For some it was a chance to do a bit of exercise to escape the boredom of lockdown; for others, the lack of traffic allayed fears of trying to navigate the hustle and bustle of busy towns and cities. Others took up cycling in an effort to avoid public transport. Cycle-to-work schemes saw a 200 per cent rise in bike orders from people working for emergency services during the first lockdown, while bike sales increased by 63 per cent compared with 2019. Whatever the reason, people across the country have been bitten by the cycling bug.
With the roads clear, councils across the country quickly set about improving the infrastructure for cyclists, and bike lanes, both temporary and permanent, began popping up across the country.
But just months after their inception, several of the fast-tracked segregated bike paths have already been significantly scaled back or ripped out altogether, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, while political leaders, campaign groups, businesses and even primary school teachers have become embroiled in a debate over whether they are doing more harm than good.
Trafford Council caved in and removed a designated cycle lane on the A56 near Sale, Greater Manchester, after just 48 hours because of a backlash from motorists.
A 600-metre section of bike lane along Brighton seafront was removed after bus passengers complained of delays, while a track which saw a major coastal road in Tynemouth turned into a one-way system was reverted back to its original state because of congestion.
Controversial cycle lanes on London’s bustling Kensington High Street, a stone’s throw away from landmarks such as Hyde Park, the Royal Albert Hall and Kensington Palace, were axed just seven weeks in despite protests led by Extinction Rebellion and local schools because businesses complained they were detrimental to trade.
Kensington and Chelsea Council was granted almost £320,000 of government funding for the Kensington High Street scheme, which cost an estimated £30,000 to rip out.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has demanded the Conservative-controlled local authority pay the money back and suggested he was seeking to seize control of the road to reinstate the lane.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps has hit out at his own scheme, criticising “unused” lanes and councils for using funding “poorly”, while Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, is threatening to turn it into a keystone issue at the capital’s next election by vowing to pause their roll-out if he wins.
It came after images emerged on social media showing empty cycle paths sitting alongside queues of cars and ambulances trapped in traffic because of congestion or newly blocked off roads.
Richard Webber, national spokesman for the College of Paramedics, raised concerns in a Mail on Sunday article about the lives of patients, such as those suffering from a heart attack, being put at risk as ambulances found themselves stuck and cars unable to pull over out of their way.
An ambulance in Harrow, northwest London, was photographed driving in the wrong direction - apparently to escape traffic after congestion was made worse by a two-lane road being reduced down to one to make way for a segregated cycle path.
In its final decision for removing the Kensington High Street lane, the local council said London Ambulance Service “made clear” to its officials that it had been affected by congestion and asked for the scheme to be reviewed, while the local fire commander reportedly told them he did not support the lanes. Both also said they had instructed their drivers not to use the lanes to bypass traffic, according to the council.
But Will Norman, the Mayor of London’s walking and cycling commissioner, told The Independent there was “no data at all” to suggest the new cycle lanes had caused gridlocks in the capital and that officials were working closely with the emergency services.
He said “wands” - the reflective plastic posts used to separate cycle lanes from the road - had been removed at specific points on some cycle lanes to allow cars to pull over following consultation with ambulance officials.
“There’s an awful lot of concern about a few schemes – but the scale at which this has happened is remarkable and the outcome we’ve generally had is a significant increase in the number of people cycling,” Mr Norman added.
On the other side of the debate, Johnny Thalassites, the borough’s lead member for planning and transport, said the council received more than 1,000 emails in relation to the scheme by 25 November, split 58 per cent for and 42 per cent against the cycle lanes.
In an open letter, the Tory councillor claimed the decision wasn’t political, adding: “We decided to end the cycle lane trial because it wasn't working. Residents have told us so, businesses ... have made it clear to us that this is not the time to be experimenting, when, frankly, our high streets are facing their toughest test in decades."
Roger Lawson, campaign director at The Alliance of British Drivers, said one of his main concerns was a lack of consultation with residents and businesses, since councils were given emergency Covid powers to fast-track the schemes.
“If you take the Kensington High Street cycle lane, it was clear it was going to cause a lot more congestion because previously most of the road was two lanes,” he said.
“We are not opposed to cycle lanes where they can be put in without causing problems for other people but I think putting them down major roads is a big mistake.”
David Lawrie, a director at the National Private Hire and Taxi Association, claimed travel times, and consequently fares, had shot up since the lanes were introduced.
And Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, said he too did not oppose the schemes in principle, but that the speed at which they had been “rushed through” had resulted in “too many delivering little material benefit”.
He said London’s black cab trade had been hit “incredibly hard” by the pandemic and the cycle lanes were a “further devastating blow” as they had made it even more difficult to provide an effective service, leading “many struggling drivers to leave the trade they love”.
Duncan Dollimore, of Cycling UK, countered that creating conditions that encourage people to walk or cycle to town centres actually increases business by “around typically 30 per cent” because “they linger and spend more money” - although he admitted consultation with shopkeepers and businesses could have been better in some places.
Mr Dollimore said there was no evidence pop-up cycle lanes were directly to blame for emergency services vehicles getting stuck in traffic.
Both Simon Munk, of London Cycling Campaign, and Paul Tuohy, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, argued “no scheme is perfect” and that many need “tweaks” as well as months to bed in.
Responding to criticism of cycle lanes lying empty, Daisy Narayanan, Sustrans’ director of urbanism, said: “The fact is cycling is a far more efficient way of moving people so people move quicker and faster so there are times when you won’t see anyone but the evidence says it’s five times more efficient at moving people than a standard traffic lane.”
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