As cyclists in London, we take for granted being able to navigate London on a bike. Although, even after many years of cycling, I still occasionally question my sanity and doubt my ability to get around safely. I’ve learnt to adapt, by avoiding certain roads and using what I learnt on a cycle safety course.
You don’t have to spend too long in cycling circles to hear about the barriers to safe cycling and what needs to be done.
Having discussed this multiple times with friends who are fearful of cycling in London, I thought it would be helpful to collate some of these here and share them with you, to continue the discussion.
Your space on the road
London traffic can be overwhelming and off putting. Learning to cycle safely through traffic is hard, and something that needs constant work, even as a seasoned cyclist. Finding space on the road and being comfortable there is something that you can only get with experience. Therefore, for potential cyclists, the initial forays into cycling in London can be so off putting that you never get any further. Coupled with accidents and fatalities being the primary media presence of London cycling, it is little wonder some people never cycle in this city.
Route planning can be something of an art. I have long since lost count of the number of times I have got lost trying to find my way to some road or other whilst trying to avoid whichever A-road happens to bisect my path. Finding quiet pleasant routes becomes something of a fun game, but it is awkward and time consuming.
The lack of dedicated bike areas
It is not only space on the road that you have to fight for, it is also space to be a cyclist and a commuter in your place of work, or home. Finding a reliable place to lock your bike should you dare to use it as a form of transport is hard. Leaving your bike locked on central London streets all day every day is a pretty surefire way to lose it at some point. Theft is also not something that should just be accepted, but offices can help by providing secure parking areas.
We are encouraged to use the cycle to work scheme, and there is almost constant chatter about the increased productivity of healthy, active employees. However, many work places seem to take simply offering the scheme as contribution enough. It’s not. You need to know that you will be able to cycle home in the evening, and you need places to change and leave clothes to dry. Feeling paranoid and messy all day is not something to encourage people to start using a bike.
There is a perception that you need a lot of ‘stuff’ to be considered a proper cyclist. Whenever you see posts or discussion about being a cycle commuter or cyclist generally, there are always lists of vital things. This makes it seem that you cannot possibly partake without these items. We here at London Cyclist fall into this as well at times, and gear does become a big part of many peoples cycle commuting experience, it is not all necessary. Cycling in the city does not need to be a sport that requires specific equipment to take part in. It is socially acceptable to just ride a bike.
This is becoming a little more common with the increased popularity of cheap single speed bikes in fun colours. But those still have a particular association that might make people fell that they either have to fit in or not take part.
Overcoming the barriers
So, what can we do about these barriers? As regular cyclists we will have been in conversations at some point with people who are skeptical about our life choices. We will have tried to convince worried relatives that really, things are ok out there on the roads. For the most part. But how can we remove these barriers, or at least make them seem surmountable? In the coming weeks I am going to tackle some of these points in more detail.
Available information about how to learn to ride a bike in London, and how to pick a route help some people. Others need to see it being done. Perhaps we all need to think of ourselves as ambassadors and be a little more accessible to those around us. Londoners don’t talk to people if they can help it. I get that, I am one of these people. But maybe we should go out of our way to talk about cycling in a way that people who don’t ride a bike can relate to.
I think us regular commuters get into a mind set that we do battle on the streets. We know things about bikes and riding them that others do not. Dare I say it, we think we are better than other types of commuters. This is not the approachable kind of attitude that makes people think about taking up riding a bike. However, each of us has surmounted these barriers and found ways to keep our bikes, not smell by lunchtime and enjoy the process of riding a bike. We have knowledge that can help others, and it is our responsibility to disseminate this knowledge.
How did you first start cycling in London? Did someone help you, and if so how? Do you wish someone had helped, and in what way? Let us know, and hopefully we can find ways for more people to experience London by bike.
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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.