London cyclist (for a few days)

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As I’m staying in London for my training course this week, I thought I’d try and offset the hotel breakfasts and pizzas/corner-shop evening meals (I struggle to get a hotel restaurant meal on my expenses budget) with some healthy exercise.

We’re having a mini heat-wave in the UK right now (and very welcome it is too!) so, even at 21:15 my jog on Monday evening was a bit slow and sticky (and I gave up on tonight’s – it was just too hot!).

Boris Bikes

Consequently, I decided to take advantage of the (Barclays) London Cycle Hire (Boris Bike) scheme to cycle from the hotel to the training centre and back each day and hopefully burn a few calories on the way.

Cycling in London

I’ve heard a lot on cycling podcasts and TV shows about cycling in London and whilst six rush-hour journeys on a Boris Bike don’t exactly qualify me as an expert (even if I did cross some of the cycle black spots like Elephant and Castle and Blackfriars) I have to say that my impression of a lot of what’s written/spoken is a touch dramatic and maybe verging on the unrealistic.

Sure, cycling in London traffic is not always easy – there are problems where cycle lanes just stop; buses block roundabouts; and getting into traffic can be difficult – but much of that is about people being selfish (or hesitant) and it’s just the same with motorised traffic.

As for the danger – well, speeds are lower (if I get out on my bike back at home I’m straight into 60mph traffic on the main roads) and, yes, lorries and buses present their own challenges – but some common sense is needed there too.  I’m not suggesting that all of the tragic incidents that have led to loss of life are down to the cyclists – but take a look on YouTube and there are some nutters on bikes too…

Buses weigh about 12 tonnes; lorries up to 44 tons. A cyclist weighs perhaps 100kg so there’s no contest really – watch out for what others are doing and don’t put yourself in a risky situation.  I guess, as a former motorcyclist, I learned to watch out for people doing things that they shouldn’t – and on a pedal cycle you’re just that little bit more exposed.

A couple of things struck me though.  As a pedestrian in London, I’m always annoyed when cyclists nearly take me out on a zebra crossing but London cycling is very stop-start and I can see why people jump lights and don’t give way at crossings (I’m not condoning that behaviour, by the way – just empathising). I was also surprised at just how many cyclists there are these days – certainly a lot more than I remember a few years ago – and enough to make motorists a little more aware of their presence.

Cycling Policy

As for “Cycle Superhighways” – I do have to agree with the bloggers and podcasters there – some blue paint splattered on the road is not enough! I honestly can’t see the difference between one of the cycle superhighways (I used a couple of them) and the normal cycle lanes/bus lanes.  Even so, the idea of segregated cycle ways in an overcrowded city seems a little unrealistic. It would be lovely to create a dedicated cycle network but the costs are potentially astronomical.

Just as I watched BBC Newsnight examining the case for high speed rail last night (it’s something we need as a piece of national infrastructure but should we really expect a positive ROI – the Jubilee Line extension didn’t get one – and, in any case, can we afford it right now?), if I were mayor of London I’d be asking similar questions about segregated cycle lanes. That’s why TfL’s current “Vision for cycling in London” is a start but it will take time to build out. What we really need (nationally) is a programme to build cycling into regeneration and new build projects – not just in London but for all of our villages, towns and cities.

Boris Bikes

The London Cycle Hire Scheme is not perfect but it’s not bad either.  Only once did I find there were no bikes for me to use but I did have problems with broken docks (presumably preventing the scheme’s operators, Serco, from realising that a docking station is full – they certainly didn’t move any bikes away) and local residents resorting to adding notices to stop people from trying to use them (thank you!).  It is annoying to have to cycle a few streets to the next dock (and then walk back to where you wanted to be) but at least there’s a free BarclaysBikes iPhone app that I can use to direct me to some spaces.

The bikes themselves are heavy (23kg) and slow (three gears – all of them low) so cycling on a Boris Bike can be hard work. Also, releasing a bike from a dock seemed to require quite a physical effort – maybe OK for a stocky guy like me but not so for those with a more petite frame.

I was kicking myself when, after failing to change gear for the first mile or so of using a Boris Bike and thinking the lever must be broken, I realised that the gear change is a twist grip mechanism (doh!). Once I’d worked out how to move up to third gear, I rarely dropped lower (and was wishing there was a 4th, or a 5th). The step-through frame is surprisingly easy but the rubber grips are sticky in hot weather and leave you with dirty hands. One change I really would like to make – replace the tiny bell with a great big air horn so motorists can hear you (pedestrians too!)

