How do you bicycle to work and home again? Do you fight through the traffic? Or have you discovered a quiet way to the office, school, shops, pub, restaurants and back home again?
I returned to London in June after an absence of fourteen years to find that it had become a more vibrant version of itself. When I lived in London from 1998 to 2003 as an investment banker, I lived on Shaftesbury Avenue.
I left for Sydney when the Mayor Ken Livingston had just introduced congestion charges. Why did I leave? Love. I had met my now-husband at a party in Farringdon in August 2002.
In the midst of the heat wave last month, I stayed with a friend and her family in North London. Chris, a Sustrans Volunteer, and his girlfriend were kind enough to take me around London that first Saturday. Bicycling together along the Quietway from Finsbury Park to Clerkenwell, Hyde Park, Westminster and getting cut off by youngsters in flash cars on Pall Mall suddenly reminded me of Sydney. And that’s when I realised I could cycle in London.
At first, I mostly relied upon Google Maps to commute to my meetings in Central London. Having traveled along Liverpool Road while breathing in bus fumes, I eventually found my own way via Finsbury Park Road, along Drayton Park, to Barnsbury Road and Penton Street. Later I would use Margery Street to make my way further west to the centre.
After about five days, I had a quiet route mapped out with variations as necessary. Chris introduced me to Rox who works at Sustrans in London, and when she suggested taking me for a ride on Quietway 1 from Waterloo to Greenwich, I was game.
I felt nostalgic going past Smithfield Market after departing from the office on Cowcross Street. It was one of the first places where I had played tennis upon landing in London in 1998.
Making our way across the Blackfriars Bridge, I rode through the barricades installed just a few weeks prior.
Eventually, we made our way to Q1 which was noticeable because of the lack of traffic noise.
Rox explained to me that Q1 was chosen because it provided a direct and quiet alternative to a busy main road.
However, one of the first turns left onto Q1 from Blackfriars Road was not for the faint-of-heart.
At Waterloo, this left turn was in two stages. When the light turned green, cyclists needed to wait in the left turn box in the middle of the road.
It reminded me of the necessity for hook turns in Melbourne’s wide streets. My preference at this intersection would have been to continue on the green light to the far right hand corner of the intersection.
Waiting at the red light, with wheels now pointing in the direction of Q1, I would have been a little more comfortable. Kids and less experienced bicyclists would be too.
And after this, the way was indeed quiet. I enjoyed the cool air of today versus the 32C of yesterday and Rox and I chatted because it was possible to have a conversation while riding side-by-side on many parts of Q1.
She explained how Q1 was the first pilot of this new type of route, designed to encourage more people to cycle, more safely, more often. She pointed out parts of Q1 which had been heavily engineered and less so. And then we came upon the gates at The Borough on Trinity Square.
Residents here had been adamant about keeping the barriers in place to prevent motorcyclists from coming through, she explained. These barriers have been widened, but I could see that it was also an impediment for people with children on cargo bikes or in trailers. One way around it would be to mount the footpath but I have also heard of people’s frustration with this barrier via social media.
We continued and Rox explained the consultative process that Sustrans took to engage the community to create Q1. The positive and most successful means of installing bicycle and walking infrastructure for people is often developing a trial of new infrastructure, after a lengthy process of discussion which involves several alternatives from which people can choose.
I have heard of this approach being used successfully in San Francisco and many other US cities. It is difficult to appease everyone and to be truly inclusive.
However, a trial enables people to use infrastructure and see it in action.
Later along South Bermondsey, Rox pointed out a brand new covered cycleway at Ilderton Road with a rest stop and parking close to South Bermondsey train station.
We continued alongside Bolina Road on a completely separated cycleway that was newly constructed. This was an excellent way to avoid the heavy traffic on this road later during rush hour.
This area was heavily industrialized but on the fringe were flats and houses. No doubt this area would continue to transition with the popularity of brownfield development as popularized in Brooklyn, New York. Dr. Steven Fleming, an expert on the built-environment and bicycle-oriented architecture, has written extensively about this type of development which often is without transport links.
The bicycle has been instrumental to the success of such areas around the world.
We passed through beautiful Folkstone Gardens where I saw Weeping Willow trees.
They were a reminder of my youth in Minnesota and the lushness of England.
Australia is a parched land and very few of these willows are native. They too have immigrated to foreign lands.
Approaching Greenwich via Tarves Way, I found the cars parked on the kerb to be anachronistic. Cars didn’t seem to fit with the architecture of the terrace houses lining the road.
Rox and I were both hungry after such a great ride to Greenwich and we stopped at a local market for a snack.
We took a quick photo of Canary Wharf where I spent most of my time in my late twenties working in investment banking.
It had been a struggle commuting to the office back then. The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) was a long and slow commute from Bank. The Jubilee Line was under construction and constantly delayed when it commenced operations. The ferry from the Embankment was wonderful but one needed to be on time to catch it. There was no ability to run to it after it had left the dock. Why didn’t I cycle back then? Having come from the US, my excuse was that I didn’t know how I would react in a crisis traffic situation. How silly (and lazy) I was!
After a restorative snack, Rox and I rode back to Sustrans and I saw Q1 in action. Packs of bicyclists in mostly athletic wear went past us in the other direction.
I believe that the effect of a cycleway, such as a Quietway 1, serves to grow cycling in conjunction with the separated cycleways in London. People begin to realise its effectiveness by using it more often.
Drivers begin to realise that bicyclists are present and begin to alter their driving habits by avoiding it or driving more attentively. And children begin to see their parents use the bicycle as a form a transport which normalises its use.
No doubt the lessons learned from Q1 will be put to good use for the next series of Quietways in London and beyond.
My hope is for more people to use the Quietways dressed for their destinations. We saw 50/50 women to men on Q1 during peak hour. I saw two women in a dress or skirt. I look forward to seeing more next time.
In the meantime, happy riding on your own Quietways! I’ll be doing the same in Sydney.