Cities are a mix of the old and the more recent. Street patterns in particular may persist for long stretches of time, indeed for well over a thousand years in some instances. But over time, the way we use those streets changes.

In London’s old centre, known as the City of London, many of the narrow medieval streets are the same as those described by Samuel Pepys in his seventeenth century diaries and were old even when he wrote about his daily travels around the city, at first on foot, but when Secretary to the Navy, in his important status symbol, a personal horse-drawn carriage painted appropriately with sea scenes.

Even older are some of the roads that head out of the centre of London, slicing through Central London, Inner London, Outer London and beyond, to the far corners of Britain. They date from when the Roman legions would have marched along them. Today, within the bounds of the capital, these roads are usually clogged with motor traffic – for example, the Edgware Road.

But London was primarily a city built in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and most of London’s roads date from these more recent times. One very specifically nineteenth century road is the Embankment on the north bank of the Thames in Westminster. It was built when the river was confined into its present much-narrowed channel. In recent decades, like most nineteenth century streets, the it has been a conduit for motor traffic.

Something quite revolutionary is happening along the Embankment these days and it involves that mode of transport that has played only a tenuous, marginal role in London in recent decades. Along the Embankment, and in a few other locations, the humble bicycle is getting its own infrastructure.

I hasten to add that this ‘revolution’ is not introducing any great innovation to cycle infrastructure. High-quality cycle networks are new to London. But not to Copenhagen or Utrecht. All the same, in London it is a challenge to deeply ingrained patterns of use of the public road system.

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New cycleway in development along the Embankment, near the Houses of Parliament [photo: Transport for London]

London’s street culture is severely dominated by motor vehicles which race from one set of traffic lights or traffic queue to the next hold up. Motor traffic is so dense in the centre that average speed is 13kph or less. However, attained speeds, as a convoy of vans, taxis and cars rush from one stopping point to the next, can by as high as 80kph and on many heavily trafficked roads 65kph is commonly achieved between traffic signals. Only congestion limits speed.

This pattern of driving is seriously problematic. There are added air quality consequences from fuel burned during lots of rapid acceleration, deceleration and concomitant idling. Also it degrades the public sphere for pedestrians, and the few who dare to cycle, making cycling a singularly unpleasant experience when compared with cycling in the Netherlands or Denmark.

The high speeds are bolstered, formally and informally, by a legal system that encourages fast and aggressive driving.

There is, for example, a rule in the Highway Code that motorists should give priority to pedestrians crossing a road into which the motorist wants to turn. This will not strike many European readers as anything unusual. However, in the United Kingdom, though this rule exists, it is universally ignored and entirely unenforced.

As a pedestrian, if there is not a traffic light system that gives you the right to cross the road, it can be very difficult to get from one pavement to the next at junctions. For many Londoners the rule is ‘wait for a gap in the motor traffic and then RUN!’

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To cross the road in London: wait for gap in the motor taffic and then RUN! [photo: Paul Gannon]

Traffic engineers make matters worse by chipping away at the pavement to provide motors with easier turning angles – resulting in faster turning by drivers. All this is so deeply ingrained that even pedestrian lobby groups don’t appreciate the nature and scale of the problem.

Change on London’s streets always generates resistance. The few kilometres of cycleways currently being introduced in London have generated a hysterical response from the old enemy of change, the taxi lobby, backed by the tiny minority of people who live in Inner and Central London and hold firmly to the view that ‘one simply must have a car to get around in London’.

A proposal to stop motor traffic driving through one of London’s premier parks, Regent’s Park (while still allowing motor access to the Zoo and other destinations within the park), is raising another storm of protest. One of the organisers of the protest wrote, “If this goes ahead, none of us will be able to get around London and theatres, art galleries and restaurants, not to mention commerce, that make this the amazing city that it is, will all die out, as no-one will be able to get from one side of London to the other. There will no route from this area [Primrose Hill] to Theatre-land, unless we are prepared to sit in hours of traffic along Prince Albert Road, which will cause the most dreadful pollution and endanger the health of us all.”

