“We want generally to see a London where motorists feel that they can find cyclists on any road.”
— Boris Johnson, mayor of London
Urban cyclists certainly benefit when their city’s mayor is a “passionate cyclist.”
That’s how Mayor Boris Johnson is described on the website of the Greater London Authority, the governmental entity that Johnson has overseen since he was elected mayor of London in May 2008.
Since taking office, Johnson has been fomenting a bicycling revolution in London, Europe’s largest city, with a population of about 7.5 million.
He has launched an annual end-of-summer event called the Sky Ride. Last Sept. 5, a Sunday, more than 85,000 cyclists took part in what organizers called the biggest mass participation cycling event ever held in the United Kingdom.
“The sight of hordes of cyclists pedaling their way along traffic-free roads past some of London’s most glorious landmarks, and in the midst of a truly carnival atmosphere brought joy to my heart,” Johnson said at the event. “We are bringing a cycle revolution to the streets of the capital and I am sure that today we persuaded thousands more Londoners that pedal power is the way to go.”
Johnson has also launched a 30-member “police cycle task force” to crack down on cycle theft and vandalism, has greatly increased the number of bicycle parking spaces and racks and implemented last July a bicycle-sharing system with about 6,000 bicycles available from 352 bicycle docking stations in central London.
Johnson’s latest brainchild is a network of cycle superhighways — bicycle lanes from outer-London neighborhoods and suburbs that lead into central London like spokes on a wheel. The aim is to encourage more Londoners to ride their bikes to work along safe, direct pathways with a width of at least 1.5 meters. Two of the bright-blue lanes opened last July and 10 more are planned by 2015.
The first route, labeled CS7 — or Cycle Superhighway 7 — starts in Colliers Wood, an area of south London, and travels 8.5 miles to the city center along a busy commuter route. The second one (CS3) runs from Barking in east London to Tower Gateway, a light-rail station near the Tower of London.
The two pilot routes are used for about 5,000 bicycle journeys each day; the mayor hopes that the planned network of 12 cycle superhighways will be used by about 120,000 cyclists per day.
Despite these improvements in bicycling infrastructure, London is still not as friendly to cyclists as, say, Amsterdam or Copenhagen. But London has come a long way in bicycle-friendliness from when I lived there for more than six years in the 1970s.
“It is difficult to imagine just how dire cycling was in London less than a decade ago,” wrote one blogger. “Anyone seen around town on two wheels was viewed even lower down the social scale than a Bus Stop Johnny. Cycling wasn’t cool — it was the form of transport for the have nots, the losers, the weirdoes.”
I wasn’t a serious cyclist during my time in London. But I did own an old city 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 get 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. On my ride to work, I tried to stay off major thoroughfares and navigate through less-traveled back streets. But I found it hard to avoid a gigantic roundabout at Elephant and Castle, where the double-decker buses and lorries, at a time when bicycle commuting was 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 station.
“Cycling is the healthiest, cheapest and fastest way of travelling in London,” says the Greater London Authority website. “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.”
A look at the route map of Cycle Superhighway 7 through south London indicates that it would be of only limited use to me if I still lived in West Dulwich. It appears that I’d be able to pick up CS7 somewhere around Brixton, a neighborhood north of West Dulwich, and ride it to Southwark Bridge across the Thames. Then I’d have to backtrack west along the river to get to Blackfriars and Fleet Street. But it seems that Cycle Superhighway 7 offers one very good feature: a safe way to bypass that hellacious roundabout at Elephant and Castle.
Check out the video below on how the cycle superhighways work.