USA Today 20 September 2005
London Commuters Opting to Pedal to Work
LONDON — For years, Jon Wright considered commuting the 10 miles to work by bicycle. But it wasn't until the terrorist bombings on London's subway and bus system on July 7 that he finally decided to make the leap.
"It should have really taken less than the threat of being blown up to make me jump on a bike, but I'm now recommending it to everyone I see, much to their annoyance," says Wright, 32, a hotel manager. He says he has lost 7 pounds and saved $185 a month in public transportation costs.
It's not quite Amsterdam or Copenhagen, where commuting by bike is the norm, but London is quickly becoming a major cycling city. Much of the shift is a direct result of the bombings, which killed 52 people.
On cycling websites, London's new cyclists such as Wright refer to themselves as "bomb dodgers."
No hard figures are available on the number of cyclists in the city. A census in 2001 found that 300,000 daily journeys were made by bicycle. The Transport for London office estimates cycling has increased 52% in the capital since then, based on the number of cyclists crossing bridges over the River Thames.
Still, only 2% of Londoners cycle to work, compared with 20% in Copenhagen and 28% in Amsterdam.
London Mayor Ken Livingstone, a bicycle enthusiast, wants to increase cycling 80% by 2010. "Cycling is the fastest, cheapest, most healthy and environmentally friendly way to get around London, and more and more people are taking it up," Livingstone said by e-mail. "The number of cyclists has doubled over the last five years, while those killed or seriously injured ... has fallen by 40%."
Under the London Cycling Action Plan, Livingstone envisions transforming London into a world-class cycling city to reduce congestion and pollution. London now has 273 miles of bike routes, half built since 2000. The goal is 560 miles by 2010.
The sudden influx of cyclists after the July attacks took London by surprise. In July, the number of bike commuters was 26% higher than the same period last year, according to the transport office. On the day of the bombings, which crippled the transportation system for weeks, bicycle shops sold out of their stock within hours.
"We had adults buying children's bikes just so they could get home," says Andy Guard, a salesman at Evans Cycles in London's business district of Holborn. "Since the bombings, our business has been up every day. It seems like everyone has abandoned the Tube (subway) and is cycling to work."
Adam Coffman of the Cyclists Touring Club, Britain's largest cycling advocacy group, says the real turning point came in February 2003 when London implemented the Congestion Charge, a $9.25-a-day day fee to drive a car into downtown. The aim: to reduce traffic and pollution. The fee increased to $14.80 on July 4. Rising gas prices--now at the equivalent of $7 a gallon--and a nationwide battle against obesity also have spurred commuters to switch to bikes or walk, Coffman says.
The jump has jammed bike paths during rush hour. Veteran cyclists bemoan newer riders, who they say lack skills and etiquette. "They're not very good. They just push off without looking," says Nayla El-Solh, who commutes 7 miles to work each way.
Police launched a campaign last week against aggressive cyclists. In the first four days, 153 bikers were cited for running red lights, riding on the sidewalk and other infractions. Offenders had the choice of paying a $50 fine or attending a 15-minute safety lecture.
The presence of more cyclists has not translated into more accidents or fatalities, even though bike helmets, which are not required, are not routinely worn. Eight bicycle fatalities were reported in 2004 in London, down from 16 the previous year. One cyclist died this year.
"We and other cyclists say that more cycling equals safer cycling," Coffman says.
Salesman [Andy] Guard says the biggest mistake new cyclists make is not realizing they must obey the same road rules as motorists. "I've actually had people tell me that they thought red lights did not apply to them," he says.
Demand for bikes means thefts are up. More than 15,000 are stolen every year in London, Coffman says. Bikes are chained--often illegally--to just about every fixed object, from lampposts to private fences.
"Most of us accept the fact that eventually your bike will be nicked," Louisa Cook says as she shopped for a new bike recently. Cook's bike was stolen last month outside a pub even though she had secured it with two locks and removed the seat.
Guard says he has lost three bikes in two years to thieves. He has switched to a foldable bike he can carry and store inside.
Cook and Guard both had bike insurance, a standard purchase for bike owners. In central London, insurance costs about $75 a year for a $600 bike.
With the weather cooling and the public regaining confidence in subways and pubs, the cycling frenzy has stabilised. Transport for London reports that bus and subway ridership is back to normal levels.
Carlton Reid, editor of the trade magazine BikeBiz, says the goal now is to keep the new cyclists riding despite London's notoriously chilly, wet winter weather. "There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad equipment," Reid says.
He hopes at least 20% of the new cyclists will bike through the winter. Cook echoes his sentiments. "It doesn't matter to me whether it's rain or shine, I still have loads of fun out there."