Once again, I find myself commuting each day on a bike. Personally, I’d prefer to walk, but the trip is a bit too long, about twenty minutes on the two wheeler. I’ve commuted every which way in the past, walking, subway, public bus, private bus, even driving here and there. While my time savoring self prefers to be productive, the exercise and perspective I get on the saddle is a fairly cathartic way into and out of the day.
Unwilling to jump head first into the London bike scene, I’m a full time Boris Biker. I avoided purchasing a bike because my living situation doesn’t lend itself to bike storage, but after more than a month I’ve come to appreciate the ubiquity and my freedom to take the bus when the rain invariably arrives. But it’s not that easy. As with any roads, and particularly any bike lane, there’s a definite hierarchy. At the bottom of such a structure are me and the other public bike riders. I’ve separated myself with a helmet, a clear sign that I’m no tourist, but obviously not a pro.
Commuting on a bike in San Francisco was very much the same. I rode throughout populated, high traffic areas of the city, joining the hoards of cyclists heading to and from work. There, although never seeming to be enough, there’s a proper structure of bike lanes. By choosing the right street, these lanes ensure that cars drive slower and even the novice could avoid any direct confrontation with automobiles. Focus, instead, had to be on other riders and not cutting off the messenger bro delivering organic juices.
The difference in London comes mostly from the cars. SF drivers have a far greater propensity to chill and patiently let traffic proceed than aggressive, hurried Londoners. Most of London is always busy. The city has far more people, leading to more cars and busier streets. As should be expected in Europe, traffic is littered with scooters and motorcycles, bikes and buses. The flow takes many shapes and speeds. Out of respect for each others lives, and for each person’s own schedule, everyone has an appreciation for each other. The last thing a bus driver needs is to delay a route by injuring a cyclist.
Beyond those on the road, the structure of London streets makes riding a different beast. Streets aren’t as wide as SF and parking anywhere seems to be more common. It’s a daily occurrence that a street which previously had two wide lanes suddenly turns to one and a half. Traffic does a back and forth, you-go-I-go sort of dance, to keep moving along. As the smallest guy out there, this isn’t the most enjoyable scenario.
But as with riding a bike anywhere, the keys to being the weakest, most vulnerable guy on the street are confidence and respect. It feels easy to always let the cars, buses, and motorbikes go ahead. One brush could be fatal. But uncertainty is the real troublemaker and keeping the pace of traffic is important. Particularly during the morning rush, slowing cars too much can frustrate drivers and compel them to make poor decisions. For instance, take the road pictured below. Two, huge steel beams force cars to slow when approaching the street. Stopped at the light next to an impatient black cab, it can be tempting to wait for the car to pass. But this puts an entire queue of vehicles in a precarious position. While the cab slowly inches through the barrier, bikers stop behind and hope other cars aren’t aggressively pressing forward. As the cab finally proceeds, bikes slowly regain their speed and pass. The efficient process would have bikes going first, and most people know it. As the cyclist, it’s key to be decisive, get in front of the cab before the light turns and make a strong move to head through first.
On the flip side, though, is the bridge I ride over each day. There’s two proper lanes, no parking of course, and not a whole lot of room for bikes. I often find myself waiting for the light just before the bridge, heading home after rush hour has passed and traffic is flowing smoothly. As the light turns, I can rush to the front and take control, quickly carving out the side of the road for my bike. But when there’s just a few cars, especially when traffic is flowing well, my insistence definitely slows the drivers. Instead of capitalizing on a clear bridge, they must split the gap between oncoming traffic and my bike. So I pull to the side, wave the group of cars ahead, before proceeding alone. It’d be faster for me if I just pushed ahead first, and any car would let me do so to avoid an accident. But traffic benefits from my patience and getting passed by cars on a tight bridge is nothing to seek out.
Riding in a city is all about respect. As much as cars and buses give the right of way, bikes and cycles aren’t to exploit the fact. Sometimes, though, strong, confident decisions are needed from the weakest ones on the road. Especially from the weakest ones. Buses and trucks can define what they want to do and that can make a bike ride unbearable. Being pushed up against the rail, hoping a truck doesn’t try to skirt by and brush you by accident, is frightening to say the least. It’s crucial to take control, slow down traffic for a block to keep things moving properly. It might feel like a big delay, but everyone is heading somewhere, even the cyclists.