Thursday, March 06, 2008

The London Commuter

There has been a trend in the last few months in that my blog gets consistently more and more hits from Great Britain.

For every thousand hits from the US I get roughly a third of that number from the UK on any given day.

Considering the US has five times the population (Over 300 million compared to 60 million.) I find this both satisfying and surprising.

I am left to wonder are there more cyclists per-capita in Britain? My Stat Counter lists the number of hits from different cities around the world; London is consistently number one.

Therein I think lies a clue; I keep reading how more and more Londoners have switched to the bicycle as their mode of transport to and from work each day. With gas prices around $7 a gallon, plus a fee to drive into the city.

At what point does a person start riding a bicycle out of necessity, then become a bicycle enthusiast to the extent of seeking information on the Internet?

I think of my father who never owned a car, or even learned how to drive; a bicycle was his sole means of transport. It got him to work each day, and to the pub in the evening or weekends. However, he was never a bicycle enthusiast.

Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s I never saw him read anything about bicycles, or talk about them. He never looked at, or showed any interest in my lightweight bike, or asked to ride it.

His bikes were always old and rusty, probably from the 1920s or 1930s. He would lubricate and maintain his bike; buy new tires and brake blocks, and occasionally a new chain.

He never had a new bike, or took it to a bike shop for repair. If something was seriously wrong he would ask around the neighborhood or people he worked with, and someone would give him a bike, or he would buy another, equally as old and rusty for very little money.

He never locked his bike, and I don’t remember him having one stolen; why steal a bike when it had little value and you could get one for free?

He was born in 1910, so all his life it was the norm for a working man to ride a bicycle. Like a man blind from birth, who does not know darkness because he has never experienced light; my father never experienced joy from riding a bicycle or became an enthusiast, because he had experienced nothing else.

Now we have several generations who have never ridden a bicycle past their childhood; never rode to school or to work, and owned a car from the moment they were old enough to drive.

Some forced to ride a bike through economic reasons, or because they can no longer take the congestion or the expense and the frustration of finding a place to park. Public transport also becomes an expense and hassle.

Some start cycling out of necessity and in doing so experience the joy and the freedom of riding a bike. Like the blind man who can see for the first time. Not everyone will experience this; some go back to their cars and public transport.

I started cycling out of necessity and rode my bike to school and later to work. I may have followed in my father’s tire tracks, but I discovered the beauty of the racing bicycle; I wanted to own one and ride one. That is how I became an enthusiast, the bicycle and riding it became a passion.

Only a minority get into the sport this way; I remember out of all my friends at school, only one shared my enthusiasm and got a lightweight bike the same time as I did, but even he did not continue and soon lost interest.

I think this is how most cyclists in the US get into the sport; first, it is the attraction of the equipment, the bike itself, then riding it becomes a passion. Some drop out; some never get past the ownership stage, and actually riding the bike is secondary.

I can’t see any widespread trend of people being forced out of necessity to ride a bike to work in the US anytime soon; except maybe in some of the larger cities. The UK is far more populated than the US, and London especially.

One fifth of America’s population but the whole of Great Britain is an area about the size of California, and with roads never designed to handle the volume of today’s traffic.

Here’s to the British cyclist and in particular the London commuter; may your numbers increase so that motorized traffic may decrease, and may the bicycle continue to give you joy. Lastly, I hope more and more of you find your way here to my blog.

Pictures from


Anonymous said...

For a country so proud of its independence and ingenuity, the dependence on autos is astounding.

It is all about culture, learning about alternatives and making choices even at a young age. My young sons walk or ride their bikes to school everyday and they're virtually alone in doing this. One of my oldest sons has yet to own or drive a car at the age of 25 and lives in TX...obviously cycle dependent.

Yes it's all about oil and perhaps laziness too? Definitely upsetting with many more years of denial to come.

PBA said...

I don't cycle in London, but see many who now do. Good luck to them. When I do go to London you can now see that the number of cyclists on the road is having an effect on the cars (automobiles) and it seems to be safer now than ever. Currently I go to London only about once a week. If I had to go more often I'd definitely think about buying a Brompton folding bike. I'm seeing loads of these on the trains.

There is less and less to be proud of in being British, but I think we probably should be proud of Brompton.

Granted, they are not racing bikes, but they are (mostly) steel.

thefutureofamerica said...

This past summer, I rode with some british friends from Switzerland to London - our goal was to finish the ride at Big Ben, and the British contingent was very apprehensive about riding into the city on a Friday afternoon, even being experienced cyclists who had just covered more than 750 miles in the past week.

But despite their anxiety, we were all surprised at the safety and ease of making the trip in. It was certainly crowded and hectic, but I think driving would have been at least as bad. There were bike/bus lanes nearly everywhere, and the buses were very polite about sharing their space.

We may have gotten some extra respect since the TdF prologue was the following morning, but I wouldn't hesitate to ride a bicycle in London again, despite not knowing my way around and having some difficulty remembering which side of the road to ride on.

Anonymous said...

