We’ve been back in London for a while now, but our bikes have made less of an appearance around town. Before we left for South America, we both commuted to work and used our bikes for generally getting around, but since we returned we’ve been pedalling less and less. Why?
Firstly, we’re both in different jobs, so the situation is slightly different. Paddy has changed companies and now works for a larger firm in the City. He’s worked out that although it’s quicker to cycle to the office, by the time he adds on queuing for the shower and changing, it’s actually longer by bike from home to his desk, than if he takes the bus.
The number of journeys by bike has doubled in the past decade, but many offices haven’t modified their facilities to provide for the raised number of cyclists. When you end up having to queue for the changing room each morning it takes the fun out of the morning commute. If you are happy to sit in the clothes you cycled in that morning then fine, but I’d rather not.
For me, I now work in Surrey. Cycling directly to the office from south London isn’t an option. I could, however, take a train part way and cycle the rest and when I first started I looked into it. There are well-marked cycle lanes most of the way, but they are on the edge of a major A-road and don’t inspire me to go to the effort of getting up early for the ride. Plus, in my office we have no showers, so the same problem there.
Looking at those cycle tracks makes me think about some of the ones we used in South America. Some of the bike lanes here are embarrassing in comparison. In Colombia, a country better know for drugs, kidnappings and crime (not quite true), we cycled from the centre of the capital Bogota to the outskirts of the city without having to ride on the road once. Their purpose built, raised cycle path kept bikes away from traffic and pedestrians. Compare that to London’s Super Highways, a strip of blue painted on the road.
When I think back to the lanes we used in Bogota, Quito and Belem , I remember thinking how chilled out their users were compared to riders in London. On my first ride back in London, I’m cycling down Kennington Road and I cannot believe how fired-up my fellow cyclists seem to be. Suits are straining for speed on their Boris Bikes; lycra-clad racers zoom up to red lights, where they stop, feet gripped into pedals, wobbling as they wait for green; boys on mountain bikes pull out with speed, determined to take over girls with baskets on their handlebars.
The thing I can’t understand is, why? We all seem to stop in a group at every set of traffic lights, regardless of our cycling style. It’s something I see countless times when I am out of my bike, and it’s not something I enjoy being involved in. I like cycling; I spent 15 months riding 80km each day for god’s sake. I really do. I don’t like being unnecessarily stressed though and I find riding around London a bit more stressful than it needs to be.
Part of me thinks this is because it’s London, which like any big city is busy and demanding. Before we left, I was completely involved in the hustle of city life and I loved it. Everything I did was at full speed and I could fit a thousand things in to my diary in one week if I made the effort. On the road, I was one of those cyclists working to get to where I wanted to go as fast as I could. There wasn’t necessarily a particular reason, but I lived life at full steam, which meant I cycled like that too.
After our nomadic time on the road though, I have chilled out. Without wanting to sound cheesy, I realise much more that riding a bike is about the journey rather than the destination, whether I be circumnavigating a continent or popping out to the dentist.
Yet, when I think about it, when we’ve cycled in big cities in mainland Europe, like the Netherlands and Germany, where there is a bike culture, people there don’t seem as stressed as they do in London. They glide along their purpose built, separated-from-traffic bike lanes chatting away to friends. There’s no stopping at roundabouts or junctions, requiring a need to be constantly alert for cars jumping out at you, because drivers watch out for you and give you priority on the road. Now that sounds nice.
So, it’s not that London is a big city that makes it hard work to ride around, it’s the infrastructure. Ten years on from when I first got on my bike in London, there are double the number of cyclists, but the infrastructure still lags behind. It’s a shame, because cycling is amazing and there is little better feeling than crossing over the central bridges on your bike on a sunny morning, with the Thames sparkling below and the skyline of the city ahead.
Cycling should be open and welcoming to everybody in London. This is a little plea for the cycle infrastructure planners of London to get out and learn from your counterparts in Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil. Please. If they can do it, surely we can too.