Monday, April 12, 2010

London's New Wave

During the past few years, I'd heard a lot about the burgeoning cycling scene in London: the Tube commuters with their folding bikes and the black-clad cycling ninjas riding fender to fender with racing Black Cabs. The derogatory tone of these accounts suggested London cyclists were a small group of half-mad outliers who'd probably be crushed under the wheels of a double-decker bus before they got the chance to breed.

However, when I visited the city last week, I saw that the cycling scene is alive and well. The cyclists there are indeed a group of half-mad outliers. But they're not a small group. During rush hour, they seem to be everywhere, sometimes queuing up at stoplights several cyclists deep. The cycling thing is really catching on in London. I heard estimates of a 5% modal share in the city centre, and with levels comparable to Copenhagen's in the borough of Hyde Park (I took the Tube there to verify this and did not see many cyclists, but my visit was 2-3 hours before evening rush hour on a rainy day.)

London cyclists, like Londoners in general, seem desperately competitive, but with unfailing self-discipline. There are hardly any separated paths in London; most of the cycling network consists of painted lanes, and the cyclists who use them ride fast and warrily amid constant heavy traffic. The cyclists generally wear gear -- shorts almost always, a bright fluorescent rain slicker when it's raining (i.e. almost always), and usually a helmet. Although they ride fast, they are scrupulous about doing proper hand signals and, at least in comparison to most places I've bicycled, they tend to abide by road rules.

As in Budapest, there's this John Henry-like propensity among street cyclists to test man against machine, and there is a large number of hard men on fixies. However, the London fixie crowd beats their Budapest counterparts by taking on the motorists in cold temperatures and horizontal rain.

The new wave of London cycling got started under Ken Livingstone, the previous Socialist mayor known for his aggressive stance against private cars and his signature accomplishment of the downtown congestion charge. Livingstone was beat in the last election, due in part to backlash against the congestion charge, but his conservative successor, Boris Johnson, has striven to outdo Livingstone when it comes to cycling. One insider told me that Johnson is now deliberately underestimating cycling levels in London at 1% so that he can have a bigger improvement to brag about after his spending initiatives have been carried out.

Cyclists cried foul last year when Johnson cut funding for a planned 900 kilometre citywide cycling network, however his administration is going forward this July with a bike-sharing scheme that will include 6,000 bikes at 400 stations. It'll have been an expensive system to put in place, and there must be takeup of close to 10 rentals/day/bike for the system to be called a success.

Some in the press are questioning whether Johnson has done enough to ensure the safety of the more novice-calibre users who will hire out the new public bikes. This was also a concern with the Velib system when it started in Paris in the summer of 2007.

I don't doubt this could be a challenge. Then again, I think those pokey, public bikes might do the scene some good. For once, the average speeds will come down within reach of non-competitive riders.


syuk said...

this is cool

The Daily Crank said...

Very interesting! As a London local and a bike commuter I think I forget how fast paced and competitive London is even when it comes to cycling. Regards obeying the rules, I think it's all relative. To somewhere like Cairo :)

Mark said...

It's interesting to see a visitor's view of cycling in London: it's not nearly as fast paced and scary as you might think, though I'd agree that there is lots more that could be done to improve things, especially in regard to building better infrastructure.

The London Borough with the highest share of cyclists is Hackney, with 8%, but it genuinely does feel like the share in inner London is going up all the time. Sadly the same can't be said for outer London where the car is most definitely still king.

Next time you're in London let me know and I'll show you the cycling highlights. Meanwhile, you can keep track of all the London cycling news and views via my blog which is

Bryan Hopkins said...

As someone who currently lives and cycles in Budapest, but who in a (very) recent previous life cycled fairly regularly in London whenever work took me there from my home in Sheffield, I found Greg's perceptions interesting.

Before I came to Budapest I had heard that cycling here was very dangerous, and sought advice from Greg, who said, hey, it's no worse than any other big city. Well, it's much better than cycling in London.

London's cycling is a bit like London's driving: fast and (IMHO) sometimes aggressive. As a provincial cyclist I have often been cut up by locals passing me on the inside, racing past a stationary me as they go through red lights (one of the anti-cycling media's big issues). Possibly my worst experience was cycling along London's canals during the morning rush-hour, with people determined to pass me as soon as there was any possibility: I'm sure some people must end up in the canal?

On the contrary, I generally find Budapest cycling very 'civilised'. Even drivers seem to by and large, give way and make space for me on my bike. Which is definitely not a London thing.

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tim said...

Isn't it fantastic, there are so many people taking to their bikes, particularly commuting to work. It is really the best way to get around.