London: a cycling city

I wrote about the challenges facing cycling in London for The London Magazine

Every time I hear that another cyclist has been killed on one of London’s many lethal junctions, I pray to a god I don’t believe in that it isn’t one of my friends. The idea of cycling in London terrifies me. That’s partly because I haven’t ridden a bike more than twice in 20 years, and partly because I have seen so many incidents, altercations and near fatal collisions involving cyclists during my walks around the city.


I’m aware of the figures – the fact that cycling is overall a pretty safe form of transport, even if it could always be better – but it’s hard to shake off that impression that it’s anything but. I’ve seen cyclists get hit by taxi doors and narrowly avoid getting squashed by buses. I’ve seen them shouting with rage and fear at drivers who’ve turned out of a side street in front of them without looking. I’ve seen them cycle headlong into pedestrians who weren’t looking where they were going (and vice versa). I’ve seen them getting into squabbles with bus drivers about ownership of bus/cycle lines that end with blows being traded. I’ve seen them picking themselves and their bent bikes off the pavement after minor crashes. And I’ve seen the blood getting washed off the road after major ones. It looks anything but fun.

So despite the fact I see people cycling quite easily and happily on London streets every day, I still think it’s one of the last things I’d ever want to put myself or my family through on a daily basis.

That is something that needs to change if London is ever going to be a cycling city, which it desperately needs to if it is to remain in any way a human and pleasant place to live in. People like me need to be persuaded that London cycling is safe and that a trip on the bike to the shops won’t result in a serious injury or a shouting match. As Mike Cavenett of the London Cycling Campaign admitted to me “the striking thing is that Dutch cyclists just look like Dutch people”, by which he means you see the elderly and children, men and women, all cycling in their normal clothes – not like London, where cyclists wear tight, bright clothing and manage to look simultaneously over and under dressed.

When London’s cyclists start to look normal, that’s when we know we are heading the right way. And for that to happen, London needs better infrastructure, streets on which cyclists feel safe and are able to relax, making the whole experience better for everybody. Everybody I spoke to – including Andrew Gilligan, the Mayor’s cycling tsar – seemed united on this and agreed on the direction that London needed to go in. Whether it actually happens, whether there is the political will to spend the cash to keep the promises, remains to be seen. But here’s hoping it starts to happen, because a cycling city would be better London for everybody.

3 responses to “London: a cycling city

  1. i cycle most days and there’s loads of problems. the biggest, touched on with the dutch comment above, is the ‘them and us’ feel with cars and bikes. im a cyclist and a motorist and the former has helped me with the latter because i know what to look for – cyclists in dark clothing, no lights on, undertaking.
    also a lot of drivers – and the standard of driving in london is awful anyway – seem to hate cyclists, they take on an active role in it, rather than just being irritated by them. some people in cars appear to believe think bikes shouldn’t be allowed on the road, and that’s that.
    i still do it but cycling in london (and i rarely go into town, this is between lewisham and greenwich) is no fun at all.

  2. All good points, Pete. I recall we interviewed some Danish cyclists who think London cyclists look like aliens in all that lycra. And by all accounts Copenhagen was a terrible place to cycle in the mid 70s – huge political and social will turned that around. Could the same thing happen here in London? Perhaps – it would, I guess, require major roads being given over to cyclists at key times, or something like it. But with a mayor so in thrall to big biz and populist gestures, cycling feels like an easy PR opportunity for Mayor Johnson, but not a lot more. Some blue cycle lanes, some Velib style bikes (a good thing, on the whole), several hundred million pounds being invested (where exactly?) – but will anyone make major infrastructure changes for cyclists? Not for a long time, I fear. Nonetheless, cycling in London is better than it was, a bit. And I still enjoy it.

  3. alison homewood

    Tokyo and other Japanese cities should also be a reference – there, not only do all cyclists look ‘normal’ and of all ages, they share the lovely wide pavements with pedestrians. The cyclists’ half is denoted by different paving stones, or tiles, or picture of bikes painted on the tarmac, and the pedestrians’ half is just regular. Everyone is happy – and it seems safer and more civilised than Amsterdam or the Nordic cities where bikes still often go too fast.

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