Cycle commuting in London for terrified beginners
February 9, 2016 2:08 AM   Subscribe

On a whim I signed up for Southwark council's cycle scheme where for £10 I get a bike and all accessories for 4 weeks. I'm picking the bike up this afternoon. However, I've never cycled in traffic, and haven't actually cycled for two years. Help?

The reason I've never cycled in London, not even a Boris Bike, is because a good friend came as close to death as you can get after being run over by a lorry. He's fine now, but that plus a good clutch of friends with broken limbs meant that I was very much never getting on a bike in London. Then suddenly, with all the vim of new years resolutions, I'm doing this.

The plan is to use the bike to commute to work (Brockley to Denmark Hill) and to get around my area more efficiently. I've plotted a route from my place to my work using the TFL bike planner and have chosen the easy route that looks straightforward enough (if a little convoluted). I'm revising the highway code now. However, I'm not the fittest person ever (though a lot fitter than I used to be), and have a terrible sense of direction.
My question is what do I need to know that the highway code won't tell me? How do I cope with cycling in traffic? The council will give me a lesson I think, but I need to get the bike home today - so what do I need to know?
posted by litereally to Travel & Transportation around London, England (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Hello! I cycled in London daily for about two and a half years. Once I'd planned a largely off-main road route and got used to seeing the warning signs for people doing stupid things, it actually became the part of my life in London I liked the most. I cycled from Herne Hill to Farringdon during that time and did it mostly on back roads and park paths.

I'd strongly advise you stay off main roads entirely if you have the option - it makes cycling waaaay less stressful and usually actually faster, since you're not weaving around traffic and slowing down/speeding up all the time. You do need to be more aware of things like people opening car doors suddenly, but you will quickly learn to spot the signs of that (car rear lights on, interior lights on and so on). London Cyclestreets has a great planner that lets you define 'quietest streets' as an option, it's great for finding routes you'd otherwise not think of. Here's a sample route.

I'd also advise you strongly not to cringe in the gutter - you use the road by right and you are a vehicle like any other when you're on a bike - get at least a metre from the kerb if you can at all times, make predictable movements and clear hand signals and position yourself so you can see the wing mirrors of vehicles in front of you, especially lorries and buses. Never try to overtake them on the left, that is incredibly dangerous - if they turn suddenly you will be completely stuffed. If you feel at all unsure about pulling out and overtaking on the outside, just chill out behind the vehicle and wait for it to turn off or stop somewhere you can overtake.

Honestly, probably the scariest thing you are likely to encounter on London's roads is arsehole drivers who just intensely dislike cyclists and will scream at you out of their window for daring to use road space. The first time this happened to me it really shook me up, but I soon developed a thicker skin and flipped the next two guys (always guys) to scream at me off. It only happened three times in the time I lived in London and it was always some dickhead in a white van who was used to using my quiet little route as a rat run and took great exception to me being in his way.

Definitely take up the free cycle training available in London from TfL. Most of the borough councils offer similar schemes. Get a high-vis jacket. There is a whole debate in cycling circles about visibility, wearing helmets etc, but if wearing bright stuff and wearing a helmet makes you feel safer, go for it. You will soon gain confidence and figure out what works for you.

Good luck! Cycling in London made living there bearable for me again, after three years of tube and overland rail that I absolutely hated. I hope it does the same for you.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:50 AM on February 9, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Also, just noticed your concern about navigation. You will get lost the first time you cycle, especially if using back streets. If you have a smartphone, you can plot your proposed route on Google Maps (search for 'My Maps') and then store it on your phone so you can double check your route. I did the pre-smartphone equivalent of that back in 2005 (i.e. printing out a map) and it worked fine, but I still got lost the first time.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:52 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to cycle in London, albeit a few years ago, and have ridden in Edinburgh more recently. My number one tip for city riding is that cowardice is your friend: Don't be afraid to get off the bike and cross big junctions like a pedestrian. There are no points awarded for riding through them if they are awful/dangerous/frightening.

