protected lanes to boroughs outside inner London.