Wednesday, 4 July 2012

"I'm in my fifties: It will take radical redesign of cycle routes to keep me in the saddle much longer or to persuade potential cyclists to join me". Have your say and put pressure on the Mayor to take cycling more seriously

Cycling with the traffic. Vauxhall. Not a solution
for most people in London. 
I've been contacted a lot recently by people copying me on letters and emails to their MPs and their London Assembly Members. Some of this is in response to the London Assembly, which is holding an investigation into cycling in London. Everyone is free to send their thoughts and comments to the Investigation and, unusually, the Assembly is inviting people to turn up on the day (10am July 12th) to help shape the formal questions that the Assembly will put to the Mayor and Transport for London later in the year. 

The London Assembly transport committee consists of politicians from the Conservative, Labour, LibDem and Green parties. I'd urge you to spend five minutes sending them an email by writing to: 

Whether that's about the insane new design of Camden Parkway - recently made unfit for bicycle traffic at vast expense by the council - or whether you have broader thoughts and issues, everything is valid. 

The Assembly is looking specifically:

I thought I'd share with you one of the several emails I've been copied on and that resonates with a lot of themes I've addressed in this blog:

In case you've forgotten, the old layout on
Blackfriars Bridge was even worse than now. Courtesy Ralph Smyth
"I have worked in central London all my working life, since 1977, and in the EC4 postal district since 1988.  Initially I lived in London but since 1986 when I moved out to South West Surrey I have been commuting into Waterloo.  For most of that time I walked from station to office but I started to cycle from Waterloo, and between my home and local station, in 2006 once the Blackfriars Bridge cycle lane was sorted out following the death of Vicky McCreery – I would definitely not have contemplated it before.  I had owned a Brompton since 1988 and at this stage I dug it out again from the corner where it had been gathering dust for several years.  Since then my interest in cycling as a leisure or exercise activity has also revived.

From the timeline you can no doubt work out that I am in late middle age.

It took a radical redesign of a critical component of my daily ride (ie Blackfriars Bridge) to convince me that cycling might actually be safe enough to try.  Having started, I did find that for the most part cycling in London felt neither unpleasant nor unsafe, even where there was no specific provision for bicycles.  An early accident at Hyde Park Corner, when a car jumped the lights as I was crossing the pedestrian crossing, did not discourage me – I went out and bought a new Brompton to replace the one the motorist had wrecked.  Since then I have had a further three collisions with vehicles, all taxis, all “left-hooking” me in their hurry to take a corner before the lights changed.  The last one got closest to finishing me off – I have had two operations, one as an inpatient, and months of physiotherapy to largely recover from the effects.  The cabbie, by the way, drove off without stopping and no-one managed to get his plate.

Quality taxpayer money being spent. Typical cycle lane
at Vauxhall Cross. Give way in three directions, including
behind you, dodge the bollards and signpost, rejoin the
bike lane for two metres past the road, then
rejoin the carriageway. Bonkers.
However, things are subtly changing.  I have never been a sprinter, and a Brompton doesn’t make an ideal road-race bike anyway, but in the early days I had confidence in my ability to accelerate my way out of trouble, and to “take the lane”  at sufficient speed that following vehicles in the congested central London environment had no good grounds for objecting.  Now, having recently celebrated my 57th birthday, I can sense that I am slowing down.  I can also sense that I am becoming more apprehensive about traffic conditions as I either can’t or don’t wish to engage in a time trial or dragster race to filter into gaps at roundabouts, change lanes to make right turns etc, and I am just becoming more plain nervous.

In addition to my journey to/from the office, for which I generally change out of a suit and into everyday wear or waterproofs, I try as often as I can to travel to meetings on my bike, suited and booted and cycle-clipped.  This is only feasible if you adopt a much more sedate pace so you keep fresh and don’t impose your sweaty odour on your hosts when you arrive.

