Cycling safely in central London; the tips we all should know

Six cyclists being killed on our roads in a fortnight should be concern for us all.  Each death is shocking and has led to a furore of debate, comment and opinion about how London can avoid such a shocking run of events happening again.  Some of this comment has been very smart, some of it ridiculous and some of it downright offensive.  Whilst the powers that be get their heads around what really needs to be done, journeys by bicycle continue, and the dangers which are present on our roads remain.  Until more is done we have to ride with the conditions we find, so the following helpful hints are intended to serve as a simple guide to help us all keep ourselves safe.  



It's winter, it's dark, and lights on your bicycle are not only a legal requirement they're also damn useful for helping other road users see you.  Flashing or stationary, big or small, make sure there's a white one at the front and a red one at the back.  If you don't believe lights help in a city, take a ride at rush hour with a friendly London taxi driver.  Lights are useful, there's no doubt about it.

Look and signal

If you ever had a driving lesson, your instructor will have drummed "Mirror, signal, manoeuvre" in to you.  It's the same when you're astride your bicycle but in the absence of any mirrors you have to be able to look behind you safely.  If you're a bit wobbly, practise riding up and down off-road until you are sure you can glance behind you safely.  You should use hand signals to let other road users - not least other cyclists - know where you're going. 

It's all in the eyes!

Making eye contact with other road users always sounds like a rudimentary way of sharing the road, but it's surprisingly effective.  When waiting at traffic lights, turn to acknowledge the people in the vehicles waiting behind you and ensure they've seen you.  If a car ahead is waiting to pull out of a side road, give them a long hard stare and ensure they know you are there.

Cycle out from parked cars and the kerb

It's tempting to keep as close to the edge of the road as you can and stay out of other people's way, but this isn't necessarily the safest place to ride.  Though it may seem daunting, you're much better off riding a metre or a metre and a half away from the curb, where debris collects and the drains are, and away from parked cars where you are at risk of being "doored", when someone might open a door in to your path and knock you off your bike or make you swerve in to the path of passing traffic.

A lorry's forward blind spot - look familiar?

Keep away from lorries

Much of the above is common sense, but dealing with large vehicles including buses and HGVs takes a bit more care and attention.  Even though we think we are sharing the road with other vehicles, there are instances where large vehicles cannot see us at all because of their often significant blind spots.

Lorries pose a very distinct and dangerous threat to cyclists; they account for about 45% of all London cyclist’s death, but just 5% of traffic. As early as 1994 the British Medical Journal, in ‘Death of Cyclists in London’ said “the risk of heavy goods vehicles being involved in accidents in which cyclists die in inner London can be estimated at five times that of buses, 14 times that of light goods vehicles, and 30 times that of cars.”  That report recommended an urban lorry ban some nineteen years and many cyclist’s deaths ago. 

As I've previously written on ibikelondon there is no such thing as a safe HGV to cycle around: most of the time trucks cannot see you, their drivers cannot hear you, and they will not feel you if you are caught up in their wheels. 
A TfL film demonstrating the blind spot on a turning articulated lorry - now imagine this actually moving down the street.
Stay back, or get ahead.
You should be aware that Advanced Stop Lines, or bike boxes, are approximately the same size as a large lorry's forward blind spot.  If you are in a blind spot, the lorry driver cannot see you and may not know you are there when they pull away.  If you're waiting in a bike box and a very large lorry comes up and stops behind you, consider getting ahead (perhaps dismount your bike and push).
If a lorry is up ahead at a junction it may be about to turn, even if it is not indicating.  Even if it in the outside lane, it may still turn left as some lorries need to swing out to the right before they can turn left, and vice versa.  Do not assume that the lorry is going to travel in the direction that you think.  If you are along the side of the lorry as it begins to turn, there is a very high risk that you may be crushed between the truck and the side of the road, or roadside railings.  Any crash with a lorry, even at low speeds, is likely to leave you with serious life changing injuries.  As such, do not go down the side of lorries at junctions, even if a bike box or bike lanes invites you to do so.  At junctions where lorries are ahead, stay back.
Helmets, high vis and wearing headphones
There is no conclusive evidence that helmets or high visability clothes could have prevented any of the recent fatalities in London, and evidence about the effects of wearing headphones are patchy.  I would argue that it is useful to make yourself visable (I'd opt for reflectivity rather than high vis), and wearing headphones is at best not sensible.  The choice is yours, but make sure your priorities are right; it is my belief that knowing how to limit your exposure to danger on the roads as oppose to just ameliorating your exposure to it should be the basis for many years of safe cycling.
How do you keep safe on your bike ride?  Why not share you safe cycling tips with us all below?

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Lucy Holmes said...

As a cyclist and a biker, the thing I try to maintain above all else is calmness.

