London Cycle 'Super Highways' - Tested Here!
Barclays Cycle Superhighways are part of a “cycle revolution” in London. Together with the cycle hire scheme, the plan is to build twelve superhighways by 2015 linking central London with its myriad suburbs, thus creating a new generation of medal-greedy Olympians or, at the very least a new generation with less type 2 diabetes.
The crux of the superhighways is that they are “safer, faster and more direct” and are aimed equally at existing commuters as well as encouraging new cyclists. Much like the cycle hire scheme, the premise is admirable, but how safe, fast and direct are they? With the opening of (some of) CS2 and CS8 recently, to go with veterans of CS3 and CS7 which have been painting the town blue since 2010, I have decided to hop on my bicycle and test them out. In one day. One after the other.
Starting at the northernmost point of the CS8 in Westminster, I will follow the blue brick road to Wandsworth before navigating my own way to Colliers Wood, where I will pick up the CS7 at its southern tip. This takes me back to the City and Southwark Bridge, at which point I will segue on to the CS2 near Aldgate and follow it for 2.7 miles, which is all that there is of it until after the Olympics, when it may or may not make it to Ilford. I will then retrace my steps and make my way to Tower Gateway, picking up the CS3 and following it to its western extremity in Barking. Finally, I will make my way back to home in Bermondsey via the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which is probably the antithesis of a superhighway but it is on my way home and it could be quite exciting.
There are four things to point out. Firstly, this is not a cycling exploit akin to completing one of the 100 greatest cycling climbs, I reckon there are 35 miles of cycle superhighway and maybe another 10 or 12 miles to get between them and to and from home. It is more a public service adventure for an extremely niche market. Secondly, I won’t be doing it on a bicycle from the hire scheme, or a
‘Boris bike’, because a) these are somewhat removed from bikebritain’s core competency, b) because I hate them and c) because I don’t want to. I will be riding my own Trek, reviewed in probable award-winning fashion elsewhere on this site, because it is convenient and on a more relevant note because I want to see how agreeable the Superhighways are to bicycles that aren’t especially keen to go clumping up and down kerbs and across unfriendly terrain. Thirdly, I should clarify that I am already extremely familiar with most of the CS7 (it forms about 80% of my daily commute), though why this is important I am not entirely sure. It may become clear why as this progresses. If it doesn’t, I might come back and delete this. Fourthly, I also need to confess that I will be not be analysing these routes in the chronic traffic of rush hour but in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, although I do have to get it all done in time to set off for a cricket match in the evening, with consequences far more severe than anything that might befall me in the Rotherhithe tunnel if I mess folks around because I’ve been fooling around evaluating bits of blue road.
Probably the biggest problem is I am not sure how I am going to record the whimsical details and anecdotes of my journey without stopping every five minutes to write them down. Believe it or not, bikebritain has not yet gone ahead and bought me one of those micro camcorders so, if a lot of what follows seems vague, made up, or disproportionally in favour of the CS7, it’s because it probably is.
It is early Sunday afternoon when I set off, resplendent with hangover acquired the previous day when I got rather refreshed after being asked to be a best man for the first time. Fortunately, it wasn't too difficult to locate the commencement of the CS8 adjacent to the Lambeth Bridge, and I was soon following the thin blue line alongside the Thames as far as Chelsea Bridge, where I traversed the river and headed south. At the outset, the route was uninterrupted by pesky junctions, and it is these stretches where the Cycle Superhighways really bring home the bacon. The bright blue of the paths is determined by the tint of the Barclays brand rather than to appeal to my sense of inner-city aesthetics (probably), but to my mind it does achieve the requisite level of obviousness for road users without being garish and a clear stretch of blue highway does leave me feeling safe and confident about getting my head down and actually cycling.
Of course, and especially on a Sunday, there is the issue of parked cars precisely where any conforming cycle path would usually choose to be. The solution of the Superhighways is to have periodic blue splodges in the middle of the road to mark the route around parked cars and bus stops. These are fairly striking and are a welcome change to accepted cycle path wisdom, where the lane you were happily following will disappear for miles at a time with no warning.