My biggest issues were with payment.  The process of buying access and then being retrospectively charged for usage is a bit clunky and I could find no way of generating a receipt (I want to claim the cost of my cycling back on expenses). I’ve contacted TfL but there is a 5 day response on emails so am still waiting for a reply.


So – London cycling – hit or miss?  Actually, I liked it – and if I lived in London I would definitely be considering buying a cheap(ish) fixie for the commute (or an old road bike). My own bikes are too expensive to be left chained up outside an office but the cycle hire scheme is really quite convenient – unless you live in the suburbs (where there are no Boris Bikes) I guess.

As for infrastructure – yes, the roads are a mess – but that’s the same everywhere and whatever your transport methods.  I was surprised at how many drivers did seem to notice me  (pedestrians on their smartphones whilst crossing the road less so), with only a couple of frantic bell-ringing incidents and two “ois!” shouted at drivers who pulled across my path (although I saw an unmarked police car do the same to someone else this evening, before shooting off on “blues and twos”).

London cyclists should try somewhere else before complaining – meanwhile everyone should be encouraged to get out of their car and onto a bike for a day or two to see how it looks from the other side.

Tomorrow I’ll be off the bikes, lugging my luggage through the tube, then back home to Milton Keynes where we have lots of segregated cycle ways despite constant complaints that the town was designed for cars…

4 thoughts on “London cyclist (for a few days)

  1. I quite like cycling in London – infact this week during our current “heat emergency” – it’s been preferable to cycle the 20miles each way into work every day than use the train/tube :)

    Condition of the road in London is one of my biggest issues – if you cycle in via bermondsey like I do it’s like an offroad course.. ruts, gaping holes (with exposed buried cables), craters, pits – that’s almost as dangerous as the traffic

    I’ve given up with skinny 23c tyres on my road bike and gone for bigger, armoured 25c tyres due to the number of pinch punctures.

    I also get annoyed by the number of idiot cyclists with 2 headphones on, faffing with their phones etc… pay attention you idiots.

    out of the 1000 miles I’ve done on my bike in London in the last 2 years – the only accidents have been caused by other cyclists.. drivers are generally pretty considerate (relativley speaking)


  2. Glad you got some time to try them out. I used them daily throughout 2012 to get from St Pancras to Oxford Street. I purchased the annual key fob, which made getting a bike really simple (and only cost £45 back then)

    I only had a couple of bad experiences. Once was when I first went down Tottenham Court Road. I didn’t realise it was one way and happily pedalled against the flow of traffic before a panicked pedestrian shouted out a warning to me! Another time, another cyclist went straight into me from a junction and he flew over the handle bars (his fault and I was fine)

    Doing the same daily route on them I got used to the traffic light patterns and I admit to jumping red lights just as much as all the pedestrians did. I also went (slowly) on the pavements when the cycle lanes disappeared or took me too far out of my way.

    One thing I would always check before riding was if the bell worked. It’s an essential piece of equipment for warning all those smartphone zombies. Another essential is to wear a helmet. I was shocked at how many people risked going without.

    I found problems with the docks probably 30-40% of the time, either some were faulty or they were empty/full. I’d agree with you that the gears are pretty useless. I stayed in 3rd all the time. The only time I wish I got the tube was when I cycled 3 miles from Oxford St to Southwark. I went with a friend on his normal bike and that really showed the extra effort needed on the Barclays Bikes, I was always about 300 meters behind him and exhausted when we arrived at our destination!

  3. Yep – totally agree Simon – and if I believed everything I hear on podcasts like “The Bike Show” it’s all down to other road users (a very “them” and “us” attitude). We all have to take responsibility – and all consider other road users.

    I took the bus/tube this morning… quite missed being on a bike.

  4. @Thom – for my “normal” commute via Euston to Baker Street, I walk rather than tube – it takes about 25 mins each way and is good for me. This week I’ve been cycling from Lambeth Bridge to Tower Bridge (about 6km each way). I do confess to not using a helmet this week though… it’s difficult when you’re a casual user and haven’t planned to be using a bike. I’d certainly use one if I had my own bike with me.

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