Amsterdam was not always a cycling paradise and London is trying to get there.

This is an open thread.

19 Replies to “Sunday Open Thread: Why Isn’t Cycling Normal in London?”

  1. I really am curious about why England has been so slow to “normalize” bicycle-riding, compared with other European countries.

    I have a theory of my own about the United States, which is that the wealth and size of our country made it both possible and reasonable for the average person to have one or more cars of our own, before any other country could so widely afford them.

    Could also venture a guess that England’s climate has long made transit vehicles a lot more attractive way to travel in England than bikes. Now. For both the US and England, we’re finally headed into a stage where chief obstacle to mobility is the number of cars themselves.

    Might be history’s accident that the Germans, the Scandinavians, the French, and the Russians came out of the nineteenth century so rich in rail, from streetcars to streamliners, that they rest content with what they’ve got.

    Rambling, I know, because I really am puzzled. But main thought I want to leave is that from here on, critical dynamic is that the world has reached a point where the very number of cars is main reason nothing and nobody can move. And it’s also rapidly sinking in that of all the modes, cars will be the hardest mode to find or build extra room for.

    Like any angry, puzzled legislator, I yield the rest of my time.


    1. The UK invented railroads and urban subways, so it had a lot of them. Isn’t the London Underground the one with the most miles of track or the most stations in the world.? Then there;s the Overground and Crossrail and the DLR and frequent commuter trains, each of which alone is more than most US cities have. The UK in the 90s had the reputation of the worst railroads in Europe, but when I was there in 2002 with a Britrail pass, I found several high-speed lines, hourly service on even the little Manchester-Blackpool shuttle, and respetctable-quality trains in Edinburgh, Crewe, Bristol, Brighton, and Leeds. In Belfast the regional trains were run-down but they did run every hour or two. The “worst railroads in Europe” are ten times better than what we have in the US outside New York and DC. And they were almost as good as Germany.

      The US went big on railraoads, interurbans, and streetcars in the late 1800s, and for a time had the most miles of track in the world. So the two largest English-speaking countries led the world in rail and could have kept their dominance but turned away from it. From what I’ve heard, England ripped out its streetcars even more thoroughly than the US did, but its national and regional rail network held on until the 1960s when it succumbed to budget cuts and semi-privatization. In the 90s or so it turned back to rail and refurbished some lines. And since 2000 London has been building subways and commuter rail non-stop, and says it must to keep up with the population increase or it will melt down with overcrowding. That must be because of the mayoral restructure as it said in the movie, finally it had somebody responsible for transportation in all the city.

      Both the UK and the US are more laissez-faire and privatized than continental European countries, so their attitude toward rail and weakness for car domination/dependency are part of a larger phenomenon. The UK is roughly the size and density of Germany, yet they went opposite ways on trains. The US is similar to Russia with its large land area and sparsely-populated regions, yet they went opposite ways too. The point is that the UK and US could have kept their rail networks and added to them after WWII, but chose not to. US railrods are also unusual in that they’re privately-owned freight-rail networks, and that’s one thing the US has kept dominance in. Instead of pursuing high-speed rail, the US railroads focused on cheap low-speed commodity traffic, the Wal-Mart of the freight market.

      I never felt the need for bikes in London. There’s a tube station or DLR station within a ten-minute walk of practically everywhere, and the gaps are being filled (mostly in south London, which i gather wasn’t as populated when the original Underground lines were built). So I’m not sure it’s as necessary as in Amsterdam.

      The difference in Russia and Eastern Europe is that Communism focused on the collective, and trains are collective transportation, and are proletarian. Private cars are an individual benefit, and facilitate inequality between the haves and have-nots. And Russia was poor because it put all its money into the military and its economy was inefficient, so it couldn’t have built a freeway-based infrastructure and cars for everybody even if it wanted to. And the apartment buildings have no space for parking; in the 90s they managed to retrofit only a dozen surface spaces for hundreds of units.

      So the Eastern Block kept their railroads and streetcars and commuter rail (elektrichka) and subways, so in 1990 they were ready to go. You can see the contrast between eastern and western Berlin, and eastern and western Germany. The east has all their streetcars, while the west turned away from them, though they did keep their railroads and TOD construction. The UK didn’t keep its railroads and and TOD construction as much, and the US even less.

      1. It’s not like the ripped out streetcars were replaced with nothing. They were replaced with buses. Judging by a picture I was in the U-Village QFC of a legacy streetcar going up the Ave., it didn’t look like the actual mobility provided by those streetcars was any better than the modern buses. Each legacy streetcar was about the size of King County Metro’s tiniest buses. They didn’t get exclusive lanes, or any kind of priority. They got stuck in traffic. And, with the streetcars stuck to their tracks, they were powerless to go around any kind of obstruction, even just a couple of inches (including parallel-parking cars, which happened constantly).

        I also did a quick internet search and was unable to determine how often Seattle’s legacy streetcars actually ran, and for how many hours per day. This is a point that the streetcar-nostalgia people seem to consistently ignore. There’s an implicit assumption that it doesn’t matter how often a service comes, as long as its running on rails. This is the same mentality that leads to dubious projects like today’s streetcars, including the CCC.

