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5 thoughts on the N-S Cycle Superhighway

A Santander bike hire station near King's Cross

A bike hire station near King's Cross station

I visited London on a work trip earlier in November, and it was the opportunity to test out the North-South Cycle Superhighway (CS6). This post is about CS6, and the experience of cycling in London.

My thoughts are those of a visitor. I made two cycle trips, which gives me a superficial understanding of cycling in London. When you ride in a city every day, you learn how to avoid some problems, and you notice others which aren't obvious to a two-journey Big Smoke bicyclist. 

Nevertheless, the Santander cycle hire scheme, and to a lesser extent the cycle superhighways, are aimed at visitors and casual users. That's why I would say it's worth me setting out my observations here, and I will defend that position to the death. Ok, until my little finger gets scratched, at least. Alright, if someone looks at me a bit funny, I'll back down. 

1) There isn't a complete network of cycle routes

This isn't a revelation, of course. It's no secret that the N-S Cycle Superhighway isn't finished, but I mention it because it affected my plans. I researched CS6 and the location of bike hire stations in advance. TfL's website says, 'when complete, the North-South Cycle Superhighway (CS6) will provide a safe and direct route for cyclists across central London between Elephant and Castle and King's Cross'. 

King's Cross station, London

King's Cross station

I arrived by train at King's Cross, but in the absence of a completed cycle route from the station, I wasn't confident enough to ride roads I didn't know, and route-find as I went along, so I decided to walk the first part.

2) In London, filtering to the left of traffic seems the obvious thing to do

I was aiming for Holborn, and Stonecutter Street, which according to the TfL site was where the N-S route started. I got fed up of walking, and decided to pick up a Santander bike somewhere south of King's Cross. On a bike, it's not as easy to check the A-Z as when you're walking, and one-way roads push you in directions you don't want to go. 

I drifted off course, and ended up going down Southampton Row and onto Aldwych. There were innumerable buses and taxis there, defying their traditional definitions as modes of transport, and going nowhere at all. At home, I would never filter on the inside of a line of traffic, but here, it seemed the obvious thing to do, so I did, while being super-cautious in case a vehicle pulled across my path. Perhaps if I were a regular London cyclist, I might go past on the outside, or develop some other strategy. One thing nobody will do is wait behind the traffic, taking in lungfuls of diesel exhaust fumes, while the day when their relatives must shed a tear and contact the Coop draws ever closer.

3) The part of the cycle route which is built is brilliant

London cycle superhighway

London Cycle Superhighway, by Steve, Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

I eventually picked up the N-S Cycle Superhighway at the junction of Fleet Street and Farringdon Street, and I was impressed. There might not be much of CS6, but the part which does exist is marvellous. It's protected, wide, and it's clear what you have to do at junctions. I loved going over Blackfriars Bridge on it.

CS6 takes a direct route as far as St George's Circus, then sends you on a detour via Lambeth Road and St George's Road to Elephant & Castle - but it's worth it for the protected path. (Amazingly, it's difficult to find a map showing CS6, and TfL doesn't appear to have one on its website. Toadworld has created a Google map showing the route, though). Elephant & Castle is the end of the line for CS6.

4) Despite the lack of a cycle network, London has become a cycling city

Someone at the office had booked me into a hotel with Tower Bridge in its name, but which was actually on the Old Kent Road. With no Cycle Superhighway beyond Elephant & Castle, and docking stations running out a little further on at the Bricklayers Arms, I hiked the last section. (As you may know, the Old Kent Road is even further out of London than the New Kent Road. I didn't stumble across any oasts, but I think I caught a glimpse of the Medway at one point.) Even out on the Old Kent Road, a lot of pedalling was going on.

In London as a whole, it's amazing to see the number of people getting around by bike. It struck me with metaphorical force that there were many more cyclists than when I visited London more regularly in the past. It's easy to understand why people are looking for an alternative to driving. The roads are incredibly busy with traffic which, especially at rush hour and in central areas, is largely at a standstill.

Of the people who do drive, one in seven is in a Toyota Prius - a statistic which I calculated by doing a bit of watching and a bit of counting. Nevertheless, there are more than enough diesel vehicles so that the air is properly disgusting, and not fit to breathe.

A Toyota Prius in London

A Toyota Prius in London

5) The older cycle routes are mainly crap

On the way back to the station from my hotel the next morning, I got a bike before Elephant & Castle, and used an old-style cycle facility, created by painting a line on the pavement. I dodged a phonebox in the middle of the path, which then ran out altogether before Elephant & Castle. I was left to my own devices at the most challenging point. These antediluvian cycle routes are total rubbish, and should be consigned to history. 

In the end, I tracked down CS6, and crossed Blackfriar's Bridge on it. The route stopped abruptly shortly after the river, presumably somewhere near the legendary Stonecutter Street, where a metal fence surrounded some road works. Were they cutting stones inside the fence? Almost certainly. I left the bike at a docking station, and made my way to King's Cross on Shanks's pony.

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Dear Andrew Jones, cycling minister

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Andrew Jones MP opening a road

Andrew Jones MP opening a road, by Highways England, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

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Santander bikes, London Cycle Superhighway, LondonSantander bikes near King's Cross

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