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Cycling in London

I told ewtikins I'd make some notes of the stuff I've been telling people (notably uon) about learning to ride a bike in London. And then it got too long to be a comment really so I put it here.


  • Check your brakes. Practise emergency stops in the park or similar before you go on the roads (the important thing is that if you slam the brakes on you will tend to go forwards; you need to learn to compensate for this when stopping. It's pretty straightforward in fact, but having a go at it before you actually need it is a Good Thing.).
  • If you are ever going to cycle in the dark, have working lights and use them.
  • Read the Highway Code. Cyclecraft is also a useful read.
  • The rules of the road do also apply to cyclists. In particular: stopping at red lights, and not riding on the pavement (unless it's a designated cycle lane: see below).

Don't ride in the gutter

It will feel initially more scary, but it is much much safer to ride well out from the kerb. (I usually ride about a metre out, a bit less on narrower roads.). Reasons for this, in no particular order:

  • Cars will in general give you the same amount of space that you give yourself. So if you are a foot from the kerb, they'll overtake with a foot to spare between them & you. If you're 3 feet out, they'll give you more like 3 feet of space. Which is Better.
  • Gives you a safety zone of space to move into if something bad happens.
  • Car drivers are concentrating their attention, broadly, on the bit of the road where they expect to see traffic (i.e. where the other cars are). If you're at the side of the road you are less likely to get noticed & more likely to be coded as "street furniture". Cycling where the cars go (about where the LH side of the cars go, is about right) means that you get treated as traffic. This is also safer.
  • Gutters are where broken glass collects. Tyres do not like broken glass. Also there are bumpy bits of road & drains & other things that will send you off course.
  • Pedestrians have a bad tendency to wander into the road at a moment's notice, or wave their arms around or whatever. Stay clear of 'em.

In fact, the general rule is that if you behave like traffic, you are more likely to get treated like traffic. Note: keeping out from the side of the road is particularly important when passing parked cars. You must be *at least* car door width out, otherwise some idiot will open a door into you. Further note: some cycle lanes are ludicrously narrow & would have you in the gutter. Ignore them.

Mirror, Signal, (mirror again), Manoeuvre

I got taught this when learning to drive. Obviously bikes do not have mirrors (well, they can do but I certainly don't). So substitute "look over appropriate shoulder". Leave plenty of time before you want to do whatever it is you are doing. Check over your shoulder (to ensure that there's not a lorry behind you which is about to take your arm off). Signal *clearly*. Just before actually executing the manoeuvre, check over your shoulder again (this is v important! Motorcyclists call it "the lifesaver", esp when turning right). Then move.


  • Don't signal until & unless you really are ready to move, or you'll confuse people.
  • It is however fine (& indeed correct) to delay your manoeuvre if you check over your shoulder & it transpires that it will be unsafe.
  • Don't bother with the official slowing-down signal, no one knows it & it'll confuse people (just indicate L if you're going to stop at the kerb, & allow plenty of time to slow down if there's anyone behind you.).


(undertaking = overtaking on the inside i.e. the left). The Official Advice on this is "don't do it", however, that's a bit unrealistic. Do it with great caution, & only when there's plenty of space. Be wary for people opening car doors, pedestrians wandering between cars without looking, other cars turning across traffic queues without expecting you to be there.

DO NOT UNDERTAKE LONG VEHICLES. This is the biggest single cause of cyclist deaths in London. They may not be able to see you, and if they turn left or move inwards you wind up very very squished. In particular: do not stop alongside a long vehicle. Ahead of it or behind it, but not alongside it.

Cycle lanes & other facilities

These are not compulsory. If you think that sticking to the road would be safer/quicker/more convenient/whatever, then you are 100% entitled to do so.

Useful cycle facilities: bus lanes (nice & wide, occupied only by buses, bikes, taxis, & the occasional naughty motorbike; but do be aware that buses will stop frequently and you may wish to overtake[0]); Advanced Stop Lines (those bike boxes at traffic light junctions so you can wait ahead of the traffic. Not always respected by traffic; in this case it is IMO acceptable to take yourself ahead of the ASL & stop right in front of the car at fault.); cycle lanes in parks if you fancy a nice gentle pootle; some cycle lanes which allow you to go the wrong way up one-way roads; some very few well-designed cycle lanes.