Trouble is, many London streets are simply unsuitable for cycling in “normal” clothes or a business suit, or for cycling at a sedate pace.  Survival demands 360 degree vision, the hearing of a bat, nerves of steel, and more acceleration than a Ferrari.  Oh, and “keeping your wits about you” – I shouldn’t forget that one. In wet conditions, everyday clothes would soon be filthy from road splatter kicked up by vehicles passing too close. Sure, many journeys are possible, but it is often if not always the case that you have to divert off the obvious desire lines to find quieter roads, routes through the parks etc, which can add significantly to the distance covered.  If you just want to enjoy the ride that is fine, but if you are maintaining a timetable or charge your clients by the hour, that is not efficient.

Want to cycle to the shops dressed like this when you're older?
Make sure the facilities for cycling are suitable first. Otherwise, no
chance you'll be on your bike. Courtesy BicycleDutch
The examples of streets which simply don’t work for cyclists, and should, are too numerous to list, but here are some examples:

·         The Strand – narrow lanes either side of a central median which seems to be entirely unnecessary given the low speeds attainable on that road.  Large numbers of buses and HGVs take up almost the entire lane width and make this one of the most unpleasant cycling experiences in the city.  Sadly, we are seeing other major streets go the same way – Pall mall since it reverted to 2-way, for example.  Piccadilly, and Ken High St.  I have even heard that the highways architects responsible for these schemes see cyclists as traffic calming measures – “rolling speed humps”.
·         Parliament Square – a shooting gallery par excellence
·         Just about any road on the TLRN
·         Just about any bridge over the Thames.  All my four accidents were on TLRN roads and/or bridges

Brand new London cycle infrastructure.
Taxpayers money spent on blue paint. Southwark Bridge
Road. What's the point of any of this? 
In addition to my own accidents, I  have seen dozens of events in which cyclists have been hit by motor vehicles.  I can thank providence that so far I haven’t seen a serious injury, although it is only a matter of time, and I have seen many mangled bikes.  I can imagine that in a few years time, if conditions do not change, I will be put off cycling in London entirely.  I will then join the significant percentage of society who would cycle, but can’t/won’t, and are frustrated by that fact.

To repeat, it took a radical redesign of a critical part of my cycle route to persuade me that cycling was an option in the first place.  I predict it will take radical redesigns of quite a few more stretches of road, bridges or junctions to keep my in the saddle for much longer, or to persuade many potential cyclists to join me."

Says it all, in my view. And please add your comments by sending them to before July 12th. Feel free to copy me as well Good luck. 


  1. Totally agree with the author of this e-mail. The unsuitability of London's roads for bikes leads to cyclists having to adopt a fighting mentality, battling with motor traffic in order to avoid being dangerously squeezed off the road. It really is very hard to cycle on the capital's streets at a gentle pace and arrive at your destination in a refreshed state! That's what segregation can achieve: a calmer experience for everyone at a more leisurely pace, which would in turn get more people on to their bikes. Even at slower speeds, cycling will often beat driving times in central London - so how about some "cycle smoothing" measures, Boris, to complement your key "traffic smoothing" priority in making travel more reliable and journey times more predictable?

  2. Some London journeys can be achieved by "slow bicycle". In the spring for example, I attended a celebration dinner at Rowley Leigh's restaurant just off Queensway. I cycled there from my office in Fleet St, in full black-tie rig under my coat, and by taking it easy I got there, all 5.5 miles of it, without overheating. It took me about 40 minutes which for that journey compares favourably with a taxi.

    The route took me across Blackfriars Bridge - on my daily commute so I am used to it - and along the south bank until coming back over Westminster Bridge, a short bit of unpleasantness around Parliament Square and then Birdcage Walk, Constitution Hill cycle path, Wellington Arch, through Hyde Park, another short fraught stretch on Bayswater Road, then north through quiet Bayswater streets.

