The blue lane. The blue lane is what you concentrate on as you ride the cycle superhighways: the one or sometimes two metre thick painted channel between the pavement and traffic, between safety and danger. Sometimes the blue lane is segregated from the road; more often, you’re just part of the road, but with your own space clearly designated.
Sadiq Khan has promised to spend £770m on cycling over the four years of his term - £17 per Londoner, a record amount for the city – part of which will go on two new cycle superhighways. Ahead of that, it’s seemed reviewing the current cycling infrastructure in London. So I decided to cycle all of the superhighways, and take in just how much they’ve changed London.
I love cycling in London: there is something thrilling in going so fast in a city, especially when there is traffic congestion all around. This is what the superhighways are supposed to do: allow the cyclist to speed by, separated from the main road traffic and all the danger that entails.
There are seven current cycle superhighways, helpfully numbered CS1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8. The network stretches from Tottenham in the north to Colliers Wood in the south, and Stratford in the east to Lancaster Gate in the south. The missing CS4, heading from London Bridge towards Woolwich, is supposed to go into consultation this year; there are also plans for CS9 from Hounslow to Olympia, and a CS11 heading north west from the West End, through Regent’s Park. (What was planned as CS10 may end up as a western extension of CS3.) The point of the new routes is to make cycling safer, faster, and more appealing in the capital.
The plan as of 2012: not all these routes survived. Image: TfL.
The jewel in the crown is CS3, especially the section from Tower Hill to Westminster, which snakes around the curve of the Thames and completely segregates the bike rider from the main flow of traffic. Cycling along it, one can really appreciate the majesty of the Victoria Embankment – something that was previously impossible as you focused on dodging buses and lorries.
The best parts of the network are always those with separated cycle lane: CS3 along the Embankment and into Wapping, and the north-south superhighway CS6. What you soon learn though, riding the blue lanes, is that it is not always like this. For every safe, well built stretch of superhighway, there is a poorly managed part.
On CS7, as it passes through Balham towards Tooting, there are cars constantly parked in the cycle lane, along with drivers who don’t appreciate the sanctity of your metre-wide blue haven. On stretches like this, the superhighway might as well not exist. You find yourself needing to dodge buses anyway – what’s the point, when all that is different is the colour of the tarmac and a name?
While the scheme is a mayoral project, the infrastructure is actually put in place by each individual borough. That’s what creates this fantastic mismatch as you hurtle through London, and CS7 is the perfect example: Southwark and Lambeth seem to care about the cyclist; Wandsworth, on the other hand, seems to think the cycle lane is an afterthought, something to be shoved onto the side of the road.
CS1 is the newest route to be fully completed, running from Tottenham to the City. But it doesn’t seem to be very ‘super’: it’s more like a glorified Quietway (another form of London cycle route, linking up quieter back roads), only with blue branding. It’s also a genuinely confusing route, requiring careful checking of signs and road markings.
Superhighways are easy to follow when they are just a blue lane; a bit trickier when there are only occasionally reminders of their existence. The sight of someone stopping just to attempt to decode a blue sign isn’t a particularly edifying one, especially when you’ve had to pull over to the side of a main road to do so.
Cycling infrastructure in London still has a long way to go to make cycling safer: cars still turn without checking, or drive straight into the cycle lane. This is something that can be solved with segregated sections and separate traffic lights for cyclists, like there are on other parts of the network. Nonetheless, according to the London Cycling Campaign, 6 cyclists died on CS2 between 2011 and 2014; since then the route, formerly of the blue paint variety, has been largely separated from the traffic.
CS2 highlights another problem: how to cope with pedestrians blindly wandering into the cycle lane after they are disgorged from buses at bus stops. Inevitably, all they want to do is swear at you, and explaining that they’re standing in a cycle superhighway doesn’t particularly help. The route also features signs that can take a long time to understand – “turn right in two stages only”, “go left in order to go right” – all very entertaining as you attempt to cycle quickly into the wind.
The best superhighway has to be what used to be CS6, now more often termed the “North-South superhighway”, which at the moment runs from Elephant & Castle to the Holborn Viaduct. The route is clear, the cycle lane stands completely apart from the traffic, and the dedicated traffic lights work without a hitch. You even get a fantastic view of St Paul’s as you cross Ludgate Circus. It is no wonder that Blackfriars Bridge resembles the peloton of the Tour de France on a weekday morning.
Cycle Superhighways are in their infancy, and there is no doubt that those that exist leave a lot to be desired. Yet everyone should have a go at riding within the blue line and explore London. It made me go to Colliers Wood for the first time in my life: there’s no reason why others can’t do the same.