Thursday 21 May 2020

London gears up for more bike riders

It's official. Bike riding is very much on - even if other activities are off. And many people have been gearing up for it in this glorious weather (excuse the pun). Folks are buying bicycles or digging out their old bikes and taking to the streets up and down the country.

Many businesses have suffered during this coronavirus crisis, but bike shops have remained buoyant with some having their busiest period ever, especially as they were on the list of essential shops that could remain open.

With such quiet roads, people have taken the opportunity to cycle around unhindered with their families. Even my brother was able to go out riding with his seven-year old daughter on the roads near his home without any problem.

Now that people are steadily resuming work, the government is strongly encouraging us to cycle, in order to ease the strain on public transport and maintain social distancing. Extra pop-up lanes have been constructed too.

I think this is great, and it has been one of the few glimmers of light in what has otherwise been a rather grim period.

I must say, though that despite the efforts being made by local councils to erect pop-up lanes there are still people who want to complain about the government not doing enough for cyclists in the UK.

Central Paris, near Chatelet and Rivoli
People have a tendency to post photos of cycle lanes in other countries and then automatically claim that their system is better than what exists in our country - then proceed to slam the government.

Personally, I find that kind of talk quite tiresome. Firstly, from my experience of cycling around cities around Europe and beyond, most major cities don't have a cycling infrastructure that is so much better than what you find in London.

I have been doing conversation exchanges with folks in France, Spain and Italy recently and one thing I have found interesting is that every one of these folks - based in Paris, Toulouse, Valencia, Madrid, Milan, Verona, Bari, Florence, Brussels have all said that they do not enjoy cycling around their cities because it is too dangerous. Only one woman, based in Lyon said that she would be happy to ride around her city.

Bridge going to Saint-Michel
Interestingly, I have recently seen photos people have post on Twitter, showing these great cycling plans and lanes in Brussels and in Milan - and yes, you've guessed it - they dismissed London's efforts as comparatively poor!

I wrote an article earlier this year in which I compared the achievements of London mayor Sadiq Khan, with those of his counterpart in Paris, Anne Hidalgo. Both mayors were up for re-election this year (until COVID-19 halted the process).

Where Khan had realised around 90% of his plans for London, Hidalgo had only achieved 60%. Yet people began to rave about her plans to make Paris a 100% cycling city by 2024 with every street in Paris being cycle friendly. I am always sceptical about politicians announcing ambitious plans for the future - especially when they have fallen short with their pledges in the current manifesto. (Where have I heard that before?!)

As someone who uses a bicycle as my mode of transport whenever I visit Paris, I have found my experience of cycling around the French capital to be quite pleasant. Who wouldn't enjoy pedaling down the traffic-free path along the River Seine in the shadows of Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre? But that's just the equivalent of someone going along the cycle superhighway on the Embankment in London, with the Eye, the South Bank, and the Palace of Westminster opposite.

Cycle path along the River Seine near Chatelet
Meanwhile in Paris I get dumped off this lovely path along the River Seine and find myself on Place de la Concorde ready to start the fun and games of getting across that big square, when there's no specific cycle lane.

It's even more fun riding up the world's most famous avenue, Champs Elysees, and mixing it with all the traffic. Fortunately there are so many sets of traffic lights to stop at that vehicles can't really pick up any speed, so it's not so intimidating.

The merry-go-round continues at the Arc de Triomphe roundabout with its 12 - yes 12 exits. You are on the right (as is the case in Europe) and you need to turn left to get to the Eiffel Tower. Try negotiating that when there is no system. It's just every man, woman, and their dog for themselves and you just have to wing it and grow a few extra pairs of eyes - and balls!

Birdcage Walk, near Buckingham Palace
Back in London, the nearest we have to that is Hyde Park Corner, which is a comparatively dull, uneventful affair as you are guided safely across the round through Wellington Arch via a set of pedestrian/cycle/horse crossings.

Of course, you can always jazz things up if you choose to ride your bike around that roundabout. No doubt there are people who do so, and then complain that London roads aren't set up to accommodate cyclists! But the vast majority of people use the available cycling facility.

Then with cycle lanes through Hyde Park, and now Park Lane, and cycle paths going back towards Buckingham Palace, with dedicated cycle traffic lights cyclists have a perfectly safe and trouble-free passage across the most famous parts of Central London.

I just randomly chose Paris as the comparator, but if I substituted Paris for other cities (apart from Copenhagen and Amsterdam) similar issues would be noted. But I think you get my point, dear reader. My point is that riding through the centre of other major cities is pleasant enough, but the issues there are not so different from what is London. In fact, in few ways, London fares better.

Cycling through Central Paris at rush hour
So, I am reluctant to knock the cycling facilities in London, as I feel that they are quite good, and furthermore the Mayor of London has a lot more to juggle compared with other cities.

Sadiq Khan has a surface area to manage that is in some cases five times the size of other major European cities. Furthermore, with permission needing to be granted from each of the 33 boroughs that make up London, it makes the planning and decision-making process much more complicated than other City Councils that just deal with local government in that city alone, and maybe central government.

These factors definitely have a bearing on the way things are done, and I think that all things considered we haven't done so badly. So in these times of coronavirus I would prefer to celebrate what is being done for cycling rather than criticize it.
Cycle superhighway on Blackfriars Bridge

Related posts
Lockdown brings out large number of cyclists

Cycle route: South London to Westminster and Chelsea

Cyclists of Paris

Festive 500 - Park Life Tour: East and Central London

No comments: