Having grown up in London and done a lot of cycling in and around the city, every time I visit home I am keen to see how the cycling culture there is developing. While travelling around London, I often find myself reflecting on how the burgeoning cycling culture in Europe’s largest city compares to Germany’s capital, after spending almost 4 years as a citizen of Berlin. Here are a few key observations:
1) Cycling has become really, really popular
I haven’t lived in London for a few years, but I’m sure that when I did nowhere near the amount of people were riding bikes as do now. Since the introduction of the congestion charge in 2003, bike use has grown exponentially, and seemingly at an even more accelerated rate in the last four or five years. A new report claims that cycling superhighways are “moving five times more people per square metre than the main carriageway.” According to official statistics, morning cycle use will soon overtake car use, if cycling’s popularity continues to increase at its current trajectory.
2) Commuting in London is serious business.
Riding your bike to work in London isn’t like riding your bike to work in Berlin. In Berlin, most people seem happy enough riding along at a normal pace, minding their own business, with those who ride as fast as possible being the exception, not the rule. It’s a normal part of everyday life, just like going to the bakery in the morning and buying 15 Schrippen (Berlinerisch for Brötchen) or starting your morning sitting on the U-Bahn with a bottle of Sternburg. In London, on the other hand, commuting is a fiercely competitive sport, with each athlete trying desperately hard to outdo the other. The speed people ride at is quite frankly, terrifying.
3) Londoners have fancy, fast bikes.
If you want to ride from your trendy East London apartment to your trendy East London office, and you want to do it fast, you don’t want to ride a sluggish old bike. No; you need the most modern, most expensive and most fashionable bike you can afford. Fast, light, racing bikes seem to dominate the bike-commuting landscape in modern-day London. As we reflected on bike culture over pints, a bike mechanic friend mused that the racing bike has become the modern day urbanite’s status symbol, just like a flashy car once was. I wouldn’t disagree. Things feel really different in Berlin, where most people ride pretty ordinary bikes and where it’s a lot rarer to see somebody on a super high-end bike.
4) Cycling Superhighways.
The redesigned London Cycle Superhighways (google for images) are a revelation, and cycling along London’s busy roads is obviously so much better than it used to be. They are wide enough to accommodate a considerable volume of cyclists, often totally separated from car traffic, and most importantly, a lot more visible to motorists and pedestrians. Berlin could really take a leaf out of London’s book to improve cycling safety on some of its busy roads.
5) Londoners shop in fancy bike shops.
It’s no secret that London is an expensive city, populated by plenty of people with plenty of cash. Bike shops reflect this. As well as ’boutique’ stores such as Brick Lane Bikes in Shoreditch and Cloud 9 Cycles in Bloomsbury, the chain stores also seem to offer an extensive range of high end bikes, especially in comparison to the average Berlin store.
6) Cycling is primarily a younger man’s game.
It seems middle-classed young men virtually dominate London’s cycling population. I saw many fewer women, hardly any older people and almost no children riding in the city. I’d love to know why. Is it more dangerous? Is there less of a cycling culture? Thankfully, in Berlin cycling demographics seem a lot more equal.