Two Wheels Good

Monday, January 23, 2012

I've been cycling regularly in London for a bit more than six months now.  I've had one bike stolen, landed on the pavement three times, sailed over the front fender of one exceptionally dense motorist, taken four hours of cycle safety training, learned how to repair a flat tire and survived one or two near misses.  So though six months is not a long time, I feel that I might have a thing or two to say on the subject of cycling in central London, which can sometimes feel like a bit of a battle.

Pam and the bike
Girded for battle, with game face on and trusty, heavy, war horse of a bike.
I'm not by nature a "bicycle person".  Cycling is not a hobby for me like it is for those with gear ratios in their heads and ultra-light frames and those brightly coloured skintight shirts with the big pockets on the back.  For me, cycling is a means to and end.  It gets me to and from work while simultaneously forcing me into a bit of exercise and saving me money on transport costs (which are not inconsiderable, especially after the TFL's annual New Year's gift of general fare increases across the board.  A one week tube pass for zones one and two now costs £29.20 which is up about £4 since I arrived a year and a half ago.  Those costs add up very very quickly.)

London has made a bit of an effort to make the roads safer for cyclists.  For instance, bikes are allowed to travel in bus lanes (along with motorcycles and scooters).  This usually gets you out of the main flow of traffic, but does mean you often end up leapfrogging buses as they stop to pick up passengers and then overtake on the way to their next stop.  This also means you end up sucking up a lot of doubledecker bus fumes.  Still, I'm happier in a bus lane.  Also, many intersections have marked areas in front of the stop line where cyclists can wait for the green light ahead of the vehicle traffic.

A cycle stop zone, thoughtfully NOT occupied by that bus.

However, the most visible cycle-friendly things in the city are Transport For London's series of "cycle superhighways".  These are planned cycle routes that link outer suburbs of London to the centre by marking out a wide strip of pavement as a planned cycle path.  Often they run on a less trafficked streets parallel to a main road, thus getting cyclists out of the heavier flow of traffic.  Sometimes they do run along the main road, but claw back a bit of the roadway on the left as a bikes-only zone. The pavement on the routes is coloured bright blue and marked with bicycle icons and the route number.

Part of Cycle Superhighway 3, on my route to and from work.  The scheme is sponsored by Barclay's Bank, whose corporate colours are... light blue and white.  The TFL claims that the colour was decided before sponsorship was secured.  Suuuuuuure.
I'm generally in favour of the blue routes, and definitely feel more secure when I'm on the blue than when I'm on an unmarked road.  However, these cycle superhighways are not a cure-all.  There is an infamous route (CS2) that travels up to the busy Bow Roundabout, very near my office.  Two cyclists died in that intersection in the space of two weeks this fall, in part because the blue zone extends up to the roundabout and then simply stops, forcing riders to negotiate the hardest part of the route unprotected.  Thankfully, there is now talk of changing the layout and traffic light timing of that roundabout in particular, and they're said to be examining a lot of other dangerous intersections as well.  In all, sixteen cyclists were killed in London in 2011.  Then again, Wikipedia estimates there are more than 500,000 cycle journeys per day in the city, so that's 16 fatalities in more than 182 million journeys.  However, you still really need to be on your toes out there.

These signs get put up after, well, after fatal collisions, which usually involve either pedestrians or cyclists.  This sign was at an intersection I pass through on the way home.  It's a pretty innocuous junction, but I have to turn right there so I always dismount and cross as a pedestrian.  

Like I said, you need to be on your toes.  To that end, I decided it would be smart to take a proper cycle safety training course, and found a link to an outfit called Cycle Training UK.  They offer basic and intermediate cycle safety training, much of which is subsidised by different boroughs in London.  Luckily, my home borough of Lambeth is super keen to get people on bikes and so provide lots of funding for people who live or work in Lambeth to take these lessons.  I ended up getting two individual, one-on-one training sessions, each two hours long, for the grand sum of £8.00.  (That is not a typo.  EIGHT POUNDS. Two pounds per hour for one on one instruction.  Unbelievable.)  And, having taken that training I'm now also eligible to do a full day course on basic bike maintenance for another eight quid.  Thank you Lambeth.

The first two hour session started slowly, and was not aided by the fact that it was a chilly, windy, grey Sunday morning.  I met my instructor, Patrick, in a quiet park of Brockwell Park, very near the house.  He was a nice enough guy, and had proper clip-in pedals and everything.  He even spent the first ten minutes of the lesson adjusting my brakes, pumping up my tires and oiling my bike chain.  No extra charge for that either...  Then we did a bit of very basic stuff - changing gears and shoulder checking and emergency stops and such.  All fairly basic.

