On my cycle commute across central London each morning there used to be a tricky little stretch where I passed under Admiralty Arch, the imposing structure that marks one's arrival at Trafalgar Square. The wide boulevard that is the Mall narrowed to a point where two lanes of traffic, by now stationary, left cyclists a sliver of space to squeeze through on the left-hand side of the road. Often there wasn't even room for that.
Then, a few weeks ago, someone at Transport for London had the bright idea of creating a short stretch of cycle lane at that point. A thick white line appeared on the tarmac, freeing up vital extra inches for cyclists but still leaving room for the two lanes of motorised traffic. That was the idea, anyway. In reality, all that happened was the cars ignored the cycle lane and formed up exactly as they always had done, blocking off the cyclists' space.
The other day I was pleased to see the arrival of two traffic cones at the start of the lane, offering somewhat firmer encouragement to vehicles to move over to the right. But the day after that the cones had been knocked over – presumably by the wheels of a car – and we were all, drivers and cyclists, pretty much back to where we had started. What used to be a tricky little stretch remains just that. Only in a way it's worse now because an element of antagonism has been introduced into the situation. Motorists don't like having to give up space to cyclists. Cyclists resent their lanes being intruded upon by cars.
The example of the Admiralty Arch attempt to manage traffic, and make life a bit easier for the hundreds of cyclists who pass under it each day, illustrates a wider point about the challenge facing urban transport policy-planners. It also highlights a relationship between motorists and cyclists that might be described as at best uneasy. Those of us on two wheels are characterised as elastane louts who routinely ride on pavements and run red lights. In cyclists' eyes the four-wheel brigade show not the slightest regard for the fact that they are sharing road space with much more vulnerable users.
So against this background, last week's announcement by London mayor Ken Livingstone of plans for a £500m investment in improving cycle routes in the capital goes to the heart of a question that is surely in the mind of every user of urban roads: can bikes and cars ever satisfactorily co-exist?
The extent to which cycling has taken off in London in recent years is staggering. The congestion charge, environmental awareness, a desire to keep fit, a fear of terrorism, the freedom and sheer convenience are all reasons why numbers are reckoned to have doubled since 2000. Even on these cold winter mornings we cyclists are creating our own unique brand of congestion at key hubs around the city. In the summer, the streets of London at rush hour will teem with cyclists.
But cycle journeys still represent only 1 per cent of all daily journeys in London, and the mayor's aim is to increase that figure to 5 per cent by 2025. In pursuit of that he plans 12 "superhighways" that will provide fast, safe routes in and out of central London. He will also be introducing a free bike-hire scheme along the lines of the very successful Vélib scheme in Paris.
"We're having a real cycling renaissance," says Mark Watts, who as the mayor's adviser on climate change has helped devise the new policy. "When you think of the pressures of managing a transport system in a successful modern city, cycling is becoming a vital tool."
Mr Watts makes clear that the superhighways will not be created where no thoroughfare existed before. They will involve adaptations of existing roads, and cyclists will not, as some feared, find that they are banned from any public highway. "Cycle lanes will be wider and we'll make more use of bus lanes, with the emphasis very much on them being equally cycle lanes and bus lanes, not bus lanes that cycles can also use." The key, Mr Watts says, is "critical mass" – the point at which cycling is so ubiquitous that, as in Amsterdam or Copenhagen (examples that Transport for London studied), assumptions about whom the road belongs to are turned on their head.
"It should work both ways," Mr Watts says. "There will be a greater acceptance of cyclists on the part of motorists, and cyclists will be encouraged by the knowledge that they are not alone. When cyclists were a tiny minority it was easy for drivers to think they didn't belong on the road. But not any more."
As someone who both cycles and drives in London, I remain sceptical, especially when measures such as advance stop boxes – spaces at traffic lights designed for the exclusive occupation of cyclists – seem to have no effect on motorists' conduct. According to Mr Watts, a bill is going through Parliament that will extend to traffic wardens the power to book drivers who encroach, and on-the-spot fines are looming. That should help – along with the proposed 20mph residential speed limits, which Mr Watts hopes will make cycling seem a much safer option than it does to many people at the moment.
Of course, the tide of history is running in cyclists' favour. It's the ultimate in sustainable transport, and the way that Paris has woken up to it, thinks Mr Watts, has done wonders for its "brand image", such an important consideration for the modern city.
Personally, I quite like cycling in traffic. Wide-open roads are great, but the requirement to keep my wits about me on my work commute is all part of the pleasure of the ride and the sense of fulfilment you derive at journey's end. City living is a communal experience. Isn't that why we do it?
Join a Continental-style tour!
Cyclosportives are enjoying a huge boom in popularity, but no other on UK shores can match the epic, traffic-free, and superbly organised Etape Caledonia, sponsored by The Independent. Following the format of the great Continental sportives, such as the Etape (the amateurs' stage of the Tour de France), the Etape Caledonia is the only UK sportive that takes place on closed roads.
After making its acclaimed debut last year, it is back on Sunday 18 May with a spectacular 81-mile ride across the glorious terrain of Perthshire. As sponsor, The Independent is giving away three pairs of coveted places on the ride. The winning pair will also each receive a £50 kit voucher, courtesy of Pitlochry bike shop Escape Route; the two pairs of runners-up will each receive a £25 voucher to spend at Escape Route.
The Etape Caledonia, which starts and finishes in Pitlochry, offers some 3,000 ordinary cyclists the chance to ride on closed roads in safety, and provides a stern but achievable challenge through breathtaking Scottish scenery. There will be feed stations along the route, and full technical support is provided by bike parts maker Mavic. A reasonably fit regular commuter cyclist could reckon on being able to train up for the event in the next three months. For an experienced sportive rider, it's a cycling experience that has to be added to your list. Win one of the pairs of places and you and a partner or friend have the ideal opportunity to take on an unforgettable challenge.
To enter the competition, answer the following question: Which Scotsman won the King of the Mountains competition in the 1984 Tour de France?
a) Andy Irvine
b) Robert Millar
c) Graeme Souness
Email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, address and phone number. Entries must be received by Thursday, 28 February. Winners will be selected at random from the correct entries and notified by telephone by Friday, 29 February.
Further information about the Etape Caledonia at www.etapecaledonia.co.uk
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