I’ve been commuting in a cycling desert these past few years.
This fact was brought home to me this past Tuesday morning. I had to be in Vauxhall for a meeting that started at 9.30am, which meant – instead of my usual trek across north London – I joined thousands of others heading into the centre.
It was like no experience I’ve had for the past four and a bit years.
My route took me from Stoke Newington, through Angel and down to Holborn, after which it turned into something of a sightseeing trip, taking in Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Big Ben and the Tate Britain before finally arriving at the somewhat more mundane Vauxhall.
It wasn’t the sights along the way that made the journey so remarkable. No, it was the sheer number of other cyclists. For virtually the entire route, I was one of many people on bikes, all of us jockeying for position along the roads and at the lights: anything up to 15 or so cyclists at some junctions.
Compare this to my usual commute. Though I start out deep in cycling territory, there are few other cyclists going in the same direction as me. On a really good day, I might see 6 or 7 other cyclists at the junction of Hornsey Road and Tollington Road. But as soon as we reach Holloway Road, they drop away – off to Camden, mostly – while I continue my solitary journey up to Tufnell Park and beyond.
Over the past four years, I’ve become used to being almost the only cyclist around – pretty much in the same way that, when I used to commute into central London, I got used to the presence of all the other cyclists. I don’t think I gave it much thought, except when someone got in my way.
Now, though, I realise how much I miss them. I miss the feeling of being part of a group. I miss being part of something.
For most of my commute, I have to fit in around the traffic. I have to squeeze past 4x4s far too big for the narrow streets they’re being driven down. I have to head down the middle of the road – or even on the other side of the road – if I want to avoid getting stuck in the traffic. I sometimes have no choice but to get stuck, as there is simply no room for me.
But on Tuesday, it was the other way round. The traffic had to fit in around me and the other cyclists.
Were there always this many of us? Either there weren’t, or my years in the cycling desert have made me forget. There are just so many people on bikes in central London. It’s extraordinary.
So many cyclists, in fact, that what little cycling infrastructure currently exists – an advance stop box here, a painted white line there – seems completely inadequate. It’s like trying to squeeze into a pair of trousers you’ve long since outgrown.
Rather than get frustrated, though, it actually gave me hope. Surely we must have reached critical mass? Surely we’ve got to the point where sheer numbers mean our needs can no longer be ignored? Here’s hoping.