Regular readers of this blog will know I’m not a fan of cities. As Toby, the steam tram from Thomas the Tank Engine nobly puts it, ‘I prefer the peace and quiet of the countryside’.
When I do need to head towards the sights and sounds and shapes of the cities, I always try to turn it into an adventure. Shifting the focus of the trip from work and soulless offices to discovery and excitement.
I’ve written before about ditching the Tube in favour of walking in our capital city. But there’s another way of crossing London when you don’t have time to stroll around town. The humble bicycle.
Now, cycling in London doesn’t have the best of reputations. The media loves to portray an ‘us vs them’ battle between drivers and cyclists and the internet is awash with videos of these altercations. Couple that with pollution, busy junctions and a general lack of patience and it’s enough to put people off for good.
These perceptions have stopped me cycling in London. It’s just too dangerous, I thought. And I suspect this is the case for many people keen to make a change but ultimately put off by the stories.
I’ve had a string of meetings recently which have been far across town. Although walkable, the timings have been a little off, meaning I once had to experience the Northern Line in rush hour; an experience I’ve vowed never to repeat!
Getting an earlier train hasn’t been an option so I came back to the idea of cycling. Could I make it work by designing a convoluted route through backstreets, and avoid the traffic altogether?
It turns out I didn’t have to – welcome to the London Cycle Superhighways…
I first came across these when walking along the river near Blackfriars bridge. A separate strip of blacktop runs along the river complete with wide lanes, discrete traffic lights and smiling cyclists. As is so often the case with cycle lanes, I assumed it was a short section which would soon peter out into a busy junction and forgot about it.
But on researching potential routes across town, I realised this was CS6. Part of an ever-expanding network of purpose-built cycle tracks linking key parts of the city. I found I could cycle from Euston Road all the way to my meeting near London Bridge without needing to stray into traffic.
I braved it for the first time last week. Polished up the Brompton and took it on the high speed train from the North. I picked up the route near The British Library and took my first tentative pedals in London.
Minutes later it seemed, I arrived at my destination. I’d not had to grapple with cars. I’d seen parts of the city I never knew existed and didn’t have to get the map out once.
The routes are clearly signposted (for the most part). All you have to do is pedal, stop at red lights, give way at zebra crossings and enjoy the ride.
The other tip is to ring your bell a lot. Some pedestrians clearly haven’t tuned in to needing to look out for bikes and will drift into the lanes while glued to their mobile phones. I’m sure this will change as people subconsciously learn to look for cyclists.
It was a similar experience on the way back. I flew across town and arrived having forgotten the stresses of the working day.
I’m pleased to see the investment in improving our cities for cyclists. It must have required a huge change in infrastructure, which can’t be easy for such a historic city. But it’s a massive step forward which I hope to see in other major cities soon.
By realigning our historic fixation with designing everything around the motor car, we can hopefully shift our attitudes and get more people leading an active commute. Not only will this improve both the physical and mental health of countless workers, it’ll make our cities more pleasant for all.
You can learn more about the London Cycle Superhighways, and cycling in London generally here.