That said, when you are riding, you need to switch from cowardice to conviction, so that you can own your little bit of the road, and so that other road users know what you're up to. Being tentative can be confusing for others, so if in doubt, stop and take stock for a moment.
posted by penguin pie at 2:54 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Plot your route & try it out at a quiet time *before* you start commuting to work so that you don’t have the additional stress of trying to navigate under time pressure in heavy traffic.
posted by pharm at 2:59 AM on February 9, 2016

Response by poster: Happy Dave, thank you so much, that was exactly the kind of thing I needed. I'm feeling a lot better and in fact now excited about my commute tomorrow morning! I also looked up getting back tonight, looks like two thirds of it is either park paths followed by a towpath until I reach roads I know. I also just remembered I got a hi-vis jacket as a freebie from a conference.
Thanks everyone!
posted by litereally at 3:53 AM on February 9, 2016

Really work on learning to look over your shoulder (traffic-side shoulder especially) while cycling in a straight line. I think it's the most important skill for cycling in traffic. Practice while you're on the cycle paths. At first it will feel impossible and at some point you'll realize it's easy.
posted by mskyle at 4:05 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When cars are waiting to pull out from a side-junction, try and make eye-contact with the driver. That lets you know they've (probably) seen you and (probably) won't pull out in front of you.

If you're overtaking a queue of cars where there's no cycle lane, overtake on the right - drivers expect vehicles to overtake them on that side, but not on the inside. Even if there is a cycle lane, keep your eyes peeled for cars indicating left, they may not bother to check their mirror before they turn.

Seconding above comment RE: HGVs, buses, etc. NEVER go on the left of these vehicles. NEVER. HGVs make up a tiny proportion of all vehicles but a huge proportion of cyclist fatalities.

The over-the-shoulder look mentioned above is important - whenever you're approaching a left-hand side road, check for anything approaching from behind that might turn left. Cars will sometimes underestimate your speed/overestimate their ability to get ahead of you and turn in front of you.

I don't know what accessories they give you, but please use more than one tiny light front and back. I see a lot of people using none at all in the dark(!) or one tiny flashing light that's partially hidden by a long coat or something. This time of year you need a couple of bright lights each end (pref one flashing and one steady) - you can pick up some cheapo ones for now and invest in better ones* if/when you decide to continue biking.
Good luck & hope you have fun!

*I really like these because you can unscrew the end and stick it into a USB socket to charge it.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:15 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This looks totally doable. It's not crazy far and you are not going near the city centre. (I am a seasoned urban cyclist but after a few trips through Central London I am in the firm Never Again camp. I will only cycle in London if I am away from the centre. That's a totally reasonable position to take.)

One of the biggest challenges for me was not getting lost. You probably want to be on secondary roads but in London you never go straight for very long. I wrote out little mini-maps that I kept in my coat pocket and I wound up referring to them often. Make sure they account for the possibility of missing a turn. Bear in mind after work it will likely be dark. Landmarks are useful. Look for big churches, parks, train stations, train tracks etc and write them on the map.

If you ever get totally lost, here is a trick I learned in London: TV satellite dishes on people's homes usually point south. (Because England is a northern country!)

When cycling in traffic there are times when you should stay towards the edge of the road, and times when you should be in the middle of the lane. If there is not enough width for a vehicle to pass you without squishing you, you should be in the middle of the lane so that they don't even try it. I do this most of the time. If the lane is wide and traffic is moving quickly it's better to be to the side. If traffic is moving quickly and the lane is narrow it is better to not be on that road at all!

Regardless of where in the lane you are, keep a straight line path as best you can. It can be tempting to cut towards the curb for a while if space opens up - if there are gaps in parked cars for example - but that will cause trouble when you need to merge back in further along. Don't weave back and forth, be straight and predictable.

Do not wear headphones, you need your ears free to hear vehicles!

Be very cautious when passing stopped vehicles. The second they start moving, merge in. This is a rule of thumb I swear by -- never pass a moving vehicle on a bike.