Useless-to-bad cycle facilities: the vast majority of cycle lanes. Which are overwhelmingly too narrow, stop/start at random, are full of crap & broken glass, encourage dangerous undertaking, etc etc. Avoid bike lanes on pavements if at all possible unless you enjoy pedestrian-slalom (pedestrians, sadly, are fitted with neither indicators nor brake lights). Be aware that cycle lanes may stop very suddenly & spit you back into traffic (see: Upper Thames St, among others). Use your judgement & if in doubt stick with the traffic.

(I also have a whole rant about the abstract concept of cycle lanes & why it sucks[1]. But I shall leave that for now.)

Pay attention & think ahead

The correct assumption is not *quite* that everyone else on the roads is a dangerous moron, but you should expect people to do daft things & prepare accordingly. Keep your eyes open not only for what *is* going on, but for what might happen next (is that car going to pull out of that side street? etc). Catching the eye of drivers is a good way to make sure they've seen you (avoid the Sorry Mate I Didn't See You accident). Mostly this is road awareness & is something acquired by experience, but you'll pick it up quicker if you're aware that you *want* to acquire it.

As suggested below by mr_tom: good positioning is better than swerving. Look ahead and think about where you're going to want to be and what might happen in the meantime, and position yourself accordingly. It's better to move across the lane early & smoothly to go round an obstacle than to come up right behind it & have to turn sharply and slowly.


This is not so much a safety thing but an enjoyment thing. People will occasionally do stupid things. (Sometimes those people will be you). Try not to get worked up about it. Swear; compose brief but scathing letters to the press in your head; and then let it roll off you & think about what's happening next.[2] See above re thinking ahead - this helps make things irritating rather than dangerous. But if you spend half your time fuming about bad behaviour, you won't enjoy the riding, & that's far more of a shame.

Other things

  • Get a decent lock; ideally 2, of different types (e.g. D-lock & cable lock). Always lock frame + both wheels to something solid when leaving your bike on the street.
  • Join the LCC - you get free 3rd party insurance and legal cover, and a nice green sticker. Plus they do cheap bike theft insurance if you want that.
  • Get the appropriate London Cycle Guide maps (free from bike shops), as they are v useful.
  • Consider learning to fix a puncture; although the maps mentioned above show where bike shops are.
  • Helmets: some do, some don't. I don't. http://www.cyclehelmets.org/ may be of interest; make your own mind up. If you do, buy one that fits well & do it up properly or there really is no point in bothering.

Final notes

If in doubt, feel free to stop, get off, & push for a bit. (e.g. at confusing junctions). There's nothing wrong with doing that. OTOH: try to work out what you *should* be doing at the confusing junction so you can give it a go next time, because otherwise you'll never manage it :-)

[0] If you're right behind the bus, you may be safer over towards its RH side, so you can see round it as it slows/stops. If you're a ways behind it, stay in the normal riding position but keep an eye on it, and if it indicates left and/or starts to slow, check over your shoulder and pull out to the right (sufficient to pass the bus) well in advance. You want to avoid coming to a stop right behind it and having to edge out into the traffic.
[1] Quick summary: it encourages drivers to see cyclists as a non-traffic nuisance, & we already *have* a perfectly good network of cycle routes which are called ROADS.
[2] The possible exception to this is commercial drivers where you may wish to note their company & reg no & write to the company complaining if they've been particularly bad (unfortunately I rarely do this because I've got too good at forgetting about incidents).

Comments welcome.


( 65 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 1st, 2007 10:32 am (UTC)
Also: canal towpaths are not cycle lanes, just pavements that you are allowed to ride on *if you have registered*. I can't remember where the guidelines are but its somewhere on the Thames Waterways site.
May. 1st, 2007 10:35 am (UTC)

(IIRC you don't actually have to do anything with it, just download it & have it about your person.)
(no subject) - catsgomiaow - May. 1st, 2007 10:40 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - julietk - May. 1st, 2007 10:47 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mrs_leroy_brown - May. 1st, 2007 10:39 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hatmandu - May. 1st, 2007 10:55 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - katstevens - May. 1st, 2007 11:08 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mrs_leroy_brown - May. 1st, 2007 11:13 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 1st, 2007 10:47 am (UTC)
This is fantastic and I may point other people at it -- is that okay?

