Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Dicing with death: Boris Bikes

Nobody in their right mind should ride Boris Bikes on the streets of London. The conclusion very clear in my own mind after giving Boris Bikes a go for the first time yesterday evening, inspired by my regular work trips to Holland where cycling is the norm and is done with decent cycle lanes and very little danger.

There's nothing so much wrong with the bike itself, although its quite heavy and there are only three gears, but the combination of blue paint strips that nobody respects with aggressive drivers quite prepared to risk your life for their 5 seconds of time saved is lethal.

In my case I planned a trip from near the office in Stockwell South London to the Bush. A reasonably straight forward trip from Kennington docking station to the one installed with great expense at Westfield Library. I got as far as Vauxhall before giving up and returning, thankful I was still in possession of a full complement of limbs, to the tube. 

So what went wrong? Two examples:

In Holland most cycle routes are separated from the road and exist either as part of the pavement or are apart from both. By contrast the cheap option of painted blue stripes is basically pointless. Cars weave on to them as they undertake those turning right while I came across a helpful DHL delivery van using it as a means of inching out into the road, forcing cyclists to swerve into the oncoming traffic on the right - while the oncoming traffic on the right did its best not to give way. This is precisely the dynamic that resulted in the first death of a Boris Bike user in July this year, although in that case the obstruction was scaffolding. 

Vauxhall roundabout and White Van Man. A large multi-laned and incredibly poorly signposted hub is made all the worse by White Van Man and his fellow tribesmen. It's impossible to ride at any speed on a Boris Bike because there are only three gears, so you are slower not only than the cars but of most other bike users. You are therefore annoyance number one in the eyes of White Van Man, who cuts in front of you to turn left down the road you are half way across passing. On a roundabout. Yes, really. Again, precisely the sort of dynamics reported by cyclists on other roundabouts, such as that at Bow which has claimed the lives of several. 

So what now? 

Personally, I will never be taking the risk of cycling on London's main roads again. It seems I had chosen one of the most dangerous areas in London to try it with Vauxhall Cross recording one of the highest numbers of vehicle-cyclist collisions in the city, but still. 

As this cycling blogger put it, recognising the fear some drivers feel when cyclists are forced to "swarm" around their cars, the way the current roads and "cycle lanes" are designed forces both into dangerous positions. And until that changes, the death toll will carry on rising. 

1 comment:

  1. A touch dramatic. Why?

    1)The death toll was coming down until a recent rise and cycling is still way safer than many other sports and methods of transport. It is perceived as high risk, but relatively it isn't.
    See here:
    and here (slightly older data):

    2) You're right we need proper infrastructure. Until that arrives, you need to learn how to cycle in the streets we have - I'd recommend a local bikeworks course, they've opened up on Shepherds Bush Road in the last year but most courses seem to be from their East London base:
    Also, you can simply use a bit of nous to avoid the worst junctions. I had to use Vauxhall recently to get to the Oval test, but largely avoided the worst bits by planning my route using Cycle Streets and the Camden Cyclists Map
    (have a look at the quietest route option through Battersea Park, along the river)
    It's not ideal having to do this. I'd rather we were like Holland. We're giving it a go, but until more infrastructure is in place this is the best way of managing what risk there is. Put simply, if you avoid the worst bits and don't go on the left of a lorry you are massively improving your chances by a huge factor.

    Finally - I'm picking you up on being dramatic as it serves everyone to encourage cycling. An increase in cycling of 20% by 2015 (not going to happen but stay with me) would 'save the economy £207m in reduced traffic congestion, £71m in lower pollution levels and £52m in NHS costs.'

    So instead of scaring your readers off cycling. Perhaps we can give them a gentler introduction in to how to cycle, where to cycle and why it's good.

    I'm lucky - I grew up in Shepherds Bush, got my cycling proficiency at a LBH&F School and have cycled in the borough ever since. I enjoy cycling. The council in the 80s got the bug with some infastructure that remains today - the contraflow on King St being the most noticeable. We cyclists have had b*gger all since, until the Boris Bikes arrived at vast expense with no improvement in infrastructure.