Biking London

A row of Santander rental bikes.

After a month in the city, I was still equivocating on cycling in London. I liked the concept, but I had hardly ridden a bike since my days commuting from Little Italy to the University of Toronto campus in 2011-12. Add in London’s heavy traffic and narrow roads, and you get a potentially harrowing experience — and that’s before we’ve even started talking about biking on the left!

Using London’s Banco Santander-branded bikeshare program will be old hat to anyone familiar with Toronto’s Bixi Bikes, New York’s Citi Bikes, or LA’s Metro Bikes. For £2, users get 24 hours of access and an unlimited number of bike rentals within that period. The only catch is that each rental is only “free” for half an hour; after that, charges accrue at a rather dear rate of £2 every 30 minutes. The program was launched in 2010, and appears to be very popular; the clunky red bikes are common sight throughout Central London and Westminster.

One morning, I decided to get it together and give biking in the city a try. Mostly, I was sick of walking everywhere or spending money on the Tube (£2.40 a pop). But I was also curious to see what biking was like, mirror-imaged, in a big European-ish city.

It was fantastic. I got a Santander bike at Parsons Green, hopped on, and made my way east up the King’s Road through Fulham and Chelsea. By the time I made Sloane Square I was lane-splitting with the best of the them. Biking on the left isn’t hard: you follow the flow of traffic, take care to turn in the correct lane, and check your blindspots on the regular. If anything, it might actually be easier than driving on the left, as there’s no errant steering wheel to add to the confusion.

My first day biking around London brought only one or two scary moments, both on Grosvenor Road and both the result of me ending up in the middle lane of traffic on a busy thoroughfare. Thankfully, traffic in London moves so slowly (there’s generally a 20 mph limit, and most cars are lucky to reach that during the day) that, as a cyclist, you never feel that you’re in anyone’s way. Annoyances? There were a few. City buses are everywhere and tend to sit in marked bike lanes. Taxi cabs are aggressive, as elsewhere. But worst of all are the diesels.

Decades of high gas and road taxes have made diesel-engined cars and trucks far more prevalent in Europe than in North America. The early green movement in the United States focused on cleaning up the air in polluted cities like Los Angeles and Cleveland, whereas in Europe the focus was (and is) on efficiency, not air quality. (This goes some distance to explaining the origins of the “diesel-gate” scandal that rocked Volkswagen last year.) London cyclists get bombarded with sulphur-heavy diesel fumes whenever there’s any traffic. You’re bound to come home with soot-nose. Thankfully, the city is piloting a new tax scheme for diesel cars, so hopefully the future of the oil-burner is as bleak in England as it is in North America.

Stay off the really busy roads, however, and biking in London is a beautiful thing. Riding through the elegant residential enclaves in Belgravia and Knightsbridge is relaxing and refreshing. And on a bike, the sprawling city — thanks to its generous greenspace, London is far less dense than many of its global peers — seems to shrink around you. From SW6, two wheels put the City, Covent Garden, Richmond Park and Kew Gardens, and a raft of other great places within easy striking distance. My near-term plan is to buy a second-hand bike for further adventures. I know it’s a decision I won’t regret.

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