Winning London

Keep to the left. Keep to the left. This becomes my personal mantra as I take to the streets of London. For merely a pound ($1.60), I have 24-hour access to the Barclay’s Cycle Hire, the London bike share program. If my rentals stay under a half hour, this will be my only fee. I slide my debit card, receive my number, pick a bike, and start the 30-minute timer on my watch. London is mine to explore.

Barclays bicycle.

The bike share system suits my needs perfectly. I am able to easily find a return stand within the half hour on each trip. If I have yet to reach my final destination, I simply return my current bike, check out another, and restart my free 30 minutes. In this way, I spend the day covering much more of the city than would be possible by foot at a cost much less than the London Underground (Tube). My day’s adventures would have consisted of at least 6 separate rides on the Tube. At the cheapest (i.e. non-peak hours), this would cost 12 pounds in total. I suddenly feel much more inclined to treat myself to a Bulmers Cider at the pub.

At the same time, biking London streets is not for the lighthearted. At one point, I find myself surrounded on three sides by double-decker buses – a peninsula sure to fluster the unfamiliar or inexperienced cyclist. Here, confidence is key. Biking these streets is akin to those in New York City. While bike lanes exist, they are inconsistent and frequented by impediments – illegally parked vehicles, reckless drivers, and missing links. While providing a significant adrenaline rush, this cycling ultimately makes me yearn for the protection of a Danish cycle track.

Luckily for those intimidated by cycling in such a fierce environment, London provides plenty of other options, all managed by one umbrella organization. Transport for London (TfL) is responsible for the planning, delivery, and day-to-day operation of London’s public transport system. It manages London’s buses, London Underground, the Docklands Light Railway, London Overground, London Tramlink, London River Services, Victoria Coach Station, the Emirates Air Line, London Transport Museum, London’s Congestion Charging scheme, 580km network of main roads, 6,000 traffic lights, taxi and private hire regulations, and the Barclays Cycle Hire. Every day, around 24 million journeys are made on the TfL network.

As if this was not already an overwhelming task for one overseeing organization, TfL had to then prepare and facilitate transport during the 2012 Olympics. In preparation for the Games, around £6.5bn was invested to upgrade transport links to increase capacity and improve services. Olympic spectators created up to an extra three million journeys each day. Transport for London handled this additional load with astounding success – success that took Londoners by surprise. The impending Games had conjured feelings of coming doom for locals – unending traffic jams, deadlocked roads, buses brimming with people, trains overflowing. Miraculously, this was not the case.

Every spectator to the Olympics was encouraged to use public transport, cycle, or walk. I arrived in London at 7:30 am on Sunday, September 9 – the day of the Paraolympics Closing Ceremony. I staggered off my overnight coach from Edinburgh into Victoria Station.  Minutes later, three friendly – almost overly friendly for my drowsy state – employees of Transport for London greeted me. Good morning, miss! You know, you look a little bit tired today. Can we help you? Where are you trying to go? I was soon outfitted with precise directions to my friend’s apartment, a full map of London, a booklet explaining the time and location of all Olympic-related events, information on public transit, and an additional map designed to encourage walking and cycling from Victoria Station. On this map, concentric circles designated areas within a 5-, 10-, 15- and 20-minute walk with similar concentric circles for cycling distances.

London map.

As impressed as I was by these maps, I would soon find them almost completely unnecessary. Nearly every corner of the city had city maps – both a full-city map as well as a localized map of your current location. These localized maps provided the same concentric circles designating transit times for walking and cycling. Each version of the map included your specific location and orientation (an arrow pointing in the direction you currently faced). With these stands so accessible, I found fewer and fewer reasons to pull out my own personal map.

Transport for London, I commend you. You successfully made one of the largest cities in the world easy to navigate for thousands upon thousands of Olympic spectators. Even though you only allotted a brief 20 minutes to meet with me, I will forgive this oversight as it was in the wake of your Olympic exhaustion. While most believe the fireworks on my first night in London celebrated the 2012 Olympic athletes, I would like to suggest they also celebrated your success (…as well as my arrival to the city). A job well done.

Cheers to you, TfL, the silent victors of the 2012 Olympic Games. [Now, please, protected cycle tracks.]


“We cannot continue to deceive ourselves thinking that to paint a little line on a road is a bike way. A bicycle way that is not safe for an 8-year old is not a bicycle way.” — Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá.



