Ashok Sinha: Is London the 'best big city in the world'?

London Cycling Campaign chief executive Ashok Sinha asks if the capital’s standing is improving against other big cities.

Is London the ‘best big city in the world’? Much depends on how you define ‘best’ and ‘big’. Nevertheless, that pinnacle is the goal Mayor Boris Johnson has set for the capital, which tends to suggest he doesn’t think London is the best just yet. (Trivia alert: London is around the 25th largest city in the world, depending on how you measure it; Birmingham, the UK’s second largest, ranks about 150th).

But if London isn’t the best big city in the world, then why not? Boris will have his own criteria (which quite normally for politicians of all stripes he has kept vague), so maybe we should posit our own. Even if you don’t buy into all this political machismo (my skyscrapers are taller than your skyscrapers) there are good reasons to ask what it is that we can do to make London the best it can be for everyone who lives and works here, and for everyone who passes through it. (Or indeed for anybody, anywhere, who is affected by London’s international reach — from the financial markets to our carbon emissions.)

Latest indicators for London
One set of candidate benchmarks was published last month by the London Sustainable Development Commission (not to be confused with its UK namesake, set up in the early Blair years and sacrificed in the coalition government’s bonfire of the quangos). Most readers will probably never have heard of it or will be hazy as to what it does, but for over a decade the LSDC has been beavering away in City Hall, establishing indicators for London’s ‘sustainability’ and assessing progress in relation to them.

And for the wonks: the LSDC uses a reworking of the UN’s classical definition of Sustainable Development, namely “ensuring we have a better quality of life now and for the future, whilst protecting and enhancing the Earth’s resources”. Just in case you were wondering.

The latest issuing from the Commissioners — who are a mix of folk from public agencies, business, the NGO world and politics — is entitled London’s Quality of Life Indicators 2012. It spans (take a deep breath, which you should because, apparently, our air quality is getting better — but more of that later) no fewer than 33 environmental, social and economic indicators, including politically charged issues such as crime and housing affordability. Each indicator has one or more numerical measures attached (eg traffic volume is quantified in billions of vehicle-kms per annum) with a traffic light system to indicate trends to the good or ill.

If so inclined, I’d recommend you have a look at it for yourselves. Cycling itself isn’t an indicator (I’ll come back to that), but there are indicators that are relevant to the experiences and concerns of cyclists: it may not feel like it when sat in a cloud of diesel fumes but our air quality has improved (if still woefully short of what Londoners deserve and what EU regulations require); travel to school by bike is up (but the proportion walking to school has declined) and motor traffic volumes are falling (although a quick delve into TfL data shows substantial regional variation, with central London experiencing the greatest falls compared to virtually unchanged volumes in outer London).

The good news headline is that 17 of the 33 indicators are on a positive trend (ignoring any weighting conundrums: are income inequality and volunteering rate equally important, for example?), although areas of deterioration such as increasing voter apathy, decreasing business survival rates and increasing fuel poverty are of serious concern.

Cycling’s wider impact
So, even if only from a cycling perspective, we should be pleased, right? Well yes we should, insofar as cyclists are breathing (slightly) cleaner air and jostling with (a modicum) less motor traffic. But should we be satisfied? Of course not. We know road danger — real or perceived — is the main barrier to people cycling more or at all, and this is suppressing the huge latent demand there is for cycling and hence all benefits cycling brings. Which leads to a broader point. It may sound parochial but I’d argue that the proportion of journeys made by bike should be identified as a key sustainable development indicator by itself. Here at LCC we genuinely believe, as we said in last year’s Love London, Go Dutch campaign, that our city will be made “more liveable for everyone” by making our streets as “safe and inviting for cycling” as they are in the Netherlands.

On that basis, action to promote cycling then becomes a means for achieving other sustainable development outcomes (eg lower ecological footprint and higher employment rates) not just a goal in itself. As Boris himself said not so long ago, cycling is “arguably the single most important tool for making London the best big city in the world”.

We wholeheartedly agree.


This article first appeared in the April / May 2013 issue of London Cyclist magazine, delivered free to LCC members every two months.