I do however want to ask about one bit:

we already *have* a perfectly good network of cycle routes which are called ROADS

What do you think should be done about the difference in speed between cars and (most) cyclists? Assuming all cyclists behaved like traffic (ignored the cycle lane, cycled in the middle of the road) then are you saying that cars should just put up with it & drive at 15mph (fairly inefficient & thus environmentally unsound), or should cyclists only be allowed on the roads if they're willing/able to cycle at, say, at least 20mph? (e.g. you wouldn't pass your driving test if you weren't willing to exceed 15mph, so perhaps the same thing could be done with a cycle test?) Or do you just think that cars should be abolished, full stop?

Similar point, but I think slightly different: round here I see quite a lot of OAPs using shared-pavement-style cycle lanes, cycling very slowly and cautiously. Do you think they should use the road? Or not cycle at all? (If fit and healthy 20something cyclists campaigned successfully to get cycle lanes removed, the doddery old people would presumably have to take one of those two options.)

NB If these are stupid questions with obvious Right Answers, please don't flame me! I have thought about it, but if the Right Answers are obvious then I'm obviously a bit dim because I can't see them. Sorry. :-/
May. 1st, 2007 10:56 am (UTC)
Sure, go ahead.

I think that cars should put up with having to go a bit slower until they can overtake the slower-moving cyclist safely. The length of time this may cause them minor inconvenience will vary according to road conditions (nice wide road = v little time; road with only just 2 cars width & heavy traffic in both directions = more time; single-track road in country = until passing place occurs) but IME it's never really that long to have to wait. And in a lot of cases it's very similar to what might happen if the driver encounters another engine-based thing (bus/lorry stopping; traffic in other direction on narrow road; someone turning right; etc).

As far as slower cyclists go: I think that they should be OK to use the roads as well. The argument runs that if there are more cyclists using the roads, of all sorts of abilities, then sharing the road with them becomes more of a habit & it all gets safer (at this point it is customary to discuss cycling habits on the Continent :-) ). The more off-road cycle lanes there are, the more drivers think that cyclists *shouldn't* be on the roads, and the less polite they are to those who are on the roads (so more people get off the roads so...). I also think that cycle training should be much much more available for adults. A lot of cycle lanes (especially the pavement ones) are actively dangerous because drivers don't expect them, pull across them, etc.

I'm not sure I would necessarily *remove* existing cycle lanes; I am however very concerned about what happens when councils say "We will provide cycle facilities!" and then provide crap ones.

What I really want is for roads to be *shared*, is what I am saying.
(no subject) - julietk - May. 1st, 2007 10:59 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hatter - May. 1st, 2007 11:48 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - julietk - May. 1st, 2007 11:51 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hatter - May. 1st, 2007 11:56 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thekumquat - May. 1st, 2007 11:33 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lnr - May. 1st, 2007 11:54 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lnr - May. 1st, 2007 11:55 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - julietk - May. 1st, 2007 12:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thekumquat - May. 1st, 2007 03:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 1st, 2007 11:00 am (UTC)
Assuming all cyclists behaved like traffic (ignored the cycle lane, cycled in the middle of the road) then are you saying that cars should just put up with it & drive at 15mph (fairly inefficient & thus environmentally unsound), or should cyclists only be allowed on the roads if they're willing/able to cycle at, say, at least 20mph?

A false dichotomy, I think. It isn't possible to keep up an average speed of 20mph in traffic, even for the fastest cyclists, because stopping for lights and just generally existing in traffic etc. slows you down. But on the other hand, you don't have to take the lane at all times, and I don't think that's what J is suggesting. In practice, there's a happy medium where you take the lane where it is advisable (say, to stop a larger vehicle overtaking you when you are about to approach a narrowing point in the road where the larger vehicle will forget how fast you're going and may leave you without appropriate decelaration time as they inevitably slow for it - just one example) but stay 3 feet out from the kerb at other times, leaving plenty of room for cars to overtake if they wish and plenty of room not to get run into the gutter. It's not such a blatant either-or choice, I think you'll find.

