I spent the weekend plus a few days rambling around London. I was there during the first 3 days of the riots, but apart from a Vauxhall house music DJ announcing at 3AM that we should be careful because there was trouble two neighbourhoods away in Brixton, I didn’t see anything myself. Mostly I saw magical London and I saw it euphorically by bicycle — by Boris Bike, more specifically (or Barclay bike, officially, or Bixi, as I couldn’t help calling it). I only rode the Tube twice, once from Heathrow to my hotel in Mayfair, and then out to meet friends in Hackney who gave me their extra bike key. When I was there in November, soon after the bike scheme was introduced, riding about radically changed the way I thought of London (a city I love second only to Toronto) — neighbourhoods suddenly got closer together and there was no more waiting for 4 or 5 AM night busses to take me back to the hotel from wherever I was. The city was liberated and easy.
On this trip, now that some of the euphoria had worn off, I noticed how little I came into conflict with cars. Never, to be precise, and I rode everyday, day and night, on busy high streets and quiet residential streets. The Bixi-style tanks aren’t nimble and light machines like my Specialized hybrid with high pressure tires is back in Toronto; the Boris Bikes lumber along and are a bit slow to start — all things that car drivers don’t like. The lanes are also much narrower, there’s the riding/driving on the left to get used to, and I’m sure there are UK rules of road that I was oblivious to. I was also in mixed traffic mostly. There are a few separated bike lanes (or bike highways) but they were not where I wanted to be (and they aren’t 100% connected) so I rode on regular roads, as everybody else does. There are some on-road bike lanes that appear occasionally — recall the cute narrow ones on Spadina that were removed, but imagine them painted green — but generally I was with the flow of cars, trucks, and busses.
Yet, I was never bothered. The critical difference in the UK is that drivers are skilled. I’ve noticed this also when driving a car on British Motorways or in city centres too. Biking and driving in Toronto are unpleasant not because of bikes, bike infrastructure or even pedestrians: it’s largely because our drivers haven’t ever been taught to properly drive their cars. Toronto and other Ontario cities were mid-western at heart: big, wide and open. When we learned (and still learn) how to drive there wasn’t really a need to get very skilled at it because there was always enough room (for error or otherwise). There was no need to get a real sense of the size of one’s vehicle, how it cornered, or how closely it can pass other objects safely. Now that our cities are crowded, this lack of skill makes driving most unpleasant and unsafe. I noticed this when I took out an Autoshare the day I left to do some errands: over and over, it’s other Toronto drivers that are problem. Mixed with the low skills is an incredible sense of entitlement. On the streets of London I was passed without problem, cars would turn in front of me as I rode but the driver knew his/her speed and size and took the corner with enough room that I didn’t have to break my “spin”. And I didn’t notice much entitlement — drivers waited behind me on the narrow parts patiently, and passed when space opened up.
How this is fixed, I’m not sure. It requires a driving culture change, but when our politicians are more likely to tell drivers what they want to hear — “it’s not you, darling, it’s the <insert anything but cars and drivers> fault” — that’s not likely to change anytime soon.