15 March 2012

Fear and Cycling in London

We went up-town to London last weekend for a bit of culture. Sadly, despite massive success on the cultural front, I failed once again to have a go with the Boris Bikes. We were wandering around Paddington Basin after breakfast, and came upon a bike hire station near the back of St Mary's Hospital. We were in the process of considering our way to Trafalgar Square, via the Bakerloo Line and Piccadilly Circus, and idly wondered for a moment if it might be worth a go on a bike. By actually looking at the docking station closely for the first time, I realised that you probably don't even need to have a membership card, which I had incorrectly presumed to be the case before now. There were even a couple a brand new bikes, which looked to be in great mechanical condition.

However, the familiar dread just kept coming up about having to ride in traffic. Being tourists in London Village, we are just not that familiar with London driving and the road system. It is why tourists take the tube and locals take the bus - the underground network is a navigation method that is diagrammatically simple and directionally certain, whereas the bus takes a route you are unsure of and you don't know when you have arrived at your destination (you mostly have to ask for the bus to stop somewhere which you aren't familiar with - it always stresses me out anyway).

A similar worry exists with the bike system - you don't know how to get where you are going, and don't understand the nature of the network you are forced to use (the roads). It is even less easy to use the back streets, unless you stop every 20m to try and figure out where you are, which means manoeuvring into the correct position is tricky, plus we don't have an A-Z permanently on hand. Maybe we just need to get a bit more techno-savvy and get on board with the bike hub app and equip ourselves with the appropriate hardware...

However, I recall that this wayfinding was not such an issue when we cycled in Copenhagen, because although the network you are using is adjacent to the road system, it is separate from it and so the problems of manoeuvering or getting in position, or even stopping to look at a map are easier to manage. By removing the issue of negotiating with traffic from the wayfinding equation, all other worries became more manageable and less concerning. If I could cycle down Edgware Road happily in my own space, I'd know where I was, I'd have a rough idea where I was going and I wouldn't be cacking myself. Perhaps then I'd have the guts to keep my Oyster Card in my wallet and try above-ground two wheeled travel for a change. After all, when we walk around London, we always chuckle knowingly about how everything is much closer than you might think from looking at the tube map.


I wanted to write something about a bike hire scheme, but had to go to London to do it. The Cardiff scheme, for which Cardiff was in the vanguard for once, has quietly closed and the unusual rod-driven bikes have been given away. Evidently, the unusual idea of "trialling" the scheme with a handful of docking stations and less than 100 bikes turned out to be less successful than the experiences of some other major European Cities who have tried something similar. Like Barcelona, for instance, where they dumped 1000's of bikes and 100's of docking stations on the city virtually overnight. Can you spot the difference?



  1. You're right about the dangers of "trialling" a bike hire scheme if you don't commit enough docks and bikes. AFAIK, the Cardiff scheme only really covered the central district (which is compact enough to be walkable anyway) and the Bay. They should have gone with at least the inner suburbs as well (Grangetown, Riverside, Canton, Llandaff, Cathays, Roath, Splott and Adamsdown). This would have put it within range of where people live, plus destinations that are a bit more of a journey from the centre (Chapter, Maindy Pool, UWIC, etc.)

  2. Recursived, totally agree with you on the Cardiff scheme - particularly the widely-held suspicion that it was only designed to be visible outside the Assembly and City Hall to help soothe the politicians conciences. The approach they took was like half-swimming. Not really possible as a long term idea, and bound to go wrong. All or nothing is the best as far as I can tell.