cycling

The Streets of London

I am a cyclist in London. This way I see a lot more of the city as I would when travelling underground. Cycling helps me to keep fit and I get my daily workout for free. Also, riding my bike instead of using the tube or other public transport saves me 1,200 quid a year (without student discount that would be even more). And of course, cycling is the most environmental friendly and sustainable transport of all. If only London was designed for bikes…

One of the insights I got from the Design Management course was by an exercise from our tutor Rob Maslin. We were asked to find and pick five objects that were used in a completely different way than what they were designed for (e.g. a book as underlayment instead for the purpose of reading). Looking for such kind of objects made me observe my environment more consciously and at the same time, as we needed to record our findings, I have started collecting such explorations with my smart phone.

London’s Streets Don’t Work for Cyclists

Good and bad design: I think the street marking in London would rather be bad design.

Street marking gone berserk. We all like to bow our heads while driving, don’t we? Source: Author’s own

My Of Good and Bad Design #1 blog post expressed how good design can be defined differently, depending on the perspective of the observer. Now this argument cannot be longer maintained when it comes to obviously failed design.

During my daily ride from Bethnal Green to North Greenwich, which takes me about 35 minutes one-way, I find many examples of bad design that directly concern me. It is really obvious that, because of its history, London was never designed for cyclists. London has a very car-dominant culture, the streets are narrow, there are almost no bike lanes and there are only a few points where it is possible to cross the Thames with a bike. I am using the pedestrian tunnel, which connects Island Gardens with Greenwich since most other tunnels are for cars only; or if cyclists are allowed to use the very tiny walkways, they will face smog and dyspnoea due to the bad ventilation.

Integrating cyclists within this car-dominant and old city structure is a difficult task. Hence London’s streets today seem to incorporate a mixture of different sings, road marking and half-hearted additional concessions to cyclists.

Workarounds

On both sides, the city planners as well as the cyclists adapted to this design challenge from their own perspective. Planners would introduce tiny cycle marks on the road in different, confusing shapes and colour coding. Cyclists would arm themselves with heavy don’t-run-me-over-and-kill-me equipment such as helmets, hi-vis neon safety waistcoats and blinking lights wherever they can be mounted on the bike and body. I have never seen such a dress code of cyclists anywhere in the world, but it clearly expresses the worries of bikers here, because they just don’t feel safe on the streets of London (despite a actually small number of casualties). From a designer’s perspective, one could see London’s streets as an example for non-functional visual language: The confusion and chaos is painted right onto the streets.

Street art or road marking. You decide. Source: Author’s own

Street art or road marking. You decide. Source: Author’s own

Another interesting part of London’s bike rage experience is behaviour: Look at the pedestrian tunnel. Cycling is forbidden and bikers should dismount. However, everyone just keeps cycling there, since it is just one of the few points where cyclists can actually cross the Thames and every one is in a rush anyway.

Bad design management: When workarounds don't work for the user

Crossing the Thames. Source: Author’s own

On the other hand cars and buses ignore the bike markings on the road, so often the cyclist would not be able to pass through on the very left of the road, which forces another, very dangerous, adaption to this design failure, which is that most cyclists would break out and overtake on the right side of the road and career back in – where cars and buses don’t expect them to appear.

Cyclist wearing London bikers uniform breaking out to the right hand side of the street. Bus blocking cycling path. Source: Author’s own

Dangerous cycling. Busses regularly block cycling paths. Source: Author’s own

I feel sorry for most car and particularly bus drivers, because they are very careful and tolerant and don’t dare to overtake in narrow passages. Often I am riding faster than a bus and overtake it whenever it stops at a bus stop. Then again, the bus will overtake me, if traffic allows, and then be overtaken by me again at the next bus stop. This way we are both constantly disrupting each other and slowing down the general traffic. Since separate bike lanes do not exist, every road user gets in each other’s way and causes frustration and a slow down of traffic.

Design Needs Disruption

It is easy to see how little the percentage of space of the average London road is assigned to cycling traffic (red lines). Furthermore the space that is assigned to bikes is not functional. Cyclists are required to ride where all the cars park, where the road is in worse condition and where drain covers make it impossible to have a smooth cycling experience.

Basic sketch of average London street layout. Around 3% (red) of the road belong to the cyclist and is blocked by obstacles. Source: Author’s own

The part of the road allocated to cyclists is often blocked or in bad condition. Source: Author’s own

The original road design, which can never be functional for this kind of traffic, limits the overall possibilities to manage cycling in the city by using road marking and sign language. A re-design would need further disruption and creative destruction to come up with a working solution. It is time for drastic measures like reclaiming (some) streets to bikes, block out the cars, enforce traffic speed control and to build separate bike lanes.

Facts:

£75 
Average annual cost of maintaining a bicycle’ (Dunn, 2008, p.1)

Planet saver It doesn’t get much greener than cycling: 2kg of carbon are saved for every short journey that is made using a bike instead of a car.’ (Dunn, 2008, p.1)

£1,200 Annual savings in contrast to a monthly Oyster card 18+ ticket with student discount. (Source: Author’s calculation)

Bethnal Green to O2 London Only about 10 minutes slower over 9 miles, than public transport. (Source: Author’s experience)


Bibliography

Websites

Dunn, Sam. (2008). ‘Cycling’. The Guardian. June.[online] Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2008/jun/16/cycling?INTCMP=SRCH (Accessed 18.10.12)