City cycling in London is a joke

Door mux op donderdag 9 juli 2015 21:25 - Reacties (67)
Categorie: Fietstechniek, Views: 49.236

Earlier this year I was involved in a small discussion thread on bicycle paths on Reddit. The thread was about new 'cycle superhighways' in London. I commented that to me, these bike paths looked - at best - about on par with mediocre Dutch bicycle paths. Some redditors, presumably from the immediate area, convinced me that actually there is a lot going on in London to improve matters. In fact, in their opinion biking in London is alright. And the cycle superhighways are great!
Boris Johnson, the current Mayor of London, revolutionized city cycling in London (image reproduced from The Standard without permission)

Well, this is interesting. I'm an avid cyclist - one of millions in the Netherlands - and I have a more than passing interest in infrastructure. Also, I happened to be in London with the missus for about 5 days. The stars aligned, taking our folding bikes turned out to be not only possible but also one of the cheapest options, so we went for it. Let's try out London on a bike.

Can you tell by the title of the blog how it turned out?

So, London has terrible, abysmal infrastructure. So much is wrong with it that my very limited amount of time there I was easily able to collect enough for a meaty blog post. I'll start off this blog with general remarks about the infrastructure and finish off with some awesome 'bicycle' infrastructure pictures. I'm in full-on rant mode, so bear with me. There will be pictures to offset the rambling.

So, exactly how does this bike path work?

No explicit right of way
One of the first very obvious problems with London infrastructure is the lack of explicit right of way marking and signage. For instance, I have not seen a single priority sign ([XXXXXXXXXXXXX]) or temporary priority sign ([XXXXXX]) at all in the city. This has the consequence that in a lot of places, car traffic becomes Indian. Cars just merge and split willy-nilly. Side roads with optional 'we tried to give you the feeling that you might want to probably wait for other traffic before you get on the main road'-markings - can apparently be used as priority roads.
Explicit priority signs. Known in the Netherlands as B-series traffic signs (left to right: B03, J08, B01, B02)

In places where right of way is explicitly handled, the inconsistency boggles the mind. For instance, priority pedestrian crossings (often without zebra stripes) have these little yellow light bulbs on stalks to indicate to drivers that there's a pedestrian crossing. Only problem: these yellow bulbs have the world's dimmest light bulbs in them and are invisible during the day and even in lightly cloudy skies. Some crossings have added brighter yellow LEDs around the bulbs, but that's just an afterthought at best.
Typical pedestrian crossings; this one with zebra stripes and definite stopping lines for motor traffic. Note the poles with yellow bulbs; even in this image they are not easy to make out against the sky!

Worse still, cars do not observe right of way for unequal traffic, e.g. pedestrians and cyclists. Cars coming from a side road onto a main road will just stand right on the pavement, so any pedestrians or cyclists have to go around. Pedestrians do not get explicit right of way at crossings either, the crossings are just crossing indicators, not zebra crossings. This essentially means that the deadliness order becomes the de factor pecking order, which is exactly the wrong way around. In a well-designed traffic situation, pedestrians are gods, cyclists/minor motor vehicles have second dibs and large motorized traffic just has to wait for the rest. In London, motor traffic rules and even within motor traffic the biggest cars win out. Which is buses. Who drive like lunatics. Speaking of which...

Traffic consistently drives WAY over the speed limit
So I've been told that the general within-city-limits speed limit is 30MPH (on par with most EU countries - about 50km/h). Because of a combination of extremely lax policing and very loose tolerances on the speed limits, you can apparently get away with consistently driving at least 10MPH over the speed limit. This means that on most city roads, cars drive way too fast. I didn't have any proper measurement equipment for this, but just judging by eye, the majority of drivers on roads like Clapton Ave. are driving in excess of 70km/h. Combine this with bicycle paths generally being either absent (i.e. you have to drive in the gutter) or unsegregated and very tight, and by Dutch standards you will be overwhelmed with a feeling of thorough unsafety when driving on the roads.

