Commuting by Bicycle in London - A field report
Aug 12, 2022 14:00 · 2631 words · 13 minute read
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic I thought it would be a good idea to get an eBike to use to get to work instead of commuting by train. Contrary to what you may think, this wasn't totally because I was worried about catching Covid on the train, it was more the life disruption trigger a thought that I could change up a few things.
Anyway, once we started to return to our offices in central London, I put my money where my mouth was and got an eBike to use for my commute.
The bike I opted for was a Van Moof S3. It looks great, rides well but has some pretty major drawbacks. See my ranting here: Van Moof - A cautionary Tale. That said I have a few more things to say about the S3 since then and will write another post about that shortly. My thoughts are largely still the same.
In my year of cycling I have seen crazy scooters, moped drivers who clearly think they are invincible, two police chases, many aftermaths of crashes (but not witnessed any actual crashes), avoided pedestrians who don't understand how traffic works, helped with one pedestrian emergency and got amongst the most aggressive beast on the roads… The London cyclist.
After a year of cycling pretty much twice a week every week for a year. I have some observations.
I live in South London and my commute by train door-to-door takes about an hour: 15min walk to the station, linger time at the station, ~30min train ride, 15min walk to the office. It might surprise you to hear that my bike ride takes about the same time. Except I am not at the mercy of the timetable or industrial action and I save myself about £30 a week in train fare.
I am at the mercy of the weather though, but surprisingly in the year I have been cycling I have only got drenched once and it has not yet been icy enough to be scary.
If you are a glutton for punishment, I recorded my ride into work once and you can see it here on YouTube:
Using the eBike
The eBike flattens out the hills and makes a head wind tolerable. But it doesn't absolve me of pedalling. The Van Moof is a pedal electric bicycle that only engages the motor when you are pedalling and once it reaches top speed (20 miles per hour on assistance level 4) it turns off.
I can adjust the assistance level which means the motor turns off will turn off at a lower top speed. I like this feature and tend to sit at assistance level 2 so I get a bit more of a workout.
More to say about other eBikes below!
My biggest concern about commuting by bike was the traffic stressing me out. This turned out not to be a thing. The traffic can be a big pain, but really there are only a couple of places on the commute where it gets problematic. The biggest of those is Brixton, where chaos can quickly ensue. Take a look at the ‘Brixton Bus Squeeze’ video here for just a tiny example.
Notice the considerate motor cycle and the impatient moped. Keep this in mind...
While the traffic is tricky through Brixton most days the traffic flows fine and most people on the roads are very considerate.
Another concern was pollution. I don't know if I just don't notice it, but Greater London air quality for the most part seems pretty good. The Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), new hydrogen and electric buses, the rise of electric vehicles in general seems to be doing the job. At least in South London. The London Air Pollution maps seem to bear this out. Central London still seems a bit messy (as of 2016). I wouldn't be surprised to see it has improved given the amount of controls on traffic that are in place now.
The Beasts of the Urban Jungle
As I say most people are very considerate road users. But I have discovered there is a hierarchy of London road users. It goes like this, from best to worst:
Buses tend to try to be considerate to all around them. They don't get the favour returned much however. London drivers are not the most patient when it comes to letting buses pull out.
buses are probably the vehicle on the road that I have had the most altercations with. Usually my fault… Trying to squeeze past a bus while it waits in traffic and bumping a mirror, holding them up by cycling in the bus lane on a busy road (not on purpose!). But almost always the drivers are courteous and understanding. It's quite often that I am giving an apologetic wave to an inconvenienced bus driver. I am glad they seem to be generally very understanding.
Surprised? I was. But London car drivers (at least on my commute) are very aware of their surroundings and considerate to their fellow road users. Mostly. Never a trust a left turning car that has just overtaken you, beware the white van driver side door of doom opening in your path and never undertake. These rules should be in the London cyclists bible.
I mean proper motor bikes, ones where you need a motor cycle license. Motor cyclists are very close behind cars in terms of being courteous road users. I ding them some points because every week there is at least one motorbike that just needs to be the loudest thing on the road. Also… No I am not impressed by your wheelies in traffic, but I am sure the NHS will welcome the organ donation one day.
Honestly, I have no idea why I haven't seen a moped crash. Maybe I am mistaking utter disregard for their's and other road users safety for supreme driving skill. But regardless, the riders on these bikes don't seem to be aware of danger. They split lanes with gay abandon making road pathways where none once were. They weave in and out of slow moving traffic leaning their mopeds in ways that seem to defy physics, like two wheeled wizards they appear out of nowhere in unsuspecting motorists wing mirrors. They clearly haven't read the cyclists bible because they undertake trucks and buses engaging in near miss close encounters with oversized wheels that would be no match for their helmets. Visions of brains popping out like the a pip from a squeezed lemon.
I even saw one happy chap watching video on a phone mounted on the handle bars as he made his merry way through the unforgiving south London rush hour. Clearly some ‘unmissable’ TV. Trying his luck with not ‘unmissable’ road furniture.
But worst of all… They mopeds too often dare to assume they can occupy the ‘rectangle of cyclists sanctuary’ at the front of the queue at traffic lights. This is an unforgivable sin (another thing for that London cycling bible perhaps?).
Today I learnt this is actually called the Advanced Stop Line Area or ASL
My theory as to why mopedists don't take more care of their own safety on the roads is that they have migrated from a car without first going through the rigours and scary education of an actual motor bike license. Instead they utilise the magic of their car licenses to turn a moped into an L-plated death machine. They don't seem to have realised that they no longer have the relative safety of the structure of the car around them. A moped is a little agile car right?
eBikes are massively popular on the London roads and rightly so. They are a revolution for the commuter who fancies getting to work under their own steam but doesn't want to be a professional urban cyclist.
