Flashback Friday: Study Abroad – First Stop: London

Remember that thing called overseas travel? Long before Covid, it was a thing apparently… And back in my previous university job it was a regular thing to visit places overseas to check out their transport systems (call it a busman’s holiday…). So it was, in April 2015, that I set out on what would be a fascinating three months in Europe – here’s the first post of what I found…

Greetings from the UK! It’s been three days since I touched down in London for the start of a three month sabbatical (study leave) in Europe. As well as meeting up with various colleagues and working on a few papers and projects, I’ll be taking advantage of the time to also have a good look around a few different places from a transport perspective – including cycling! Meanwhile I’ll try to continue keeping one eye on what’s happening back in Christchurch for you, and I have a few spies to help me with that (as always, guest posts are welcome too!).

Not a bad backdrop for cycling…
London’s ubiquitous “Boris Bikes”

I’ve just spent the last few days in central London and took the chance to have a good wander around (recall Robert’s earlier visit there last year). I saw quite a lot of cycling, including plenty of use of London’s Public Bike Hire scheme (aka “Boris Bikes” after their biking-keen mayor). And there are many quiet streets around the city that are easy to cycle on.

The public bike hire system is very extensive, with bike stations littered everywhere you went; I lost track of how many I came across. It’s fairly easy to use; for £2 you get use of the bikes for a day with no extra charge so long as your trips are each less than 30 minutes between stations (easy to do, given their frequency, and you can always just swap to another bike if you had to go further).

The bikes themselves are relatively lightweight; essentially the same model I rode when I was in Vancouver. They have built-in automatic lighting, three-speed hub gears, mud/chain guards, and a nifty little front carrier for stashing a bag. Remember too that you don’t need to wear a helmet in the UK, so a bike hire can be truly spontaneous.

There are also great street maps at each station and everywhere in between (good for walking wayfinding too!), plus regular blue signposting along main cycling routes, so it’s easy to work out where you are and what’s nearby. Hopefully our soon-to-come public bike scheme in Christchurch will also see lots of use.

Handy short-cuts for biking are a common feature

Helping to encourage cycling on many of the quieter streets are the little shortcuts and advantages that give cycling an edge over driving (if the congestion charge wasn’t already doing that…). So for example, a one-way street might allow “contra-flow” biking the other way, or a cul-de-sac for motor vehicles might allow cyclists to still get through.

Allowing bikes to go against the traffic (contra-flow) is quite common on quiet streets

However the challenge is linking these spaces together because eventually you run into a busy street. And at the moment, many of these are not for the faint-hearted. Clearly on some streets it seemed like only the “strong and fearless” who were tackling the traffic.

Cycling in London: It’s mostly a jungle out there

There were a few attempts to make life easier along or across these busy streets. For example, signal crossings might be used to help bike across major routes. Like pedestrian crossings in London however, I did find them relatively slow to respond (often for no good reason), with the upshot that many people ignored them.

Cycle signals help you get across some of the busier roads

Only very occasionally did I come across true separated cycleways on the busier routes; even normal painted cycle lanes were fairly rare to see. Plenty of advanced bike boxes at intersections, but not always that useful if you can’t get to them. Hopefully the planned “cycle superhighways” will be quite the game-changer in London, providing serious continuous routes across the city.

A rare piece of separated cycleway (pity about the sandwich board placement…)

All in all, London felt less connected than Christchurch in terms of formal cycling facilities, but made better use of quieter streets to increase network coverage. Ultimately they will need both to realise a fully practical cycling network; other commentators have noted this too.

The London network is well signposted, even if it is a bit variable in quality

Tourists were certainly using the public hire bikes to get around the city (and the signposting was generally pretty good), but they need to back that up with more infrastructure. Fortunately they have lots of plans to do this.

Two tourists contemplate their next move, thanks to the regular maps everywhere

I took heaps of photos around the city, so I’ll post a few more soon of other interesting things I saw.

Public transport, London style

What do you think of cycling in London? Anything for Christchurch to learn?

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