Commuting with a bicycle: a Cambridge cyclist in central London

This article was published in 2005, in Newsletter 62.

A commuter heads for London.
Image as described adjacent

From 1965 until I retired in 1999, I travelled by train from Cambridge almost every day to work at the London School of Economics. For some years it was much too expensive to take a bicycle with me on the train. The cost was the same as a child fare, 50%, I think, of the adult passenger fare. But then the railway authorities saw sense and realised that, if bicycles were carried free of charge, more passengers could be attracted onto the trains. I felt liberated and from then on always took my bicycle on the train from Cambridge and cycled from either King’s Cross or Liverpool Street to the LSE.

Cycling in central London, always good, is now better than ever.

Traffic has been reduced by the motorists’ congestion charge, now increasing from £5 to £8 a day. The current disruption of underground and bus services can be avoided by cycling. Journey times by bicycle are highly predictable, much more certain than by any other form of transport. I know that twelve minutes from King’s Cross to the LSE is enough except on those rare occasions when I get a puncture. And even then there is an easy way of getting there more or less on time: London taxis take bicycles.

I have my own methods for coping with London road conditions. I usually used to have a heavy load (over ten kilos) of books and papers with me but wouldn’t use panniers because they made the bicycle too wide. Instead I carried a bag strapped to a strong rear carrier by four bungees. I also avoided mountain bikes with wide handlebars. I developed the habit of always having the pedal on the kerb side raised when free-wheeling which makes it easy to put the raised foot down on the kerb when squeezed by traffic. I used fluorescent straps or clothing and an illuminated fluorescent right cuff which gave added confidence when turning right in traffic at night.

Travelling from Cambridge to London by train with a bicycle is easy. It’s free and no booking is needed. Bromptons and similar folding cycles can, when folded, be carried on any train to London. Other bicycles are prohibited at peak hours (on trains timed to arrive in London between 0700 and 0929 or to leave London between 1600 and 1859) on Monday to Friday. They can be taken at all times on Saturdays and Sundays.

On the trains bicycles are placed against the offside sliding doors. At most two can be placed in each doorway. The doorways are a few inches too narrow for standard bicycles and it’s better to have the front wheel projecting than the back wheel because of the danger that other passengers may tear their clothing on rear reflectors or mudguard stays. Always try to sit where the bicycle is in view. Be alert whenever the train is approaching a station. At King’s Cross, Liverpool Street, Cambridge and certain other stations in between (such as Stevenage), one cannot be sure which side of the train people will be getting out from. Bicycles may be in the way or even drop out onto the platform if the doors against which they are leaning are opened before cyclists get there.

The railway companies operating the services to London say that they welcome bicycles on their services. There are fewer restrictions than on most other train services and space for bicycles is almost never fully occupied. I have in general found the arrangements to be free of hassle except on those rare occasions when cyclists or others act unreasonably. We are fortunate to have such good arrangements. Long may they continue.

James Woodburn