Saturday, August 10, 2013

London streets, English roads, and cyclists with nerves of titanium

I just spent a couple of weeks in England and Scotland on a climbing trip that took me to London, the Peak District, the Lake District, the Highlands, Aberdeenshire, and eventually Edinburgh. While I didn't do any biking (I was bombing around in an SUV packed with gear and three other climbers for most of the trip), I can't help noticing bikes. And bike infrastructure. This photo was from the train on the way from Aberdeen to Edinburgh: I was sitting in the area where there were bike racks, and I did see one guy get on with his bike, load it onto the rack, and grab a seat.

But mostly things looked kind of terrifying. I can't imagine biking in London. The streets there are fairly chaotic, since everyone has right of way. This means that at intersections the pedestrians do hit the 'request' buttons, but then they walk across the street anyway, as soon as there's an opening. The cyclists are sharing narrow roads with cars, buses, and random pedestrians. Near Hyde Park Corner I watched a woman in a roundabout start to merge right on her bike, swerve a little, nearly get merged into by a car who didn't give way, then hold up a hand in a "hey, wait" sort of gesture, maneuver in front of the cab behind her . . . and then continue up and onto the sidewalk at the crosswalk. The whole thing looked like lunacy to me.

And yet apparently bikes are the most efficient way to get around in London. God help us.

In the Lake District, there were mountain and road bikers everywhere: it's a big mountain-sport area, full of hikers, bikers, fell runners and rock climbers, especially in high summer. But Lake District roads look like this:

Or like this:
Which makes coming upon a cyclist a bit of a hair-raising experience for me (as a passenger: I tensed up and got a bit testy with our driver for getting way too close behind one woman on a road bike, I admit). I can't imagine what it was like for the brave and Spandex-clad souls we came up behind and passed. Speed limits on these roads are 60 mph. But they didn't seem to flinch or falter in their pedaling, even with a large SUV bearing down on them from around a corner with nowhere to go to avoid them.

The road system in the UK is also slightly baffling, although our British friend tried to explain: apparently minor roads can be up- or downgraded from "A" class to "M" class and back, and that means changes in speeds, patrolling, and who's allowed to use them, I guess. I assume cyclists aren't allowed on the "M" class highways, but if that's the case, what about an "A" road that's been redesignated an "M" road? What about those six-exit, three-lane spiraling roundabouts? What about the absolute lack of things like road shoulders (or, for that matter, bike lanes wider than two feet)?

It's all a bit confusing. And I know that I'm seeing all this with North American eyes: coming from a place where we're so used to having space that we complain about three-metre-wide sidewalks - "there's just no space!" In parts of England, the whole road isn't three metres wide. So really, I tell myself, suck it up, buttercup. And I watch in awe as we pass cyclists on tiny, single-lane country roads in the Lake District. Or as they navigate roundabouts in the mid-range highway system.

But the close crush of bikes and cars is definitely unnerving to me as a visitor to a place like London, or Aberdeen, where the official bike route past the docks is a painted line designating a tiny, two-foot-wide chunk of the street as a space you 'might want to consider leaving for bikes' (although to be fair the first 'bike box' I ever saw in situ was in Aberdeen, too.)

And yet, the route I took on the train from Aberdeen to Edinburgh ran, at least for some of the way, along the Fife Coastal Path, which seemed to have space, info and accommodation for bikes - it's a trail I'm very tempted to try someday, if I can find a way to hire a bike in Edinburgh the next time I go to see my sister in Aberdeen.

It would have the advantage of not being on the roads. The tiny, tiny roads.


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  2. Interesting piece from the _Guardian_ about the government initiative to encourage cycling:

    "For all Britain's cycling success in the Olympic velodrome and Tour de France, the country is a long, long way from being a nation of cyclists. The proportion of journeys made annually by bike, at around 2%, puts the UK near the bottom of the EU tables."