        Yes, the old streetcars are dead. But, we, in all likelihood, have better service, in the form of buses, replacing it. We should not complain.

      2. The streetcars had the right of way over cars. That was one of the reasons the automobile lobby wanted to get rid of them. You still see it in San Francisco with the cable cars and Toronto with the streetcars: when it comes, the cars have to stop around it.

        Their size was tiny, but Seattle’s population was tiny. Naturally they’d have been modernized and enlarged if we had kept them. As for frequency, my impression is at peak they ran every couple minutes. Especially the north Seattle ones which all funneled to downtown on the same street. When people didn’t have cars they were riding the streetcars all the time.

      3. They only had right of way over cars in the street when stopping for passengers, like a school bus. Otherwise, they got stuck in the increasing traffic unless they had a reserved unpaved private trackway.

      4. > So I’m not sure it’s as necessary as in Amsterdam.

        As an Amsterdam resident, I’d like to note that cycling isn’t really necessary here, either. The tram network is extensive and the city is dense and compact; my wife pretty much uses walking and transit exclusively. When the weather get terrible, there is a large mode shift from bikes to transit.

        But some of us like the autonomy, speed, and (perceived) speed of our own vehicle. Here, we take that desire to the cycle paths. Because they exist, thanks to some successful protests in the 70’s. (Not unlike those that stopped further highway expansion in Seattle, but they put us on a more virtuous feedback loop here. I believe being flat deserves a lot of credit for that, even if e-bikes make it less relevant today.)

  2. Nice video. The most bike-friendly cities I’ve visited are Berlin and Copenhagen. I lived in London for a bit, and it didn’t compare to those cities. The key is to essentially make the bike paths an extension of the sidewalk, instead of a no-persons-zone between parked cars and car traffic.

    Instead of being compared to a slow car, bikes should be treated as fast walking, so they should be at grade with sidewalks, like in this photo:

    There should be about ten more Burke Gilman caliber paths in Seattle, but on all two-way streets there should be bike paths at a different grade than car traffic to encourage more boring <2 mile local journeys.

    One thing I appreciated in London were a few gates that would make some streets dead ends to slow down traffic, but still make them accessible to bikes and people walking. Fire brigades were able to open the gates to get through if they needed. These were only in posh neighborhoods that had the political clout to get rid of cut-through traffic, but I always think about them when a car driver gets impatient with me using a "Neighborhood Greenway" here.

  3. This elevated bike path in China, at about 5 miles long, claims to be the longest in the world. I would gladly pay more in taxes for a system of elevated bike paths.

    1. So would I, Sam. While I’m also helping my country pay to remedy the subject of some footage that came onscreen right after this absolutely fantastic bicycle piece.

      But as part of my transit taxes, would gladly pay my share for the wonderful English cast of the bike video to take up permanent residence in my part of Washington State.

      If only my Government at all levels would learn to take this approach every time it asks for money and cooperation, maybe out of nostalgia for its penal-colony past Australia will also relieve us of Tim Eyman.

      Or should we offer to trade him for Boris Johnson? Bruce?


  4. Someone told me that Sound transit is eliminating weekend service on link, due to budget shortcuts and cutting weekday service by half due to severe budget shortfalls is this true? I hope so… I’m an Uber driver and I sure as heck can use the extra earnings!

    1. If Sound Transit was short on funds, I would expect operations for existing Link lines to be the last thing that gets cut. If push comes to shove, cuts are mostly likely be either capital or bus operations, not Link operations.

    2. Whoever said that is pulling your leg. The impact to ST’s budget is around 15%, not 50%. Building rail extensions costs three times more than operations, so it will mostly come out of ST3 projects. ST has only started deliberating what to do; it will probably take several months and require public hearings. Metro’s cuts are planned for the March service change, although we don’t know what they are yet. If ST were to cut service so drastically it would be on the front page of the paper, and the governments would be in regionwide crisis figuring out what to do if half the Link passengers can’t get onto the trains. It’s almost at capacity peak hours now. And there aren’t enough Uber drivers or space on the road for all of them. And most of them couldn’t afford to commute round trip on Uber five days a week, so they wouldn’t be paying you.

    3. “Someone told me …” “Eliminate weekend Link service.” “Cut weekday service by half.”

      Sounds believable to me. Doesn’t sound like a troll at all.

      1. I’ve started wondering if maybe there’s some kind of rumor going around or a group with an agenda, because this is the third person in asking about or promoting an unbelievable amount of cuts to ST and/or Metro.

        The impact to ST and Seattle is in the 10-20% range. That’s akin to the recession cuts in 2014, and since they’re starting from a higher 2019 base, the net level won’t be as far. The biggest issue is wiping out some of the Seattle-funded gains, which is equivalent to some of the 15-minute additions evenings & Sundays and the possible loss of night owl. Not halving Link or bus service.

  5. I have been taking the bus past the Convention Center Bus Station. I have noticed that the new part of the WSCC is going up fast. But you can still see the old bus tunnel entrance. Are they going to leave that open? They could easily have that be a secret emergency entrance through the Convention Center underground garage. After about 6 years nobody is going to remember it. Just curious.

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