Such protesters routinely ascribe to bicycles and to cycleways the pollution actually caused by the burning of fossil fuel to power motor vehicles. Further, they label the space-efficient bicycle as the cause of all congestion of motor vehicles in London.

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Opposition to plans to remove through traffic from within a park

The mayoral candidate of the Conservative Party, Zac Goldsmith, promised to subject the cycleways to a special test – which has never been applied to any other transport mode – namely to see to what extent cycleways had worsened congestion and pollution and, if necessary, to “rip them out”.

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, (Lord) Nigel Lawson, told the House of Lords that the new cycleways were, “doing more damage to London than almost anything since the Blitz” (as the Second World War bombing of London is called). A taxi driver announced on twitter that he had driven Lawson (who is actually resident in France) along the Embankment and that Lawson “couldn’t believe it” when he saw a proper European-style cycleway so close to the Houses of Parliament.

One of the running themes of those opposing new cycleways in London is that they attract ‘fast, lycra-clad cyclists’. The mayor of London, who approved the new cycleways, helped promulgate that myth both directly and indirectly. He did this by supplementing the cycleways with a mishmash of what have been called ‘quietways’, aimed at ‘less confident’ cyclists. These look, as expected when they were announced, to be a monumental failure for two fundamental reasons. First, they are based on the flawed concept that there needs to be different types of network for different cyclists. Second, they are actually favoured by the mayor’s office and local borough administrations because they are cheap, largely symbolic (being implemented with minimal engineering, relying on paint and signs) and, critically, insufficient if any, motor traffic reduction.

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So-called ‘Cycle Quietways’ are used by cars, vans and lorries as well as cyclists and pedestrians [photo: James Watthey]

On the other hand, even before they are fully open, the cycleways (standard European style cycle paths remember) are already proving immensely popular with the ordinary person who wants to cycle and some are even willing to let their children use them.

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A new sight on the roads in Central London – thanks to cycleways [photo: Mark Treasure]

Something, that just two months ago was inconceivable, is now a practical possibility – cycling with a child alongside the Thames to the Houses of Parliament, and maybe soon to Regent’s Park and other places too.

And, what, if anything, will the provision of cycleways do for the poor pedestrian in London? One councillor, Vincent Stops, fears that cycleways will be ‘trip hazards’ for pedestrians. In his view dedicated cycle infrastructure will ‘always disappoint’, regardless of a multitude of cyclists telling him that the well built cycleways very definitely don’t disappoint. His fellow councillor, Rita Krishna, has expressed her disquiet at the idea that ‘public space’ should be devoted to cycling inherently at the cost, as she sees it, of the pedestrian.

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The environment of London is potentially being improved: this scheme may be introduced on Tavistock Place within a few months [image: London Borough of Camden]

My view is that pedestrians will benefit in lots of ways from reducing motor dominance of the streets: fewer fumes, lower speeds, less space needed, plus all the social and health benefits that ‘active urban travel’ offers.

And, critically, cyclists can help pedestrians regain the priority at junctions that has been lost to motorists and which remains the biggest problem facing those who try to walk around London. Cycleways lend themselves to installing ‘continuous footways’ over junctions where both cyclists and pedestrians have formal priority over turning motors, aided by the need for motor drivers to slow down to negotiate the turning.

This would be an enormous advance for pedestrians as junctions are the place they are most likely to be struck by a motor. Again, this is something that many, or even most, continental Europeans will take for granted. But for one of Europe’s great cities, London, it truly is a big step.

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Cycleways offer the opportunity to starting enforcing the Highway Code’s pedestrian priority at junctions [photo: Mark Treasure]

London is a pretty large city. Change will happen fitfully and patchily. But with the Central London cycleways we are potentially witnessing the start of another historic change in the way London’s streets are shared and used. Motor vehicles have lorded it over the city’s streets for several decades. But it’s time to start thinking of a pattern of use that is fit for the 21st Century.

Campaigners are feeling confident, and lots of London businesses and other organisations such as colleges and medical institutions, have backed the case for high-quality cycle infrastructure. So we may well be seeing a lot more cycling in London in the coming years if more cycleways are installed, and hopefully we can introduce significant improvements in conditions for pedestrians along the way.