It is a familiar sight in London: the mayor, Boris Johnson, unmistakable with his mop of blond hair, pedaling through the streets on a beat-up Marin hybrid. He usually wears a business suit and doesn't always wear a helmet. He shuns slick biking garments in colours "not found in nature." He does not tear down the roadway like a bat out of hell, preferring to ride at what he calls a "very elderly French onion seller speed."
Now he wants more Londoners to be like him – committed, but not fanatical, cyclists who see the bike simply as a practical way of getting around. His ambitious new bike plan, announced earlier this month, aims to "de-Lycrafy cycling" and make it part of everyday life in the capital.
"I want it to be something you feel comfortable doing in your ordinary clothes, something you hardly think about. I want more women cycling, more older people cycling, more black and minority ethnic Londoners cycling," he wrote when announcing the plan. "As well as the admirable Lycra-wearers, and the enviable east Londoners on their fixed-gear bikes, I want more of the kind of cyclists you see in Holland, going at a leisurely pace on often-clunky steeds."
It is just the kind of message a big-city mayor should be sending. Although more and more people in cities are choosing to travel by bike, it is still a minority pursuit. For the majority, it is too scary, too uncomfortable or too inconvenient to justify leaving the car behind.
Mr. Johnson aims to change all that. His plan promises a staggering $1.4-billion over 10 years to build bike paths, create bike parking lots and re-engineer intersections for bikes. To put that in perspective, Toronto is spending $90-million over the same period.
In future, says Mr. Johnson, who in 2010 launched the popular bike-sharing system known by Londoners as Boris Bikes, "cycling will be treated not as niche, marginal, or an afterthought, but as what it is: an integral part of the transport network, with the capital spending, road space and traffic planners' attention befitting that role."
The flagship of his plan is a 24-kilometre bike "superhighway," separated from traffic and running from west to east through the heart of the city. It is expected to be the longest of its kind in Europe. Part of it will take over a lane of an elevated highway, the Westway. As Mr. Johnson puts it, "the ultimate symbol of how the urban motorway tore up our cities will become the ultimate symbol of how we are claiming central London for the bike."
His newly appointed cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, told me the bike plan aims not only to make life "less Darwinian" for cyclists, but to make life more pleasant for everyone else. With more cyclists "there's less traffic, less competition for parking, more seats on the Tube."
Compared with other transport infrastructure, he says, cycle paths are cheap. London is spending $900-million to expand one key station of its subway system, the Tube.
A Torontonian can only look on London's ambitions with envy. Big-city mayors around the world, from New York to Chicago to Paris, are rolling out big new cycling networks. Ours made headlines by tearing up an existing path on Jarvis Street.
Although this city has made some progress as well – the first real separated lane has opened on Sherbourne Street, and others are in the works – there is no leadership from the top. When I asked the chair of the public works committee, Denzil Minnan-Wong, whether Mayor Rob Ford supports the city's bike plans, he would only say "you'll have to ask the mayor that."
The lesson of London is that you don't have to be some kind of lefty to see the wisdom of promoting cycling. In London's last election for mayor, notes Mr. Johnson, "cycling policy united the political right, who applaud the freedom and individualism it embodies, and the left."
Besides, he says, a century ago four in 10 Londoners travelled by bike and "like any good Conservative, I want to turn the clock back."