Ride safe, home safe. Don't rush, you don't have to be at the front of every queue, you don't have to pass every stationery vehicle. You don't have to cycle fast all the time.

In London there seems to be a general road culture of pushiness. Try to remember that getting ahead of that one bus, one car, one lorry probably won't make a significant difference to your journey time.

Jemma said...

I'm lucky enough to be able to commute with my boyfriend as we both work near each other. I feel a lot safer riding in a pair!

Philip said...

Wonderful post, you cover everything about equipment and behaviours to take for avoiding collision with motor vehicles (in specific bike boxes are one of the most misleading thing designed on the roads, because makes you feel safe when you are not).
However there is something that I think londoners should pay attention firstly in all season and I am saying as a London cyclist, proud to be: the attitude.
First of all: it's not a race. On the contrary, I see everyday cyclists that overtakes other cyclists just for stopping in front of them at the next traffic lights, I see people pushing on the pedals as if they are in a crono. If you want to train do it not in busy roads and in rush hours, go to the gym, if you don't have time there is no reason for putting at risk everyone else for this reason.
Londoners are competitive, busy and often frustrated people: the road must not be the "relief valve" or where to show supremacy, impulsiveness is more dangerous than everything else, this is valid for all road users.
If someone makes a mistake, don't get angry at him, it will never helpful.
It's not a race, it's not a battle and there isn't a trophy or a bonus at the end, it's just a way for coming home.

Fez said...

Here's a tip for looking behind you. Many people when they go to look behind turn their shoulders and swerve out the direction they're looking. Not exactly safe since you haven't yet figured out what's going on there.

To combat the shoulder turn, think about touching your chin to your shoulder as you look behind. That way you'll push that shoulder forward and keep from swerving as you look behind.

Monchberter said...

A nice round up.

For me personally I also think reflective clothing is a great help when it's particularly overcast or dark. But I wouldn't go so far as to get a jacket, a simple Sam Browne belt can do the job perfectly well.

I'm a real stickler for not looking like a cycle geek, so stuff like this is really handy.

Also a head mounted light can be very useful for spotting potholes in the dark.

Unknown said...

I would say a couple of things that have helped me.

1) Think about two or three cars ahead and seek to avoid junctions where there are lots of lorries etc. It helps to wear glasses (non-tinted) as then you have to blink less to wipe away London's grime.

2) Be assertive. The way I think of it is "it's my life, and I'm going this way now". This also applies to using whatever means you can to avoid injury, no matter how many people may moan at you.

3) Avoid sudden changes of direction, move gradually so other people can anticipate you.

4) Plan a route which avoids big junctions - getting a free map from TfL is a start, "citymapper" app helps sometimes.

5) Do not argue with morons.

One girl, two wheels said...

I think it's important to always give yourself space at the kerb, making sure you are out far enough to swerve away from plonkers as well as pot holes.

I also make sure I am wearing reflective stuff, but most importantly I make my bike visible from the sides with side facing lights and reflectors. It really makes you stand out.

Unknown said...

I often stay back, behaving as any other vehicle and queueing, if there is a lorry or large vehicle at the front of the traffic queue.

I am usually the only cyclist to do so, and it's horrifying to see so many squeeze past on the left, right into the front of the traffic.

Also really hate mopeds and motorcycles creeping forward into bike boxes. What is going on with that? Motorcycles seem to behave terribly in London!

Unknown said...

I’ll second Jemma’s point about riding with a friend: you have someone to look out for you, and the social aspect can make your ride more relaxed.

Also, finding the right route is really important: if you can avoid the main flow of construction traffic, and keep clear of taxi drivers’ favourite rat runs, you’ll encounter far fewer dangerous and stressful situations. This takes a bit of work and ingenuity, and you can find yourself sacrificing directness for pleasantness, but I think it’s well worth it until we have safe routes on main roads.

ibikelondon said...

All of these tips are fantastic, keep them coming!

I especially like the idea of planning your route and finding quieter streets if you can, and riding with a buddy sounds like a fun way of making things that little bit more pleasent.

@Kathyrn Hide I find it frustrating when motorbikes and couriers squeeze in to the advanced stop line too, especially if they are very big and powerful bikes. I understand that enforcing ASLs will be one of the priorities of the 2,500 traffic police who are currently being deployed on London's streets to look out for itinerant drivers (and cyclists!), so hopefully that will help get some education out there.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of this. I invested in a better front light a year or so ago and have been so glad I did - having a light that is not only visible but actually lights up a good deal of the area in front of you is so useful in the parks and so on after dark.