Trouble with Trams

I follow Chris up the stairs, relieved that I didn’t have to make a request to do so. I will never understand why anyone would choose the first level of a double decker bus. We sit on the left side of the aisle. I’m in the window seat. I turn my body to face Chris as she tells me the story of the Edinburgh trams. Two young couples are sitting on the right side of the aisle, directly behind Chris in my line of vision. It becomes increasingly difficult to concentrate on the story as it becomes increasingly clear why these couples have chosen the second level. They are taking full advantage of this “private” public space… Luckily, I find good reason to look away as Chris gestures out the window.

We are navigating through construction, again and again, as we try to make it out of New Town in Edinburgh and towards Tranent, the hometown of my wonderful hosts in Scotland – Chris and Malcolm. Torn down the middle, the streets are being prepared for the addition of a tram network. Had this project gone according to plan, I would be riding the tram two years into existence. As it stands now, the suturing of the pavement has been pushed back to an unknown future date, leaving the innards exposed in this otherwise gorgeous city. The beauty of the adjacent Georgian row houses is certainly tainted when juxtaposed to the orange construction equipment, metal fences, and upturned soil.

The bus lurches around the corner. Unused to riding at this higher elevation, I fear we will tip. I quickly turn to look out the window, half expecting to see the ground rising up to meet us. My eyes meet the landscape. I cannot remember my last thought – I have come face to face with the rugged coast of Scotland. The sun breaks through the clouds, the water glistens, my heart warms. Glaciers have kissed this land, carving out a craggy oasis. I become lost in the beauty through the remainder of the 45-minute ride.

We turn landward and come to a stop. I am reluctant to get off the bus. A short walk brings us to the doorstep of Chris’ house where her husband, Malcolm, meets us. Over a cuppa, Malcolm and Chris continue to explain the tram project. Frustration coats every word. They both questioned the project from the beginning, not understanding why Edinburgh needed trams given the reliability, efficiency, and breadth of the bus system. The timeline of the project has only heightened this distrust, proving to them the stupidity of the idea. I ask why it was ever started. Their mouths open… and close again. Silence. Then Chris says, “Manchester.” Malcolm agrees, “Yeah, they wanted to be like Manchester.”

Just that morning, I had traveled by coach from Manchester after spending a couple of wonderful days visiting family. To catch my 9 am Megabus, I rode the tram from one end of a line to the city center. The tram was efficient, very well used, and particularly livened by the excited chatter of uniformed children returning to school for the first day of fall term. This system has been successful within the context of Manchester. What works in one city cannot necessarily translate to another.

I soon learn that Malcolm and Chris are certainly not alone in their tram evaluation. This word has become synonymous with government inefficiency on the streets of Edinburgh. I would suggest avoiding the subject altogether.  Not taking my own advice, I continue to press for more information on the project. Professor Eric Laurier from the University of Edinburgh provided some background information over our lunch meeting.

The tram idea was birthed in attempt to connect the city center of Edinburgh and the airport by public transit. While commendable in purpose, Professor Laurier believes the easy solution was overlooked in lieu of the grand. The current rail system runs just past the airport and into the city center. A simple link between the two (rail and airport) could have avoided the massive construction efforts necessitated by the tram.

Donald, my guide to the Scottish highlands and co-owner of the Hairy Coo Tour Company, continues the story.  Not only is the project behind schedule but it has also doubled in price yet shortened in track length. Businesses located along the construction have suffered. Getting to a shop just on the other side of the street can require walking multiple blocks out of the way and then looping back to it. I myself couldn’t be bothered to make the extra effort to visit a store that initially peeked my interest. These are the costs of expanding transportation, but what if the new network was never needed?

Donald is a man brimming with Scottish pride. He speaks of now-US Open champion Andy Murray as a son. He can remember every detail of Scottish history with perfect clarity. His tours operate on a “tips only” basis – he wants people of all budgets to experience the Scotland he loves. Yet, he sees this choice of the government to be very misguided. The Lothian bus system – the main provider in the city of Edinburgh – is regarded as the best, and most extensive, in the United Kingdom. It allows access to every part of the city as well as the surrounding suburbs and towns. With such a great system already in place, why expand in such a costly manner?

When I found out how far away my hosts lived from the City Center of Edinburgh, I was a bit disappointed. I thought the commute would be a hassle, taking time away from my precious few days in the city. I was pleasantly surprised to see it become a favorite part of my visit. The ease, and beauty, of the journey transformed a “means to an end” into an experience in and of itself. The Lothian buses serve the people of Edinburgh perfectly. In this context, it is hard to imagine a prospering tram, unless it comes at the cost of the bus system. I don’t know which scenario is worse.

