I have cycled around London for about six years in total. I remember clearly the moment at which I started to think seriously about using a bicycle as my main mode of transportation. I was living in Islington at the time, in a small flat above a greasy spoon directly opposite Pentonville prison. I’d just started working at an office in south Hampstead, a stone’s throw from Finchley Road tube station. Though my commute wasn’t particularly long, it contained the kind of niggling annoyances that made it just frustrating enough to make me consider a two-wheeled alternative – long waits for trains at Caledonian Rd tube station, congestion and delays at Kings Cross, and similar kind of delays at Finchley Road on the way home. My flatmate, a somewhat contrarian thinker, had just started talking about getting hold of a bike for the summer and using it not just for recreation, but as his main means of getting around the city. Until that point, the thought of using a bike had never crossed my mind. Particularly because, back in those days, bikes were a much rarer sight around London and the roads still as dominated by cars as they are today.
But what really swung it for me, was discovering that I could take the Regent’s Canal for the majority of the route, and thus avoid the London traffic that I was so anxious about having to encounter. A weekend or two later, while visiting my parents in Surrey, my father and I came across an abandoned bicycle with two flat wheels by the side of the road, lime green and in decent condition – the kind of bike I probably would have picked out myself given the choice, which rendered its presence by the roadside as much poetically coincidental as it was peculiar. A few weeks later I had cleaned it thoroughly, replaced the brake pads and wires, fitted a new chain and replaced the wheels/inner tubes. The bike rode like a dream. Smooth, fast and beautifully fluid when changing gear.
The route was beautifully relaxing too. Not a hazard or worry in sight (aside from the occasional person out on an early morning walk by Camden Lock), and I revelled in the fact that I could cycle at a comfortable pace, with minimal fuss, clean air and nothing but crisp mornings in view. Cycling was a genuine pleasure back then, and it was due to the fact that it was easy. There were so few obstacles and dangers, that It didn’t take much concentration, which helped to preserve the enjoyment of the experience intact.
That was then. Now I live in southeast London, where my commute involves a journey up the Old Kent Road, through the back streets of Borough, over Blackfriars bridge and down to Holborn. The journey requires me to be constantly alert, from the minute I set off, darting past buses, checking over my shoulder for scooters and motorcycles, changing through lanes of fast-moving traffic, keeping an eye out for lorries and trucks bombing it down the Old Kent Road (which is, to all intents and purposes, an urban motorway). The pleasure of the ride has all but evaporated. I now tolerate my commute in the same way that I would a train or bus ride, and stick to it because of the fact that it is marginally quicker than the alternatives and keeps me relatively fit (in spite of the hundreds of central-bound cars/lorries/trucks that clog up the Old Kent Road). I now arrive at work thankful that I’ve made it intact, but grumpy at the almost-daily stream of left-hooks, close passes and drivers that stop and cover the entire stretch of advanced stop zones at traffic lights.
These two routes are polar opposites, and whilst I’d never expect my commute now to be completely devoid of cars in the same way that the Regent’s Canal route was, the complete ignorance of cyclists’ needs for so much of my current commute makes it so difficult and stressful, that I can imagine another person in my position would either never have considered cycling my route in the first place, or by now would have given up completely.
I feel, intuitively, that cycling in London is reaching a saturation point, where people fit enough (and perhaps even mad enough) to want to cycle are doing so, because they are experienced in dealing with the dangers on the roads. They probably suffer the same stress and hassle that I do, but like me, are so obsessed with cycling that they put up with it, because riding about on two wheels is as much a part of their life now as eating food or brushing their teeth.
But if we really want cycling to take off from this point onwards, we need to do more. We now need to appeal to the section of the population who would quite like to ride but take one look at London’s streets and think “No way. Those streets are terrifying and I’m just not prepared to risk my life on a bike” – young mothers, casual riders and especially, children.
I remember that it took me a year of cycling to pluck up the courage to cycle 5 minutes down Caledonian Road to King’s Cross. Even with some experience under my belt, I hated it and I still do some 6 years later.
Taking to a bike should inspire feelings of pleasure, not dread. TFL and the Mayor are making cyclists labour under the latter. If this continues, than cycling will forever be for the minority and not the majority.