Freedom, Easy, Fun, Family Time – A Fair Description of Cycling in London?

Today, this leaflet landed on my doormat:

Front cover of TfL cycling leaflet, "Freedom"

“Catch up with the bicycle” while the taxis and lorries speed past

I’d already seen posters with the same image dotted around the motor-dominated roads around here and had planned on whinging about them, but the leaflet means I don’t have to take the camera outside, and it provides more food for thought. There are four images of bikes throughout, with the frames arranged to read “Freedom” (on the cover), “Easy”, “Fun” and “Family Time”. Do those words come to mind when you’re riding a bike in London?

On the first page is a message from our Dear Leader, Boris, which gives me some hope that he’s slowly coming around to my way of thinking:

“More and more people are choosing to cycle to work or to the shops. It saves money, and can be quicker than driving or taking public transport. Cycling, though, is more than a great means of getting from A to B with a bit of a work-out en route. There’s no better way to explore your local area and the rest of this fantastic city of ours and, best of all, cycling can be fun, for everyone.”

He gets it! He finally understands that cycling should be for everyone, and for every-day tasks! So surely it follows that he wants to install Dutch-style infrastructure, which makes it safe, fast and convenient for kids to ride to school, or for granny to pop to the shops?

Unfortunately, he seems to think that things are fine as they are – despite riding a bike in the UK being 30 times more dangerous than driving a car – and instead of getting the job done properly he seems to believe that yet another poster campaign and a few words of encouragement will turn London into a great cycling city.

“London is a great place to ride a bike. If you already cycle in London, you don’t need me to tell you that. If you’ve yet to start, there’s never been a better time to give it a go.”

Seriously, Boris? I already cycle in London, and “great” certainly isn’t the first word that springs to mind. Sure, occasionally it really is great – around 3am when the back-streets are mine alone, it often feels great – but I don’t think that’s what anyone has in mind when we talk about building mass cycling.

“This leaflet is packed full with useful information to get you on your wheels.”

So, let’s have a look at this useful information which will convert London into a New New Amsterdam. Its five pages of content can be summed up:

  • Use the TfL online cycle journey planner. But fingers crossed there isn’t an arbitrary closure with no diversion, or a van parked in the cycle lane!
  • Use the cycle hire. A good idea, as long as you’re not one of those poor bastards who lives outside the cycle hire area, i.e. the vast majority of Londoners.
  • Use the Cycle Superhighways! The less said about these the better.
  • “Be prepared” Training and maintenance sessions are cheaper than roadworks…
  • Use the back streets. Because we know the main direct routes are hellish to ride a bike along.
  • Use a map. You’ll need one, because the route will be badly-signed with lots of turns through back-streets.

The whole leaflet-and-poster campaign idea is such a half-arsed effort. I don’t doubt the good intentions behind it, but it’s really an admission of failure and defeat. If the conditions were right, there would be no need for leaflets and posters encouraging cycling – people would do it anyway, they would want to do it, because it would be the cheapest, fastest, easiest way to get around.

And it really could be the best way to get around. Even on a clunky hire bike I can ride from Waterloo to Kings Cross in about 20 minutes – and that’s taking a complex (but fairly quiet) route of back streets. That’s faster than the tube or bus, and about £10 cheaper than a taxi.

So if riding a bike is so great, why do so few Londoners do it? Are they all blind to the wonderful world of cycling for transport? Why will this leaflet and poster campaign fail to increase cycling rates by any measurable amount? Is it because people are stupid, or haven’t seen the light?

Or, maybe it’s because while it can sometimes be okay (and even “great” under very special conditions) riding a bike in London contains too many hazards and worries, too many nasty moments, and too many unwelcome surprises from vehicles and the authorities alike.

“There are lots of things to think about when you first get into cycling…”

Damn right TfL – there are lots of things for you to think about if you really want people to take up cycling. We can’t ignore the elephant in the room and pretend that all we need is a can-do attitude, or maybe the real cycle-resistant just need to go on a heart-shaped bike ride (no, really, I’m not making this up). So this whole campaign seems to me like TfL is saying “we’ve failed, we’re out of ideas, we know our infrastructure is substandard and hostile but these leaflets are cheaper than tarmac and concrete, and it’ll have to do.”

