Wednesday, 9 December 2009

My tips for safe cycling in London.

If you're getting a bike for Christmas or are going to start cycling to work as your New Year resolution, do what I did when I started commuting seriously in London a few years ago and look up a few safety tips. The roads here are narrow and chaotic, with their own harum-scarum rules. Black cab drivers often seem as though they'd prefer you dead than in their way. A few near misses later, I'm still alive. Here is what I've learnt over the years.

Stop at red lights.
You may think that you are not hurting anyone by jumping the red light. Many times you're not. But you might be leaving other traffic and pedestrians in a dangerous situation: unable to make turns, or cross the road, stranded in the middle of traffic. Is it really worth those extra 30 seconds you gain? Also, breaking the rules makes everyone else more antagonistic towards cyclists. Start playing by the rules and stop giving cyclists a bad name.

Mind the gap.
Do not squeeze through that tempting gap between a bus and the kerb, or a lorry and a lane of traffic. Just don't do it. The big vehicles can't see you, and they will squash you like the filling in a custard cream. Basically, never go down the left hand side of a big vehicle. This has sadly been the cause of death in a few cycling accidents in London recently.

Stay in line at the lights.
Known as shoaling in the States, this is the practice of overtaking the line of cyclists at the traffic light and parking your butt right in front of them. Stay where you are in the line. The process of cycling natural selection has placed you at the back and there is no shame in that. Stay where you are, take your time and set off safely when it's your turn. That way, speedier cyclists don't have to put themselves at danger to manoeuvre around you again.

Keep your eyes on the road.
Sounds simple, but two friends of mine have ridden into the back of cars because they've drifted off. Schoolboy error. I often find myself drifting. Concentrate and keep your eyes on the road.

Expect the unexpected.
Watch out for drivers nipping into bus lanes, passenger doors opening in the traffic light queues, gaps in traffic where drivers are letting oncoming traffic through, motorcyclists zipping past you in the bus lane. Also look out for drunk Polish plumbers who step into the road in front of you and knock you off. (This happened to me.)

Get involved in the traffic.
I find that hanging back and being cautious is actually more dangerous. Take your place in the traffic, be confident, let people know you're there, take your time and don't be rushed. Ignore impatient white van men and taxi drivers: you have as much right as they do to be on the road and you are more vulnerable. Get in front of the traffic, signal properly and regularly, even make eye contact with drivers at the lights to let them know you're there. Then you're good to go.

Basic housekeeping.
ALWAYS wear a helmet, bright (ideally reflective) clothing and have lights with powerful batteries. Make sure your bags are tightly closed, strapped in, your basket or pannier is securely attached, you don't have dangly laces or scarves, that there's air in your tyres. Carry a lock (Abus make good locks) but don't expect your bike to be there when you get back if you leave it in a London street.

May the force be with you.
As hard as you may try, the unexpected will happen. Some idiot will do a U-turn and speed straight towards you, or someone will start reversing at high speed through a quiet square. (Both of these have happened to me.) All you can do is keep your wits about you.

Good luck, and don't forget to enjoy yourself. I find whizzing past bus stops packed with bored commuters to be the best reminder that cycling rocks. The mornings when you see a baby fox, spot a wading bird in a river, or freewheel downhill with the sun shining in your face more than make up for the frustrations. It's scary at first, but I can honestly say I no longer feel nervous on my bike. It just takes practice. And good luck. And more good luck. Go safe, dudes!

[Photo by Kevin Meredith]


  1. Furthermore, don't throw your empty water bottle (especially if it's made of glass) at the heads of passing and entirely innocent pedestrians.

    Bastard courier.

  2. Some pretty good tips there. I question the whole "always wear a helmet" and also there are times when crossing a red light is actually safer to get ahead from the cars. Especially agree with the tip not to try and go through tight gaps because there is huge danger of getting squashed

  3. Wish riding bikes in my town was easier right now, but they're supposedly making improvements for the burgeoning bike culture here. Must keep your rules in mind for when it's easier to travel in two wheel style.

    Thanks for dropping by my blog!

  4. GSE: they are such unbelievable badwords sometimes!

    Andreas: I'm interested to know why you think helmets aren't necessary. (I have friends who have landed on their heads before, hence my belief they should always be worn!)

    And I do agree with getting as far in front of the traffic as possible at lights. But I just prefer order on the roads. Last night I was stranded on Camden Road (in the middle of four lanes of traffic) bcs some bastard cyclist who had skipped the red was dawdling towards me!

    Love your site btw.

  5. Great tips. I'm still too much of a scaredy cat to cycle in London though...although the thought of riding around on a little black bike with basket is tempting...

  6. Somewhere to put your bike and good cycle routes are topping list for prospective buyers in London