I’ve had opportunity to spend a reasonable amount of time in London over the years, though I’ve never lived there permanently. I’ve only previously cycled in London once as part of a Fat Tire Bike Tour, so I can’t say I’ve really experienced riding in London properly.
In recent years, it’s fair to say London has been getting much of the attention in the UK when it comes to talk about cycle infrastructure or the lack of. Certainly, it’s where we’ve seen the biggest spend. It’s also fair to say that issues around road safety, conflicts with other road users and fatalities have been covered in the media more in London than elsewhere.
Recently, while the family were doing other things, I got opportunity to spend a day riding in London. Using a Santander Cycles bike, I tried some of the infrastructure, both old and new. From this experience, I’ve taken what I’ve seen and distilled it into 10 things I’ve learned as a visitor to London.
There’s lots more I didn’t get to look, such as the Mini-Holland schemes, but I hope to get back at some point and do some further exploring.
1. Some of the new cycling infrastructure is of a very high standard
After years of mediocre excuses for cycling infrastructure, there’s finally some really fine examples of good quality cycleways going in that provide safe, segregated routes for bikes, away from the traffic.
The East-West Cycle Superhighway is one example of the new cycle infrastructure. It’s still under construction, but has a number of completed sections. This is a high quality bi-directional route, of a reasonable width and finished to a high standard.
There’s room for improvement still. The kerb on the river side for example, is the original pavement and isn’t sloped as it is on the road side. The pedestrian crossings seem a bit overkill, would zebra crossings have done the job here?
It remains to be seen how well this progresses at either end, but right now, the signs are good.
The experimental changes made on the Torrington Place to Tavistock Place route have taken what was a two way traffic route with a narrow bi-directional cycleway and turned it into a one way traffic route with separate cycleways in each direction.
This has been implemented by Camden Council as part of a 12 month trial, under a experimental traffic order, to provide enough capacity to cope with the demand. If the trial is successful, Camden Council could make the changes permanent.
Orcas have been used for the temporary westbound cycleway. Now I don’t believe these are appropriate for permanent cycleways as they don’t provide enough protection or are robust enough. But as part of a temporary trial, I think they’re fine.
I really like what Camden Council are doing with the trial on the Torrington Place to Tavistock Place route. I’d love to see TfGM and the Greater Manchester councils use trials to test out changes. This can be done much easily and cheaply, ensuring money isn’t wasted.
I’ve read over years how dangerous the Elephant & Castle roundabout is, and indeed it had topped the list of the most dangerous cycling junctions. This is about to change with the introduction of a segregated cycleways, that should make it much safer.
The cycleways are currently under construction and on the whole look to be reasonably well thought through. At this stage, it’s difficult to tell how successful it’ll be. Given the nature of the roundabout, so much will depend on the interaction with the traffic and timing and phases of the traffic lights.
The signs are good though.
Vauxhall Bridge is one of a number of bridges receiving upgrades to cycling infrastructure. As you can see from this post from London Cyclist in 2014, the bridges were in a pretty sorry state.
Vauxhall Bridge has received a new wide bi-directional cycleway, with kerb separation. This makes crossing the bridge much safer and pleasant, not having to interact with the traffic.
The new infrastructure is a really good start, but it is just a start. It’s clear that Boris Johnson’s successor needs to continue this work to make a real difference, as what’s currently planned is not enough.
2. Some of the existing cycling infrastructure is very poor
As with Manchester, there are plenty of examples of really poor quality cycling infrastructure, that are essentially just paint on road. As is well known, this doesn’t provide any protection and is usually strewn with queuing or parked vehicles.
Again, in common with Manchester, there’s plenty of examples of door zone cycle lanes that put bikes in direct conflict with parked and moving vehicles, and have no place on our roads.
3. Key roads with no infrastructure are best avoided
There are plenty of roads with no cycling infrastructure whatsoever, where you’re left to fight your way through the multitude of taxis and buses. This is particularly true around the city and Soho.
This is unpleasant at the best of times, but during rush hour it’s particularly bad. Quite often, you find yourself hemmed in by taxis and buses, breathing in really unpleasant and unhealthy fumes, trying to squeeze through. In situations like this, it’s easy to see how accidents happen.
