Five ways to make London’s public transport more bike-friendly

The best way to get around with a bike is usually to ride it. But when you have your bike with you but can’t, or don’t want to cycle, London’s public transport will probably let you down. Here are six ways we can improve the experience of using public transport with a bike in the capital:

Bike racks on buses

A bike rack on a bus in Santa Cruz, CA. Image from Wikimedia

A bike rack on a bus in Santa Cruz, CA. Image from Wikimedia

These are a commonplace sight in cities across North America, but for some reason haven’t made it across the pond. If you’re one of the many people who leave their bike at home when they plan on going for a few pints after work, this could at least preserve your morning ride in. I’m sure many people would appreciate them when the weather takes a sudden turn for the worse during the day, too.

On the downside, loading a bike could slow down the service by increasing the amount of time a bus has to spend at a stop. I suspect it’s also very annoying when you’ve waited for a bus, and it arrives, only to have no bike slots left. But considering they probably only cost a few hundred quid a bus, they must be worth a pilot on select routes to see whether people use them.

Bike parking at tube stations

Multi-story bike parking at Amsterdam Central Station. Image from Wikimedia

Multi-story bike parking at Amsterdam Central Station. Image from Wikimedia

London’s railway stations don’t have enough bike parking, and that which they do have isn’t good enough. The plan in the Mayor’s Cycling Vision for secure ‘cycle hubs’ at major stations is a good idea, but there is more that can be done. Providing bike parking at tube stations would substantially increase the number of stations within 10 minutes of people’s homes; this would give them access to a wider variety of tube lines without having to change trains, getting them to their destinations more directly. Not only would this speed up journeys for many people, but it would reduce congestion at busy interchanges where adding capacity costs TfL millions.

Better seating layouts

The London Overground's spacious layout - image from Wikipedia

The London Overground’s spacious layout – image from Wikipedia

For a suburban metro service, the London Overground does a decent job of providing space for people with bikes. Operators on other suburban lines would do well to take some cues TfL here – walk-through carriages, inward-facing seating, and lean-on rests near the doors provide plenty of space for people with bikes in the off-peak. While train operators are unlikely to design their carriages around cycling, during consultations its worth making clear that people who use bikes value this kind of layout for shorter journeys.

Better and more visible information

It's easy to know where to put your bike on Danish trains - image from Facelessbook blog

It’s easy to know where to put your bike on Danish trains – image from Facelessbook blog

Even when taking a bike on public transport is catered for, it can be a stressful experience simply because you never know what will be around the corner. For a journey you’ve not done before, figuring out what you’re allowed to do sometimes requires deep-level research in the bowels of multiple train companies’ websites. That’s no good if you’re in town with your bike, get a flat tyre, and want to figure out the way home. Information has to improve, and it has to become more visible.

Above is a bike carriage from Denmark – it leaves no one on the platform in any doubt about where you’re supposed to put your bike. The equivalent symbol on South West Trains, which does provide bike slots on its trains, is a small square next to one door on 200m long train, visible only to someone standing on front of it.

TfL maintains a clear cyclists' tube map, but you won't see it at any stations - Image from TfL

TfL maintains a clear cyclists’ tube map, but you won’t see it at any stations – Image from TfL

For tube users, TfL maintains a nice, clear tube map for cyclists [above], spelling out which lines it’s okay to take a bike and when. But it’s hidden on their website, when it should be displayed at stations near the main tube map. It could also be improved by rating the difficulty of exiting the station with a bike, and covering non-TfL stations.

You can also see what the tube map looks like for cyclists in this handy flat tyre tube map.

Bring suburban rail services under TfL control

TfL only controls a fraction of rail services, especially in South London - Image from TfL

TfL only controls a fraction of rail services, especially in South London – Image from TfL

The fact is, most train companies will probably never try to encourage cycling on their networks, for one simple reason: it won’t make them money. As they see it, bikes take up valuable space on crowded trains. While operators are willing to pay lip-service, or cater to the odd cyclist here and there, they won’t encourage it en masse, because if everyone started doing it they’d have a capacity crisis on their hands.

Transport for London isn’t always the most progressive organisation when it comes to cycling, but it has one advantage over individual train operators: it plans London’s whole transport system. TfL is in charge of all of London’s modes of transport, and tries to add capacity to the whole thing to keep the capital moving.

There’s a good chance that TfL will recognise, albeit slowly, that helping people bring their bikes on suburban services and cycle the last few miles in central London would free up capacity on the tube, where services are most crowded. They might also see that making it easier for people to cycle in general in the capital will cut rail and bus demand across the whole system and save money in the long-run. Of course, that argument hasn’t been entirely won within TfL, but it is theoretically winnable. With train operators, who have their own sectional interests on their own patch, it isn’t.

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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

16 Responses to Five ways to make London’s public transport more bike-friendly

  1. Martin 22/01/2014 at 9:22 am #

    There’s another trick to the danish trains. The carriage where you’re supposed to put your bike is always at the end of a train set. So its pretty easy to position yourself on the platform.