Britain is slowly starting to increase cycle friendly routes, roads and parking (for example, our local hospital has cycle parking, but all bays are occupied every day, so they need more, but haven't the space yet). However, we are a long way away from Germany and the Netherlands, where cycling to work is much more common and thus facilities much better.

Ron George said...

I see the bright side, that things are definitely changing in the U.S bike wise.

Anonymous said...

Yes Dave, we need more people like your father. That is the truest form of cycling, and I think the most difficult for modern society to appreciate; devoid of romance, lacking advertising opportunity.

I've often pondered the idea of a subsidized repair shop. Only commuting/utilitarian bikes repaired for free or very cut rate. Parts would be extra, maybe some of the essentials like tubes, could also be heavly subsidized. Those with enough free time and cash to race, ect could patronize the 'pro shop'.


Yokota Fritz said...

Great post and background, Dave.

FWIW, about 4% of traffic to my site is from the UK. It used to be higher but I've been focusing more on the US lately.

Caldervale said...

I am a Londoner and commute by bicycle (it's a 1950s Gillott time trial frame with track ends and mudguard eyelets - in case you're interested).

I've been cycling in the city for more than 12 years, and find it surprisingly easy. Admittedly you have to a bit ride defensively and cars don't always act as they ought (I had a nasty accident after a car jumped a red in front of me recently), but for the most part it's a fantastic experience - especially in the mornings gliding past lines of cars and buses backed up for miles.

In fact, without even breaking any red lights, I can cycle to work in less time than it would take me on the tube (subway).

Despite all this, many of my friends and colleagues think I'm crazy to cycle to work, and I'm afraid that's the attitude that most Londoners share. Despite this there are many more cyclists on the streets today than ever before in my memory and also I hope it continues in this direction.

Anonymous said...

I think that aside from the obvious and often quoted benefits of "utility cycling", is that some bike commuters will discover the beauty of the racing bicycle, like you did, and like I did.

I would have never ride a race bike, or ride "seriously", if it weren't for utility cycling.

Simon Bird Building said...

i'm a london commuter.
i'm a contractor and carpenter, my clients used to laugh about their 'cycling builder' i don't get that so much anymore.
every few weeks or so my route changes as a new contract starts -which suits me, variety is the spice of life.
at the moment i'm riding about 10 miles each way, lewisham to barnsbury 35 mins (if i hack it) i had to drive materials up yesterday it took 1.5 hours!!not hard to see why more and more people are cycling.
today it rained -heavily- there were hardly any cyclists out this morning at 8 am -wimps!
were you out there on your gillott this morning william? (i've also got a gillott (1954 road path)much too nice to commute on though.
actually it was a good ride in today despite the rain as there weren't hordes of newbie cyclists wobbling about on their hybrids getting in the way, chickening out half way down the tunnel between two buses and stopping dead right in front of you -bless them. i moan a bit about the reckless wobbly new commuters and the new scooterists but really i'm so glad to see more and more people on two wheels.
i've ridden in london for 18 years or so i started because of poverty but soon got totally hooked, it has definitely got a lot safer riding here, the enforced bus lanes really help but i'm not a fan of cycle lanes and nearly never use them, my bike is a road vehicle goddammit!!!
the secret to safe streets for bikes is attaining a critical mass. if there are enough visible cyclists using main roads then it becomes safer - a self feeding loop.
my response to people's incredulity at my cycling was to say "it's the transport of the future mate!" its getting more true.

incidentally gas here is actually $8 a gallon. a litre of petrol is about £1, a litre equals 2 american pints -one quart (cause yours are smaller than ours -ha ha), a pound equals $2 (oh dear)


Huw said...

Simon, I was out on my Brompton, riding from Waterloo to White City, at 8 am on Friday in the rain. I got soaked! And as I approached work the sky turned blue. It was quite disheartening!

Anonymous said...

Another London commuter here. Always had a car, always had a bike. But my enthusiasm for the one has grown as the other has declined.

I'm sorry to have to tell you a significant number of car drivers here are not at all friendly towards bike riders. Government is applying a great deal of pressure on car drivers, both in terms of cost and convenience, to get them change their ways. As a result drivers often take their resentment and frustration out on cyclists.

For all that, it is true that the number of bike riders in London is growing. A nationally recognized standard of rider training has also been adopted recently, and that will go some way to countering many drivers' perception that cyclists are unfit to use the roads (because untrained, uninsured, mouthy, wearing bright-coloured clothes etc etc).

Anonymous said...

$7 a gallon? Nope - it's nearer to $9 by the time you convert from US to Imperial gallons!

Makes me wonder why anyone drives at all.

Anonymous said...

Living in the British countryside you might think it inconvenient I don't drive however I can cycle to the train station to get anywhere far away and cycle to anywhere close by.

With unleaded petrol currently at around $2.30 a litre the cost of fuel alone makes in uneconomical. That aside the cost of driving lessons, the licence, insurance, servicing, MOTs, road tax etc. is a great deal more than that spent on rail fares. One certainly has more freedom with a car but it's simply not worth it, with a bicycle I can stay fit and have money in the wallet to buy drinks once I've ridden to the pub!