Cycling safely in London

As you will know, both myself and Kate are keen cycle commuters and have been for a while. We’ve already written some bits and pieces that can help you out but these mainly focused on clothing, sneaky ways of keeping your hair neat and not forgetting essential items….but something we didn’t touch on was the actual cycling part.

I constantly promote cycling to work left right and centre, and the first question I always get asked is ‘but isn’t it really dangerous to cycle in London?’ And my response? It can be dangerous if you make it dangerous. Yes, statistically there are more cycling accidents and deaths in London compared to some other European cities, but part of my point is that (shock horror) cyclists can be and (frequently are) to blame……

If you cycle in London, you will constantly see people doing downright dangerous manoeuvres on bikes. Jumping lights, squeezing through gaps they can’t really fit through, undercutting vehicles and other cyclists….is there any wonder that this isn’t going to end well? Sorry, but pit a bicycle against any moving vehicle and you know who is going to win. And it isn’t the one that is human powered.

I’m not trivialising the deaths on London’s roads, because it’s appalling what is happening, but I am just putting it out there that it’s not one way traffic; both cyclists and motorists need to put themselves in the other’s shoes and have a little respect for other road users. Cyclists, stop acting the victim and sticking a finger up at each and every vehicle, and motorists, stop bike-hating and giving chat about “urrrg they don’t pay road tax so shouldn’t be there.” (Note, I know these are generalisations and there are a lot of cycling motorists and vice versa and those who are all very pleasant and know how to share nicely.)

There was significantly more interest in the death earlier this year of Akis Kollaros, because he was a club rider.  Although I have seen dubious behaviour by Dynamos in Richmond Park, there is an inclination to think (and often rightly so) that club riders are more experienced and therefore less likely to be pulling out some of the stupid moves I called out earlier. And I think that’s why it shocked a lot of the most serious cycling community – we think we don’t do stupid things, are more sensible about riding and are therefore immune from any danger. But it’s not the case. Sometimes, this means we’re more likely to try and save time (maybe hit a KOM on Strava?) and yes, I’m not going to say I’m always 100% perfect, there are some occasions when I have nipped through gaps where I shouldn’t have….but there are some who seem to think they are totally immune from the rules of the road because ‘they know what they are doing.’

I do want to stand my ground and say it’s not always the motorist’s fault. Yes, some drivers are idiots, they pull stupid moves, they open car doors without looking, they overtake with about 20cm of space….but far too many cyclists appear to be incapable of reading the road ahead and understanding what is a sensible decision to make in that specific situation. Yes, there might be an advance box at the lights, but if you have to go on the inside of an HGV in the cycle lane when you don’t know when the lights are going to change colour….is it really a good idea to try and get to it? The cycle lane is not gospel. It’s not the law to be in it, so if it is safer not to, don’t.

Take a look at this video which very quickly demonstrates the extent of the blind spot of a lorry.

Is it really worth the risk of nipping round? You have no idea when the lights are going to change, how long it will take the other 100000 cyclists to move out of your way, how quickly the lorry will move off…there are far too many variables in these types of situation. If you need to stay back, stay back. Don’t let people behind you bully you into putting yourself into a situation you aren’t comfortable with.

To summarise, here are a few things for you, my dear cyclist reader to consider, and for you, my dear driver to understand what cyclists are legally allowed to do. Note these apply to cyclists everywhere, not just those of us battling London traffic.

Assume the worst. Never assume that someone has seen you. To ride safely, you need to ride differently. Someone waiting to pull out? They won’t notice you. Car turning across you? They won’t have seen you. Always be ready to hit the brakes. Same with pedestrians. 90% of those anywhere near the city will be checking their phones and not looking before they step out into the road, and also seem to have no concept of the speed of a bike. Feel free to ring bells and shout at them!

Judge the situation, not the markings. Pay attention and make sure you’re cycling based on your surroundings, not what ‘must be OK to do because the cycle lane says so’.

Be assertive. Hold your ground, don’t dither and make decisions and stick to them. Be confident. This applies to a lot of the items in this list– yes, someone might honk a horn at you or try and bully you into moving over, but don’t give in to it. You have as much right to the road as they do. Own it.

