What stops people from becoming London cyclists?

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.

Cyclist squeezing through cars

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.

Waterloo bridge no bike lane

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.

The gear

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.

Lots of cycling gear

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.

Join 10,221 fellow cyclists who are subscribed to the London Cyclist newsletter

Sign up for our free newsletter to get...

  • Advice on the best cycling gear
  • A Friday roundup of all the latest London cycling news
  • Exclusive content not available on the blog

Subscribe today, and get exclusive access forever! (It's free)

*No spam, ever!

As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

20 Responses to What stops people from becoming London cyclists?

  1. Libby 11/09/2015 at 10:44 am #

    My workplace has just installed bike parking and put on a host of London by Bike seminars through TfL Cycling Workplaces – that gives businesses free courses, parking, cycle training etc. We may not have showers, but at least it’s a start!

  2. adrian 11/09/2015 at 10:49 am #

    My cyclist story begins with Boris bikes in 2013… Just tried few times and I felt that I belong on the bike! It was scary for the first month on London streets, but now, just flow with the river…

  3. Kie7077 11/09/2015 at 11:04 am #

    Being sworn at,
    having items thrown at you,
    being threatened with violence,
    being swerved at by driver
    endless close passes if you don’t take primary position.

    This country has gone down the toilet, the people in it behave worse than children.

    • Roger KIngsnorth 11/09/2015 at 2:57 pm #

      While not disagreeing with your reasons for not being encouraged to cycle, I must object to your implication that all children behave badly. This is not the case. Some are well-behaved, some behave as children and a few are badly behaved. In fact, just like adults!

      • Alan Tullett 18/09/2015 at 2:09 pm #

        On the whole I’d say most children are better behaved than most adults. They are very conscious of rule breaking, whereas loads of people in London break the rules constantly. Even driving in London is a nightmare let alone cycling. I did it around my local area, West Dulwich, 30 years ago and that was ok but going into central London was terrible.

        The best thing for people to do is get some Level 3 bikeability training. You can’t go on the road in a car without instruction from an experienced driver but everyone thinks they can go on the road on a bike without having any help from an experienced person. In London this is especially true but very few people do it or have even heard of it, which is a pity.

  4. Vincent 11/09/2015 at 11:49 am #

    The test is whether Grandma can ride with her grandchildren and go anywhere they want.

    Apart from the Netherlands and Denmark, how do European cities fare in that respect?

  5. John 11/09/2015 at 11:49 am #

    It’s the rest of the traffic. That’s the main thing that I hear listening to other people when they say that they won’t cycle in London. The weather is fine, road surfaces are generally tolerable (although far from good) and other barriers can generally be got through.

    But if I was nervous about cycling amongst other road users I’d be very reluctant to start.

  6. Dave 11/09/2015 at 1:41 pm #

    The biggest barrier I keep finding is the naked aggression thrown at us on a daily basis.
    Just last night on the commute home I unfortunately suffered 2 punctures, about 3 miles apart. Whilst fixing the first at the roadside a man stood in front of me and took my picture on his phone. I asked what he was doing to which he replied “I am a lorry driver and this is going on Facebook showing that this should happen to all you **nts”. My response was “well thanks mate, love you too!”.
    Then when I got on the train at Fenchurch Street and put the bike in the bike section (as marked by the cycle symbol on the door) I got very badly verbally abused when I was trying to get off the train trying to negotiate getting the bike off without hitting people with it. I really don’t know what his probllem was but the abuse was vile, despite everyone else being completely fine when I was politely asking them to excuse me whilst I got off the train.
    The aggression levels are getting worse and being directed, it seems to me, at cyclists.
    Would be very off putting if I were a newbie.

    • Mark 22/09/2015 at 1:42 pm #

      The anger and hatred from one group to another is pretty shocking. I think social media only exacerbates the issue as people have become so comfortable hurling abuse at others individuals over the web it’s translating into real life – certainly I feel like the amount bickering, swearing/insulting etc that goes on on the streets is getting worse. It should be said that cyclists uploading videos of poor drivers (or complete arseholes in some cases) and thousands then hunting down and abusing said drivers only serves to worsen then situation too to be honest, as it really creates us vs them stand off attitude.

  7. Michael 11/09/2015 at 1:46 pm #

    Dangerous rough poorly maintained road surfaces, potholes, badly positioned drains and steel utility covers area are all nasty hazards to be avoided by cyclists trying to negotiate busy streets. Westminster is the worst!!

    Dirty emissions from taxis, trucks and buses pollute the air. Fine particles less than 10um get trapped deep in cyclists’ lungs and show up in the bloodstream, elevating the risk of cancer, lung disease and heart attack.

  8. Jay 11/09/2015 at 3:20 pm #

    Just started cycling a 35 mile round trip to work, about three months into it now.