London is in a permanent state of disrepair

Can you count the repairs? Can you tell what the primary road surface was?

Words like 'abysmal' and 'horrendous' will frequently occur in this blog, and not without reason. Anywhere you go in the city, one thing is almost perfectly consistent: road surfaces are a patchwork of 15+ year old primary road surfaces littered with repair upon repair upon modification upon modification. I've seen patchworks where the primary road surface has had both transverse and longitudinal repair patches, repair cobbling (this is NEVER supposed to be permanent in an asphalt road!), closed gutter resurfacing and crack repairs. Oh, and the primary road surface was so incredibly far worn-in that the top surface was basically gone and the lower - coarse-grained - asphalt showed. All in a 20-meter stretch of road. Was this the worst part? No, this was not far off the average. Really!

It seems like large stretches of London have had recent(ish) re-done waterworks. So a sizeable minority of the roads have these very long repairs where obviously the road surface was removed, a gutter was dug, stuff was done, gutter re-closed and the road surface repaired. But they didn't properly fuse the asphalt together, so lots of roads are now left with giant longitudinal ridges that are just begging to catch your bicycle tires and cause you to fall over, preferably when a large speeding bus is just behind you. Horrendous. Abysmal.

This manhole cover - with sharp ridges - was at least 3-4 inches (8-10cm) lower than the road surface. Imagine biking in heavy traffic with these kinds of sudden obstacles!

The state of disrepair goes further than just the roads, though. My girlfriend commented that almost on every road, somebody is busy fixing or maintaining something. A huge amount of work seems to be going on just to keep things from falling apart completely, which leaves little resources to modernize. But that's just conjecture on our part.

Haphazard placement of infrastructural features
And once you get through all the big, generalizable problems with London infrastructure and you really start looking at the road in more detail, it becomes so clear why the roads feel so bad. It's not just the road surface, it's not the crazy drivers, it's not the fact that animal instincts prevail over design and order. The biggest problem is that infrastructure is not laid out holistically. Everything is just placed haphazardly, as needed, as if the rest of the road does not exist.

Hey, we need to make pedestrian crossings. Let's improve safety by extending the pavement onto the road a little bit and adding a little guard rail. We are smart! Eh, no, you have now made things a million times worse for cyclists who have to navigate an even narrower road together with motorized traffic. Also, even if cyclists want to get out of the way of danger they can't because there is a fence in the way!

So, where do I bike? By the way: note the 'give way' sign! I complained about that earlier!

Hey, we need to put this big, immovable box somewhere. What is the best possible location for this box? We can choose between 500 yards of empty pavement, or this one spot where we already placed a lamp post and an electrical installation. Right where the pavement is the narrowest anyway. Can you guess where they put the box?

Hey guys! I have an AWESOME idea that will improve traffic safety for pedestrians and cyclists who want to cross one of the busiest roads in London. Let's put a traffic light here, just for them! Let's also put it just about 50 yards over from where people actually want to cross the road and make sure it takes at least 3 minutes before they can go, so that they can just give up and cross the road weaving through traffic anyway. Seriously, I timed it. 180 seconds, to the second.

So now let's talk about bicycles

Cycling in the Netherlands
I come from - depending on who you ask - the number one or number two (after Denmark) biking country in the world. Bicycles in the Netherlands are very popular in pretty much every form. You can go from anywhere to anywhere in the Netherlands on 99+% segregated, safe, well-maintained bike paths. Here, let me show you a random bike path a few hundred meters from my house:

The bike path along the Grindweg/Bergweg Zuid between Bergschenhoek and Rotterdam

This is pretty much totally representative of average bicycle paths. A lot of the Dutch infrastructure budget goes towards this, because almost everybody uses them regularly. Everybody has a bike. We don't use them just for couriering, or just for pleasure, or just for getting a work-out. We use them mostly just to get from A to B because they are convenient, comfortable and fun. And for sub-5km rides - often faster and a lot cheaper than a car.

