“Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia.”
— H.G. Wells, British author, 1866-1946
I’ve long admired the British for their eccentricity. So when I learned of a January bicycle ride through wintry London, for which the prescribed attired is vintage tweed, and with prizes awarded to the “most dapper chap” and for the best mustache, I was hardly surprised.
It fit the national character of a people who brought to the world Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the Monster Raving Loony Party.
Our Christmastime visit to London was a bit early for this year’s Tweed Run, scheduled for March. And the weather — rain, frigid temperatures and blustery wind — was hardly suitable for cycling.
But I was impressed by the number of cyclists I saw during our 11-day stay, despite the nasty weather and the darkness that descended over the metropolis at 4:15 p.m.
Brave souls, indeed!
In an effort to reduce motorized traffic in Europe’s largest city (with a population of about 7.5 million), the Greater London Authority imposed a “congestion charge” on motorists entering certain parts of central London, beginning on Feb. 17, 2003.
The authority extended the charge on Feb. 19, 2007, to certain parts of west London. A payment of 8 pounds ($12.80) is required for each day a vehicle enters or travels within the zone between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. A fine of between 60 pounds ($96) and 180 pounds ($288.13) is imposed for nonpayment.
Perhaps the cause is helped by the fact that the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is a “passionate cyclist,” according to the Greater London Authority’s Web site. On Sept. 8, Johnson and model/actress Kelly Brook held a photo op in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral to promote the mayor’s Skyride, a Sept. 20 event that allowed tens of thousands of London cyclists to ride through traffic-free central London streets.
“Cycling is the healthiest, cheapest and fastest way of travelling in London,” says the Greater London Authority Web site. “An average journey of four miles in Central London would take a cyclist an average of 22 minutes — whereas travelling the same distance by car would take almost twice as long — 40 minutes. Cycling also beats driving in terms of financial and environmental benefits.”
London has an excellent subway system, known as The Tube, which opened in 1863 as the world’s first underground railway network. We used The Tube almost exclusively during our Christmas visit to get from one end of the city to the other. And I wondered how a cyclist would fare against The Tube.
It turns out that such tests have been conducted. Blogger Andreas Kambanis of the London Cyclist Blog rode his bike between three pairs of London Underground stations and compared those journey times with the length they took by Tube. Pedal power came out on top each time, with the three trips coming out on average a third quicker than by public transport.
I wasn’t a serious cyclist when we lived in London for more than 6 1/2 years in the 1970s. But I did own for a time a classic 10-speed bike of the sort that students used to ply the streets of Oxford and Cambridge. I used the bike, acquired from a neighbor, mainly to ride to work in the Fleet Street area when British Rail workers went on strike, which was a frequent occurrence.
Our house in West Dulwich in southeast London was about four miles from the center of the metropolis. But along the way, I had to navigate a gigantic roundabout at Elephant and Castle, and the double-decker buses and lorries at that time, when urban cycling still seemed to be a novelty, took no prisoners. I was always thankful to get out of the roundabout alive.
But I usually made it to work by bike in under 30 minutes — certainly faster than a bus, but not as fast as British Rail, which took 12 to 15 minutes from the West Dulwich station to either Victoria or Blackfriars.
During our Christmas visit to London, gasoline, or petrol, was about 1.08 pounds per liter (about $6.50 per gallon). During the brief time that we owned a car in London in the 1970s, as I recall, gasoline was about $3 per gallon. Whenever we came back to the United States on home leave, I wondered why Americans were whining about the high price of gas when a gallon cost less than a dollar.
Perhaps the price of petrol and the congestion charge have driven more Britons to take to their bikes, although London is still not a Copenhagen or an Amsterdam, where bicycles rival cars as a means of transport.
Copenhagen claims that 36 percent of its commuters bicycle to work every morning. Amsterdam says that 55 percent of one-way commutes fewer than 7.5 kilometers (4.7 miles) are done on two wheels and that 60 percent of inner-city trips are by bike.
London is probably some way from matching those stats.
I wonder if dour Dutch and Danes ever pedaled about in tweed on their velocipedes to promote urban cycling.
Check out the video of cyclist Andreas Kambanis racing against the Tube trains:
You can see on Flickr.com a selection of the photos that I shot in London and environs. The link is: http://www.flickr.com/photos/altonjim/