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Cycling in London – a stress, not a pleasure

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.

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Why London needs to become a cycling city

In many ways, London is a city that time forgot. To walk through it’s streets is to negotiate labyrinthine streets where the motor car looms ever near – often from directions of which you’re unaware. A view from the 1980s would claim this to be the hallmark of a city. A place bustling with traffic, noise, commotion, smells, thronging crowds – the sights and smells of a population in flux, and the kind of dynamism that energises. But we need to be careful in recognising the constituent elements that make a city what it is.

Firstly, we need to be clear that it is people that energise cities, not machines. And the best way to energise a city is to give its citizens the chance to enjoy good health, good employment opportunities and a streetscape that encourages people to *use* and *interact* with public space, not just to pass hurriedly through it. It is in this way, in my view, that London continues to operate like a creaking old industrial age city, in thrall to the mechanical wonder of the motor car. As a result, it is failing its citizens, because transportation and good health are precursors towards achieving high levels of social mobility and employment. A city that cannot meet the needs of its citizens, risks becoming redundant. Particularly when it comes to a city’s youth.

London is one of the worst cities in Europe for air quality. Near some of London’s busiest roads, it averages well over twice World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended levels. This, by Boris Johnson’s own admission, led to over 4,000 premature deaths in 2008 alone, and is thought to be responsible for up to 30% of all new cases of asthma in children. The UK has constantly been warned of the need to mitigate an impending obesity epidemic, particularly among children. The Greater London Authority itself, though it bases its analysis on simplified assumptions, estimates that childhood obesity and its associated consequences is costing London £7.1m a year.

Good health is pivotal to a productive economy, and it is the springboard by which the populace can engage in daily life. We can encourage people to attain better health through awareness, but one of the easiest ways to encourage better health is by transforming the way that people move around a city. London has a love affair with the car that it refuses to relinquish, however punitive the circumstances. It speaks volumes that a city with a congestion charging zone is still regularly rated amongst the worst polluting cities in Europe.

The primary reason for this is road design and infrastructure. Roads are laid out for the benefit of the motor car, not least the Mayor Boris Johnson’s commitment to “smoothing traffic flow” – in other words, making it as convenient and enticing as possible to drive a car, by removing obstructions such as pedestrian crossings and traffic lights, thereby making the reliability of car journey times an attractive proposition to keep on driving.

This is no longer good enough. London has laboured under the collective burden of congestion, pollution and poor health for decades and the only way it can be alleviated is by inducing more people to walk and cycle. Modal share for cycling in London is at a trifling 2%, compared to Berlin’s 13%, Munich’s 15%, Copenhagen’s 23% and Amsterdam’s 37%. The reason is clear. The roads are not safe enough. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve spoken to that say they would like to cycle but feel that the roads are too dangerous. Numerous too, are those who tell me that they used to cycle, but decided to give up because it was too stressful, too risky, too polluted. With these conditions, can we ever build on a future where our children become comfortable learning how to ride a bike on our streets?

Pedestrian priority should be top of the political agenda in London too, but it isn’t. In fact, in an understated way, Boris is at a kind of war with the pedestrian. His edict of smoothing traffic flow is having its most significant impact on Mr Everyone in London – the pedestrian. A total of 6 pedestrian crossings have been removed in London so far, and TfL are consulting on proposals to remove a further 58 crossings. Newly-phased countdown timers at traffic lights (visible at Holborn & Oxford St junctions) actually provide pedestrians with less time to cross the street.

Whatever our chosen mode of transport in London, whether it’s two wheels, four, or a rattling cage deep in London’s cavernous depths, at some point in daily life we are ALL pedestrians. For London to survive, it needs to prioritise its people. If it doesn’t, it will slowly suffocate under the oppression of its own smog.