4. Quieter roads are your best friend
There are actually tons of quite pleasant, fairly quiet roads you can use on your bike, meaning you can avoid much of the really unpleasant busy roads. The challenge as a visitor is finding your way through them, particularly as many are one way.
TfL’s Quietways should address this, but they’ve been judged a failure. Mainly as it’s been the individual boroughs who’ve implemented them at varying levels of quality, rather than TfL.
5. There’s still too many rat runs
To counter #4, many of the quieter roads provide quite effective rat runs for motorists, with various attempts of traffic calming doing very little to deter them or slow them down. This makes cycling on them a lot less pleasant, particularly on a narrow road with someone behind you revving and trying to overtake.
The Quietways scheme needs to be reworked to provide actual quiet routes, using filtered permeability to ensure traffic is very low and taking The Netherlands’ Fietsstraat (bike street) as inspiration.
6. There’s too many buses and taxis
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that many London streets, particularly in central areas are just not able to cope with the level of traffic using them. No amount of ‘improving flow’ will address this. In central London, it seems that nearly all this traffic really is buses and taxis.
The effect of this isn’t just clogged streets. It’s also the dangerously high levels of air pollution and high numbers of accidents, particularly involving buses.
The only real way to address this is to start removing access to many areas in central London to traffic. Mayoral candidates Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith have both committed to the pedestrianising of Oxford Street. This needs to be the start of a much more radical plan to remove traffic.
7. There’s abundant cycle parking on most streets
Coming from Manchester, the land that cycle parking forgot. I was genuinely surprised to see just how much cycle parking there is in London. With many streets having plenty of on-street cycle parking along their lengths and at junctions.
This makes it so much more practical to use a bike for everyday tasks such as shopping, and means you’re more likely to use a bike if you know you can park it without fuss.
In addition to this, I saw very few examples of motorbikes using cycle parking, particularly compared to Manchester, where it’s a big problem. This may partly be due to design, as many of the stands are parallel to the kerb, but I also suspect there’s better enforcement.
8. There are lots of folding bikes
A lot of this may be due to nature of people’s commutes. With people who live further out making use of a combination of public transport and bikes to get to and from work. But I definitely saw a significant number of folding bikes in my day in London, with the ‘Brompton Brigade’ being out in big numbers during rush hour.
I’m not sure this tells us much, but it’s worth noting, nonetheless.
9. There’s still way too many men in Lycra
During the day, I saw mostly tourists, leisure riders and couriers on bikes. This all changed during rush hour, when the cycleways were taken over by men in Lycra, on carbon road bikes, Strava devices at hand (may be a bit of a sweeping generalisation).
Now I’m not one to discourage anyone from cycling, including men in Lycra. But if we’re talking about having the kind of infrastructure to make cycling for transport (as opposed to sport) a normal activity for anyone, it’s clear there’s still some way to go.
I did notice a general increase in the level of aggression as the number of men in Lycra went up. Where what previously felt like a leisurely ride along The Embankment, turned into a race among the peloton.
10. All cities should have bike-sharing
I’ve had the opportunity to use a number of bike-sharing schemes, in Brussels, Boston, Liverpool and London, and I can say there shouldn’t be a single city without a plan to introduce one. They may not be particularly profitable, but they have so much hidden value, whether it’s to locals or visitors.
Being able to arrive in a city without a bike and have a convenient and cheap method of transport is a real game changer, though you do need good quality infrastructure to maximise its use.
I’m very disappointed that Manchester is so far behind on this, with still no real sign of a bike-sharing scheme on the horizon, just vague promises from GMCA and TfGM that the feasibility of it will be looked at. Given that Liverpool has proven it can work with their citybike scheme, I can’t see why we’re not moving ahead with one in Manchester.
The Santander Cycles scheme in London works well. The bikes are well-built and quite fun to ride. The process of getting a bike is pretty straightforward for a visitor. Though getting subsequent bikes could be streamlined, as you have to agree to the same warnings and T&Cs each time. Surely once is enough?
The spread of docking stations is reasonably good too, though there’s a few areas in central London where there isn’t quite enough. Some sort of inbuilt GPS/navigation system would be useful too and the mobile apps could be better when it comes to route planning.
A gallery of images I took during the day can be viewed in this post.