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.