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.
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.
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.