    More recently,I had a meeting in Jermyn Street, right next door to St James Piccadilly church. Looking at a map, you would imagine that you could avoid the nightmare that is the Strand and Trafalgar Square by cutting through the labyrinth of side streets of the City and central Westminster but you'd be wrong. The streets which are not one-way are so choked with traffic leaving almost no room to squeeze past that they are frankly unnavigable on a bike. The latest version of the central London TfL bike map is useless as it doesn't show the one-ways, so if you try, you just keep coming across no-entry signs, and Westminster hasn't made a fraction of the effort which the City has to provide contraflows, despitethe fact that it has now become much easier for a local authority to do.

  3. Indeed, your correspondent speaks, I have no doubt, for thousands of men (mostly men) in middle age currently using bikes in London. I am one of them. I have reduced my cycling in recent years and will probably stop entirely before long unless there is a significant change of public policy in this area. There are other ways of keeping fit that do not involve the risk and stress of cycling in London's traffic. If you can afford other means of transport, why keep on doing it if it is not fun?

    In addition, I have an increasing moral dilemma in even recommending or encouraging others to cycle in London, giving the rising casualty statistics. It's about 10 times more dangerous per mile to cycle than to drive, even more relatively dangerous when compared to public transport, so is it right to try to persuade people to do it under these circumstances? I have grave doubts.

    1. This is a classic example, as Freewheeler and others have pointed out, of churn, which is why promotional campaigns are of no long term effect without improvements to the infrastructure. One may as well say that "20,000 new boys have joined the Scouts last year" when the same number of older boys left to do something else, with the actual membership flatlining.

      Cycling is the McJob of transportation in London in regards to safety or long term security. A student who takes a job at McDonalds is not going to want to work there for ever, they will want to join a graduate scheme or start their own business. Likewise, I somewhat doubt that my friends at various universities who cycle will still be cycling everywhere once they move back home and can use a car again. They will probably be replaced by my younger sister's friends, so cycle campaigners in Oxford or wherever will be able to say that people are still cycling, and there are new cyclists, but with no actual improvements to cycle networks or parking in most cases. The main reason for growth in London is that due to the Congestion Charge and the costly and overcrowded public transport, cycling is the "least bad" mode of transport for some. It is absolutely not the "best" with the present conditions.

      Another issue is that the idea that there is no money for infrastructure is bunkum when councils seem capable of carriageway alterations anyway that do NOT take account of cycling. There are surely thousands of schemes every year that can be considered failed opportunities to increase safety and convenience for cyclists. The new two way configuration of Pall Mall with its needless median is an obvious example, but there are many other examples of wasted opportunities, which means wasted money when mistakes get rectified.

      If councils want to spend money on cycling without any growth in modal share, then they are more than welcome to buy me a shiny new Pashley Guv'nor and some Rapha jerseys.

  4. I have just returned from a few days in Geneva, Switzerland. I noticed that on those streets without bike infrastructure in the city centre the cyclists tended to calmly hold the centre of the lane while travelling at a leisurely pace. Nobody wore helmets or hi-viz clothing and about half of the cyclists were women (many of whom were well into middle age). Very few cyclists rode racing bikes and practically everybody had mudguards fitted. Car drivers seemed resigned to meekly following behind cyclists. Perhaps London cyclists need a little more 'moral fibre' and the courage to cycle calmly while holding the centre. Let's go Swiss style!

    1. This sharing of the road can be seen in more countries, John. London motorists seem to think themselves entitled to the road, with cyclists and pedestrians as some sort or nuisance. I'm a professional driver and a private cyclist, making it easier to emphasise with the other users of the road. Even the cabbies over here ride a bike now and then, and can be seen to behave quite courteously. Visit Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany if you've got the time. I'm 55 yo right now, but I can't imagine life without a bike. It must be terrible to have to give up cycling at such an early age; my dad rode his bike well into his eighties.

    2. Hi John, perhaps what you were seeing was an example of this:

      The problem in the UK is that most minor roads and residential streets are through-routes, which causes drivers to use them as rat runs. In many other countries, non-main roads aren't navigable, so are useless unless you're visiting the area.