There is no uncertainty on the bike: I don't have to plan a route to my destination and specifically seek out bicycle paths. They are just there, everywhere, always, in excellent condition. With plenty of waymarkers.

If you're interested in some very good videos about bicycle paths in the Netherlands - from recordings of bike trips to informative videos about some historical or infrastructure facts - I highly recommend the Youtube channel 'BicycleDutch'.

Both of these videos are a great watch - highly recommended if you like infrastructure porn!

London bicycle infrastructure in general
Switch to London. Car infrastructure is badly designed and maintained, but in most cases bicycle infrastructure is simply absent. It is certainly not a 'London bicycle network' - as they like to proclaim on large signs. Bike lanes start and stop within 100 meters. Or, my personal favourite, little bike drawings are put on the road. I guess to indicate... the existence of bikes? Come on, London - you can't just draw a bike somewhere and expect people to seriously call that a bike lane. It takes more effort than that!

In a lot of places, it's too dangerous to ride on the road, but to go on the pavement would mean:
  • Bothering lots of pedestrians
  • Riding over uneven terrain (plants, uneven pavement)
  • Riding through wildly changing widths of pavement, from road-lane-width to squeezing yourself between obstacles
  • Having to negotiate tall pavement sidewalls
Not having a designated place on the road means that cycling is a free-for-all, and the cyclists consequently will act like they're not bound by any rules. Which upsets drivers. The drivers, by the way, are nice - much nicer than I would have expected. I ride like a Dutch person - I try to avoid being run over, look around, indicate direction, etc. Cars seem to appreciate this and give way to me when I'm overtaking, let me cross, let me turn. I mean, not buses, but most other drivers are just fine.

Low effort
I've mentioned effort in bicycle infrastructure before, and this really is a running theme. Anywhere you go, bike infrastructure is a third, fourth or tenth priority. Actually, I really question the arguments given for the poor design of London roads. A lot of people say it's the age of the city and its road network, but this is obviously bullshit. The same crazy infrastructure extends into areas with plenty of space and besides - we have plenty of equally old cities with orders of magnitude better infrastructure.

So what is low effort? It ranges from simply not giving a shit:

There is no other reason than laziness for the wrong order of painting here

to realizing that they forgot to budget a bike lane into a new road design and just divert bikes over... a construction site?!

Yes, this is the official bike route. Here are the waymarkers:

Giving up after medium effort
Sometimes things go well. For instance, this bridge could be in the Netherlands. Sort of. The bike lanes are tiny:

My folding bike for a size comparison - this two-way bike lane was about 1.70m total width - a tad over the prescription minimum single lane width in the Netherlands

But there is a completely segregated, walled off bicycle lane over this bridge! I must be in Valhalla. This bridge has an awesome view - the O2 and ExCeL on one side, the City and the inner city on the other:

This is awesome! That was a great view. I feel like a tourist now. Let's see if there's more!

Wait... what is that... is that...?

Well, jeebus. You managed to outdo yourself, London. In case it's not obvious yet: what is happening here is:
  • Cyclists descend from the bridge
  • Still on the decline, having gathered quite a lot of speed, you are expected to make a sharp left turn
  • Immediately after the sharp turn at tremendous speed you have a non-priority crossing over a road with very poor visibility and equally poor positioning (oncoming traffic cannot easily see bikes, nor can bikes see the oncoming traffic due to the bushes and fence in the way)
  • After crossing the road onto another segregated bike lane, within 30 meters there are roadworks completely blocking the way for bikes, blocking all sight and forcing you onto the road again with NO indication of this happening when descending from the bridge
They try. They try so hard. For about 10 seconds, and then they just throw in the towel and fuck everything up. London, you're a funny guy.

The London Cycle Superhighways

The London Cycle Shitways
Dear readers of my blog, I present to you, London CycleShitway 3. See? It's not just a bicycle drawn on the road. It's got blue paint around it and a designation in large letters under it. See?

