Treks and the City

Editor’s Note: Our intrepid international reporter is back – giving us a look at the way London and Amsterdam treat their cyclists. Like their counterparts here in the U.S., trails are always in demand, but adding them after the fact can be fraught with political landmines and sore backsides. Enjoy!

The aluminum frame of my Claud Butler bicycle snapped just below the neck, like a gallows victim. The weak point lay where Claud - as I knew him - had his down tube joining the front stem, or so the bike doctor said.

During five years I had traveled 4,000 miles on Claud, but we saw few sights other than the traffic-clogged roads of East London, the beautiful Victoria Park of that same area and the metropolitan bustle of the city itself.

Occasionally, we would join with hundreds of other bi-wheeled masochists who endanger their lives every day on the streets of London, and call it good for them, and we would protest against the tyranny of the car at gatherings called Critical Mass.

Mainly, though, Claud and I rode our weary path to and from work, seven miles there, seven miles back, and slowly, without my noticing, my tubular friend felt the stress of a city not geared, even in the slightest, to bicycle transit.

It is in memory of Claud that I write this piece. He languishes now in a landfill site, a fraction of his adult size, and I write for him as he cannot write for himself. I want to talk about London, and how crap it is for bikes.

Why London Is Crap For Bikes!

The roads of London were built by a giant, one who gathered up strips of the thinnest tarmac, bent them into fantastic shapes, and threw them, higgledy-piggledy, across six hundred square miles surrounding the River Thames. These roads are narrow, potholed and poorly signposted – offering few bicycle lanes. In fact, it’s fair to say bicycles are the food on which delivery vans feast, and their riders serve as the crunchy topping.

For these reasons, the London cyclist quickly learns to use off-roads whenever possible, in particular canal paths. Though these paths are paved with broken slabs of concrete and are as harsh as potholed tarmac upon the rider’s backside, the absence of motorized transport makes them an immense improvement on roads.

They offer a diverse selection of urban sights too: plastic bags caught in the frames of skeletal gas towers, their captives billowing in the wind like seaweed in the current; Victorian poorhouses converted into New Media happenings; traditional marketplaces full of color and aroma; tower blocks; and famous tourist attractions. The list is long. London, after all, has more canal paths than Venice, and they are peopled by anyone wishing to escape the teeth of the city’s snarling gridlock.

Why Is London So Inhospitable For Cyclists?

The ancient road layout is one explanation. Antiquated road names like Cheapside (once a Medieval market), Poultry (again, a Medieval market) and Minories (a former abbey), illustrate there is a core-road network built centuries before multi-vehicle road use was conceivable.

But, as one approaches the suburbs, this explanation no longer holds true. London’s suburban throughways were built to serve a modern metropolis. Unfortunately, they were built without modern views of transit distribution; the only consistent provision is for engines dragging steel monsters.

Where cycle lanes do appear, they disappear with alarming swiftness, as if built with the same stuff as Brigadoon. Pieces of bicycle lane litter suburban roads, but they do not connect to make a coherent network. Though many roads were built with sidewalks, just wide enough for two or three pedestrians walking abreast, cyclists are not allowed to ride on them. So, the provision was of little consolation to Claud and me. There’s just no way around it. Significant investment is required to make London a bicycle-friendly city. So who is going to help London improve its cycling network?

Possible Solution #1 -- Transport For London

Any solution to our transport problems must involve the city’s key player, a quasi-governmental body named Transport for London (TfL for short) headed by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.

Unfortunately, a typical Londoner’s experience of TfL is two things:

1.) A grey humungous body in the hinterland of city life, whose aim it is to charge as much for train fares as is criminally permissible

2.) And, a grey humungous body in the hinterland of city life that pastes up confusing - and often silly - advertising posters. None of these posters, to my knowledge, have pictured a bicycle.

In fact, Londoners do not think of TfL as a body that promotes, or even particularly cares about, cycling.

TfL would refute this, of course, and cite its recent and to-date largest bicycle project, “Bike It,” as proof. Worthy though this initiative is - it encourages more children to cycle to and from school – the three-quarters of a million dollars spent on it is rather less than, say, the $1.8 billion dollars spent on the bus system, or even the $20 million spent on customer relations - which includes all of those darn silly posters.

