‘In town with the tandem’ or ‘A journey by cycle infrastructure design’

This may become the first of a more regular feature as we ask local members to share experiences of routes in and around Sutton and beyond. Thank you Dominic for this contribution and to you for reading. – Marcus

Posted on behalf of Dominic Hewlett

Images: Dominic Hewlett

At this time of year we travel to a well known cheesemonger in London Bridge, but this time instead of getting on the Overground, we took the tandem. We departed in the early afternoon under the winter sun, we took a route which mainly used quiet ways. The ‘Q routes’, you may not know them well, although they are signposted and marked on the road, experience and memory (either au naturel or supplemented by technology) is needed to navigate them. It’s a pity these are not found in London’s southern and outer boroughs.

To get to the start of one I was heading for, we rode four and a half miles on busy roads, this is not so pleasant. Some of the busy roads were avoided by using any cycle infrastructure available and not too far out of our way. Picking up the shared use path in Beddington Park meant going on a detour but it does save a short section of London Road. Hackbridge gave us our first queue of stationary traffic despite space on the bridge for advisory cycle lane markings in both directions. The straight run up to Mitcham common wasn’t too bad, neither excessively busy with stop start traffic nor speeding vehicles. A shared user path on the west side of Carshalton Road from Willow lane to the roundabout had the right blue sign, but little in the way of invitation to join it. A well signposted wide dropped kerb could get more cyclists to use it. I missed the new-ish bus lane through Mitcham town centre, so I ended up taking the one way system. So far there were a few good examples of cycle infrastructure but no sign of a cohesive network inviting people to ride more and further. The leg onwards to Tooting still lacks good cycle facilities.

Yes there is a shared footway along Figges Marsh, but again why use it? The same old problems lessens it’s usefulness. I doubt few ask themselves the questions “How can I get on it, and off it to get to my destination?”, “Will I encounter pedestrians?”. The highway engineer’s drawing lines amount to something of little value to a tandem, and lightly used by solos too.

Battling the cars (parked and moving), buses, and a few moped riders we got to Amen corner and some respite from competing for space. Up Rectory Lane where we veered off on Tooting Common. Again, no design to help you do this, thankfully speed humps and less traffic make it easy enough. A wide tree lined path skirts past the Tooting Athletics track on the right, and onto the Toucan crossing over Tooting Bec Road. Past the tennis courts and the ponds, mixing with pedestrians brings another challenge of steering around moving obstacles. Slow and easy was the best approach to get to Bedford Hill, and repetition of the same with many people out enjoying the good weather and open space.

We left behind the common, and worked our way up to the south circular on Cavendish Road. Speed humps are a curious object for a tandemist, as captain (front rider) I have to call out a warning so my stoker (rear rider) to brace for impact! Some are harder on the stoker than others, for most tandems the stoker can’t see much apart from the captain’s back, so there is no warning.

There is another aspect of riding a tandem which can impede it’s progress, and that’s space. Length means it’s harder to turn in tight spaces, and pull in to gaps when manoeuvring in narrow roads. Abbeville road is one of those narrow roads. When will drivers learn the art of patience and planning? Crossing over the A24 and CS7 gets us into open space once again. A little LTN measure on Windmill Drive is very welcome, no cars cutting through here. The cycle lanes across the common are narrow and segrated from the pedestrian paths. At traffic lights by Clapham Common North Side we waited, and waited… Why do cyclists have to wait so long for the green light on their phase? Through the old town and down Larkhall Rise. The Georgian houses flank the wide boulevard, and segregation provided by traffic wands, a new addition here since I last rode this way. Traffic was not so aggressive, perhaps the time of day influences the behaviour behind the wheel.

A Georgian circle face into the round ‘square’, one of the trees has silver discs hanging from it’s branches, the scattered flashes of light distracted me for a moment, perhaps this is a creative traffic calming measure…

Over South Lambeth Road and Little Portugal takes us into a mix of Georgian terrace and 1930s social high rise. Without aid from the digital navigator, I managed to get to Harleyford road, and skirted around the Oval cricket ground. Leaving the sporting stadia took us along a widened cycle lane, it was a contra flow lane but now it’s both ways with armadillos protecting it. Following the arches of the South Western mainline, brought us out at Lambeth Palace. We could keep on the quiet ways but we opted for the other side of the Thames.