I'm not quite as anti-cycle-lane as J seems to be, although I agree with her that there are very real dangers associated with them.
(no subject) - julietk - May. 1st, 2007 11:13 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 1st, 2007 11:03 am (UTC)
I expect you've seen the slightly heated discussions on this here (not f-locked - yet!). I take Juliet's point abouts about cycle paths, and most earnest cyclists use roads as well, for sure. But I agree with you that wanting rid of them altogether is unrealistic - and wouldn't help the elderly, nervous or indeed anyone who sometimes just wants a break from the fumes, stress and potential speed (though not much of that in London, maybe).

Incidentally, if anyone is still hot under the collar about the proposed (and likely) changes to the Highway Code that suggest cycle lanes should be used wherever possible - this is advisory and in no way compulsory, so doesn't really make much difference (unless the police got involved in an incident, I suppose).

None of this changes the fact that a helluva lot of cycle lanes are indeed bloody awful, and have faults uniquely their own.
(no subject) - julietk - May. 1st, 2007 11:08 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hatmandu - May. 1st, 2007 11:15 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - julietk - May. 1st, 2007 11:16 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hatmandu - May. 1st, 2007 11:22 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lnr - May. 1st, 2007 11:34 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lnr - May. 1st, 2007 11:35 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lnr - May. 1st, 2007 11:36 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 1st, 2007 11:04 am (UTC)
NB: I do not advocate riding in the middle of the lane, because I do think that drivers should be able to overtake cyclists where they can do so safely. Riding about where the left wing of a car would be if you were a car means that overtaking is entirely possible. (I'll ride a little further towards the pavement on wider roads ).

The exception to this is where it is clearly too narrow for a car to overtake me safely (e.g. coming up to a pinch-point, or otherwise somewhere that's barely car+bike width), because some people *will* try to overtake, or will overtake & cut in too sharply. At that point I'll move right into the middle of the lane to discourage them attempting that, until the dangerous bit is over when I'll move left again.
May. 1st, 2007 11:20 am (UTC)
Note that the subject says "in London", where frequently drivers would give their right arm to achieve the dizzying speeds like 15mph...

My approach, personally, is that if I can safely ride far enough to the left to let other road users overtake, I will: it's polite, it's sensible[1], it's good karma, etc... But if I can't do that, I won't, and at that point I'll try to occupy enough of the road that they don't try to squeeze past.

Roads have to deal with combine harvesters, Lamborghinis, Chris Boardman, and old ladies cycling to church. It saddens me when people from any of those groups start treating any other group as the enemy, and every interaction as a confrontation. But then I appear to be a big hippy.

Oddly enough, when I get far more annoyed (though probably no more reasonably so) by slow pavement-users when I am on foot than I ever did with slow road-users when I used to drive. What does that say about me?

[1] If you piss people off, they're more likely to do something stupid.
(no subject) - julietk - May. 1st, 2007 11:52 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jhg - May. 1st, 2007 03:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 1st, 2007 10:55 am (UTC)
I thought of you today as there's a fixie article in the New York Times - had you heard about it?
May. 1st, 2007 11:07 am (UTC)
This is all really good, thanks!

do be aware that buses will stop frequently & stay on the RH side of the lane

Bracketing error :)

some cycle lanes which allow you to go the wrong way up one-way roads;

Yesbut: with some of them (eg Newton Street right beside the Princess Louise) pedestrians on the streets that you enter these lanes from from tend to only look in the direction of the incoming cars, rather than the cycles.

The correct assumption is not *quite* that everyone else on the roads is a dangerous moron, but you should expect people to do daft things & prepare accordingly.

This of course extends to other cyclists - I had to wean myself off thinking "That person is doing X and going faster than me: I should be doing X"
May. 1st, 2007 11:09 am (UTC)
> pedestrians on the streets that you enter these lanes from from tend to only look in the direction of the incoming cars, rather than the cycles.

That is what a BELL is for. Ding!
(no subject) - braisedbywolves - May. 1st, 2007 11:14 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - julietk - May. 1st, 2007 11:11 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hatmandu - May. 1st, 2007 11:18 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 1st, 2007 11:28 am (UTC)
vg, have a gold star.