Truly the mark of not just a cycleway, not just a cycle highway, but a SUPER highway. Hey, pay attention, we're bending off to this way now!

No, we didn't have any paint left to give cyclists here right of way or... well, we didn't even have enough blue paint to finish the bike path. But we tried! Honest! Speaking of which, the path didn't really fit well in with the existing road and we really didn't feel like spending the extra 200 pounds to move the parking spots to the other side, so... uh...

Yeah, we decided just to reverse directions. Oh, and we decided to leave one lane out because, you know, paint shortage and all. By the way, SUDDEN INCLINE!

sorry, we couldn't fit something more reasonable. A 12% slope was the best we could do. In the middle of a completely flat section of the city. Besides, cyclists are all 25-year-old bike couriers with a death wish anyway. Right? Anyway, this was necessary to fit this AWESOME bike bridge!

did you blink? I guessed so, because obviously you were supposed to switch lanes on the bridge! Also, if you can just nudge left a bit more.... excellent! Now all the bikes go on the left, pedestrians on the right. Excellent.

sarcasm aside: yes, the lanes switch direction at some indeterminate place between before and after the bridge AND they merge into the one lane. This is a cycle superhighway! This is DESIGNED bicycle infrastructure meant to express London's commitment to be a better cycling city. This is effort!

So that pedestrian/cyclist crossing that was misplaced that I was talking about earlier? It's in CS3. See that cyclist? She's actually going straight over the road as the CS3 path goes - that crossing is completely cock-eyed. Also; no mention of CS3 on the crossing; no blue paint, no kiddie bicycle paintings on the road. Nothing.

Now it just continues over the middle of the road because who gives a fuck at this point anymore.

wait... wait a minute... This is actually half decent!


Ah, I knew you'd fuck it up within 100 meters. Good job, London. You've proven yourself again. In case it's not obvious: there is a right-angle crossing right in the middle of a cycle superhighway. Superhighway. What would you say if a motor vehicle highway suddenly made a right angle turn unannounced?

Well, at least you hired somebody over 7 years old for this drawing. You know there are templates for this? You don't need to draw them by hand!

Excuse the mediocre image quality; I didn't take my dSLR

And in true London fashion, just to tie it all together like a diarrhoea turd, the first of two dedicated bicycle traffic lights has bicycle masks for all of the little bottom lights and two of the top lights, but they forgot to put the sticker on the top red light. Also, the traffic light is broken and NEVER turns green.

By the way, at this moment of writing I'm in the international train from Brussels to Amsterdam. I look out of the window randomly. I see this intersection. This is not even the Netherlands, the road surfaces may be a bit scratchy but literally nothing in London even comes close to being as well-designed as this. Again, I'm stressing; random picture:

A view from the train bridge near Berchem station, Antwerp

Oh, you were still interested in the CS3? It just ends. It. Just. Ends.

By the way, these photos are not cherry-picked locations many miles apart. You can take all these photos in a 5-minute time span (plus 3 minutes of waiting for the traffic light). It's mistake after mistake on this cycleway.

This image is in The Angel, Islington:

This is 50 meters of decent bicycle path. Transmission ends.


London city cycling infrastructure: not impressed in the slightest. Token effort at best, intentionally homicidal by the road 'designers' on average, entirely neglected and absent at worst. Every other country's capital where I've been has better infrastructure, and this includes China.

Now, don't get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in London. I even enjoyed cycling, and it can be reasonably safe. I mentioned that most drivers are actually pretty good to us. I just can't accept that the financial capital of Europe, a city that should be an example to the rest of the world, can have such crappy infrastructure. I especially expected much more from a 'cycle superhighway'. I know that CS3 is known to be one of the worst examples, but still: don't call it a superhighway! Don't get people's hopes up, but this will do nothing but invite ridicule.

I'll come back to London one day, and I'll certainly take my bike then. Let's hope things are better by then!
A photo I took near Lijang, China when I visited there in 2005. The cars are decripit, it smells really bad and the area is very poor. But they sure know how to maintain a road!