I leave Scotland first and foremost with a newfound love. I fell head over heels for the warmth of the people, the charm of the city, and the beauty of the land. I also leave with an adjusted view on transit expansion. More isn’t always better. Yes, light rail is sexy. But it’s potential in a city must be carefully analyzed before introduction. Its success in a neighboring region is simply not enough to validate the costs.

Globalization can lead to wonderful shared innovation, but it can also rob cities of their individuality. We must be careful to perceive and preserve this uniqueness. Edinburgh deserves to be more than a shadow of Manchester.  It deserves a transit solution designed specifically for its own needs and limitations. Maybe the tram will prove to be exactly this; maybe Lothian buses were already enough.

Denmark is Famous

A few miles into biking the C99, Denmark's first cycling superhighway, from Copenhagen to Albertslund.

New York TimesNational Public RadioHuffington Post. All have recently reported on one of the latest Danish cycling projects: Cycling Superhighways. The first of 26, dubbed the C99, opened last April to connect the town of Albertslund to Copenhagen (22 km). Two more will open this fall. This project necessitated collaboration between the Capitol region of Denmark and 18 municipalities – an impressive organizational feat in and of itself. With all the publicity in the US, the Superhighway became a must-see (or must-ride) on my Copenhagen itinerary.

The goal of the superhighways is to provide an easy route between outlying suburbs and the Copenhagen City Center – a way to promote cycling for those that have a longer commute to work or school. 48% of Copenhagen cyclists say that the main reason they choose the bicycle is that it’s the fastest and easiest way to get around. As such, the focus for increasing trips to work and school by bicycle – currently at 36% and higher than cars, public transit, or walking – is to continue to make travel times competitive with other forms of transportation. When commuting distances are longer, travel time becomes even more important. Too many brief stops, detours, and stretches where overtaking is impossible make travel times much longer. Hence, the need for the development of “superhighways.”

LED lights allow for adjustable bike lanes.

Biking the C99 was quite a pleasure, allowing me to experience the project for myself as well as visit new areas of Greater Copenhagen. However, it was not something entirely new. Rather than paving a new “freeway” for cyclists, the project rests on improved integration of existing tracks, with the addition of some necessary connectors, and implementation of new technologies such as Intelligent Traffic System, Green Wave, and detecting groups of cyclists and prioritizing them at intersections. Green Wave technology times lights so cyclists biking at an average speed will not have to stop. Intelligent Traffic System transforms the street from being static to dynamic by using LED light in the asphalt to signal which transport form has priority and when. For example, cycle tracks can be widened into the sidewalk during rush hour to accommodate increased bikers. In total, the project is holistic in nature, even incorporating partnerships with companies to improve facilities for employees choosing to bike to work.

Footrests and handrails along the superhighway.

The superhighways are a perfect example of Denmark’s three pronged approach to promoting cycling, as described to me by Secretariat of the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, Mai-Britt Kristenson: infrastructure, campaigns, and appreciation. According to the Embassy, one cannot establish a cycling culture without a combination of the three. Firstly, the infrastructure allows cycling to become a viable option. Secondly, campaigns like the Danish Bike to School and Bike to Work promote and inform residents about cycling in Copenhagen. And thirdly, small additions like footrests and handrails – allowing cyclists to stay mounted on bikes while waiting for the light to change – are a way to say “thank you for cycling,” sending the message that cyclists are part of a group that matters.

The superhighways are just one way that Denmark, and Copenhagen in particular, is working to establish itself as the leader in urban cycling. While cycling policies should be created unique to a region and city, Copenhagen and Denmark can provide inspiration to other policymakers. In fact, cities such as Chicago, San Francisco and Portland have all visited Copenhagen this summer for such inspiration. While I am often blinded by the huge lead countries like Denmark have in cycling, Mai-Britt reminded me of the unique role for the US. As the iconic car-centric nation, our transition to biking can be extremely powerful to other car-centric counties. If the United States can become bike-friendly, any country can. We can become a leader in our own right.

“Cycling is not a goal in itself but rather a highly prioritized political tool for creating a more livable city.” –Ayfer Baykal, Mayor of Technical and Environmental Administration, Copenhagen

For more information about cycling in Copenhagen, please visit