Good luck and enjoy. It is a great feeling being in the city on a bike.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:23 AM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'd also advise you strongly not to cringe in the gutter - you use the road by right and you are a vehicle like any other when you're on a bike - get at least a metre from the kerb if you can at all times, make predictable movements and clear hand signals

Strong agree from me.

I biked in Copenhagen for 12 years and was shocked when I started biking in Glasgow traffic. UK drivers are arses when it comes to dealing with people on bikes.

+ Do not apologise for being on a bike with your body language. Be a brick with a solid width between yourself and the kerb. Make the other vehicles on the road take notice.

+ Wear a goddamn helmet. I don't care how cool it looks riding without a helmet. When you're on the road with arsehole drivers and other cyclists of variable experience, a helmet is a must.

+ Do not stop in the middle of a flow if you are unsure of where you are. Wait until you hit the lights or can turn a corner. Cyclists stopping in the middle of a flow can be deadly (I saw this turn into near-catastrophe in Copenhagen - it'd be even worse somewhere like London).

+ Keep an eye on pedestrians with smart phones. They'll happily walk out in front you because you are not noisy like a car.

+ Practice in parks or walk paths until you gain a bit of confidence. Make sure you can use one hand to signal without dangerous swerving (and the look over your shoulder bit is essential too).

+ Expect the worst from drivers. Friends of mine have been pelted with eggs (surprisingly painful when hurled from a car travelling at speed), chips and empty food containers. Also expect verbal abuse. Ignore and don't answer back. Some drivers are incredibly hostile because they have to share 'their' road.

+ I'm not a big fan of hi-vis clothing (I think it makes people complacent - both drivers and cyclists), but I'd urge you to get hi-vis strips you can use on your legs and arms. Good in fog & rain.

+ Finally, just enjoy yourself. You'll begin to inhabit your city in a new way and biking lends you fantastic freedom. Yay!
posted by kariebookish at 5:57 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

They will probably cover this in the TfL course and it might even be in the Highway Code; when turning right on to a side road it's OK to wait on the left rather than in the middle of the road. It's also OK to stop, get off the bike and use a pedestrian crossing. Sitting in the middle of the road with traffic passing on either side of you is not fun and you have to be able to confidently get across quickly when there is a gap.

Change up gears as you pull up to the lights, or any other stop, so that you can start off in a low gear. Bicycles can out accelerate cars up to 20-30 miles an hour, but starting off is the most tricky bit as balancing is more difficult when you are traveling slowly.

Back lights are more important than front lights for visibility on the roads, so get at least two of each.

If you get into cycling then getting the bike ergonomically adjusted to your body shape is really worth doing. You will also benefit from waterproof cycling over trousers and a jacket. When you need them you will be glad to have them!

Lastly, if you are on the towpath be careful when passing other cyclists or anyone else using the towpath. Going into the canal is not fun! I saw a guy go off the path after swerving around some cyclists who were going in the other direction, he went across the grass and then got his front wheel stuck in the kerb at the edge of the canal. He teetered for a second and then went in, pulling his bike in after him as he didn't let go of the handle bars. Luckily he was opposite the pop-up bar I was in, which was having it's locally produced gin delivered by canal at the time (yes it was in Hackney Marshes). They scooted across in their boat and he was pulled out, then he went back in for his bike, which was pulled out, then he went back in for his phone, which he couldn't find. If he had been on his own I don't know how he would have got out.
posted by asok at 7:04 AM on February 9, 2016

I cycle to work once a week - from Surbiton to the south side of the City.

It looks like you should have a relatively nice ride. As previously mentioned, both and Google Maps are good for navigation. If you like you can get a handlebar mount for your phone which can help with navigation, as long as you don’t get distracted by it. I have a Quad Lock case for my iPhone which is fantastic.

As others have mentioned visibility is important - your hi-vis jacket is very important. If you’re not happy with any lights that come with your bike, upgrade them - you can get very bright LED lights that recharge via USB sockets.

Sometimes other cyclists can get inside your comfort zone as they whiz past. Just ignore them and keep a nice steady pace and line.

