Two Wheels Good

Back when the internet was young — or at least the commercial, available-at-home internet — I sent an email with the subject line, “Bicycle on the Superhighway”. It was about me having a publicly-accessible email address for the first time since uni (as opposed to one that was only usable within the company where I worked at the time).

This was back when people — inspired, if I recall correctly, by Al Gore — were calling the net the “Information Superhighway.”

This post is not about all that, though; this is about literal cycling on a literal superhighway: specifically London’s “Cycle Superhighways.”

Since the building where I now work has showers, I decided it was time to get back on the bike. And since it’s in Westminster, it turns out there’s a really easy route, that uses CS6 and CS3: down Farringdon Road and west along Embankment, by the river.

These are fantastic cycling facilities, especially the Embankment one. Properly separated from the motor traffic, plenty of room to move and overtake, great sequencing of traffic lights so you hardly have to stop. It’s hard to fault it. Especially compared to nearly every other pathetic painted cycle lane in the city.

It gets a bit hairy where it all ends, in Parliament Square: the traffic there is unfeasibly heavy. Who drives near parliament?

If there’s a downside to it all, it’s this: I suspect that the motorised traffic is busier and faster, exactly because it’s not tempered by having bikes in the mix. I can’t be sure — I’ve never used Embankment before, and it’s years since I used to cycle regularly on Farringdon Road — but it feels to me that there’s a crazy amount of traffic and that it’s going faster than ever.

The latter can’t really be true — there are still speed limits, and they either won’t have changed or might have dropped to 20 mph in sections. But I still get this sense that, freed from interacting with the fragile two-wheeled minority, the armoured legions behave more like they’re on a motorway.

Whether that’s the case or not, the number of people cycling — especially in the recent bright spring weather — is huge. The only time I’ve seen more cyclists together was when I did the London to Brighton ride many years ago.

And also in the mix now are electric scooters and electric skateboards, which makes it all the more interesting. There’s even the odd cycle rickshaw.

It’ll be interesting to see how the volume changes with the seasons, but you can’t beat it for a way to commute: it’s faster than the tube, it saves you money, and you get some exercise. I recommend it for anyone who’s able.

Two Wheels Good

Proposed New Cycling Race for the Olympics: the “Commuter Race”

This is something that I wrote some notes on around the London 2012 Olympics, and just sitting here watching the Men’s Road Race on day 1 of Rio 2016, I thought I’d dig it out and finally post it.

Competitors have to ride stock bikes — no fancy superlight frames or custom wheels; just ordinary commuter-type bikes. They can be set up for the individual, but they must have mudguards and lights and EITHER a rack and one pannier OR the competitor must carry a backpack or messenger bag; the bag to hold a weight equivalent to (say) a laptop and a change of clothes.

The race to be a typical commute distances (say 5 miles?) carried out over normal commuting streets, during rush hour, with normal traffic.

Competitors get disqualified for jumping red lights or going the wrong way down a one-way street; and receive time penalties for going on the pavement (maybe disqualification there too, actually). They may receive a time bonus (or at least clock-stoppage) for unreasonable delays, as for example when an articulated lorry is reversing across the road and holding everybody up.

To be run as time trials with say a one-minute separation, so competitors should not be directly racing against each other.

An alternative version would have them use bikes from the city’s bike-hire scheme. They’d have to turn up at a designated pickup point, wait if a bike wasn’t available, and so on. This has the added advantage that it forces host cities to have or introduce such a scheme, and to keep the bikes well maintained.

It’s challenge that normal people — ones who commute by bike, at least — could really identify with.

Proposed New Cycling Race for the Olympics: the “Commuter Race”

Generation: Inspired

So, it’s all finally over, and we go back to normal. Or perhaps not. The slogan of London 2012 was “Inspire a Generation”, and I think that has happened.

But the question is, what generation?

The tacit assumption was always that the slogan applied to the _next_ generation: to teenagers and younger kids. Get them up off their arses, it implied, and away from their consoles, and down to their local sports hall, playing field, or pool.

Whether and to what extent that has worked will take a long time to see. But there’s another generation that is already visibly inspired, to my admittedly limited view.

Mine.

Where by “mine” I sort of mean “everyone who’s not still a child.” Because what I’m seeing as I cycle to and from work these days is that the streets are _packed_ with cyclists. And people out running, too; there are definitely more than usual. But it’s us London cyclists who are really showing up.

I personally have taken public transport to work only once since before the Olympics started,1 and I’ve been pushing myself to get that bit faster on my bike rides.

