This week – before it reached 33C but probably wasn’t far off 30 – I had to be in the centre of town for a meeting. I dithered about my mode of transport for almost a minute before deciding to cycle. The tube would have been unbearable, and anyway I was up for an adventure.
I don’t go into the centre of London much, still less on a bike. I was intending to find a clever cycle-friendly route, but my Bike Hub app – which is very good at finding such routes – doesn’t like to be hurried. You have to consult it well in advance and either memorise the suggested route or, God forbid, print it out.* I’m not organised enough for either, so as usual I had to default to Google maps – which sent me packing along all the A-roads without a second thought.
Cycle-friendly it wasn’t, but the route was fascinating – fascinating watching other people on bikes. The demographics of who rides a bike in London changes dramatically as you get closer to the centre.
In our outer London suburb of Enfield, not many people cycle at all. That’s changing already with the transformation of the A105, even though the finished bits don’t join up yet. I counted 11 other cyclists in one 20-minute journey last weekend (I always count in case someone tells me on Twitter that they’ve only ever seen three cyclists in Enfield in their whole life, so why is all this money being wasted building cycle lanes for them, etc etc). But still, if you stop at traffic lights and another cyclist pulls up next to you, that in itself is a reason for conversation. Gosh – both of us riding bikes in the same bit of Enfield at the very same time!
Then as you trickle down Green Lanes as far as Turnpike Lane – assuming you’ve survived Wood Green High Street, where they have recently tried to design cycling out of the road altogether, and kill off any stragglers – it changes. You will notice a young man in a hoody cycling in a zig-zag with his hands in his pockets; an older gent with his shopping bags slung over his handlebars; a slightly overweight young woman cycling in a dress and a straw hat; and so on, and no one bothers with helmets. As you swing into Seven Sisters road – assuming you’ve survived that right turn across a three-lane junction, that is – there are more people on bikes, and they are younger and look like commuters. Some of the bikes carry an empty child seat.
Then towards the centre, where frankly you have no idea where you are and are keen not to run down the battery on your phone by asking Google, the number on bikes steadily increases. Not just those on Boris bikes either. I stopped in one bike box (the painted bit at traffic lights) and found myself among 14 other people. 14! I’d found my tribe! Naturally, I instantly bonded with all of them … but they left me behind when the lights turned green. (Had all those seconds together in the bike box meant nothing…?)
On the next street I stopped and pulled my bike off the road so I could have a drink of water (bottle cage broken, so had to pull it out of my pannier bag). I dropped off the kerb knowing that no cars were coming – right into the path of a cyclist. It hadn’t occurred to me to check for bikes because I live in Enfield. After apologising profusely I was off again, and suddenly found myself on an actual cycle superhighway.
I hadn’t cycled on one yet. (Okay, I’ve been on parts of CS1, but that really doesn’t count.) This is a wide, kerb-separated stretch of car-free tarmac with its own traffic lights and bikes going in both directions. And it was packed, packed to the gills with people cycling. In the lane going the other way I counted one group of 40, and after a short gap, another group the same size. Two abreast. Loads, and loads, and loads of bikes.
It was utterly surreal. I’ve seen videos of busy cycle superhighways in London, but being there in the thick of it was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Even in the Netherlands, I didn’t cycle anywhere as busy as this. In fact I didn’t recognise this as my city at all. (Bear in mind that this infrastructure has only been in place for about two years.) I felt like I’d been beamed to a different planet where, bizarrely, millions of aliens happen to share my niche transport choice. At traffic lights I looked around at the dozens of others in close proximity and realised I was in a car-less traffic jam. Humans without shells! I’m closer to the rider next to me, and in front or behind, than if we were sharing a car. Yet we’re not jammed at all – when the lights turn green we move off smoothly, without a shred of frustration or aggression or honking – all our energy goes into turning pedals.
I wasn’t quite sure where I was. I’d crossed London Bridge so I knew I was south of the river, which is where I was headed. (In fact, it felt like a macabre tour of London’s terror attacks. I’d already passed the closed-off road at Finsbury Park mosque, and here was London Bridge’s newly fitted barriers to stop cars mounting the pavement. They are right up against the kerb, because apparently a terrorist driving onto the pavement is more likely than a standard London driver veering into the bus or bike lane.) I was so dazzled by the next stretch of infrastructure that it was only after I’d crossed Blackfriars Bridge that I twigged I was back on the north bank again…**
Sitting in a pub that evening alongside CS6 with its never ending stream of cyclists, I had the goose-bumpy feeling of witnessing a revolution. But London isn’t yet a “mass cycling” city, much as I hope and believe it will be. There was not much room in those cycle lanes to wobble or to have a leisurely chat – the pace was a bit too frenetic and the space too restricted. You feel like you need to concentrate, put your head down and get on with it. And on my whole route from Enfield and across the Thames, children were completely absent. The packs of people in bikes I encountered in the centre appeared to be mostly commuters. Most of them wore helmets. They tended to be youngish adult males … perhaps because to reach the lovely new cycle infrastructure, they’d first made it across miles of London streets lacking any, as I had. That weeds out a lot of different kinds of people.
This is what you see in a mass cycling city – leisurely cycling. You can sling your handbag over the handlebars of your upright bike, grab your coffee, and sip it while you ride. You can be female. You can ride without a helmet, because, well, why wouldn’t you? It’s not the Tour de France – it’s a shopping trip or your way to work.
In other words, the most efficient, numerous mode of transport – pedestrians and cyclists – get the least space. Motor traffic still dominates the street. London’s cycle superhighways look generous, but they are already over-capacity, and most streets don’t cater for cycling at all.
The Mayor’s Transport Strategy, released as a draft last week, has a promising vision to reduce vehicles on our roads and increase walking and cycling. We’ve got a long way to go before we can sip our frappuccinos as we pedal to pick up our kids from nursery. So here’s hoping, fervently, that his strategy bears some fruit.
*I may have since realised that you can download the route beforehand and then it’s easily accessed while you ride. You live and learn…
** I didn’t get lost on the way home because I was escorted back by two Enfield cycle campaign friends (on a much nicer route, including filtered roads in Islington). Both are in their fifties and cycle into the centre of town from Enfield for work every day. Respect.