My eBike is a pedal electric bicycle limited to 20mph that doesn't have a throttle. While many of the commuter bikes are the same as mine, a large percentage of other eBikes are not like this. They are basically electric motorcycles that are more battery than bike. They certainly don't come with brakes able to do an emergency stop at the speeds they are capable of. They also they often seem to come with a takeaway delivery rider attached. Add this to the fact that the normal road rules (apparently) don't apply to cyclists (see below) and you have a scary combination that makes for fast moving, silent, heavily laden road missile able to traverse intersections regardless of the colour of the traffic lights.
Now we come to the new craze of motorised scooters or as I like to call them, unregulated disasters-waiting-to-happen. It's not uncommon to see someone with no lights, wearing black on a moonless night, while wearing slip-on sandals, riding a small scooter one handed at 30Mph plus while talking on a phone.The riders obviously have night vision, sadly bus drivers don't.
Scooters come in all shapes and sizes on the road but I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of them technically illegal. I don't really know how some of them can go around 40mph (judging by the speed of other traffic) up hill carrying a fully grown human. All when powering a motor that seems to be wired into a battery no bigger than the one I use in my powered hand drill. Tesla might be on the cutting edge of battery tech, but London scooters appear to be on another level.
I guess they don't pose a massive threat to many other road users apart from a poor unsuspecting pedestrian or just themselves. But spare a thought for the poor bus driver that hears a thump and see's the flash of pair of slip-on sandals disappearing below the front of the bus.
I don't know why pedestrians have a death wish? I am a pedestrian myself quite often and I think I have a healthy respect for the one ton chunks of metal that occupy our roads and could end my existence in a split second.
As the father of a young child I have spent many an hour saying “look both ways”. But for a certain portion of the population this message really doesn't seem to have sunk in. On many occasions I have had to take evasive action to avoid a person who didn't even look one way before stepping onto the road.
Like many things I have witnessed on the roads during my time commuting thus far, if this were a once off I'd chalk it up to an absent minded mistake, but this seems to be a trait that large numbers of pedestrians have. I have no idea how they survive. I mean it's lucky they haven't met that bloke on the moped watching Netflix while delivering takeaways.
What? Cyclists are at the bottom of the list!? Yes. As I hinted at in the introduction, London cyclists are the most dangerous of beasts. Of course I exaggerate for effect, a large portion of my fellow cycling brethren are great and wonderful to occupy the road with, but there is a stand out crowd that let the side down.
For example, did you know that the road rules don't apply to some cyclists? Pedestrian crossings? No need to stop. Traffic lights? A mere suggestion. The other day I saw one chap who was so worried about his health that he wore a very serious mask to protect himself from the fumes when cycling through London's Ultra Low Emission Zone. But his concern didn't stretch as far as worrying getting hit by buses as he sailed through red-lights on the way into Brixton. It's the bus that will kill you quicker mate!
Ok, making a left turn on a red-light to avoid traffic is hardly a hanging offence, but ploughing through busy intersections dodging traffic because you think you have ninja cycle skills and cat like reflexes just really triggers me. Your private medical insurance might be able to fix your broken hip and that rakish limp you'll have for life just adds character. But the mental scaring on the poor driver that hits you and had to watched you pitch over the bonnet of their car is probably harder to fix.
Then there are what I call the “righteous cyclists”. These are the folk that seem to think they are the most righteous road users because they cycle. This species are always waiting for the opportunity to take offence when they are “wronged”, and when they are, well, they let everyone around them know about it. They are usually the same folk who ignore red lights, and go into indignant righteousness mode when a driver dares to honk at them. Of course failing to see the hypocrisy of it all.
I will tell you who is righteous though. Me! I don't see all you lot out there on a cold February morning. No. I see you emerge in May. Yes you, the throngs of fair weather cyclists. To be fair, the weather is the greatest enemy. I am just bloody minded.
There are the folk who “must get past” me, then seem to get a bit annoyed when I catch them up at the lights and overtake them on my heathen eBike. Another version of this is the poor people with clip-in pedals. I know why people have clip-in pedals on their bikes, but in central London they are pretty useless. I am easily amused and its quite fun watching the serious cyclists speed past me (almost all conventional cyclists are faster than me on an eBike), hit a traffic light (these are the cyclists that the rules do apply to), clip out of a pedal, wait at the light while I amble up, can't take off quick enough when the light changes because of clipping in reasons so I pull away, eventually they pass me again, hit a traffic light…
I have discovered that in central London it doesn't matter how fast you travel, your average speed will be around 17mph overall. So relax! Take your time! Watch out for the pedestrian with a death wish.
Another amusement is when someone on a urban rental bike sails past a bunch of lycra clad super serious cycle types. Calves tense, bums lift from seats. This cannot stand! The peloton assembles and chases down the amateur imposter.
I am of course picking out extreme examples here, but these are examples that I have witnessed many times. All this said, most folk are great and nice to share the road with. But trifle with the London cyclist at your peril!
As much as the stories above may seem like a bit of a grizzle, the majority of the time cycling on London roads is way better than I expected it would be and a lot less stress than I expected it would be.
I honestly thought the novelty of cycling to work would wear off with a month or so and my bike would gather dust. But I found quite the opposite. I enjoy my cycle commute. I actually look forward to bumbling along on my bike watching the comings and goings of my fellow fine Londoners. You really feel the the city coming to life as it wakes in the morning on the way in. Then there is the frenzied energy of the home ride rush hour, the energy of people with purpose and places to be, London alive for the night. The novelty hasn't worn off. The eBike has been liberating, fun and easy to enjoy.
I got another puncture today though. I still hate those.