      Another problem, is that in the UK people riding bikes are seen as an "other" group, and as the enemy of the motor car. In countries where more people cycle, drivers will either ride a bike themselves, or have close friends and relatives who ride bikes, and are therefore see bike riders as other human beings instead of their nemesis, "the Cyclist".

      I don't see how we can attract larger numbers of people to use bikes without providing subjectively safe routes for them to ride on. It's no use telling people that they need 'moral fibre' (or as Boris says it 'keep your wits about you') - we've been hearing this for decades, and it's a proven failure.

    3. Har -

      I too am in my 50s and look forward to at least another 30 years of cycling.

      Departmentoftransport -

      You may be right on this point. It may well be that I was looking at roads in Geneva where most of the through-traffic had been eliminated.
      I don't wish to point the finger at cyclists in London, but a great many cycle with the same speed, urgency, and arrogance as many London car drivers. In part, this may be because London is a big city and cyclists may have a lot of ground to cover. However, I believe that if more cyclists held the middle of the lane and rode their bikes with a little more 'gravitas' then the car drivers behind would be forced show more respect.
      The photo of the cyclist in pink immediately above this story is typical of many London cyclists. She may be able to undertake a few cars from her curbside position but she is practically inviting the car behind to brush his wing mirror against her arm.

    4. Hello again John,

      I agree, London does have an aggressive cycling culture, but I think this is because the only people who are prepared to ride a bike on London's roads are fit, assertive people. (Maybe they're the same people who push in front when getting on the tube!) Most "normal" people don't ride bikes in the UK, so pretty much the whole field of cycling as transport is left to the confident road warriors.

      As long as people are expected to ride on the road with traffic, the vast majority of those who do so will be fast and furious. If we want the whole of society to use bikes for transport, we have to make it safe and easy for them. Ergo, separate bike infrastructure.

  5. This is a very interesting topic, I am undoubtedly one of those Lycra warriors who rush past everyone. But then my commute is 27km either way. It's a hard slog and if I didn't do it at speed, I'd be leaving work at lunch having arrived an hour before. But I do disagree that you need seperate infrastructure, I even disagree that we need new laws, we simply need a couple of months of the Met enforcing the current laws, keeping motorcycles out of ASZ's, stopping cars, buses and taxis from crowding cyclists and cutting them up. It's a campaign of respect rather than anything else. I also wonder if the growing trend of cyclists using cameras is going to lead to insurance problems for drivers identified as endangering other peoples lives... Maybe that's the way to gain compliance, hit people in their pocket..

    1. Hi Neil,

      I'm glad that Vehicular Cycling is fine for you – but will not lead to mass cycling.

      Even if all the road traffic laws were enforced, there is no way the other 98% of the British public will get on a bike. There is no way my mum will ride along the busy ring road to the shops in front of a bus. There is no way parents will let young children ride to school amongst lorries. There is no way my granny would choose to ride into town alongside vans and taxis. It's unpleasant and stressful. Surely you must see why it appeals to almost nobody?

      We've been pushing VC in Britain since the motor car was invented, and cycling has been on a downward slope in Britain ever since – it has in fact flat-lined since the late 1970s. The only *proven* way to get people riding bikes as part of their daily routine is to make it feel safe and fast, by doing what the Dutch have done. VC "encouragement" is a proven failure. It's time to try something new if we want mass cycling.

      I present as my evidence an entire country - it's called the Netherlands. Separation of traffic types is *proven* to increase cycling levels, whereas VC is just a coping strategy in a car-sick society, practised by a tiny minority.

      By the way, Cycle paths in the Netherlands are not only safer than the roads, but they're faster too. You really need to read the "A View From The Cycle Path" blog to begin to understand why.

      I agree that the police should actually uphold the laws on the road (rather than break them as I see almost every day) but that's a separate issue really. We'll never get a national average of 89% of children cycling to school without proper infrastructure.