When we got on the roads, it got more interesting.  I'm sure many of you know this already, and I'd been told it by experience cycling friends, but had never really taken it to heart.  However, the truth is that the position most inexperienced cyclists gravitate to on the road is not always the safest or smartest place to be.  Trying to stay out of the way by hugging tight to the curb often puts you far enough over that impatient drivers have just enough room to squeeze past you without having to wait for a break in opposing traffic.  This means that if anything unanticipated happens, you've got nowhere to go.  It makes sense, but I know from experience it can be hard to do.  Apparently women especially have trouble being assertive enough to maintain a safe postion on the roads.  This is evidenced by a series of text messages I had with my friend Philip, who was trying to convince me about this last summer:
Phil: You should cycle in the middle, not on the left. And only let cars past when it's safe for you.
Me: How do you avoid being dragged off your bike and kicked to death by angry motorists?
Phil: Shout back at them.
Me: Yeah.  I'll shout really loud from the foetal position while I'm trying to protect my kidneys from some guy's boot...
So you could say I was resistant to the idea.  Now, I'm a convert.  I may not be in the middle of the lane, but I'm far enough out that the unexpected opening of the door of a parked car will not be the end of my trip.  And if a car wants to pass me, they can damned well wait until there's room in the opposing lane for them to swing out.  It really does work.  Thanks Patrick!  (And sorry I ever doubted you Philip.)

My route to and from work doesn't take me anywhere near the aforementioned killer roundabout at Bow, but it does go straight through another infamous roundabout at Elephant and Castle.  Luckily, my second lesson with Patrick was an intermediate level business, and he took me through a few of the tricky intersections on my route, including the Elephant.  We even stopped, locked up the bikes, and stood at the side of the road gesturing at possible approaches and discussing the merits of one lane over another before tackling things on two wheels.  And even Patrick admitted that trip through E&C from the direction of London Bridge towards Brixton is exceptionally snarly.  However, we did come to some conclusions, and had a couple of trips through on our bikes, and I'm pretty ok with Elephant and Castle now. (On a completely unrelated note: Did you know that Elephant and Castle can be anagrammed to read Aleph and Tentacles?)

So I'm all trained up now.  I've even had an unanticipated lesson in how to fix a flat tire (or "puncture" as it's known locally).  I came out of work a while back to discover my back wheel was making an odd squishy noise as I wheeled my bike towards the gate for the trip home.  It took me a ridiculous amount of time to diagnose the problem, but eventually I recognised that the tire was completely flat.  And even though I got a nifty bike repair multi-tool for Christmas, I quickly realised I had no idea how to use it.  Luckily, one of my colleagues is a former bike shop employee, so he advised me on supplies to get and spent half an hour the next day showing me how to remove the wheel, take off the tire, find the leak, locate the spot on the tire with the offending tiny sharp pokey bit in it, remove said tiny pokey bit, install a new tube and put everything back together again.  I finished with frozen fingers, blackened palms, and a ridiculously empowering sense of accomplishment.

These days I'm on the road for my commute on any day whose schedule permits it.  It's eight and a half miles each way, and every eight and a half miles takes me about an hour.  (Slightly longer on days when I have to stop at the intersection at Tower Hill to retrieve wayward bike accessories that seem to favour that particular location to make a break for freedom.  I've already had to dash into the road to retrieve both a U-lock and my front mud guard.  Then again, it does give a bit of a chance to appreciate one's surroundings while waiting for a break in traffic.)

The Tower of London, as viewed from the intersection where bicycle accessories go to die.

Yet despite a few scrapes and bruises, many lungs full of soupy London air, and the occasional hair-raising encounter with a heavy goods vehicle, I'd say becoming a cyclist in London has been a good experience.  And so I'll leave you with a few shots taken along my commute, which is certainly more picturesque than the inside of a tube train.

Special lights just for the bike lanes!

Along the Lambeth Cut Canal

Where the canal meets the Thames. (That's a Gordon Ramsay restaurant on the right!)


And in the News About Pam Department...

I've had a few requests in comments to write a bit about my job on the Olympic Ceremonies, and to that end I whipped up a nice little post that I thought was general enough not to be a problem but still give the flavour of the thing.  Just to be safe, I sent it to a higher-up at work for approval.  And that's as far as that post will go for now, because the suggestion was not to put it up.  You will all simply have to sit tight and wait until my contract expires next September, when I'll be free to dust off that post, and maybe even add some juicy bits.  Until then, please stop asking.

1 Comment:

Unknown said...

Your news blackout on the Olympic job is understandable given the high profile of the event. We look forward to all the 'dirt' afterwards.

I can relate to some of your new to bicycle commuting experiences. 2011 introduced me to not driving to work and I have cycled or transited to work about 50/50 in the past year. Love those real separated by a barrier bike lanes. The bogus painted line in the car door opening zone type are a trip to the hospital in the making!

Best wishes on the continued bicycle adventures.

(I cannot believe YOU did not know how to repair a flat tire!)


Post a Comment