The bustle of Lambeth Road roundabout was a shock from the quiet ways which were really quiet! Although the roundabout had received some changes to make it cycle friendly it no closer than NASA is getting to Mars!

Millbank Park on the left gave way to the York stone of Westminster, cycle traffic lights gives riders a fighting chance of getting ahead of the cars. A glimpse of Sir Kier crossing Whitehall could be good omen. Further up at the traffic lights, a wannabe RLJ-er reassessed his decision when a pedestrian stepped out in front of him, disk brakes saved both their skins.

Trafalgar Square is, well, busy! But we got around the traffic light forest and headed east along the Strand – not much to say here other than avoid it if you can, around Aldwych with the bus lane, and wands between us and cars along Fleet Street. Soon enough we had crossed over London Bridge, and were getting our cheese.

After a look at the Christmas lights around Oxford street, Regents street, and Covent Garden, we departed from Wellington Street and felt the pinch of Waterloo bridge. Space given to walking leaves one lane which could be described as the valley of death…

No issues as vehicles can’t overtake, and into the melee of Waterloo roundabout, and Waterloo road. Bayliss Road was much better, wands separated the lane, but then this wasn’t ideal for heavier cycling traffic. Overtaking is awkward, I left the sanctuary of the protected lane to overtake a utility cyclist, she was plodding along steadily. At the next lights, she asked me if the tandem was electric. I said no, it is quick on the flat and downhill, but hard work going uphill.

We joined the cycle superhighway at Kennington, and experienced the same problem. Riders of different speed will have to wait to overtake when funnelled into a single cycle lane. The space afforded by the bus lane after Kennington allowed the bunching to unbunch!

The cycle superhighway was a fast route for cyclists, perhaps a little too fast. Now it has been tamed, with the blue tarmac edged by wands has forced cyclists into an ordered line, instead of the sprawling mass start in front of vehicles. Side streets can frustrate drivers wanting to join or leave the main thoroughfare. Waiting for a gap in the traffic can take a long time, and pushing into the flow. Partly poor driving, partly impatience.

South of Balham saw another example questionable design. The way the blue tarmac is threaded between the footway and parking bays. A sharp oblique turn to the left then straightened out and returned back the right was not easy to negotiate on the tandem. Given the length of the tandem, a look back to check there were no other cyclists close enough to get swiped by my turn was needed. Traffic calming for cyclists instead of cars?

At Tooting we turned left and headed up Mitcham road, through the bus only lane (London Road) in Mitcham, across Mitcham common, and finally turned off into Beddington Park knowing we were close to home.

For all the time I have been riding into the city, this ride included more options for cycling. The quiet ways are just that, with some small additional LTN adaptations. The cycle superhighway was the cyclists motorway, as I often saw on my commute, now tamed by the traffic wands of the LTN measures. It’s a practical direct route with the safety improved. Segregation has controlled the flow, and restricted speed in sections, less Tour de France peloton and closer to the order of supermarket checkout queue.

If I had to choose which route to use the quiet way infrastructure wins. The variety of back roads, open spaces, occasional landmark building, and fewer traffic lights makes it a joy to ride. However this is not the complete story, learning the route is not easy but using a GPS navigation unit or a mobile phone may make that easier. Getting lost is a real possibility!

The superhighway is probably where most new cyclists learn about commuting, and it still provides a route easy to follow, with other cyclists around you. While it was my second choice, by no means a losing route. The real winner is the cyclist, because there are more cycle routes and ways to get around. Don’t just follow the blue tarmac, seek out the hidden gems to enhance your life on the bike.

I like riding in town, even with the tandem but there is still much work to be done, to bring the cycling networks in London up to the standard seen in other cities here and abroad, and there isn’t refinement for cyclists who ride machines other than the standard two wheeled machine. E-bikes, cargo bikes, trikes and even tandems are growing in popularity. This diversity hasn’t been catered for, but it should be.

A cycle route is more than just a road marking, a sign, a wand or armadillo, it’s the future.

See this route on Google Maps.

Posted in Cycle tour
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