Also, when it comes to riding assertively, I agree you should ride out at least a metre in general, but when you are in a situation where someone passing you would be dangerous (you are about to turn right, you are approaching an area of the road that narrows, you are just riding down a narrow road with parked cars on both sides) it's really worth taking the lane - riding out right in the middle so that people can't pass you. Sometimes it annoys drivers but really it is not going to slow down their journey and it stops stupid people doing something to endanger you.


jimbo said...

with regards to Phillip's comment earlier about overtaking etc - Sometimes the issue is slow and indecisive cyclists - where you are almost pushed to overtake to avoid a collision. You are not sure if they are stopping, slowing down or turning.
Everyone should maintain a nice steady pace to maintain the traffic flow. And keep pedalling!

I also report pot holes etc to the council - there were some pretty nasty ones next to sharp drain covers that have now been filled.
Process is pretty easy - search Council Name & Potholes, and you can usually find an online form or such. The more of us that do that, the better the roads will be (councils have a duty of care I think to respond to reports quickly)

Liz said...

On the subject of lights, it's a good idea to have a main light and a backup, with one of them on steady and one flashing. This also means that if the batteries die mid-ride you still have one working light. I also try and give good/patient drivers a thumbs up, smile or wave, it's important to reinforce the good behaviour!

jimbo said...

@liz - yes I agree, being polite, lots of hand signals to drivers etc (nice ones!), can only change their view of us for the better

James said...

A quick addition to the route planning points: Use You'll get three options for every route: Fastest, Balanced and Quietest.

The Quietest routes avoid main roads where possible and will probably point out bike paths you didn't know existed. On my commute the Fastest route is via the unpleasant Superhighway 7, the Quietest via London Cycle Network 3 - for 2/3rds of my 9 mile journey I encounter very few motorised vehicles.

soapytwist said...

I was going to make the point that Kathryn made above^^^.

In Central London (I cycle from Liverpool street to Hammersmith and back during rush hours), I find it helps to change my outlook into thinking that I am a vehicle rather than a bike, and that being on two wheels doesn't necessarily give me the right to queue-jump.
Yes, there are points where you can safely trundle through stationary traffic to the front of the lights, but judgement should tell you when this might catch you out. Look ahead and if the lights have been red for a length of time, it's more than likely they'll turn green when you're still in amongst the queue.

The same thing helps when on the move; if you act like a vehicle, you'll get treated like one (albeit a slow-moving and irritating one). Riding out a little further away from the kerb may cause impatience on the part of the drivers who might be stuck behind you, but:
1) If they're stuck behind you, it at least means they are aware of your presence on the road, and
2) you will probably delay them for a maximum of 20-30 seconds (or until the next set of lights), and they'll forget that you annoyed them in an intstant. If they knock you off, they'll remember it much longer.

Jitensha Oni said...

Make sure the bike itself is maintained in good condition, particularly the brakes.

bikemapper said...

The top tip for cycling safely in Amsterdam is cycling safely in Amsterdam is 'Know where to ride'. The second one is 'See the signs', and the last one is 'Use a map.'

It says: "Not all Amsterdam streets are meant for cyclists, so "winging it" without a route plan can be inefficient and dangerous."

Here in London, of course, things are very different. Before the protest at Bow Roundabout recently, Lucy left a comment on the LCC website: "Anyone guiding rides over there? I have no idea how to get there, and I won't be allowed to take my bike on the train at that time of day.

"I don't even know where the roundabout is, and Google maps is not helping. Any tips?"

A few minutes later she added a further comment: "No, wait, I've found the roundabout, but still no real idea how to get there from Richmond, Any ideas? :)"

I don't know about Citymapper, but the 'fastest' route on CycleStreets lists 71 separate instructions, whereas the fastest route on my proposed design for a revitalised LCN would show just two.

Paul M said...

Like you I am sceptical about high-vis and helmets - I can see a role for helmets when riding off-road in the countryside and no other vehicles would be involved in any incident, but they are about as useful as a f*rt in a spacesuit when it comes to mixing with buses and HGVs. I personally don't wear high-vis, but I do use my bike lights and I ride in "primary", as a fluorescent canary would still not be seen by most motorists if they are in their peripheral vision, ie by the kerb, but full-central they are visible without. It is largely a question of physiology - the incidence of egregious negligence or recklessness by motorists is still thankfully rare. I do however exaggerate my primary position as I approach a pinch-point - a look over the shoulder to check the coast is clear, a hand signal and then a steady drift rightwards so that I occupy the centre of the lane as I pass through. I do this every night on Stamford St just approaching the Coin Street development. The following taxis etc have never so far taken umbrage, perhaps because any fool can see the back of the traffic queue 50 yards further on.

Finally, I am not sure about the headphones point - I would say headphones are OK except (a) keep the volume down so you can still hear ambient noise and (b) never make phone calls (Boris - please take note) because even hands-free they are a distraction and are a dumb idea whether you are riding a bike or driving a car.

Rob Agar said...

Two slightly contradictory observations from 10+ years cycling in London:

1. Give yourself room. Car drivers seem to assume that they can pass you about as close as you are to the kerb. The more space you take, they more they give.