Take the lane. As a cyclist, you have as much right to hold your lane as any vehicle. If it’s safer for you to be in the middle of the lane (Parliament Square comes to mind) then be there.  Cars make more of an effort to move round you or they will wait behind you and not attempt a risky overtake. Act like a vehicle and you’ll be more likely to be given the space of one. Nice cyclescheme article here about road placement if you want some more guidance.

Get out of the gutter. This is something instilled in me from a young age by my mother. If you hug the kerb, then motorists don’t make as much of an effort to go round you, therefore staying closer and being scarier. I tend to ride a good metre in from the kerb – this means motorists have to make more of a conscious effort to overtake and will therefore do so in a safer manner, just like taking the lane. Also applies to people opening car doors on you….

You don’t have to use the cycle lane. Again, you have a right to be in the main part of the road. If you can see you’ll be ducking and diving out of the lane because there are cars parked in it (again) or if you are in a lane that just hates cyclists….then you don’t have to be in it.

Don’t take risks. I am fed up about reading stories of cyclists being knocked off because they were trying to turn left on the inside of a bus or lorry that is also turning left. It’s basic common sense. Yes, people might get impatient behind you but seriously, is it worth it? What’s an extra 20 seconds of hanging back versus the worst case scenario? Don’t be stupid.

Plan and look ahead. Don’t just pay attention to the here and now, pay attention to what’s coming. Do you need to move pull out around a car? Move lanes? Work out which of the 4 lanes you need to be in?! If you are starting to cycle to work, why not test the route at the weekend when it will be quieter? Then you can know your lanes and where you can use a superhighway or cycle path to cut out nasty junctions (E&C roundabout, I’m looking at you!)

Use the pack mentality. You know how cyclists bunch together in front of a bus at traffic lights? It’s great because motorists treat you as a larger being. Get used to being in your own little peloton and revel in the safety in numbers. But don’t feel pressured to join it if it isn’t safe to do so (remember the lorry above?)

Signal when you need to. Make sure people know your intentions. Exactly the same as ‘Mirror Signal Manoeuvre’ in a car. Make eye contact if you need to, just make sure it is clear what you are doing and where you are going – just like when you are driving.

Be seen! Seriously, invest in some good lights, a bright rucksack cover and some reflective stuff. Looking like a Christmas tree is often very effective. A recent Aviva report on accidents in London found that 33% of those in serious accidents after dark weren’t using lights…I guarantee that you are ASKING for trouble if you take this risk. It’s illegal to cycle after dark with no lights on. People don’t drive around with no lights on so why is it apparently something you can do on a bike? I have taken to carrying spare batteries in my saddle bag after being caught short recently.

Now I am SURE that this will have provoked a few good opinions – there are a myriad of thoughts on this that I chose not to cover (for example, being allowed to ride two abreast and when you should/shouldn’t, the WHOLE HELMET DEBATE à la Chris Boardman) so please comment and give me your take on things. You might also want to read my musings on ‘Girls on bikes’ if this is your sort of thing.

In the meantime though – stay safe!

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13 thoughts on “Cycling safely in London

  1. I hate that “how many cyclists can fit in a lorry’s blind spot” video SO MUCH! For me, it’s an illustration of how much lorries and large vehicles need to change rather than anything cyclists should do. Why on earth are vehicles being built like that in this day and age when it’s a fact our roads are shared by bicycles, mopeds, scooters, smart cars, smaller cars, taxis, and large vans. It really makes me mad that cyclists are constantly asked to change while there have been zero demands of vehicles and their drivers. Lorries are unsafe for the reality of today’s city streets. They need to change in both construction AND style of driving.

    I totally agree with you about being safe. For me, I will never jump a red light because if anything it’s bad cycling karma. Just wait the extra few seconds and (especially if you’re in a bike box at the front of traffic) go at your own pace at a safe distance from the curb. Easy and safe for everyone.

    I see traffic like a chain. The vehicles do whatever they want and when they need more space they encroach on cyclists space and that forces cyclists to encroach on pedestrians space. We need to find a way to all respect the space on the roads together and in my opinion cyclists are doing a great job while I’ve heard (and seen) absolutely no effort from lorries or other vehicles.

