Tuesday 9 November 2021

Rouleur Live - London rocks! Why I think London cycling infrastructure is pretty good

It was a pleasure to be on the panel at the London Rocks presentation at Rouleur Live, to talk about the positive aspects of cycling and cycle culture in London.

So many people talk about cycling in London in a negative way. It's something I have never really joined in doing, because I simply don't feel that way. I really enjoy cycling around London.

Rouleur Live panel, L-R: Laura Laker, Alec Briggs, yours truly, Ned Boulting

As someone who likes to travel by bicycle around London and in all the other places I visit around the UK and beyond, I don't think London does too badly, all things considered.

When Ian Cleverly of Rouleur asked me about appearing on this panel I was quite excited about doing it. In fact, I even put together a flow of how I thought the presentation could go! 

But a basic brief had already been put together and other panellists confirmed, so it was a case of going with the flow on the day. The presentation was chaired by Rebecca Charlton, and the other panellists were Laura Laker, Alec Briggs, and Ned Boulting. We all had slightly different perspectives: Laura was occupying her role as the active transport guru, given the writing that she does about it in The Guardian, Alec is a bike racer, though not a nerdy one that only talks about bikes and tech - but more of a cool hip kind of guy who keeps it real. The fact that he can also win races is just coincidental! 

Ned was there in his capacity as social commentator given that he gets on the telly a lot, commentating on the Tour de France, and other major cycling competitions, as well as being an author and a president of Herne Hill Velodrome. Then there was me - in the brief I was just billed as "all round good egg who likes to get out there rather than just talking about it!" I'm cool with that description.

We all had something to say, and were very positive about bike riding in London. The audience which engaged with us too, which is always a bonus. The main points we had to say is that London gets a bad rap, which is slightly unfair given that it is a newcomer in terms of infrastructure compared with other cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. 

Also, people have a tendency to take to social media to rant about negative aspects of cycling. Folks generally aren't going to go on-line to tell positive stories. It's not helped either by certain high-profile folks in media who constantly post footage from their helmet cameras about something they saw that didn't go well. 

There needs to be a way of highlighting the positives of cycling on a regular basis, rather than painting cycling in London as a doom and gloom picture as though folks cycling on the road were entering a lion's den or playing Russian Roulette.

In terms of cycling culture, because London is such a diverse place, there are varying "cycling tribes", meaning that some sets of cyclists don't always warm to other types of cyclists - for instance those dressed in Lycra on their road racing bikes vs. those in everyday clothes on a hybrid bike. 

At this moment in time, London is trying to find its feet in terms of cycling culture and cycling infrastructure. At some point things will settle down and cycling will become normalised as an everyday thing, rather than it being a specific activity set apart from other everyday activities. 

For the presentation I noted down various points, though didn't have the time to mention everything, so I will note them here:

  • I first started cycling around London in 2001, at a time when most people cycling were cycle couriers and only a few hundred cycle commuters. I would only see about one or two women per week on a bike.
  • There were no segregated cycle lanes at all - just the odd road that had a painting of a bicycle on the edge of the road, marking the bike lane! I used to spend time planning my own route from A to B through London via various back streets as there were no sign posts or maps. 
  • Junctions at Elephant & Castle, Old Street, and Vauxhall Cross often involved putting my observation and bike handling skills fully to the test! 
  • Nowadays, we have segregated cycle lanes including at those aforementioned busy junctions, a Superhighway network, signposted Quiet Ways, traffic-free paths, and a bike-sharing scheme for those who don't own a bike.
  • When cycling to work at rush hour, there are so many cyclists on some roads that it's almost like being part of a mass participation bike ride. 
Segregated (ish) cycle path near rue de Rivoli, Paris
  • Over the last 15 years that I have cycled in Paris I have noticed a steady growth in the number of cycle lanes, and on my most recent trip there had been radical changes, notably right in the centre, around Chatelet and Rivoli. 
  • However, the lanes aren't any better than what can be found in London, particularly because sometimes a segregated lane "disappears" and then you are back in with the main flow of traffic.
  • Segregated cycle lanes aren't totally segregated because there are gaps in the lanes to allow for delivery vans to pull into them!
  • The traffic lights are phased so that even if you have right of way in the cycle lane, motorists can still turn right across your path - so you have to keep an eye out. That is something that you see in many European cities. I also saw that when I cycled across New York City.
  •  It's great that many streets allow for cyclists to ride in contraflow up a one-way street, but some of the roads are very narrow, forcing you to give way to an oncoming van. 
  • Some of the roads in central Paris are cobbled - not quite Paris-Roubaix, but you definitely get a bumpy ride. Ditto for when I used to cycle around Milan.
  • There are very few green spaces to ride a bicycle in Central Paris until you get to the extremities of the city at Bois de Vincennes or Bois de Boulogne.
Bois de Vincennes on the edge of Paris - one of the few green spaces for bikes in the city
  • I cycled around Brussels a couple of years ago, and had similar experiences to Paris, in terms of motorists encroaching into the segregated cycle lane. Also, some parts of the cycle lane contained a drainage channel, which I found hazardous to cycle on, so I ended up riding wide and on the main carriageway.
  • Outside of Brussels, when riding in the Flanders region it was great to see cycle lanes on the A roads - something you also see in France as well.
  • Interestingly folks talk about Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and other countries in Europe being more cycling friendly countries than the UK. During the first coronavirus lockdown I used part of the time to do conversation exchanges with folks in other countries (to practice my language skills). Whenever I asked them about cycling in their country (apart from the Netherlands and Denmark), they all said that they don't ride because they find cycling in their country dangerous!
  • Many cycling activists talk about wanting the freedom to ride their bike how they want - the freedom to wear whatever colour clothing they want, use or not use the cycle lane, wear a helmet or not, or put a bell on their bike.
  • In these countries that are deemed "cycling friendly" even they have their rules. In many countries it is a legal requirement for your bike to have a bell fitted that can be heard from 100m away; it is illegal to ride on the main carriageway where there is a cycle lane; notably in France, cyclists have to wear high-vis on dim days or at night when outside of the city; in Spain it is illegal to not wear a helmet when outside of a built-up area.
So in light of all of the above it is hard to say that cyclists in London get a raw deal compared with other places. In fact, I feel very happy to ride around London and have the liberty to wear what I want and not have to stress about finding a bell for my bike!

It is also worth noting that when comparing infrastructure to other cities around the world, London is a sprawling mass compared with other cities and that the Mayor of London has to work on a surface area that is easily two or three times that of other European cities. 

On Blackfriars Bridge, London, next to a cycle Superhighway

Furthermore, this surface area is divided into 33 boroughs, each with its own administration and decision making power regarding cycling infrastructure - an added layer that Sadiq Khan has to deal with when trying to improve cycling in the city.

So on balance, I don't think we do so bad, and I do agree that London rocks!

Related posts

South London to Central London by bike (mainly traffic-free)

London gears up for more bike riders

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