2. You are invisible. Never rely on someone having seen you even if they look right at you.

Paul M said...

A further thought, this time on jumping the lights to get away from impatient, revving lorries and vans.

If you simply get off your bike, and walk along pushing it beside you, placing both feet down one after the other, you become a pedestrian again, and cease to be a rider of a bicycle. This was laid down in a court of appeal case, Crank v Brooks (1980 RTR 441). The presiding judge, Waller LJ, actually refers to the defendant as a foot passenger" but same difference.

This is a technique I often use, for example to carry on round a left turn, or where there is a safe crossing to get to the other side of the junction on foot.

Dave H said...

There are 2 main bits of safety kit which we've had fitted for the past few million years. Evolution soon sorted out those hom saps who did't use eyes and ears effectively, and falling over when running (or running into a tree has delivered a body that manages to take the odd knock at a typical running speed of 15-20mph and generally bounce back.

Worth noting though that a huge download/upload facility between you and other folk takes place through eyes and visual signals. but it has only a 120 degree scan at any one time. Lock in with ears and you get that 360 degree alert to look for the source of the sound.

We do though fail in making good use of sound, and interpreting the reaction to it. If you get no response chances are the other road user is deaf....

Woman also report a greater difficulty in looking back when cycling - a possible cause being that they are riding bikes built for men, with differing body proportions and turning the head & shoulders makes it more likely they will be turning the 'bars

Alex said...

Totally agree about hi vis - on a lit urban street I can't see how it makes much if any difference to your visibility, particularly when on a well-lit bike. I saw a tweet from a cabbie earlier saying pretty much the same thing.

I would also second comments about using at least two lights front and rear, one flashing one static. Not only does it give some backup in case one unexpectedly packs up, I find it is often harder to judge the speed of an approaching bike when it has only flashing lights.

WilliamW said...

I make sure to give considerate drivers - ie those that hang back and only overtake when it is safe to do so - a thank you wave of the hand. I have also taken to politely telling drivers who encroach on advanced stop boxes that cameras are now being used to issue tickets and it is £100 and three points. Most are grateful for the warning.

David said...

Learn a martial art. Sorry, but I am sick, tired and fed up of *begging* the public authorities to fulfil their statutory duty to uphold the law. Car drivers, lorry drivers and bus drivers now enjoy _de facto_ impunity to assault cyclists, whether it be with their vehicle or with their fists.

Fight back.

Anonymous said...

The sad truth is that those who have died while cycling probably also had top tips for safety, things they always did or always avoided to make sure they stayed safe – until one fateful day when some truck driver smashed into them when the light turned green, or turned left into them at a junction.

Of course we all have great tips for staying alive but the truth is we've been lucky enough to not be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many of those dead were experienced cyclists with lights, helmets, etc.

We feel the need to believe that we have some self-preserving skills, some great awareness, some fast reflexes, otherwise we probably wouldn't ride a bike in London at all. But our safety is really in the hands of those around us, driving dangerous motor vehicles.

Sure, we can do this or wear that to make ourselves safer, but even the safest cyclist in the world is no match for a badly-driven tipper truck.

Sorry if that's a rather depressing comment.

Anonymous said...

My safety tip - Vote for a different mayor at the next election.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I am seconding the note written by Department for Transport.
Randomness and luck play a major role in whether we are involved in an accident or not.
The sheer quantity of damaged street furniture is the evidence under our noses.
A flattened bollard on the junction of Old Broad street and London Wall for example. What happened? Was the bollard in a vehicle's blindspot? Was it inadequately lit up or acting in an unpredictable manner?
Obviously not, but if someone was incapable of avoiding a glorified static light bulb then I don't hold any hope for them being capable of safely interacting with cyclists and pedestrians.


The3oLand said...

As a Dutch cyclist the single one thing I can recommend is to stay away from a lorry or bus. As a rule of thumb, if you cannot see the lorry driver through his rear mirror he will not be able to see you.

Kevin Cordina said...

To report road problems this website is excellent:-

It directs the comments to the appropriate authority and the submissions seem to have an effect, often I receive an email explaning what is going to be done and when (or why not).

bikemapper said...

Hi Mark, researching my latest blog, Doing it quicker, I came across this comment from Charlie Lloyd, which rather suggests conventional ideas about HGV blind-spots might be wrong. Thought you'd be interested to know. - Simon

Unknown said...

"Paul M said...

Finally, I am not sure about the headphones point - I would say headphones are OK except (a) keep the volume down so you can still hear ambient noise"

You can get waterprood bluetooth speakers that mount on your handlebars and pair up with your smartphone for playing music through. Far safer than headphones/earbuds and benny-bonus, pedestrians can hear you coming up behind them (provided they haven't got headphones on/earbuds plugged in

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