Why are there no leaflets or posters recommending people take their car? (“Catch up with the car: Freedom, Easy, Fun, Family Time” – I can see it now!) The reason is because when people look at the streets around them, it’s obvious that the car is the most important mode of transport. It’s obvious that the country has been built around the car. It’s obvious that the car comes before all else in the UK, and therefore a car is the obvious choice for transport.

To turn that around we need a sea change in the way roads are designed in this country, and until we have it, all the posters and leaflets in the world aren’t going to make any difference.

I know this post is just a rant, but I’ll get around to making some positive suggestions soon!

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Freedom, Easy, Fun, Family Time – A Fair Description of Cycling in London?

  1. There is no way in hell that I would cycle in London. I would dearly love to be able to catch the train with my fold up bike and cycle around one of the most interesting cities in the world. Stopping off visiting Museums, art galleries, churches, etc.

    At the moment cycling in London is only for the very brave, fit, and healthy commuters.

    If the day ever comes that I can get off a train and directly onto segregated cycling routes, that will be the day that I cycle in London.

    I honestly believe that Boris Johnson has a screw loose. I think with him, it’s a case of I’m alright Jack, and sod everyone else. As for his “Super Highways”, they are madness personified. Super Jokes more like. When this country finally does get it’s act together Johnson is going to go down in history as the buffoon of the century.

  2. PaulM

    I tried the TfL planner, and very quickly realised it was a pile of sh*te. First time, I was plotting a route from Fleet St to Palace St (near the Royal Mews). It wanted me to go along the Strand and around Trafalgar Square, which must be one of the most unpleasant stretches of cycling anywhere in London, if not one of the most dangerous. I then tried an independent planner which is sadly now defunct. It sent me south over the river, which seemed a bit odd until you zoomed out the map. Not only was it shorter – think spokes v rim of a great big wheel – but took you along the South Bank arts venues and back over Westminster Bridge. Apart from Parliament Square, it was really quite civilised.

    Cyclestreets is OK, although I sometimes think their assessment of the amicability or hostility of the conditions is suspect, and they were keen for me to take a route from Didcot to Harwell which involved walking on footpaths more than half of the way. I have looked at the new Google Maps beta. That looks more promising, although I haven’t tried it in anger yet.

    I’ve never used any of the superficial cycleways, but I have observed them from the back of a taxi. The one I thought was really the pits was CS2, out to Bow. CS7 (?) along Cable Street is quite good, but of course it was already there as a segregated path long before Boris. I used to use it regularly to travel between my Fleet St office and my firm’s Canary Wharf offices, but I haven’t used it since it got painted blue. Not perfect, especially with the various give-ways, and a bit too narrow for modern use, but good by UK standards.

    I AM prepared. It would however be so nice if the motorists were, too.

    Using back streets would be excellent advice, apart from one thing. They are generally quieter, less scary, less polluted, and generally more interesting to view the scenery as you pass. Some of them even have interesting shops , cafes etc. The one thing is one-way systems. Apart from a little bit of wiggling, because we don’t have a grid system like many US cities, we could make relatively straight lines if only we could ride both ways down each street, or even if the this-way streets and the that-way streets were at least roughly lined up with each other. But they are not. A journey I would like to make regularly would take me from Fleet St to Jermyn St, just south of Piccadilly. Getting across Kingsway from the City is OK, but from then on it is impossible. There is a positive warren of side streets through Covent Garden/Soho/St James which would serve quite nicely but using them legally would involve more zig-zagging than the Monte-Carlo Grand Prix course.

    Not kidding about the map, especially if you follow advice on back streets. So can someone please explain to me, why did the dickheads leave all the information about one-ways and cycle contraflows off the central London sheet of the TfL cycle maps?. More constructively, could TfL not supply their maps as a “app”, or on an SD card etc for loading onto a GPS device? It shouldn’t be too much trouble to provide a download from their website, should it? Stopping every hundred metres to unfold a map, even a usable one, in a gusty breeze is not conducive to fast progress.

