My wife, and daughter and I took a trip to London this summer to visit some high school friends, and have a look around. Our preferred method of touristing when in a new city, is simply to lace up our shoes and start walking. It’s useful to have a bit of a plan to avoid spending all your time in an uninteresting (or overly sketchy) neighbourhood, but it’s also valuable to keep that plan flexible. As it turns out London is the perfect place for this approach. What a diverse and interesting city. There are discoveries everywhere!
One of the things that hit me almost right away was the pervasiveness of two-wheelers. In my entirely unscientific and undisciplined study, I counted that about 1 in every 4 or 5 vehicles had two wheels. Of these, the largest proportion was scooters, many of them being used as delivery vehicles with huge top boxes bearing a crimson “L” (Loaded? Laden? LOOK-OUT?). The next most popular class would have to be the small displacement “city bike”; 125-250cc. Then in third, were a great many larger semi-naked bikes. Suzuki’s Bandit and the Honda’s 919 seemed to be very popular choice. There was a smattering of BMW’s, some supersports, a few supermotos, and even a few Harleys (Sportsters mostly). Top boxes are very popular, but side bags were not. Ostensibly, because they interfere with lane splitting and filtering, which as everyone knows are behaviours that indicate the highest degree of social evolution.
By allowing motorcycles to lane split and filter, the government has implicitly incentivized riding a bike. While all the cagers are stuck in a row or crawling along, the nimbler bikes can swiftly percolate their way through traffic. Also, bikes seem to get a generous amount of preferential parking in the downtown areas. Reportedly, the average speed of a car within the city of London is about 17km/hr. I’d guess that the bikes probably average about 50% better. These incentives to ride a bike in London have very positive effects on the city as a whole.
The first and perhaps greatest benefit is a substantial reduction in traffic congestion, which is a considerable problem. Like North America, the vast majority of cars in London were single occupancy. Why waste the energy of dragging around 3000 lbs of metal to move 200 lbs of meat, when you can move that same weight with a 400 lb bike? It’s just common sense. The other big (potential) benefit to the city is air pollution. Now I recognize that this is a bit sticky, as bikes are not subject to the same emissions regulations as cars are, so it’s entirely possible for a bike to be less environmentally sound than a car. If emerging technologies (and/or legislation) move bikes to similar emissions standards, then the carbon footprint of the entire city can be considerably reduced. If we assume emissions scalability, a 125cc bike would produce only about 8% of the emissions of a 1600cc commuter car. All while consuming a fraction of the fuel, taking up a fraction of the road space, reducing parking load on the street, and travelling faster from place to place! This is an obvious no-brainer! City bikes are good for cities!
Granted, the emissions equivalency argument is a stretch; but the culture already exists, so there is an opportunity there if nothing else.
London winters are mild, so a hearty soul could easily ride year round. While in North America this proposition requires a degree of mental instability, even if we had London’s culture we would only enjoy the benefits during the warmer months. It’s just so rational, especially in the bigger cities. The North American propensity for driving the biggest possible vehicle alone is just insanity. It’s the same kind of adolescent petulance that the Europeans (rightly) criticize us for in other areas. Being the “New World” also entails being the “Immature World”.
Even the staunchest opponent of lane splitting, when not dragging their knuckles around or flatulating uncontrollably, would have to concede that under high congestion conditions with very low speeds, the risks are perfectly manageable to both motorcyclist and car pilot, right? Those of us who have mastered walking and breathing simultaneously all unanimously agree that lane splitting is a good thing all the time, but let’s take what we can get, and consider filtering to be a good first step. It’s a case of getting 80% of the benefit for 20% of the struggle.
The motorcycle culture in London also appears to be very pro-gear: another strong indication of their vast social superiority. Even the guys on little 125cc’s were usually wearing full gear! Gloves, boots, jacket, full-face helmet, and usually riding pants. These London riders seem to have a real knack for seeing the obvious and acting on it. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but some of my favourite organs are in my pants. No, I never ride without wrapping them in appropriate gear. Maybe the guys I see riding in beach shorts don’t have the same affinity for their dangly bits as I do for mine? Or perhaps it’s easier to gear up when Belstaff and Barbour are on your doorstep?
Fashion is as much a part of London’s bike scene as it is anywhere else, though they clearly gravitate more towards the café-racer style and less of the 1%er outlaw Harley thing. I personally favour the café style, so this appealed to me greatly. No offence to you outlaws out there, but that’s just not my tribe. I like rear shocks, it’s that affinity for my pants’ contents again.
I have to say I was very impressed with the apparent riders lifestyle in London, but it’s a city. A city of about 13 million people, and that means it’s tight. Other than the plentiful and lovely parks, it’s pretty unusual to get a sightline of more than about 75 feet before you’re looking at the face of building, pretty though it might be. This was the first thing that that struck me upon my return home; I could see for vast distances in almost every direction, and that really is a luxury that we North Americans (particularly those who reside outside major cities) take for granted. In London, you might be able to lane split, filter, get preferred parking, and be in a large motorcycle community, but you aren’t going to get that knees-in-breeze open road feeling. Worth it?