How a cyclist sees London


There is an invisible hierarchy in London. It looks like this:

  • Underground passenger
  • Car driver
  • Bus passenger
  • Cyclist
  • Runner
  • Walker

The Underground user is at the bottom of the hierarchy. They get to see little, to none of the city.

A little further up, a driver, gets to see more. However, despite what car manufacturers will try to sell us, drivers get to experience very little. They are too busy focusing on the road (you hope) and too stuck inside a metal box for the sights and sounds.

Beyond the driver, the bus passenger has more time and focus to passively gaze upon the world. If you’ve ever sat upstairs at the front of a London bus, you’ll know how much more of London you get to take in. Catching glimpses in to what lies beyond what those on street level can see.

The cyclist has much more freedom. He or she can choose to vary their route, stop, go as fast or as slow as they want. Spot an inviting cafe along the way? Pull over, have a coffee, maybe even a cake – if the latest diet fad allows. No time? Make a mental note for a future date.

A level higher, the runner is fortunate enough to mostly be on the pavement. They can spend more time looking around and less time worrying about the black cab about to come out the junction without looking. They too have great freedom in their route and they can make an on the spot decision to discover that corner of the park they’ve not yet run to.

The walker is of course the master of the hierarchy. They know the value of slowing things down. They can stop to wonder in to a local shop, they can take a reflective moment to watch the world move by. The only downside? Speed. But it’s up to the individual as to whether that is an upside, or a downside.

When I first moved to London, I commuted on the 521 bus. If you were to lay out a city map in front of me and ask me to highlight the parts I know, it would follow the route of the bus and a few dots around key landmarks like Oxford Circus. The rest was a haze.

Six years later, having seen much of the city on two wheels, the map looks very different.

Though I must admit, these days, if time permits I’m just as happy walking, as I am cycling.

If you were to create the same hierarchy, how would you lay it out? Leave a comment below.

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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

6 Responses to How a cyclist sees London

  1. Matt 09/03/2015 at 1:42 pm #

    I’d say a good proportion of walkers I see each morning see less than cyclists or runners as they have their eyes glued to their phones.

  2. Charlie 09/03/2015 at 5:10 pm #

    I think the bike delivers the best balance of ground covered vs opportunity to see stuff – it’s really no hardship to include a lesser known area a mile or two off route when cycling, but quite a big ask for a runner or a walker.

  3. Mik 10/03/2015 at 10:37 am #

    I’m yet to see a runner who is taking in their surroundings, runners all seem to be surviving in a haze of pain and tunnel vision to me.

    I’d put motorbikes level with cyclists and definitely cycles higher up than runners. Also don’t forget passengers in taxis get to see loads of London, much more than they’d expect if it’s a minicab 🙂

    When I first lived in London my mental map was a couple of bus routes (particularly the 12) and couple of rat runs that I used to drive and then multiple little islands of roads around 3-500 metres around various tube stations. It was always a revelation when I’d drive somewhere and realise that this isolated little tube station island was actually just down the road from that isolated little tube station island…

  4. Rebecca 13/03/2015 at 12:16 pm #

    As a cyclist in, I tend to see cycling more as a freedom that a place to take things in. Cycling on London roads is far too busy to take anything in but survival. However cycling would be at the top for me when out on the country roads or the best way of traveling the world.

    My favourite way to view London is on the top of a double decker right at the front- as a passive observer! Its like a mini rolla coaster ride with the momentum of the bus and like you said you get to see London from another view that the walkers down below don’t see. Best for long journeys 🙂

    If you’ve ever taken the 55 – some artists put these little coloured balls of something on the top of every bus stop.

    Walking is the best when you are with someone else with no care for time in the world, just going along and taking it all it, slowly, observing and interacting – kinda like old people do sometimes. Its nice being in that feeling.

    But still I reckon cycling gives the most freedom in terms of movement, and routes and monetary costs and fitness.

  5. Alister Barclay 16/03/2015 at 11:12 pm #

    While it’s tempting to see cycling as the best way to get around a city, I’d say walking provides the best experience and I think cities should be structured around the needs of walkers. There would be big benefits for cyclists if this were ever the case. It’s a shame that in these days of cycle superhighways and quiet ways, there seems little attention or money spent on pedestrians, perhaps because there is little money to be made from them.

  6. Matt 17/03/2015 at 8:54 pm #

    Personally as a runner I’ve got to actually see and explore a lot more of an area than I do using any other form of transport, when I’m walking I’m usually too busy concentrating on getting where I have to be to stop and look around, cycling in urban areas means the concentration goes to the traffic, ditto cars. The bus and train is far too linear for me learn much apart from a mass of useless information like which bus stop has a traffic bollard on top and it doesn’t join the dots of what leads to where.
    Running on holiday makes me actively search out routes beforehand which helps me familiarise myself with the local whereabouts much quicker (and taking running shoes on holiday is far easier & cheaper than a bike).

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