I’ve been thinking of it as something like, “Hoy! It’s the Pendleton-Trott-Kenny-Wiggins effect.” But that’s a bit unwieldy, and misses some names out.

It is clear to me, though, that the “generation” that is in their twenties, thirties and yes, forties — and probably older — are out there in bigger numbers than ever before.

We’ll see how it holds up as autumn and winter come in, of course. But vastly increased cycling in London? That would really be a worthwhile legacy.

Anyway, here’s my Flickr set from our second event at the Olympics, namely hockey. Click through to see the pictures bigger and with captions.

OverheadBritain vs AustraliaJust what blimp is it?Hockey up closeHockey teamsGoooooaaaaaallll!!!!
Riverbank by nightRiverbank by night 2Night matchA very dull first half

  1. Admittedly I was on holiday for around three weeks of that time. []
Generation: Inspired

The London cabbie: good and bad

We experienced the best and worst of the London cabbie last night: from not taking a fare because to do so would have been a rip-off, to attempted murder.

We were going to an exhibition opening, and had got off the bus wildly too early. We were walking in the right direction, but weren’t quite sure where the gallery was, and we were running late. So we flagged down a passing cab and asked for the street. “It’s just over there,” he said, pointing, “Don’t waste your money.”

It was, indeed, just over there. Admirable behaviour, I thought, as he could easily have made a few quid taking us there.

After we left and were walking to the bus stop, there was an altercation between a cab driver and a cyclist. I didn’t see how it started, but there was shouting and gesticulation, and the cabbie started to get out of his cab.

The cyclist headed off up the road, and suddenly the cabbie roared off after him. It looked like nothing less than an attempt to run the cyclist down.

I guess the cabbie came to his senses, because I don’t think he actually hit the guy. The cyclist very sensibly got off the road and cycled down the pavement in the opposite direction. The cab zoomed off up the road, to fast and too far away for me to get its number, unfortunately. I had my phone out ready to call the cops.

The cyclist seemed to be OK, physically at least. We saw him back on the road and heading in the direction he had been going. It’s scary to think, though, that you could either be that cyclist, or get into that guy’s cab.

The London cabbie: good and bad

The Water of Life

Or at least a container for it. It’s Bike Week this week, and as I happened to be cycling through Islington anyway, I was caught up by the members of the local LCC. They were offering a free cyclists’ breakfast, and a Dr Bike clinic. I had already had breakfast, and my bike was serviced recently, so I didn’t stop for that (though it is making a strange noise again, so perhaps I should have).

However they were also handing out free water bottles, which is just what I needed: I just noticed this morning that mine is cracked, and in any case it’s very prone to making the water taste plasticy. So I accepted that gratefully, and am giving something back by adding what tiny amount of Google juice I can to the URL that is printed on the bottle: Islington Borough’s Green Travel page.

Now get on yer bike, everyone.

The Water of Life

Eye Contact, or: Pay Attention to the Web Behind the Curtain.

Eyes in the sky

There is a strange and mighty power to eye contact, it seems.

I’m not talking about the effects of making β€” or not making β€” eye contact while talking to someone, though of course that does indeed have a great symbolic strength and communicative ability. Rather, I’m talking about the effect of making eye contact at a distance; specifically while cycling.

As you might imagine, cycling round the streets of London has its hazards. It’s not as fraught with danger as some believe (fear of the dangers is one of the main reasons people give for why they don’t, or wouldn’t, cycle; which is a shame, because it’s good for the individual, and good for the environment), but that’s another discussion.

Most potential problems can be avoided with a suitable degree of alertness. But the necessary alertness isn’t all on the part of the cyclist: it’s important for other road users to be alert to the presence of cyclists, too. Who remembers “Think once, think twice, think bike!“, the road-safety campaign on British TV during the seventies? That was intended to make other road-users more aware of cyclists (and motorcyclists).

That is where one of the biggest dangers lies: quite frankly, there are a lot of road users who just don’t notice cyclists. And it’s not just the BMW drivers and Royal Mail vans (in my experience the two most dangerous types of motorised vehicle, from a cyclist’s point of view (though all generalisations are false, of course)).

No, any motor vehicle can be a problem, and pedestrians and even other cyclists are almost as bad. Indeed , the two accidents I’ve had in all my years of cycling in London were both caused, at least in part, by pedestrians. There is, however, a simple technique that can β€” almost magically, it sometimes seems β€” make other road users notice you.

Look them in the eye.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Just make eye contact with the driver, cyclist or pedestrian, and suddenly they realise you’re there.

