“You must be crazy!” “Isn’t that really dangerous?” These are the almost universal responses I receive when I tell people that I cycle in London on a regular basis.
Indeed, this negative perception was a source of trepidation when I brought my bike with the intention of commuting to university. However, after covering over 2,000km around the capital, I now feel able to assess whether the capital’s streets are as treacherous as their reputation would suggest.
TfL collects various types of data on road traffic incidents in London. Its most recent full set of figures, for 2016, showed a 1% decrease in all cyclist casualties, and an 11% decrease in fatalities.
Comparing the fatalities to the average from 2005-2009 shows an even more dramatic drop of 52%. This is made all the more remarkable when considered alongside the growth in the number of cycling journeys made, such as a four-fold increase in the City of London over the last 19 years.
TfL’s statistics can remove the human aspect from the statistics, prompting some cyclists to try and document cycling incidents in a more accessible and up-to-date way.
Financial Times journalist, Olaf Storbeck runs a blog on cycling and started an open-source spreadsheet documenting cycling incidents as they happen, using information from sources such as local media organisations. He also worked on mapping out casualties, as can be seen below.
Online platforms have made it much easier for this data-gathering to take place, Storbeck said. “The internet has definitely made it much easier to link up with like-minded people online and in real life. Actually, I met a few of my best cycling friends online first. It surely also made campaigning easier.”
Describing investment in cycle infrastructure, Storbeck said: “Unfortunately, the results are of mixed quality at best. Take the cycle path along Embankment, which is too narrow and rather unpleasant to ride on during peak hours.”
It’d be good to ask women what makes them feel safe
In contrast, Islington sustainability writer Nicola Baird described the Embankment cycle path as “wonderful”, showing how subjective cycling infrastructure can be. A one-size fits all, catering for both experienced commuters and young children cycling to school, can be almost impossible to achieve.
“London is quite close to becoming a cycle-friendly city thanks to the mayor’s office’s recent efforts,” Baird said. She is also critical of many aspects of London’s cycling infrastructure, however, in particular the way “cycle ways do not join up”.
Baird emphasised the need to design infrastructure aimed at groups who tend to be more reluctant to get in the saddle: “It’d be good if they ask women what makes them feel safe, rather than just building cycle super highways for bike commuters.”
Below is an example of the type of cycle path which doesn’t seem to work for anyone, forcing cyclists and and bus tube users to compete for a small space.
Although videos regularly emerge of cyclists in confrontation with taxi drivers and other car users, regular commuter James Skillen said that “driving is generally of a good standard” in London. “Road users are used to sitting in traffic so are perhaps more patient than in the country where drivers can get frustrated on roads where it’s not possible to pass safely.”
Skillen is also a member of Audax Club Hackney, a club for long-distance cyclists. His club colleague Chris Breed said that its membership had grown from just four in 2012 to 110 now, as people have taken it up as a hobby.
The number of bikes available for hire around London has exploded, following the success of the so-called ‘Boris bikes’ run by TfL. Skillen believes such schemes are crucial for cycling’s reputation: “It helps improve the impression of cycling as a normal, safe activity, in large part as people wear normal clothes and don’t bother with helmets.”
Over recent years, cycling campaign groups such as the London Cycling Campaign and Stop Killing Cyclists have been pressuring the London Assembly and local councils to do more to protect cyclists and invest more in infrastructure.
New groups are appearing all the time, such as Make the Lane. The group recently caught attention in Lambeth by forming a ‘people-protected cycle lane’ in protest at the local council’s scrapped and watered-down plans for cycle lanes.
Writer Joe Dunckley was at the protest and filmed the following video, speaking to many of the key players involved.
As Baird said: “Until it is possible to feel safe for 100 per cent of your bike journey then London’s transport tsars have a way to go.”
Since then-mayor Ken Livingstone first announced London’s flagship Cycle Superhighways in 2008, cycling in London has come on leaps and bounds. Fewer cyclists are dying on the roads and it is easier than ever before to navigate the capital on your own bike or one you’ve hired. There is still huge room for improvement however, in accessibility, infrastructure and attitudes.