If you live in a big city, the chances are that you share Transport for London’s dream of quiet, clean, and open streets.
Cars are noisy, polluting, congesting and, for the most part, simply unnecessary. They’re a leading cause of air pollution in the capital, contributing to 9,500 premature deaths in 2015 alone and, embarrassingly, have made Marylebone Road Europe’s worst nitrogen dioxide hotspot.
The Congestion Charge (£11.50 per day), T-charge (£10 per day), and incoming Ultra Low Emission Zone (£12.50 per day) have succeeded in turning London’s roads into the domain of white vans and the super-rich; but congestion has remained stagnant since 2013.
The supposed trade-off for the rest of us is London’s network of Cycle Superhighways, on which Boris Johnson spent £79m a year and Sadiq Khan will spend a whopping £154m per year during his term. He aims to get us making 1.5m journeys by bicycle everyday. But given that the percentage of Londoners who commuted by bike only increased by 1.35 per cent between 2001 and 2011 despite over £1bn pounds of investment, the mayor is a long way from getting Londoners peddling.
Brave the cycle lanes around Blackfriars Bridge on a weekday morning and you’ll find yourself overrun by a grunting, sweaty peloton of middle-aged men in lycra (MAMILs) – hardly an attractive proposition to the families and casual cyclists for whom the superhighways were developed in imitation of the cycling cultures of Denmark and The Netherlands.
This massive investment in London’s cycling infrastructure is underpinned by TfL’s contention that 6.5m journeys are potentially cyclable everyday. But to my mind, this claim is clearly flawed.
That’s because, for the majority of Londoners, the health benefits, savings on the cost of public transport (both financial and to our sanity), and convenience of travelling from door-to-door are mitigated by the fact that cycling to work often leaves you sweaty and dishevelled. It might be an advantageous look for Boris Johnson, but it certainly isn’t for most of us.
There is hope, though, for those who want to escape the hell of commuting by Underground, but who’d rather not peel off sweaty lycra on arrival at work: personal electric vehicles. The prospect of a clean, quick, and comfortable commute from door-to-door, without the requirement for parking space or a work-place shower, isn’t a distant dream, but a contemporary reality.
“Rideables”, as they are known, are not intended to supersede bicycles, but to democratise access to the cycle lanes that we are all, ultimately, paying for. They come in many forms, from electrified versions of traditional systems – the Emicro push scooter and Evolve skateboard, for example – to less conventional personal transportation solutions like the URB-E.
All three will hit 15mph, charge fully from a household plug in about an hour, take you over 10 miles on a single charge, and are small enough to be carried on public transport or stored under a desk. Many will also hold your shopping, your children, or your deliveries.
The problem? They are illegal on all British roads, cycle lanes, and pavements.
London’s population rose by 13 per cent between 2001 and 2011 and is projected to reach 10.5m by 2041. The pressure that 2m additional commuters will put on London’s already strained transport infrastructure could be eased by getting more people into cycle lanes, however they choose to use them. Giving people access to their streets by removing legal red-tape would help delay the staggering £1bn cost of new underground stations, not to mention increasing the catchment areas of existing stations.
Rideables are not a panacea for democratising metropolitan transport – but then, there is no single solution. At about £1,000 each, none of the vehicles proposed above are accessible, like bicycles. Part of the reason for their high cost is the law’s stranglehold on a potentially enormous market. Faced with the daily possibility of the confiscation of their expensive new commuting vehicle, few but the very rich will invest in a rideable as a daily tool; that restricts the size of the market, and so disincentivises the investment and economies of scale that would lower the price of rideables for all.
Since the legal status of electric bicycles was clarified in 2015, prices have fallen within reach of the average commuter; rideables would no doubt experience similar price reductions while competing with electric bicycles, lowering prices across the board.
Brompton, the ubiquitous small-wheeled folding bicycle company, has been manufacturing in London since their inventor identified the enfranchising potential of a personal transport solution compatible with public transport. The company has since grown 1,500 per cent, created 115 jobs, and been awarded the Queen’s Medal for Enterprise.
Brompton were the future once; it’s now time to allow rideables to compete – starting with legalisation.
Alfie Shaw tweets as @shaw_alfie.