  2. MJ Ray 22/01/2014 at 1:15 pm #

    Why won’t it make other train operators money? Bikes don’t have to compete with London-style public transport in other towns and cities because there isn’t much and it often doesn’t serve the train stations. Bikes are a good way for train companies to get passengers to and from stations, without much risk that they’ll be tempted to do the whole journey without buying a train ticket like they are in a car. And yet, for some reason, the three train companies serving top cycling city Cambridge seem to be in managed decline, rather than embracing the lovely bicycle. It’s mystifying.

    • Jon Stone 22/01/2014 at 5:07 pm #

      Most suburban rail coming into London is absolutely jam-packed to the brim at peak time, standing room only. It’s not that unusual on a lot of services into and out of Waterloo and Victoria to be physically unable to get on a train and wait for the next one. Allocating a reasonable amount of space to bikes would reduce the space available for people to stand on those peak services where there’s no capacity currently.

      • MJ Ray 23/01/2014 at 10:17 am #

        Sure, but even off-peak and on less crowded lines like the two to Cambridge (which don’t figure at all in the overcrowding top ten – Waterloo and Euston each have 3 of the 10, while Paddington has 2, for comparison), there are still annoying restrictions on bike transport and policy documents outlining yet more restrictions to come.

        People are allowed two huge suitcases even at peak but not one bagged bike. Why has the UK got this so wrong and why is there no sign of new trains in the near future (classes 345, 700 800 and 801) being any better?

        • Vincent 23/01/2014 at 2:19 pm #

          MJ Ray > People are allowed two huge suitcases even at peak but not one bagged bike.

          It’s all the stranger since..
          1. Brompton is a UK company world-famous for its compact folding bikes
          2. Oil in the North Sea has passed its peak, so until electric cars improve significantly enough for people to switch, they’ll have to do less driving in the coming 10-20 years and more walking/biking.

        • Jon Stone 23/01/2014 at 3:05 pm #

          Yeah I completely agree about that, particularly for inter-city trains

    • Andrew Savory 24/01/2014 at 10:26 am #

      It’s worth giving a shout out to Southwest Trains here. Their Brompton bike hire service is an exemplar of integrated transport thinking, and made commuting a real pleasure (albeit I was heading out of London in morning peak time, so space was not an issue).

      It also meant Southwest Trains got my season ticket money. If this service had not been available, I would have been just one more driver adding to the congestion on the M25.

      • MJ Ray 24/01/2014 at 1:43 pm #

        Now that’s an innovative twist on it. There’s the similar at some Great Western and East Coast stations, but it’s had bad enough problems that it’s been closed since November (I think). How’s the SWT scheme working out for you?

        • Andrew Savory 24/01/2014 at 2:00 pm #

          I only used the SWT scheme for 6 months last year, but it was definitely worthwhile.

          The Brompton comes with lights and a bag to fit the front rack. It needs returning every few months for a service, which is actually an advantage – no maintenance required. Same with punctures or other mechanical faults – just take it back and they’ll get it fixed for you. The bikes are in SWT livery so there’s less chance of arguments with staff on trains, too.

          It was actually my first experience of Bromptons, and as a result I’m now planning to buy one of my own.

  3. tom 22/01/2014 at 7:37 pm #

    The trains into town used to always have a guard’s compartment that you could travel in with your bike even in the rush hour. They could always think about bringing that back, it was basically half a carriage with nothing in it at all.

    ps this wasn’t *that* long ago, I’m not *that* old 😉

  4. Adam Edwards 22/01/2014 at 9:31 pm #

    As regards bikes on the front of buses, how about an expirment with the 268 up the hill to Hampstead? Bikes would only be carried up hill not down and only from a designated stop at the bottom of the hill to say one half way up and one at the very top.

    That way the inconvenience to others is minimised. Indeed what price an electric shuttle up the hill Camden Town – Hampstead – Spaniards Inn – Highgate. – Archway? Bikes only carried up hill with cyclists having to tap in twice to pay for it?

    If TfL can make some money from the scheme maybe they might try it.

    Out in the far flung corner of the Universe (Barnet) an Enfield – Cockfosters – New Barnet – High Barnet bike bus would be good too.

    • Jon Stone 23/01/2014 at 4:36 pm #

      Ah yeah that’s a nice idea, I hadn’t though about north London’s hill as a reason to use the bike rack

  5. NR 23/01/2014 at 8:18 pm #

    Bikes ARE transport. If you want to bike, do it. But don’t inconvenience people who aren’t bikesters. Bikes do not belong on public transport.

    • Tom 25/01/2014 at 8:11 am #

      But a lot of people live a long way from central London and would like an alternative to the tube for the bit of their commute between a terminal station and their work place.

  6. John 24/01/2014 at 10:38 am #

    I’ve used the bike racks on US buses a few times. There are problems though – you don’t know if there will be free spaces or if other cyclists have the same idea as you, some have space for 3 & some for 2 – but it’s quick & easy to rack & unrack them.

    I saw recently that bikes will be allowed off-peak on the DLR. Not sure if that’s been well-advertised or when it starts but it’s a good start & should have been introduced while the Greenwich & Woolwich foot tunnels were being, erm, improved.

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