Cycling in London is the best way to arrive at work every day with a smile on your face. Whatever the slings and arrows of outrageous road design may throw at you, it’s (almost) always worth it.
But we can’t deny that the road design is, indeed, often outrageous. London’s main roads are not a flower-strewn paradise of cycling happiness and we wouldn’t pretend they were. Rather, they’re the busiest, most frenzied, and densest in Britain.
At every traffic light, an aggressive tide of cars, buses and lorries waits impatiently to push through. So although this page may appear stern, it’s because we want you to emerge safe from your encounters with London traffic.
As a general rule, most London cycling accidents happen at junctions: roundabouts where traffic is accelerating fast to get a space, complex networks of turnings such as the Kings Cross area, or simple left-turns where cars cut you up. You can’t avoid the last-named, but where possible, consider planning your journey to avoid the busiest major road junctions. Unfortunately, a Cycle Superhighway is no guarantee that the junctions will be safe.
Some roundabouts have pavement routes, but these are invariably slower, forcing you to balance speed against safety. When you do cross a busy roundabout, being assertive and ‘taking the lane’ will get you across more safely than skulking in the gutter and running the risk of being swiped by a left-turning vehicle (much though we hate to say it). Transport planners are experimenting with Dutch-style roundabouts, with a separate outer cycle path, which could offer salvation for these dangerous ‘gyratories’.
London traffic lights invariably have tight timing to usher the maximum number of cars through on each green. In other cities, skipping a red light might earn you an angry gesture or an annoyed beep. In London, it can be genuinely dangerous, particularly on the larger junctions where it takes several seconds to cycle across.
Many junctions have ‘advanced stop lines’ (ASLs), painted spaces for bikes at the front of a traffic light queue. By all means use these if they make your passage easier, but don’t expect much from them: cars frequently trespass on them, and the cycle lanes leading up to them can be dangerous gutters that put you at risk from queuing vehicles. Their main advantage is that they bunch cyclists together, keeping us out of lorries’ blind spots and making us more visible to drivers.
Mouthy cabbies are a London caricature, and the private-hire stealth vehicles of Addison Lee are the guys we love to hate.
All frivolity aside, though, the biggest danger on London’s roads are construction lorries – responsible for 40% of cycling fatalities. We would counsel patience and a very wide berth when you encounter these grumbling, stinking behemoths of the city streets. Please don’t be tempted to squeeze down their side, and don’t put yourself in a position where the driver’s inattention could kill you. Though a few boroughs are now insisting that their contractors fit cycle-safety technology and train their drivers, this is, as yet, a small minority.
London has the best bus service in Britain, and cyclists have full claim to the many bus lanes. Sharing space with a 15-tonne double-decker isn't always a relaxing experience, to say nothing of the taxis; but it helps whisk you through the traffic, and bus drivers are (by and large) skilful and professionally trained.
All the way from its source in the Cotswolds, the River Thames is a barrier to cycling. London is no different. Inevitably, every river crossing is crammed with traffic: Southwark Bridge is perhaps the best of a bad lot. Be especially careful at the junctions on either side where the bridge traffic gathers and disperses.
Dreams of a cycle-only bridge haven’t come to fruition, with Boris choosing to build a cable car instead. Still, there are alternatives in the east: the free Woolwich ferry and the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.