Possible Solutions #2 – SusTrans

Our hopes instead turn to SusTrans, which is, according to its website, “a charity which works on practical projects to help reduce motor traffic.”

The projects are bicycle-oriented, and to its credit, SusTrans developed the National Cycle Network (NCN) and promoted it for the past ten years.

SusTrans offers NCN location software that plots the safest routes from A to B on a bicycle. Usually, its output is depressing -- providing a map overwhelmingly featured with a rather drab orange color that denotes an “other signed on-road cycle route” – this means, basically, any road which isn’t totally impenetrable by bike. The lovely green lines, denoting “traffic free routes,” are stuck out on the edge of town like shy kids wanting to play, but too afraid to join in. SusTrans, with its limited resources, is doing its plucky best, but ultimately it can only highlight what a danger it is to cycle in London.

This leaves parks as the only safe places to ride. My route to work took me through Victoria Park - which is in Hackney in the East End of London - and I was lucky for it to do so, as few of my colleagues were similarly blessed.

The pedestrian walkways that crisscross the park are wide and infrequently used enough to allow a cyclist ample space to fiddle with his iPod and cycle no handed, as I often did. Even the ducks seem to smile.

At the end of the park is the canal path that I took on the final leg of my journey. As I have said, whilst it is safer than the road network, its narrowness, its uneven surface, its low bridges with blind corners and, worst of all, its squadrons of delinquent kids wielding rotten eggs meant for passing cyclists, made it a far less-attractive proposition than the park.

Amsterdam – A Shining, European Example Of Good Bike Planning

The poor service offered to cyclists in London is not inevitable. One European city I have visited has perfectly balanced the demands of cycling and city life: Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is a city with an established bicycle culture. In fact, cyclists are not only welcome, but they are favored. In the city centre, car driving is discouraged by expensive parking fees ($4 per hour), by the provision of few parking zones and, most importantly, by the closure of numerous streets - possibly the majority of streets - to motor traffic.

Getting around Amsterdam by bike is quicker and more pleasant than driving.

My friend Joe, an avowed car driver, wooed by the charm of cycling in this city, found himself astride a rental bike within two days of arriving. He loved it. This is a man who has lived in London for many years and who, because he is smarter than I, had not even considered it to be an option there. Joe is cycling regularly now in the Essex countryside, where it is safer.

Much of Amsterdam’s success can be directly attributed to the city’s officials who worked long and hard to promote and popularize the idea. I should point out that it’s not only Lycra-clad louts on two wheels in this city; most cyclists are in everyday clothes, they cycle to and from work, they go shopping on bikes – hefting their bags into trailers towed behind – they take their kids, they travel with friends. It is part of everyday Amsterdam life, as natural as drinking Amstel by its namesake river on a sunny day.

That being said, if you get a chance to cycle in Amsterdam, do so, for it is beautiful. If you’re new to the area, I recommend mapping a path along its many canals, which are so numerous they allowed Amsterdam to acquire the nickname: “Venice of the North.”

Sound similar to my description of London? They could not be more different; the canal paths in Amsterdam are clean, well-built and, consequently, bicycle-friendly. You can use them to reach the Leidseplein and the Rembrandtplein to investigate city life. Or, you can rent a bike from Macs Bike, the ubiquitous hire company with outlets and cycle parking places dotted around the city, which manages the most amazing bicycle park you will ever see.

Could London one day emulate Amsterdam? It would face problems that Amsterdam has not faced, problems that include the much larger size of London and the probable resistance of commercial organizations.

The biggest problem facing London, though, is political will. With a dedication to innovative long-term traffic planning, TfL and other bodies – such as the Ministry of Transport – could create an environment in which Londoners may choose cycling over driving as a practical and safe mode of transport, just as Amsterdamers have been allowed to do.

That will is lacking today. I hope the next candidates for London Mayor will offer a greater vision, and allow Londoners to vote with their pedals.

Jamie Gletherow a.k.a. Chopper is a freelance writer, outdoor enthusiast, native Londoner, and regular contributor to Parks & Rec Business magazine. You can reach him at