As previously mentioned resist any temptation to go down the left-hand side of any buses and especially HGVs.

Cycling can make you feel free, so I really hope you enjoy it!
posted by Stark at 7:49 AM on February 9, 2016

Change up gears as you pull up to the lights, or any other stop, so that you can start off in a low gear.

Change down, you mean?

Back lights are more important than front lights for visibility on the roads, so get at least two of each.

I disagree - they are equally important. Front lights let cars pulling out from side roads see you, as well as see you in their wing/rear mirrors if you approach from behind.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:54 AM on February 9, 2016

Best answer: I would actually say front lights are more important. People coming up from behind have a lot more time and distance to see you, and you are in their cone of visibility. People coming at you from the front sometimes only have milliseconds to see and react, and you are often outside their cone of vision or even in a blind spot.
Anecdotally, I've never been hit from behind, all the problems have been from the front.
(That said, rear lights are also critical.)

Unrelated tip - you get more space on the road the less competent you look. If you're fully clad in lycra, people assume you're an expert and don't need any special consideration or berth. At the other end, if you wobble slightly*, people will want to change lanes before passing you :)
*Not enough to take up any more space on the road, just enough to look a bit unsure/unsteady

Also, the human eye cues on motion. So I useful trick I've found is that if you're in a spot where you need someone to see you, keep pedalling even if you're slowing down. Spin the pedals backwards if you want to move your legs faster than the current gear allows. If you're coasting towards someone, you're not moving in their vision, you're still, like a tree. Brains filter out trees.
Don't worry about that while learning to cycle around, it's more of a useful trick for later when you've mastered the more important stuff.
posted by anonymisc at 11:38 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Happy Dave, thank you so much, that was exactly the kind of thing I needed. I'm feeling a lot better and in fact now excited about my commute tomorrow morning!

You are very welcome! Do tell us how you got on.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:55 AM on February 9, 2016

To all this excellent advice I would add a couple of things:

Use your ears as much as your eyes. Listen for traffic behind you and judge its speed and distance.

Never use tunnel vision. Practice wide vision where you take in the whole scene in front of you. Try to only focus when there's the possibility of danger.

Predict the future. If a pedestrian is about to cross and it looks like they haven't seen you, you should try to know this in advance. Ring your bell and if that doesn't work, yell "Watch out!" at them. A shouted warning is almost guaranteed to stop them in their tracks. This avoided a collision for me just this morning.

Practice your route before you do it under time constraint. Look for quiet alternative roads or parks you can cycle through. If you've no time to practice, add an extra 20 minutes so you're not stressed.

If you have a very narrow stretch of road, control it by cycling far enough out that cars can't pass you. Don't worry about annoying people.

Get one of these fold-out reflectors. They give you a bit of breathing room.

As an answerer says above, you can sometimes wobble or cycle as if you're slightly drunk to make sure drivers behind give you extra space. It's a bit of an advance technique though since you need good spacial awareness for it to not be dangerous to yourself. Another advanced trick it to look at the car behind you when you need to pull out. Drivers seem to instinctively know that they should give you space.
posted by nevan at 3:02 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: An update: Picked up the bike, then promptly crashed 15 minutes later tootling round the pitch black park. Have a toddler-style skinned knee as my war wound. Regardless, managed to make it home but have realised that immediately jumping to a 6 mile a day commute might not be entirely wise. I am nowhere near as cardio-fit as I thought I was. However, it is the goal! I have booked a 1 on 1 with Cycleconfident who do the free training in my borough, and am going to take it nice and slow over the next four weeks. Thanks for everyone's great comments and tips, it made me feel a lot more confident when flying down Peckham High Street with the Lycra crowd in the pouring rain last night.
posted by litereally at 5:34 AM on February 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

You’ll get fit enough to cycle that distance really quickly, so long as you do it at your own pace. Pushing hard from the outset is the short route to very sore leg muscles :)
posted by pharm at 8:56 AM on February 10, 2016

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