One of the ironies of Brexit is a conspicuous and controversial European-inspired legacy for which Boris Johnson must take much responsibility from his days as mayor of London.

Johnson was a leading figure in the campaign to leave the EU and since the Brexit referendum he has been British foreign secretary, deploying his trademark side swipe rhetoric in pursuit of a full British break with the EU.

It is on the streets of London – right in front of the Houses of Parliament indeed – that Johnson’s mayoral legacy is at its most prominent. Thanks to Johnson there are now a couple of classic European style cycle paths in Central London.

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The new Dutch style cycleway along the Embankment in London (photo: TfL)

They have proved immensely successful in boosting the numbers of people cycling in central London. Cyclists now make up 70% of traffic on the nearby cycleway on Blackfriar’s Bridge. Just under 4,700 cyclists used the bridge in the morning peak period. The count for the Embankment topped 3,600 cyclists in the same peak period.

However, Johnson’s cycleways have aroused the ire of the Tory establishment. The eurosceptic and climate change denying former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson (a migrant living in France) visited the House of Lords and, deploying his trademark lack of connection with reality, told his fellow peers that Johnson’s cycleways were ‘doing more damage to London than almost anything since the Blitz,’ (as the Second World War bombing of London is known).

And Johnson has revealed how he was regularly berated by Tory MPs and Lords who resented his providing cycling infrastructure.

Protected cycleways have long been common in several European countries, but London has equally long been largely antipathetic towards cycling, with only grudging provision of ineffective painted cycle lanes.

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Traditional British cycle infrastructure – poor design, ineffective and limited to paint

The result of traditional policy is that the UK has a small number of people cycling and a cycling profile that is dominated by young adult males. This contrasts with countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands where there are not only many more cyclists, but also a balance of the genders, as well as more younger and more older cyclists – due to the safe, attractive cycle facilities.

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Statistics demonstrate conclusively that British style of ‘mixing it’ with motors leads to ‘young adult males’ dominating the cycling profile, unlike the Netherlands where there are many more young and older cyclists and also a balance of males and females. Cycling is also significantly safer with segregated cycleways. 

In recent years, awareness of the what’s available for people to choose to cycle in some of our European neighbours has led to a grass roots inspired demand for change in UK policy. This raises the important question of how ideas are disseminated across national boundaries and the role of ‘informal’ technology transfer as result of tourism and also of people working in other countries within Europe.

The spread of ideas about a part-technical, part-sociological system, such as providing for cycling as a serious transport mode, is often obstructed by national stereotyping. ‘Dutch people cycle because it’s their culture, we can’t replicate that here,’ is a persistent refrain.

Cycleways look quite natural on the streets of Copenhagen or Utrecht, but few find it easy to conceive of how such cycleways could possibly fit into the traditional road design of the UK. But things are changing.

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Planned cycleways for the upgrade of the ‘Taviplace’ road layout (currently on hold while a public inquiry is held)

It’s not just a matter of mass movement of tourism with people seeing plenty of cyclists in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. The ability for people to work in other EU countries with ease, means that tens of thousands of British people have lived and worked in Denmark, Flanders or the Netherlands over the past few decades. Many have come back with an understanding that it is primarily a matter of policy, not of ingrained culture, that determines how we travel.

The change has been driven by the grassroots. This was necessary in Britain because, way back in the 1930s, the British cycle lobby, organised as the Cycle Touring Club (CTC), took a stance against protected cycleways. This policy was handed down over generations of cycle campaigners and was rigorously enforced.

Groups such as the CTC and the London Cycling Campaign (LCC) have indeed only recently shifted position to welcoming cycleways under pressure from their grassroots members. Certainly in the case of the LCC it was members persistently calling for the adoption of the European way – with an explicit ‘Go Dutch’ campaign.

It may not rank with the issues of hard or soft Brexit and the like, but we can discern the way in which grassroots British cyclists rejected the special (and ineffective) British way and consciously adopted the ‘Continental approach.’

The cycleways in Camden in inner London (the Royal College Street cycleways and what has become known as the Tavistock Place scheme) installed in 1999/2000 were consciously based on a model borrowed from the Hague, the seat of government of the Netherlands.

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Roygl College Street, Camden, phase 1, 1999. 

In more recent times several more cycleways have been installed in London (alongside poor quality, i.e. painted ‘Quietways’) following determined campaigning by activists.

