To get to Japan it was necessary to cycle across Central London, from St Pancras station in the Northeast to Paddington Station in the West. Cycling in London used to be an activity for battle scarred cycle couriers and adrenaline junkies who didn’t mind mixing it with the traffic. To survive you had to be very assertive and prepared to break a few traffic laws.
Recently, however, the charismatic Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has pushed through a central London road charging system which, despite pessimistic predictions and a great deal of hot air from the pro-car lobby, has met all its aims, reducing traffic congestion, speeding up bus services dramatically and creating a much more humane environment in the capital city. All of this benefits cyclists and makes cycling in central London more more reasonable and normal.
The London Cycle Network produce a series of free maps of cycle routes in London, including one covering Central London which will meet the needs of most visitors.
In theory there has been a great delay of activity aimed at providing a comprehensive network of cycling routes in the city. In practice the results are probably very useful for Londoners but not so good for visitors, mainly because both the maps and the signage are less than helpful.
The maps are very detailed but crowded with information and lacking any discrimination between through routes and local routes – so if you want to get across the city you have to guess which of many possible routes is going to work for you, then every time you check your progress you have to focus again on the complicated map, discover that you have wandered off your planned route and work out a new plan.
The signage rarely seems to be indicating anywhere you want to go to (also probably a result of having no clear “through” routes and when you do find a direction that suits you the signage often disappears at crucial points, leaving you lost on a major road with traffic pounding past in several directions.
This would not be a problem in Amsterdam or Tokyo where just about every road is cycleable, but in London you really need to follow the designated cycle routes to avoid traffic or one-way systems that take you miles out of your way.
Having said all that, since London introduced road charging, cycling in the city has become a very effective way to get around and I now take my bike whenever I travel to or through London. On my way to Japan, once I had crossed the heavy traffic on the ring road that thunders past St Pancras Station (soon to become the terminus for Eurostar trains from Europe as well as services from the Midlands and North East of England) I found myself suddenly in a tranquil zone, with little traffic and plenty of opportunity to look around and feel part of the life of the city.
Apart from losing my way a couple of times, this was the most enjoyable and relaxed part of my journey from Sheffield to Tsukuba (helped by a fine sunny morning). Since then I have found London an interesting and enjoyable place to cycle through, as long as you take a firm line with buses and taxis. There is always somewhere to stop for a coffee and a snack beside the road, and you get a much better feeling for the character and landscape of the city than most visitors, who experience London as a series of islands joined by the tube lines