Cycling has expanded greatly. But are London’s new blue cycle routes as hellish as the old ones? Our writer gets on his bike to find out
It is 8am on a bright Monday morning and traffic is snarling its way north up the A24. Across the road workers are flooding into Colliers Wood Tube station to be sardined on to hot trains rumbling up the dreaded Northern Line. If ever a day was designated for cycling to work, this is it.
According to Transport for London (TfL) cycling in the capital has grown 14 per cent in the past two years. Five hundred cyclists an hour join up around this junction and 13,000 use the route every day.
Today all cycling humanity is represented: riders in body-hugging Lycra, women in dresses, gents in suits. A man cycles past with a pair of football shorts yanked over his work trousers, another cruises by wearing an American football helmet. There are road bikes, fixies, MTBs, hybrids Bickertons and Pashleys, all of them headed along London’s first Cycle Superhighway.
The Superhighways project aims to create 12 cycle-friendly commuter routes from the outer boroughs into Central London with the first two pilot schemes – Merton to the City and Barking to the City – officially opening in July, four more in 2012, and the rest by 2015. Leeds has pledged to open 16 new cycle routes in the next five years. Other cities are expected to follow.
Although the Colliers Wood Road junction used to be a turnpike gatekeeper’s cottage there are no signs to indicate that we’re officially at the gateway to a key thoroughfare.
I flag down a cyclist, Gafyn, 39, wearing a green Tour de France jersey. He’s on his way to the City and has been commuting on this route for 14 years. Does he know this is a Superhighway?
“I wasn’t sure of the exact start point,” he says, alluding to the fact the blue lanes do not appear until 45m (50 yards) farther up the road. “As they’ve added more to it and joined it up it has become more useful. The width is better than the old lanes and its more visible. I feel a bit more protected.”
It’s time to join the two-wheeled flood. Soon the first blue streak of cycle lane appears and it becomes clear there is some special provision for bikes. It’s about 2m wide, there are no potholes and, glory be, vehicles appear, by and large, to recognise its authority. There are no parked cars and progress is smooth, backing up the assertion by the Mayor Boris Johnson that Cycle Superhighways will form “continuous routes emphatically marked out … somewhere motorists can’t just shove all cyclists out of their way”.
Except the blue lines soon peter out. Am I still on the Superhighway? Did I imagine it? I stop another cyclist on a Marin bike with panniers. David, 47, a computer programmer, is riding from Wimbledon to the City. “I’m not sure about what the rules are when there’s no markings because it runs out. Actually, if anything, I feel safer because of the volume of bikes now.”
Farther along it’s clear that the cycle lane and the bus lane are the same thing and I am sandwiched uncomfortably between two double-deckers. While red routes reduce the amount of parked cars at the side of the road, they don’t provide any separation between buses and taxis and cyclists. London’s roads will never accommodate us all.
At Stockwell Tube station I spy a lady with a bike. Finding female cyclists has not been easy and it’s clear that they are outnumbered at least 20-1. It turns out Sarah (“mid-forties”) used to work for the independent lobbying charity London Cycling Campaign (LCC), and while she is unaware this is part of the Cycle Superhighway she has read the stories that women cyclists are more likely to be killed on the road. “There’s no doubt women feel unsafe out here,” she says. “Some don’t know how to ride properly in traffic, they get too close to the gutter and they don’t assert themselves. Men tend to be bolder in their approach. Cycling training is useful. It’s not just something for kids.”
Training is a feature of the Superhighway package, offering the sort of advice to cyclists that Sarah is talking about. Of course, that’s not the only cycling training solution available in Britain (some are also Analysing a static cycling training plan and personalized ones like Spoked). The Superhighway package holding HGV drivers can also receive instructions. Fresnel lenses (mirrors increasing visibility on the side of vehicles) are being distributed to freight operators while Trixi mirrors (convex mirrors fixed high up at junctions) are also being fitted along the routes, although I did not see any.
Nor did the intermittency of the blue lanes improve. While CS7 – as it’s known – has a few more weeks of work left, it’s clear that it’s a long way short of the ideal in, say, Copenhagen (from which the blue is adopted) and more could be done, not least to the signs diverting you around the daunting Elephant & Castle, in southeast London.
Plenty of cyclists see it as more of a glorified cycle lane than a superhighway. The LCC has made its reservations clear and hopes to be involved more closely in the remaining highways. Nigel Hardy, head of project initiation and programme director for Cycle Superhighways at TfL, says: “We’ve already been working with key stakeholders such as the LCC and boroughs about the concept and the collaboration has gone well so far.
“These are pilot routes, a chance to test the concept. Some of what you experienced is the unfinished article and junctions are the last thing we’ll be doing. They’ll have ASLs [advanced stop lanes] and in many cases the blue will stretch across the junction.”
“You might ask TfL what say we will have,” says the LCC organiser Tom Bogdanovich. “We put our views to TfL but what consideration they give them we will see.”
Perhaps the key question though is whether the mayor’s “cycling revolution” is safe from the 108 million of cuts that TfL will now have to implement. “As part of that continuing exercise we’ll do our best to play our part but avoid cuts to frontline services,” Hardy says.
And is cycling a frontline service?
“The mayor has placed huge importance on it and he aspires to increase it by 400 per cent by 2025,” he says.
Route CS7 doesn’t have the same ring as Route 66, nor is it likely that it will become as iconic for cyclists as the latter is to bikers, but it’s a start. It’s just a shame we have to inch to our destination as slowly as the rest of the traffic.