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Prolog

I cycle in Toronto, Canada: which has wide straight roads, bike lanes, bike paths, no traffic on residential roads etc.

My brother lives near Brixton: he doesn't cycle himself, and says that it would be too dangerous ... that people do cycle, but are killed too often, squeezed against a railing by a lorry for example.

I asked him if he'd tried "Boris bikes" and he said that those don't exist in Brixton.

I have driven cars in London, but not cycled. I commute in Toronto so I'm used to "vehicular cycling".

I'd expect to use something like a $800 'hybrid' bike, with straight-out handlebars and touring tires and great brakes.

Question

Assuming that I will want to cycle in London, what should or can I know about that in advance?

Details

For example, answers to any of the following might be useful:

  • What's your strategy for getting from A to B: how do you navigate? Is there a list of suggested cycle routes? Is there a 'hidden London', e.g. cycle paths along canals or railways, which motorists or even pedestrians wouldn't know about?

  • How far can you go in a hour of cycling, starting e.g. from Brixton: what's the average km/hour in traffic?

  • Assuming you behave on a bicycle as if you were a small moped, i.e. if you "own" the lane you're in etc., is that safe enough?

  • Are there specific dangers (intersections, lane changes, traffic and others drivers, other obstacles) which a cyclist who is new to London ought to beware?

  • Is everywhere in London safe to cycle, or should you avoid certain areas of town or certain types of road?

  • What about not getting your bike stolen? Is a "New York" U-lock on the frame combined with pin-head locks on the wheels, enough?

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That's a long list of questions. Would it be possible to split this into a few separate questions? –  amcnabb Jul 8 '12 at 22:50
    
In London they travel on the left side of the road. You may think that doesn't matter, but it make take some getting used to in the first little while. –  Kibbee Jul 8 '12 at 23:30
    
@Kibbee I've walked (and driven cars) for years in England, so I think I get used to it quickly. On a bike I guess I'll need to check over my right shoulder more, whereas here it's usually my over my left shoulder. –  ChrisW Jul 9 '12 at 14:46
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This is far too broad; vote to close. –  Neil Fein Jul 10 '12 at 23:23
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If CycleGaz catches you doing something silly you'll end up on youtube :) –  GordonM Mar 26 '13 at 11:27
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4 Answers

The roads in London aren't particularly special, they can be quite busy, they are often quite full of motorised traffic, cyclists don't always have the best reputation for adhering to all laws (e.g. one-way streets and red lights) and, as a consequence, many other road users don't always go out of their way to be overly friendly or forgiving, but it's a great place to get around by bike and, especially to an experienced rider, there's nothing particular to worry about: keep your eyes open, your ears alert and your wits about you, obey the old adage "assume they're all out to get you" and you'll be ok!

London's a big city, the road network is comprehensive, and within most of inner London, e.g. within 4-5 miles of the City or Westminster, very few roads would be considered as totally unsuitable for bikes. Look out for the 'cycle superhighways' - while they aren't wonderfully designed, they attract a good amount of cycle traffic, which means you'll generally find more cyclists on those routes - definite strength in numbers.

There is an increasing, if not a single bike culture, then certainly an expectation of a wide range of cyclists at all hours of the day or night: couriers, commuters, road warriors, boris bikes, fixies, lycra louts and so on.

If you're used to practicing 'vehicular' cycling, you'll fit in reasonably well - there is plenty of that around. Even if you obey every traffic signal there's no reason why you can't average well over 17 or 18 mph if you're capable of such speed ... (My commute is just over 10 miles into the centre and I'm almost always able to do it in less than 40 minutes.)

In terms of route planning: you could use http://tfl.gov.uk - they have a planner with cycling as an option. Generally though, take a look at a map, draw a line from A to B and just go. There are some canal paths and genuine bike only routes, but on the whole, what cycle routes there are are along quieter roads, which can be safer, but a lot more circuitous.

There are quite a few good London blogs (e.g. http://cyclelondoncity.blogspot.com/, http://www.londoncyclist.co.uk/, http://ibikelondon.blogspot.com/, http://velo-city-girl.blogspot.com/ amongst many others) which will help to give you a more local flavour.

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And, of course, they drive on the "wrong" side. –  Daniel R Hicks Jul 8 '12 at 20:59
    
Well, that depends, not from where I'm sitting ;) –  Unsliced Jul 8 '12 at 21:34
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No more than is true when cycling in any environment. If you treat all other road users as if they were out to get you (even though almost all of them won't be), your defensiveness will stand you in good stead. –  Unsliced Jul 8 '12 at 21:47
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It's not just the drivers - assume all pedestrians are going to step out in front of you. Especially if they are actually staring at their iPhone while walking –  mgb Jul 9 '12 at 14:32
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you can certainly try, but whether they'll hear over their headphones and background traffic noise is an open question –  Useless Jul 10 '12 at 12:38
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On a slightly seperate tack from Unsliced (who covered all the bike-specific stuff I can think of): the road layouts themselves may be quite different than you're used to, even if you're familiar driving in the rest of the UK.

They are often:

  • very busy, in terms of traffic: on the plus side, the traffic is often not moving very fast, and if it's stationary you can often filter. Judging when to depart from vehicular positioning, and how and when to rejoin it, needs some thought though.
  • very busy, in terms of street furniture and signage: be particularly careful of your positioning around lane merge/filters, "traffic-calming" measures such as chicanes and speed-bumps (it's easy to get squeezed over to the side, or to find people trying a risky overtake to get past you before a bottleneck)
  • irregularly and sometimes confusingly layed-out: try to read mandatory turn lanes and direction signs as far in advance as possible, and get into the right lane. This interacts with high traffic volumes to make late, sudden lane-changes extremely unpopular (but be careful of drivers and other cyclists doing it anyway)

Somewhat location-specific dangers:

  • black cabs are usually decent drivers IME (they have a strong interest in keeping their cab roadworthy), and generally have good situational awareness insofar as they have to keep an eye out for fares. By the same token, if a pedestrian flags one down (or passenger asks to stop), they may swerve sharply for the kerb and only optionally indicate: undertake or filter up the inside only with care
  • private hire cabs on the other hand (licensed minicabs which must generally be booked rather than hailed on the street) are very variable: this roundel private hire roundel indicates a driver who may be paying more attention to a satnav than to the road or mirrors, may be rushing to make a booking, and should probably be given extra space
  • bus lanes are generally open to cyclists (and black cabs), but of course buses do stop fairly often: never undertake, and if you overtake a stopped bus try either to take the next lane or proceed with some caution: passengers often get off a bus and then step out immediately in front of it to see if the road is clear to cross
  • narrow marked cycle lanes on the inside are cunningly designed to lure you to into the blind spots of left-turning heavy vehicles; they're best avoided unless you're filtering past stationary traffic and are sure there's somewhere worth getting to at the front. The dashed line marking the lane is a reasonable guide to secondary position though.

Oh, and cyclestreets is worth a try for route planning too

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Google Maps has a (not unreasonable) bike overlay for London now:

https://maps.google.co.uk/?ll=51.512589,-0.126686&spn=0.185247,0.527687&t=m&z=12&lci=bike

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The single most important thing to know about cycling in London is never ride on the left side of a turning large vehicle, especially an articulated lorry or bendy bus. Many of the cycling fatalities in London are cyclists who ride up the outside of a large vehicle trying to negotiate a corner.

Really an important rule for cycling anywhere.

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+1 I narrowly escaped pancake-shape due to this several times. Lorries suddenly realising they need to follow 'Low emissions zone' signs will turn immediately without looking. –  Mere Development Mar 26 '13 at 0:05
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