There’s no getting around it: bicycling in a big city can be stressful. Cars, buses, plus lots of people on foot. Not enough space for everyone. And often no bike lane, never mind signage to help you get around on a bike without using main roads already full of vehicles.
So I have been following with interest the development of London’s “cycle superhighways” since they were announced a decade ago. These are direct routes into central London, sometimes using protected bike lanes and often marked with blue paint to make them more obvious when using the road. They also have signage telling you how many minutes to key destinations. There are few traffic lights to slow you down, but when there is a red light, people stop.
I’d been on part of one on a previous trip to London, riding on the Embankment — a stretch of roadway along the Thames that not even I would have been foolhardy to bike on in its previous life. But rush hour on that section of a cycle superhighway meant I was just one of hundreds of cyclists.
On my latest trip I was determined to try more of them, using London’s incredibly cheap bike-share system (2 pounds for a day pass covering unlimited rides of no more than 30 minutes — cheaper than just one subway ride. So not New York.).
Here’s what I found:
On my first ride, I picked up the cycle superhighway at Tower Hill (just north of Tower Bridge) and headed east toward Canary Wharf, the newer of London’s two financial districts. In the past I’d always done this trip by Tube or taxi. This time it was a calm 20-minute bike ride to the outskirts. Loved it!
I know it was a Sunday, but given that the route used separated bike lanes and quiet roads through residential areas, I am guessing it’s quite doable at rush hour.
Like an interstate, the signs tell you the distance to key landmarks and distant neighborhoods (or suburbs). Only here, distance is expressed in minutes rather than miles.
My one quibble is that I wasn’t sure what to do when I got to the Canary Wharf tunnel by the Westferry DLR station, so I docked (I also was nearing the 30-minute limit) and wandered around that area, stumbling across the free Museum of London Docklands (thumbs up from me) and a floating hot-tub (and drinking) business in the basin area. This is where extra signage would be useful for first-timers, given that there is a backroads route and plenty of docking possibilities by the banks, and that it’s off the cycle superhighway, which continues east.
As I headed back, I decided to peel off and head north to the Columbia Road Flower Market. This is a Sunday-only market that was much more packed than I remembered it being, oh, 20 or so years ago. An expanded subway network plus gentrification has made it more accessible?
My ride was a bit meandering, though not as much if I’d tried the canal option, and kept me close to docking opportunities (once again, the 30-minute clock is always ticking when it’s not your own bike and you don’t want to pay extra fees). It’s easy to stop for two minutes, examine the docking station map (or check your phone) and start up again.
And this is where I found myself on a “quietway,” a notch below a superhighway. These are less direct (but also not as long) and use quiet local roads, rather than separated cycle tracks. Signage is more of an issue here (but destinations like the flower market eventually are signposted for pedestrians, so you rely on those. Or your phone), but overall another pleasant experience.
On another day, I biked with a friend from Monument to Tower Hill, across a jam-packed Tower Bridge (lacking bike amenities, but traffic was crawling, so it was OK for those comfortable with traffic), then westward and eventually catching up with National Route 4, one of my cycling route standbys from the early 2000s. Only this time there were so many tourists west of London Bridge that we quickly abandoned it and used Southwark Bridge to cross the Thames and get on the cycle superhighway.
Ah, once again, just lovely. No stress. This was a mostly two-way separated path that took us through an underpass and along the Embankment all the way to Big Ben and Parliament, and then on to St. James’ Park and close to Buckingham Palace. We opted to walk through the crowds rather than weave our way through on bikes to reach Hyde Park, where bikes are restricted to certain paths and you’d likely not find any at a docking station when you want one anyway.
When we did get back on the bikes, it was another low-stress ride to London Bridge. And the view of St. Paul’s and other skyline landmarks … beautiful!
Thumbs up on some of the signage:
and proof of how popular the Embankment section is (cycle superhighway is on the right):
Now yes, I know there are some awful bike lanes in London and the U.K., the kind put in with no thought but so that politicians can claim they did something. I see plenty of examples in my Twitter feed.
And, no, this isn’t going to compete with what you’ll find in the Netherlands. I see plenty of that in my Twitter feed too. Or just read this blog and be envious.
And even though these superhighways have the backing of the current mayor (the idea comes from the previous one), actually creating them hasn’t been easy. Like with any bike infrastructure, there are always those who object, fearing it will make it harder for motorists or store owners. Or they find some other excuse.
I’m all about words and the odd photos, so to see the cycle superhighways in action, watch this video. And you’ll also catch some impressive stats, like that 70% of all rush-hour traffic over Blackfriars Bridge is bikes.
Bottom line: I’ll take more, please. Much saner than most of New York. And the number of people on bikes as a result shows what a difference this sort of infrastructure upgrade can make.
Some other thoughts on London’s bike-share system:
— While the network has 13,600 bikes and 839 stations, it doesn’t go that deep into Zone 2. I saw a couple of women tackling the Finchley Road hill north of the Finchley & Frognal stop during rush hour and thought what are you doing? You are long past the last docking station in St. John’s Wood, there’s no bike lane on this road but plenty of trucks and buses, and there are much quieter ways to get wherever you are going.
— The bike-share app, best I could tell, doesn’t help you navigate to landmarks. Stick to the bike option on Google Maps. I used the app to find docking stations and to see whether bikes/docking spots were available.
— The network isn’t as dense as I expected, particularly in big tourist spots like Piccadilly Circle, Leicester Square and around Shaftesbury Avenue. (Paris wins here, Rose, or at least used to, before the new vendor messed up Ve’lib.) On the other hand, that part of London is so congested with vehicles and pedestrians that you may not want to add tourists on bikes to the mix (especially when they’re not used to traveling on the wrong side of the street).
And now for a few more bike-related photos from London:
Yeah, we’re scary. Really, just look both ways.