    Day-to-day safety as a cyclist is one thing, and I think you’ve done a good job touching on the basics here, but I think it’s a totally different thing from cyclist safety which is a bigger issue that involves infrastructure and wholesale changes to road users’ attitudes.

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    • Well that is half the problem with things like cycling on pavements- often people will do it because it’s downright dangerous to be on the road and they don’t feel safe there! I completely agree with you re the wider issue and it links back to Chris Boardman’s stance on helmets that caused such an uproar- his point was that making people wear helmets won’t make enough of a difference, there are far far more fundamental issues that need to be solved at a higher level to prevent some of this stuff happening.
      Interesting that you picked up on the safety issue- I purposefully went for the use of ‘safely’ over ‘safety’ in the title (and genuinely had to think about which word to use) because I don’t think safety is something that can be changed at the individual level. But there are things that you can do to help yourself.

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  2. Great blog, and I completely agree. Cycling will always carry some risk, but many of the cyclists I see are putting themselves in dangerous situations unnecessarily.

    I’ve just moved my bike to London from the Netherlands, where I cycled my entire life. I haven’t yet cycled to work cause I’m concerned about safety, I’m working my way up to it.

    I have driven a car in London, and I’m constantly yelling at cyclists, as much as I am pro cycling. You CAN’T go on the inside of a lorry or a bus at a junction. EVER. It just isn’t a safe thing to do. You have no right to that space – there is already a vehicle in it.

    Similarly, you can’t pull around a stopping bus without so much as looking over your shoulder to check that there is space in the other lane. You wouldn’t dream of doing that in a car, why would you do it when it’s not the car’s bodywork but your own fragile, squishy human body on the line?

    In the Netherlands, primary school kids are made to cycle their way out of a practical exam. It counts for absolutely nothing, but kids are dumb and think it’s super important. Parents and teachers check how you ride a set route and you get marks and a final score. The local police send an officer to hand out the diplomas. They count for nothing, but for the fact that each of us has basic road rules and cycling safety drilled into us at an early age.

    It’s a worry to me that many of the cyclists I see in London wouldn’t pass the exam.

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    • That’s what I don’t get – people do things on bikes that they would never ever dream of if they were in a car which is insane considering one is well a massive metal box and the other is just you. And even cyclists pulling out of in front of other cyclists without looking drives me mental. How will we get anywhere with cars if we can’t behave properly to each other?
      I think instilling basic ideas from a young age is such a great idea – I guess I’m lucky in that I’ve had my parents to guide me but there are a lot of people who just don’t get the chance to learn- and you’re not necessarily to know things such as taking the lane unless you are explicitly told about it, and maybe that’s something that needs to be considered.
      It took me a while to cycle in cleats to work because I was just worried about reaction speeds and the fact that if I topple over I will get squashed vs just looking stupid on a country lane, but taking that first step is the hardest – I tried out a few routes before finding one that worked for me from a time and safety perspective.

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  3. I’m definitely going to try, especially now that it’s no longer dark at commuting times. One final thing before I stop singing the Netherlands’ praises (and trust me, it’s not perfect there either) – most Dutch bikes come with fitted lights that work off dynamos. You never forget or run out of battery. I’ve always wondered why that isn’t more common in other places.

    I still need to stock up on fluorescent gear though – never had a helmet in the Netherlands either, but I’ll definitely be wearing one in London. Had a fluoro jacket as a kid but then not so much later…

    As for the looking and signalling, I read something that said a lot of new cyclists are uncomfortable looking over their shoulder cause they wobble/can’t keep straight. I wonder if it’s another reason a bit of practical training would be great.

    If nothing else though, the risk of having a horseman whip me off my bike should be reduced massively in London… (True story, got whipped clean off my bike as a kid. Learnt my lesson – don’t undertake horse-drawn carriages… Who knew?!)

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  4. I mean I have seen people (OK, he was clearly drunk) cycled into parked cars when looking over their shoulders so know exactly what you mean, and it’s definitely something that takes practice. It’s one of the downfalls I think with Boris bikes – although a great idea, you are theoretically giving things to people who don’t always know how to use them properly in the situation they are in. Which means more cyclists not cycling properly, more angry motorists, more angry cyclists and a constant chain of ‘war’!

    Told you you shouldn’t go on the left of vehicles 😉

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