The Government is eyeing up my beloved cycling as the cure to London’s traffic gridlock – let’s hope they don’t suck all the joy out of riding a bike.
ALL OF A SUDDEN, it seems we can’t get enough of cycling…
Yesterday, for example, The Government announced a £5 billion fund to improve UK bus and bike infrastructure over the next five years.
The day before, our local council released a plan to improve the hairy A-road passing through our bit of London – including high quality segregated cycle lanes and prioritised signals for bikes.
As someone who’s been cycling for years, it’s nice to be on the right side of change, for a change.
But, at the same time, I’m a bit worried that the powers-that-be might bugger cycling up – or at least spoil it for those of us who’ve been doing it for years.
Population growth is what’s slowing London down: the number of London residents has increased from 7.4 million in 2004 to an estimated 9.2 million in 2021, and those people have to get around somehow.
Then – when you factor in an Amazon-inspired 25 per cent increase in van journeys in the last decade, plus an explosion in Uber-style taxi numbers – it’s no wonder that traffic is moving slower than in Queen Victoria’s day. *
And – unless you’re disabled, exercise-phobic, or of a nervous disposition – cycling has been the only sane way to get around yer London for years.
I’ve written before about how crowded roads, inadequate parking and cash-incentivised traffic wardens all make getting behind the wheel here utter torture, even outside the Congestion Charge zone.
I worry that the authorities might suck the joy out of cycling if they go too far, or if too many people take to two wheels.”
Of course, taking to two wheels in London is not without challenges: like the ‘drivers’ who floor it as they pass a cyclist, like they’re trying to take off instead of overtake.
Then there are the ones that speed down the middle of the road at you, forcing you to swerve left… but allowing them to straddle central speed bumps without slowing down.
There’s also the strain of sharing a bus lane with drivers who hate us, and my own special peeve – the way double deckers close in behind you on a sunny day, snuffing out your shadow with theirs in a way that seems to prefigure your imminent demise…
These days, there are more safe spaces for cyclists, but not all drivers respect them – probably because they reduce their room to manoeuvre on London’s already choked roads.
In the Guardian, the chief executive of London’s Black Cab drivers’ association, Steve McNamara, even blamed what he called a “wealthy inner-London elite” on two wheels for forcing commercial drivers off the city’s roads.
“(They) can afford to live in Islington and want to ride their bike to St Pancras… sit in Oxford Circus and sip their skinny caramel coconut latte without any thought about how the constituent parts got there,” he said.
“And (if) they want something, they buy it on their phone and they expect it delivered next day.”
Which seems a bit unfair on cyclists like me: I’m just an ordinary guy on a very ordinary income who uses bikes to get around.
I walk to the shops (partly because the NHS says it’s good for middle aged people to keep their strength up by carrying heavy bags), or I go Full SAS and stuff the panniers on my commuter bike with groceries. Often, I pick up some shopping at the end of a run…
I don’t use Amazon, and recently rode 25 miles to get a couple of items from a shopping centre on the edge of the city, in part because I don’t like home deliveries.
If I were in charge of London, I’d cut Uber Eats and Amazon Prime miles by making them deliver to new neighbourhood delivery hubs – working a bit like an Argos – closest to the customer.
That way, we’d cut pollution and make burger lovers walk off a few of the calories from the Big Mac we’re forcing them to pick up…. but I’m also realistic enough to know that I’m just a bit too bossy to ever get elected in the first place…
But as well as being bossy, I’m also an individual – like a lot of London cyclists.
Just being on a bike takes you ‘out of the system’ as someone once wrote, and I worry that the authorities might suck the joy out of cycling if they go too far, or if too many people take to two wheels.
“Cycling in Copenhagen, you have to be sharp-elbowed to navigate across lanes – or else be carried inexorably on like a twig in a tsunami.”
I’m in two minds about building more cycle lanes because many of those we’ve had so far have been poorly planned, and even dangerous.
And – while I would love to see London become as cycle-friendly as Copenhagen, I’ve been to that particular biking mecca, and found that its mega-busy lanes are no fun.
In Copenhagen, everyone cycles at the same maddeningly slow – and depersonalising – speed.
There’s always someone right at your shoulder, and you have to be sharp-elbowed to navigate across lanes in time to turn off – or else be carried inexorably on, like a twig in a tsunami.
I mean, I’m all for doing my bit to save the world by doing something that I like; I’m all in favour of cutting down on Ubers – and their maddening habit of only stopping right at the end of the side road you’re passing, forcing you to brake and lose hard-won momentum.
I’m all for not being killed, just so that someone can deliver an artisan loaf or a pair of headphones that bit faster… but I also want riding my bike to always feel like being free.
* On central London A-roads, the average vehicle speed is 8mph, as opposed to an estimated 12mph in the late Victorian era.