Which is not so surprising: it’s hard to not be aware of the presence of someone who is looking you in the eye. What is strange, though, is the way in which it works at a distance. You don’t have to be able to see the other person’s eyes, or even to see the person. Innumerable times I have been hurtling along a road and seen a car or van about to pull out of a side road and smash into me (or at least, make me brake sharply). I can’t see the driver because of distance or dark windows, but I aim a hard stare at the area where I know the driver’s head must be. And the car (or van) suddenly brakes, and lets me sweep past.

Similarly, a burst of laser-like staring swept across a group of pedestrians can stop them stepping off the kerb and into my path. It’s quite remarkable, really.

I’m reminded of the story of James Dean’s death. He crashed his car into another car that was pulling out of a side road, and supposedly Dean said to his passenger, (who survived the crash), “It’s all right, he sees me.”

Clearly, the other driver didn’t. Perhaps if Dean had just tried looking at where the other driver’s eyes were, the strange, near-telepathic effect might have happened, and he could have lived to make many more films.

The effect is, I suspect, related to the “feeling of being watched” that most people have experienced at some time. There’s no obvious mechanism for it, but it does seem to be the case that, when someone is looking at us, we become aware of the fact.

Attention surfeit disorder?

When some one is looking at us, or is paying attention to us. Which brings me to another angle on this. That is the idea of attention.. Up here in The Future, in the days of the development of “Web 2.0” (which, by the way, is pronounced “two point zero”, not “two point oh”, as I heard them saying on Newsnight the other day; we are, after all, scientists) we are often told (though perhaps mainly by Doc Searls) of how important our attention is.

Indeed, the phrase “the attention economy” is in use by some. Of course, the expression “pay attention” has been around for a long time, but only now has attention taken on some of the other trappings of money. We can “pay” for a web site’s services with our attention. Any site with adverts effectively meets this model, though there are more direct examples, such as Salon‘s premium content, for which you can get a “day pass” by sitting through a short advert β€” as an alternative to paying actual cash for a subscription.

The force of our attention β€” of looking β€” is powerful in multiple ways.

Eye Contact, or: Pay Attention to the Web Behind the Curtain.

Transport against london

I take a couple of weeks off (a week at home with the kids, a week in Dorset: very nice, thanks, since you ask) and when I first get back to posting, I find I’m channelling the excellent Disgruntled Commuter. This morning’s journey into work was a vision of madness and chaos straight out of Dante’s Inferno.

I exaggerate, of course. The Waterloo and City Line is a key link in my standard route to work, when I go purely by public transport. Hackney to Wimbledon is not the simplest route between two parts of London, but it doesn’t have to be insane. That line, though, is currently closed. Until September. If we assume it won’t reopen until the end of that month at the earliest, that means it will be closed for half the year. I understand that things wear out and break down and have to be maintained: but it only goes between two stations. There’s not that much to it. How long can things take?

So for two days this week I cycled to Waterloo (I work at home on Wednesdays) which is the best way to get in anyway, for all the usual reasons why cycling is best1. But lately I’ve fallen out of the habit. To break myself back in gently (in other words, to give myself a rest from it today, or out of sheer laziness), I decided to chance public transport today.

I’m a great fan of public transport generally, of course: but there are times and services that… don’t show it in its best light, let’s say. The North London Line is one that has a bad reputation at best: indeed, the aforementioned Disgruntled one has written about it in the past. Yet gettting that line to Highbury and Islington and then the Victoria Line to Vauxhall for the last leg to Wimbledon seemed the best alternative route for me.

You’ll have guessed, since I’m writing this, that it was not.

The North London Line is characterised by infrequent, jam-packed services, and it deserves the characterisation. Don’t get the idea that this was a surprise to me: I knew perfectly well what it would be like. What do you think was the biggest prod to get me back onto my bike?

So that wasn’t really the problem (though the difficulty of seeing the station name signs when you’re jammed in standing up makes it extra hard for the infrequent user to be sure they are at the correct station). No, the problem was my old friend2 the Victoria Line.

It was, in short, fucked.

So I got on that curious bit of non-Underground underground line that also runs out of Highbury and Islington (and that I can’t remember the name of), and got a train to Moorgate. Thence by Northern Line to London Bridge and Jubilee to Waterloo. I left home at about 8:15 (significantly later than I originally intended to, admittedly) and the train from Waterloo pullled into Wimbledon at 9:35. Bah!


1. Exercise, knowing fairly exactly when you’re going to get there, and not being at the mercy of the transport network chief among them.

2. Before I lived in Hackney I lived in Walthamstow. You get on at the start of the line (and thus are almost guaranteed a seat) plonk yourself down, open your book, and don’t look up until Vauxhall.

Transport against london