Cycle campaigner Jim Davis says that a few years ago, ‘I was an information officer at CTC and thought cycling mixed with traffic was the only way. British bicycle infrastructure was always designed as an afterthought. But I gradually started to hear more about the Netherlands.’

‘I saw no organisation in Britain that represented bikes as transport, rather than as sport and leisure, and I wanted to fill that gaping hole. That’s why the Dutch Bike was chosen as the logo of what we called the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain.’

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A classic Dutch urban cycleway. 

‘The Netherlands and Denmark had already set up Cycling Embassies. However, they were set up to promote the Dutch and Danish domestic achievements abroad, rather than to lobby their own governments. I set up the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain as a tongue in cheek nod to the fact that we need all the help we can get and have much to learn from just across the North Sea.’

Davis began by organising a trip to see Dutch cycling facilities. A group of three went by ferry from Harwich, taking their bikes with them, and then cycled to Rotterdam.

‘It was my first experience of cycling in the Netherlands. I was genuinely crying with laughter at the sheer simplicity. Try riding away from Harwich with the same comfort.’

“It was my first experience of cycling in the Netherlands. I was genuinely crying with laughter at the sheer simplicity. Try riding away from Harwich with the same comfort.”

Philp Loy is a principal engineer managing cycling schemes for WSP Parson Brinckerhoff and also a member of the LCC. He recalls how ‘a visit to Copenhagen for a cycling conference in 2010 was the culmination of long-considered ideas about what really was the best approach to promote cycling as a means of transport.’

‘Up until then, my cycle campaigning work involved a lot of discussion and debate about whether ‘cycle tracks’ were a good or bad thing. However, there were many who argued for the ‘Continental approach’, and it was the combination of these ideas and seeing them implemented in European cities that finally persuaded me of their merit.’

Organisations such as the Dutch and Danish Cycling Embassies are important to such technology transfer by influencing politicians and professionals. ‘It’s not about us just coming and designing one or two streets and then leaving. We want to help build and develop their own skill and experience,’ says Mirjam Borsboom, director of the Cycling Embassy of the Netherlands.

‘It’s not a question of ‘cut and paste’ the Dutch approach, but there are fundamental features such as separating traffic where motors travel at 50kph or more. I always say that you can’t do it cheaply because you need vision and design.’

“It’s not a question of ‘cut and paste’ the Dutch approach, but there are fundamental features such as separating traffic where motors travel at 50kph or more. I always say that you can’t do it cheaply because you need vision and design.”

The transfer of ideas about the role of cycling in the future urban environment is not limited to the Britain.

Cian Ginty of the campaigning organisation, Irish Cycle, says, ‘campaigners are, as they are everywhere, a mixed bunch. Some see the Netherlands as a good example of a number of examples across Europe. Others, including myself, see the Netherlands as the best example and the example we should be mainly following if we want mass levels of cycling.’

‘In 2015 I led a group of eighteen people on a cycling study tour in the Netherlands, a mix of councillors, campaigners, consultants and Department of Transport officials. The positives from that so far is that the councillors are looking for better standards and some campaigners asking why can’t we do it more like the Dutch.’

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Classic Dutch style cycleways allow for easy servicing of businesses – it’s often imagined in the UK that segregated cycleways prevent servicing of businesses, but those who actually been the the Netherlands or Denmark have seen that this is not true.  

The transformation in British cycle campaigning policy has been an enthusiastic adoption of the idea that we can learn from our European neighbours and that we do benefit from participation in a wider European community both officially and at grassroots levels.

Brexit may not seriously damage intra-European tourism, but it may well reduce opportunities for people to live and work in other countries and to discover aspects of those countries that are worth importing back home.

More seriously, it may be that the inward-looking mind set may spread its tentacles in British politics and lead to a rejection of all things ‘European’, making it more difficult to campaign to ‘Go Dutch.’ Mark Treasure, chair of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, says, ‘I don’t know if Brexit is going to be helpful as it could become less easy to transfer ideas and people.’

Johnson’s successor as mayor of London, Labour party member Sadiq Khan, has promised to continue his predecessor’s cycling policies – but he is showing signs of rolling back on plans Johnson left in the pipeline.

What an irony it would be if Eurosceptic Johnson’s European-inspired legacy of a high-quality cycle network were allowed to wither by the pro-Europe Khan.

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