The London Bike Scheme: Or, How I Learned to Start Worrying

I was in London last week for work, and I took to opportunity to try commuting by Barclay Bike. The idea is pretty much the same as the Paris scheme: You grab a bike from one of hundreds of kiosks throughout the city, pedal where you want to go, then return it at another kiosk when you arrive.

Here’s a few initial observations:

  • Unlike Paris, London isn’t a city of long, straight boulevards and imperial roundabouts. The streets are barely wider than the taxis careening through them , and drivers aren’t eager to share the space.
  • Pedestrians and fellow bicyclists seem similarly irritated to have you, yet another projectile, to compete with.
  • Beyond the challenges of the baseline infrastructure and its constituents, London basically has no bike lanes.
  • You sometimes see a bicycle graphic painted on the road, but without grade separation or paint indicating space reserved for bikes, these graphics just direct you where to huddle for comfort.
  • Every once in awhile a proper bike lane will appear. Sometimes it shows up on the other side of the road (I’m looking at you, Gower Street), forcing you to cross two lanes of traffic to get to it. Then after 100 meters it disappears, and you cross back over.
  • So biking in London requires a a lot more concentration than biking in other cities. The combination of aggressive fellow travelers and ambiguous reserved space requires you to make up the rules as you go along. It’s not unusual to see one biker on the left side of the line of cars and another to the right of them.
  • The bike scheme itself has problems too. Of my 14 attempts to rent a bike, only nine of were successful. Sometimes the bike stations said ‘terminal disconnected’. Sometimes the release codes didn’t work on the bikes parked at the kiosks. One time the kiosk was out of paper to print my release code.
  • It’s really this lack of reliability that’s the closest thing to a fatal blow to the scheme. When you’re on your way somewhere, you need to be able to estimate your arrival time. Suddenly having to walk 10 minutes to the next bike-kiosk because the nearest one doesn’t work is enough to drive you back to the Tube. Sure, it’s the temperature of Venus down there, but at least you know how long you have to endure it before you arrive.
  • All my bitching aside, it was nice to discover that biking through central London is slightly less life-threatening than I expected. The traffic looks intimidating from the sidewalk, but from the street you just feel like part of a school of incredibly aggressive fish. As long as you don’t do anything unexpected, you’ll probably make it.
Overall, the bike scheme is a massive leap forward, and it’s great to see so many people pedaling through London all of a sudden, even if most of them look slightly traumatized while they’re doing it. When you think about it, there’s no reason why London can’t be a great biking city. It’s about as flat and compact as a European capital gets, and the quiet pockets between Tube stations are safe, even pleasant, to bike through.
It took the Paris scheme  a few years before the locals really loved it. I’m looking forward to trying London again after the traffic, the roads and the bikers all call a truce.

1 Comment

Filed under Serious, Travel

One response to “The London Bike Scheme: Or, How I Learned to Start Worrying

  1. While I’ve never attempted riding through most European cities I imagine that, England aside, they follow the American side of the street rules. London is a menacing looking place for bicycling but the most frightening aspect for me would be adjusting very quickly to how the streets are laid out. When I was in Osaka I would often have to bike to school and coping with backwards land first thing in the morning was terrifying.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s