Crossing Chelsea Bridge brought me to my first Cycle Superhighway interaction with a roundabout. Now, in their infinite wisdom, TfL have decided that to have the users of their cycle paths actually negotiating roundabouts should be avoided at all costs. Not realising this, I went ahead and piled across the first roundabout I came to, assuming (wrongly) that I would pick up the blue again the other side. Soon I was retracing my steps and saw that, if I had had my wits about me, I would have noticed in approaching the roundabout the CS8 actually mounts the pavement and a blue line interacts with the pedestrian domain before depositing you back on the road once clear of the roundabout on the correct exit. Initially I was dismayed; the consequence of the pavement option is rather than use the road, you have to traverse it which is a stop/start process unless you are very fortunate and not ideal if you are using clip-in pedals. Like many people, I am perfectly happy on roundabouts; if you execute them properly, you are no more risk from a rogue motorist than anywhere else, but these cycle paths are for the masses and you can see the logic in not sending dozens of novice cyclists onto these tarmac roulette wheels. Another issue is that continually mounting and dismounting pavements, whilst not the full kerb, is not road bike friendly and was the beginning of a battering for my tyres. In fact, whilst I'm complaining, the other issue is the fact that pedestrians seem to care less about the subtleties of their pavement palette than drivers, the net result being whole gangs crowded on the only bit of the concrete specifically not for them. Now I've copped a world of abuse for retaining the bell on my Trek, but it's either ding-a-ling or a volley of profanity, and I find the former results in fewer undignified incidents.
Thereafter, it is a fairly unremarkable jaunt to nearly Wandsworth High Street, where we meet a one-way system and all kinds, so the CS8 bulldozes it's way across pavements, parks, and alleyways with a casual disregard and suddenly you're on Wandsworth High Street. This urban assault course is entirely necessary to get to the destination, but is quite disconcerting when you’re not exactly sure where you’re going and feel like you’ll be cycling across someone’s back garden at any moment. The end of the CS8 has no pomp or ceremony about it, and it took me a second to realise I had completed my first leg. It had taken me 45 minutes to get there from Bermondsey, but this was no time for wild celebrations and I pedalled off down Garratt Lane in search of Colliers Wood and my old favourite, the CS7.
The CS7 doesn't so much tick the 'direct' box as scribble all over it; it's basically a straight romp past Clapham Common and up past the Oval cricket ground to Elephant & Castle, punctuated by a lot of traffic lights. The only thing that's a bit roundabout-esque is at Stockwell where they've built quite a nifty little lane to allow you to bear right at the gyratory. Once you reach Elephant & Castle, the fun police have their way and send you off on a hugely convoluted diversion to avoid the big roundabout. The diversion is so hideously complex that at one point I did begin to wonder whether I might I might be the victim of an elaborate practical joker with a rogue tin of blue paint. However, if the policy is to avoid roundabouts at all costs, then this might just be the only option available. You imagine somebody thought it through at some point, though you can never be sure.
I rock up at Southwark Bridge 57 minutes after leaving Wandsworth High Street, pause to take a few photos, and swing down past the Tower of London to pick up the CS2 from Whitechapel High Street to Bow. The CS2 will eventually go all the way to Ilford but, much like the rest of London, is at the mercy of the Olympics and won't be completed until some miscellaneous point after that show has left town. As mentioned earlier it's pretty short, and also pretty uncomplicated, like a baby version of the CS7. The issue with it being only part-completed is that it just fizzles out just after you pass through Bow, even more so than the CS8, ironically as you reach a pretty major roundabout. Doubling back, I'm back at Tower Gateway with 44 minutes having passed since leaving Southwark Bridge. At this point, I was starting to feel it a bit. Whilst I hadn’t cycled a huge distance or taken on any testing inclines, but the navigation had made my brain hurt a bit and the hangover hadn’t quite let go yet.........
Part Two will be posted next week on bikebritain.org
Words, Thumbnail and Slider Image - Lukey