Bike riding in London is risky business

A man rides one the the new cycle hire scheme bikes, launched Friday by London mayor Boris Johnson,  over Westminster Bridge in London.  Friday July 30, 2010. London  launched a new bicycle rental program in hopes of easing congestion in a European capital once known for its gridlock.  London Mayor Boris Johnson, an avid bicycling enthusiast, put the first bikes on the road Friday 4,700 out of a planned 6,000. Under the program, cyclists will be able to borrow bikes from 400 docking stations around the city. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland/PA)  **  UNITED KINGDOM OUT NO SALES NO ARCHIVE   **
AP
A man rides one the the new cycle hire scheme bikes, launched Friday by London mayor Boris Johnson, over Westminster Bridge in London. Friday July 30, 2010. London launched a new bicycle rental program in hopes of easing congestion in a European capital once known for its gridlock. London Mayor Boris Johnson, an avid bicycling enthusiast, put the first bikes on the road Friday 4,700 out of a planned 6,000. Under the program, cyclists will be able to borrow bikes from 400 docking stations around the city. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland/PA) ** UNITED KINGDOM OUT NO SALES NO ARCHIVE **
Posted Aug. 02, 2010, at 2:58 p.m.

LONDON (AP) — Feel like living dangerously?

Riding a bike in London will soon be more convenient, though it’s unlikely to be any less scary. Riders already dodge the city’s famed black cabs and double-decker buses — to say nothing of other cyclists.

A bike rental program launched Friday by London’s Mayor Boris Johnson will add an additional 6,000 bikes to the capital’s congested streets. Under the initiative, cyclists will be able to rent bikes from 400 docking stations around town.

Johnson called it “a new dawn for the bicycle in the capital” — but veterans of the London cycling scene are bracing for a new era of transit mayhem.

Unlike Amsterdam, where bike paths are separated from the road by a curb, in London a white line is the only protection for cyclists.

Consider these experiences of two avid riders who cycle to work almost every day.

FIRST RULE, BE SAFE

When the brakes on my bike started slipping, I figured I’d take care of the problem later. After I went flying over the hood of a black cab at the intersection of Gray’s Inn Road and Calthorpe Street, I wished I’d taken care of it sooner.

The London Cycling Campaign says the most common cause of accidents here is from drivers not seeing cyclists, so when in London, do as the Londoners do: Don day-glow jackets, fluorescent gloves or a bright yellow backpack.

Sure, you’ll look ridiculous, but at least motorists will look.

And, while accidents happen, serious ones are rare. According to the latest statistics kept by Transport for London, the number of fatalities has stayed virtually the same between 1987 and 2007 — about 15 per year — even as the number of cyclists plying the streets has doubled.

So while the papers often carry accounts of trucks hitting cyclists, you’re better off biking to work than sitting on the couch eating crisps, as the British call potato chips.

“The health benefits outweigh the risks by a factor of 20,” says Mike Cavenett of the London Cycling Campaign.

USE THE GREAT ESCAPE

Tourists often don’t know this, but London has a great canal network that runs through the central and eastern parts of the city, and it can be a great escape for cyclists who find the capital’s maze-like streets and traffic circles too scary.

Long, narrow house boats traverse the canals, maneuvering through one lock after another. Alongside are footpaths that horses once used to pull narrow boats carrying supplies and produce.

These footpaths can be a boon for bike riders, but be warned: They aren’t easy to navigate.

For one thing, the paths are made of loosely laid concrete blocks that wobble and shake as a cyclist speeds over them — making it easy to lose control.

Tunnels along the canals are only wide enough for one bike — and so low that a cyclist has to duck his head to pass through.

In the middle of the day, when lots of bikes and pedestrians (and dog walkers) are using the footpaths, a ride involves constant negotiation.

Once, while coming out of a tunnel, I had a head-on collision with another biker who was entering from the other direction. Result? Bleeding knuckles.

But we both were thrilled we hadn’t fallen into the polluted canal waters.

THE “WRONG” SIDE OF THE ROAD

Like many Americans living in the UK, I have friends and relatives who visit for the first time and need to be shown around London.

I always insist we cycle. On a bike, a tour that includes Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing St., Parliament, Big Ben, Regent’s and Hyde parks and many sites along the River Thames can be done in just three hours.

In some ways, it’s like teaching a teenager how to drive. Even on a Sunday, when traffic is at its lowest, Americans find it tough to ride a bike on the left side of the road and to navigate traffic circles.

At the end of the ride, they are usually saying something like, “Wow, never again.”

LONDON’S TWISTS AND TURNS

Forget street signs or the grid system. London’s traffic network is an amazing mix of Roman roads, crooked Medieval alleys, 19th-century avenues and modern concrete traffic circles.

It’s also one of Europe’s largest, most densely populated cities, as a friend and I learned firsthand. On a bike trip from London to Brighton on the southern coast, we couldn’t believe it took 2½ hours of pedaling just to get outside the city limits.

Trying to keep the city’s many famous place names straight can also be a challenge — Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Bond Street, Mayfair, Soho, Trafalgar Square.

Some cyclists rely on landmarks to keep track of where they are. The River Thames, the London Eye Ferris Wheel to the west and the Gherkin skyscraper to the east are all great navigational tools.

And once you learn the maze, short cuts on bikes are everywhere. Not to mention the clock tower at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is ideally positioned for cyclists wondering whether they’re late for work.

BIKING HAS ADVANTAGES

Whether you’re living in London long-term or just here as a tourist, bouncing around on a bike makes good economic sense. Transport in London is brutally expensive. A single trip from Covent Garden to Hyde Park can set you back four pounds ($6.25). Even if you buy into the capital’s discount card system, a weekly pass costs 25.80 pounds (about $40).

At 5 pounds ($7.85) for a seven-day rental and 45 pounds (about $80) for an annual membership, London’s bike rental plan is a better deal by far. And you’re spared the creaky, sweaty subway system. Even in London’s frequent (but usually very light) rains, cyclists tend to stick to their handlebars rather than risk the overcrowded Tube.

Bikes are faster too.

In a race organized by a popular television show, “Top Gear,” a cyclist beat public transport, a motor boat and a Mercedes in a 17-mile (27-kilometer) race across London.

As the London Cycling Campaign’s Cavenett puts it: “What a great way to see the city.”

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Online: Transport for London: http:///www.tfl.gov.uk/

London Cycling Campaign: http:///www.lcc.org.uk/

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