* Buy a good lock and use it. Insurance helps, too.
* Don't be afraid to break the rules if it's the right thing to do.
* Assume they haven't seen you, and even if they have, they don't care if you die.
* Carry the tools you need to fix a puncture or know where the bike shops are.
* Large vehicles drifting right are probably about to turn left.
* Good positioning is better than swerving.
May. 1st, 2007 11:35 am (UTC)
know where the bike shops are

On that theme:

* get hold of the excellent London cycling maps, which show where shops are. In a previous job my missus coloured in the parks, you know.
* don't trust to the blue cycle route signs on the streets - they often peter out, or get redirected
* use the parks - not all paths allow bikes, but you can often cut off corners on those that do
(no subject) - braisedbywolves - May. 1st, 2007 11:45 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - julietk - May. 1st, 2007 11:49 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 1st, 2007 01:34 pm (UTC)
Would this also be a good place to put links to the pros and cons of helmet-wearing? I know you and (e.g.) braisedbywolves have extremely opposing views on this, and I am NOT advocating having an argument about it here, but it might be worth mentioning for completeness?
May. 1st, 2007 03:54 pm (UTC)
Extremely opposing views might be a bit strong - I wear one because not wearing one would make me feel unsafe, which would make me more unsafe, and Juliet didn't show me anything to convince me otherwise. But I'm perfectly happy for her to wear one!
(no subject) - hatmandu - May. 1st, 2007 04:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - julietk - May. 1st, 2007 06:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - steer - May. 4th, 2007 02:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peshwengi - May. 5th, 2007 05:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - steer - May. 7th, 2007 08:52 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 1st, 2007 05:54 pm (UTC)
I would recommend getting something to make a loud noise fitted to your bike. It mostly comes in handy when you want to stop pedestrians wandering into the cycle lane in front of you.

I do tend to filter at traffic lights and get to the front any way I can. The one accident I have had was when I was doing this and a car jumped the lights, just before it went red, and turned left right in front of me, all on a downhill slope. The new bike stops so much quicker, it is worth the money just for that.

I have now tried cycling in both directions and you are right going down Streatham Hill into Brixton towards Waterloo is much better than the reverse journey. Mind you the number of lights and buses meant I couldn’t get up that much speed.
May. 1st, 2007 07:01 pm (UTC)
The loud noise making thing I have fitted to my bike is ME!
May. 2nd, 2007 05:14 am (UTC)
I must admit I quite like London's network of cycle paths and not-quite-cycle-paths. No way on earth I would ride down Upper Street, Pentonville Road to work but there's lovely network of roads signed for cycling which have so many people using them with bikes there are bike jams at rush hour... Unfortunately the good network of cycle lanes by bloomsbury is permanently being dug up and I've not been able to use them all yet.
May. 2nd, 2007 08:55 am (UTC)
I like the roads-signed-for-cycling! It's segregated cycle paths, in particular when shared with pedestrians, & insufficient cycle lanes/paths/facilities (too narrow, too short, starting & stopping at random, etc etc; which are overwhelmingly IME the variety that actually exist :-\ ) that I object to.

I'm not convinced on the Bloomsbury cycle lanes IIRC, but I haven't ridden them in a while so can't be sure.
(no subject) - steer - May. 2nd, 2007 09:14 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - julietk - May. 2nd, 2007 10:05 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - steer - May. 2nd, 2007 09:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - uon - May. 3rd, 2007 10:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - steer - May. 4th, 2007 02:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 18th, 2007 07:26 am (UTC)
If you are ever going to cycle in the dark, have working lights and use them.

I would also highly recommend either the high-vis belts or a full high-vis jacket. They make you far more noticeable than rear lights, they just glow so well. I started wearing a high-vis jacket about 7 months ago, and almost instantly cars were giving me an extra foot or so of room, partly because they think you might be a copper on a bike. This is however, in Bath, not London.
May. 18th, 2007 10:04 am (UTC)
Just saw this linked in ewtikins journal.

Excellent bit of work, well done!
May. 22nd, 2007 11:21 am (UTC)
Thank you!
Mar. 18th, 2008 01:28 am (UTC)
Hello all I'm new here !
Just wanted to say Hello to everyone.
Much to read and learn here, I'm sure I will enjoy !
May. 6th, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC)
Looks like excellent advice to me - I'm in the process of learning to ride so will bear all this in mind.
May. 10th, 2010 02:11 pm (UTC)
glad it seems helpful -- & good luck with the learning to ride! awesome :)
( 65 comments — Leave a comment )

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