  3. Recursived

    We got a similar leaflet out here in the car-dominated wilds of Bromley.

  4. KruidigMeisje

    I visited London for work last november for a few days. Wanted to bike from City Airport to hyde park (and was prepared to pack everything in my bike bags I use@ home, 7.000 km a year commuting).
    Was daunted by the bike planner: route came out, but it didn’t seem straightforward. I am used to Amsterdam, with it’s narrow streets and all, but I do not know London by hart. Sorry. Was it because the route was calculated via the backstreets? I cannot get a map easily here, nor could I purchase one at the airport.
    Remember: I am from a country where they drive on the other side of the road, I do not know the city (nor the City).
    I CAN cycle, I want to cycle. I like the freedom and fun, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing a 25 km commute (one way 25 km) every day, snow and rain. But I am prepared to take only so many risks….

    • In case you need to do it again, it looks as though you can do the route from City airport to Hyde Park almost entirely off-road. You need to get north from the airport to the London Greenway and then go to Victoria Park. From there, take the Regent’s Canal to the back of Praed Street in Paddington and then follow the back streets to Hyde Park.

      You need to get off the canal in Islington, due to the canal tunnel there and also walk through the crowds in the Cafes at Camden Lock Market. There may be one or two other places on the canal where you need to come off, due to repairs or some ancient property rights, so this won’t be fast, but the canal is a pleasant and interesting ride. You have to be able to carry your loaded bike up and down steps!

      I should add that I haven’t cycled the Greenway: I didn’t even know it existed until I looked on the Sustrans web site today, but it does seem to be there, although some parts may be closed due to Crossrail and I can’t quite work out how it connects to Victoria Park.

      The advantage of these off-road routes, of course, is that they tend to be sign-posted and are not overly disrupted by car traffic, albeit they are not necessarily direct. I will be using similar Sustrans routes in cities in Wales is a few weeks’ time.

      There is a desperate need for Netherlands-style provision for cyclists!

      • Apols: according to the Sustrans Mapping facility, the canal is called the Hertford Union at Victoria Park, then the Grand Union, then Regent’s Canal. And there is a bit on-road between the Greenway and Victoria Park.

    • Hi Kruidig, The top two cycle safety tips for visitors to Amsterdam are: know where to ride, and see the signs. Sad to tell, but following even this incredibly modest advice is far from easy in London.

      The orange route immediately to the south of City Airport on this map is designated O6. (At Leamouth, and as far as the junction with Tower Bridge Road, this route is currently marked as CS3, and is actually not bad.) If you stayed on this orange route as far as Holborn, you would see that it intersects with a red route (R1a) which would take you to Hyde Park.

      The orange route immediately to the north of City Airport is O6a, and the one above that is O8. This one would take you to the Greenway and then on to Victoria Park. For a very particular reason I have decided not to take this route alongside Regent’s Canal; rather, it goes along the back streets. Still, either way, when you get to Islington Tunnel, you have to go onto the roads. Personally, rather than go into Camden and around the top of Regent’s Park, I would get onto the yellow Circular route (the old Seven Stations link). I am going to have to have a look at this again, since, although I know how to do it, I haven’t been able to show this on the network map.

      Until the routes on this network are functional and well-marked, you’re basically going to be stuck with a paper map or some smart phone device. Good luck.

      • Sorry, that was really bad English. When I said, “I know how to do it”, what I meant was, “I can see what I would need to do”; that is, get from roughly around here to roughly around here.

        The point needs to be made, however, that it is simply not possible to assign a colour to every worthwhile route in London. Maybe, in this particular case, it might be possible to have another Circular Route extension – this being the only way I can see to code this particular section – but then again, Chris Peck, Policy Coordinator at CTC, has said that my signing strategy “seems to depend on vast amounts of specialist route signage (as opposed to general directional signage), which is an unrealistic thing to ask for when all it seems to do is replicate the existing road network…”

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