    I would say the biggest barrier to me at the beginning was knowing which route to work I should take. It’s not easy to know which roads are safest or where the bike path shortcuts are. This is only stuff you learn with time. It would have been good to do the trip with a seasoned rider first, to save me all the hassle in the first weeks. I also went on my council’s cycle training which was extremely beneficial and highly recommended in adopting primary position on the roads.

    • Alan Tullett 18/09/2015 at 2:16 pm #

      Route finding is very important and part of Level 3 bikeability training. I would have thought the council training was delivered by bikeability instructors, but not many people know about it.

  9. Ree 11/09/2015 at 5:59 pm #

    I had a bike in Yorkshire and so wanted to cycle when I moved to London. I have always been very blessed in that I’ve never lived too far from where I worked. I now cycle along the canal to Paddington Basin, which is quite a lovely ride. It does seem, however, that I have swapped angry drivers for angry ‘Lycra brigades’. I think it’s because I have a slow and steady pace – but if I wanted to cycle faster I would use the road!

    • Matt 11/09/2015 at 6:44 pm #

      Good for you! I cycle along part of the canal further east – Islington to Hackney – and it’s a great journey. But the only negative point is aggressive cyclists – every day I see people going way too fast, scaring pedestrians and generally giving us all a bad name. If we want to be treated well by other people, we have to start by behaving sensibly ourselves.

  10. Paul 13/09/2015 at 1:07 pm #

    Been cycling in London now for about 15 years starting when over 40.

    Use a route-finding app e.g. cyclestreets.

    Aggressive young men are a pain whether on bikes or driving white vans.

    Being considerate to others always good but rarely appreciated.

    London drivers more used to cyclists than in many other places, so London cycling can be easier than in areas with few cyclists.

    And if you use the canal towpath (I have but not regularly), remember that for occasional users the bridges are really scary. Speeding round blind corners at 30 kph not appreciated if cycling or walking the other way.

    Cycling infrastructure should be designed for old men (like me) and women, and children, not for Olympic hopefuls. Still too much (like advanced stop lines) designed for sprinters to get out of way of left-turning traffic. Slower accelerators put in danger by designing for speed cyclists.

  11. Abhinav 28/09/2015 at 10:29 pm #

    Thats a nice article. I prefer if their could be safety videos of how to be more safer on the roads and how to enjoy the best of cycling. I love cycling myself however since I came to London I am quite confused on the road rules governing cycling in London – probably that’s my perception as I am from other country.

    Maybe existing cyclists could make it an easy road for others by encouraging them to ride along something like bike ride pooling (taking along a new cyclist with experienced cyclist by matching their work timings). This would bring more sense of security to the new ones and encourage more people to accept a better means of travel.

  12. Dave 01/10/2015 at 7:13 am #

    Bikeability sounds good, but surely the Highway code is clear enough? Next would be Pedability where pedestrians would need Level 3 to walk.

    Most cycling commuters know and keep the law, because we know it will protect us. The problem is that everyone needs to participate.

    This is the basis for any democratic society to work.

  13. Sarah 02/10/2015 at 10:45 pm #

    Boris bikes, one year ago today.
    I had learnt to balance well while indicating with my left hand but the hand right remains elusive, and can’t help but swerve and wobble – not helpful especially when trying to change lanes at the same time, brake to slow down, or both. The boris bikes have a more upright position which meant I can balance and also not only glance but have a good hard look over either shoulder while staying true to course.

    Confidence is a huge part – i definitely did begin to adopt that warrior mentality in the beginning which i thought was necessary but really i could see was just going to lead me to take aggressive tactics, but having overcome that I am just now gaining the confidence to overtake on the right when necessary – it really does take confidence!

  14. Dave 03/10/2015 at 6:36 am #

    Good for you Sarah! Fortune really does favour the brave and the strong.

    I dream of the day when an six year old wobbling on their first bike will get to school and back every day for the rest of their schooling.

    I dream of the day when a sixty year old lady wobbling to shop, if it’s nice and sunny will get there and back.

    When anyone, going anywhere, anytime can get there and back safely.

    Dream, dream, dreams….

  15. Peter 22/10/2015 at 12:22 pm #

    I have been cycle commuting for 9+ years in London – have seen many changes and improvements in that time (and a lot more cyclists on the road too!). Prior to cycle commuting I would put up 5 or 10 reasons not to, but when one summer I faced delays every Friday on the train (one day taking 3 hours instead of 1 hour), I felt there has to be a better way – and cycling is a better way, provided you wear the right gear, lights, and use common sense, and calm your speed! The reason I believe the Dutch have it nailed so well is that they promote sedate cycling, rather than lycra ‘go as fast as you possibly can’ attitude. If you are starting out, would recommend when budgeting to buy a bike, allow another 30-50% to buy waterproofs, lights (min 2 at front and rear!), locks, panniers, though I have added all these over time, its worth investing in the proper gear, to stay safe, dry, warm and be seen!

Leave a Reply