Biking in the borough of...the City of London

Not a borough but a city in its own right. A tiny rectangular blob on a map crowded with history as it is with people. Chaotically busy in the week, deserted at the weekend. Dominated now by trade and commerce, its past lies barely beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered.

The area

There was a Celtic fishing village on the present site of the City in 5BC when the Romans moved in. After unwelcome visits from Bodicea they built a wall round in 61 AD, fractions of which still remain in the strangest places.

The actual area of the City has grown beyond the Wall and is slightly more than a square mile. Most of its 6,700 residents live in the Barbican centre, however they are swamped by 300,000 commuters coming in every day. Being one of three world financial centres does not leave much for anything else, particularly when contributing £27 billion to the economy every year.

To get a feel for the character of the City you certainly need to see its chaos during daytime in the week – stand still a moment and watch the crowds surge past during rush hour. The pavements can be so full with people emerging from or entering stations that they feel as it they are one-way. The weekend really is the time to explore, however, as most streets are eerily quiet.

Cyclists leaving Bank junction

The Geography

The heart of the City is the horrendous Bank junction, which cycles can bypass on most sides using backstreets. If you imagine it as the centre of a clockface with Moorgate at midnight, then at two is the Stock Exchange and further out is Liverpool Street Station. At risk from the incremental creep of cheap purpose-built and soulless offices is most of Spitalfields market and indeed the character of the area. No one has learnt from the mistakes of the 1960s it seems.

Between Spitalfields and Aldgate at three is Petticoat Lane Market. The difference could not be starker between the deals being struck there and at the futuristic Lloyd’s building, on Leadenhall leading back towards Bank; don’t try to think about the change in wealth as you pedal west or you might hit something.

Leading out to the Tower at four is Lombard Street with its mediaeval banking signs a reminder of its past as London’s banking centre. While the Tower is outside the City, Tower Bridge is not. Creaking under the weight of traffic, it threatens to collapse if made the boundary for congestion charging.

Most of the City was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 though Monument at five, built in 1671 to commemorate the Fire is one attraction you’ll be glad they don’t let you take your bike in with you. Fantastic views from the top of the 311 steps though. While there were various grand plans to create an ordered street pattern after the Fire, property interests took precedence and the largely Saxon street pattern remains to this day, particularly in the area leading down to the river. It’s hard to remember your way down the backstreets but if you get lost there’s always another mysterious alley to discover.

The Thames leading up to London Bridge, a few minutes to six, is known as the Pool of London. At the turn of the 17th century the wharves handled nearly half the country’s trade. But new docks were built further east and by 1950s the last of the shipping went to a containerised port in Tilbury.

At eight is the semi-autonomous area of the Temple, which only became part of the City at the turn of the last century. Most Dickensian at night when the gas lights come on and the rows of parked cars leave, it is home to barristers’ chambers and two of the ancient Inns of Court.

Towering tall, St Pauls cathedral stands at nine. Just north is the Paternoster Square redevelopment. Up to ten, the scales of justice hang over the Old Bailey, overlooking the Post Museum, once the main post office, on Newgate. Further up are the squares of St Barts Hospital, oases of peace and then finally Smithfields meat market.

The “city in a city”, Barbican, rises at eleven, created out of what was a bombed wasteland. Cycles did not feature in this vision of the future and you’re best getting lost by foot on its high-rise maze of walkways.

The ‘borough’

The City is governed by the Corporation of London, non-party political and the oldest local authority in the country. Businesses already have the vote and controversially are about to get more votes the greater their turnover.

The Corporation acts through the Court of Common Council made up of 25 Aldermen and a staggering 159 Councilmen – there are few women. It is based behind the mediaeval Guildhall between Gresham Street and London Wall. Its symbol, the winged dragon of St George marks streets signs and boundaries but has recently been subverted into a keen cyclist by a certain local cycling group.

Cycling initiatives are held back by a chronic shortage of staff and an overall emphasis on large scale projects. Surprisingly the Corporation spends a pittance on cycling, relying on government grants for London Cycle Network (LCN) Routes and on surplus money from car parking for cycle stands.

The cycling

Cycles make up 4% of street traffic [7% by end of 2003] and as much as 10% on some streets and London Bridge – higher than anywhere else in central London. While there are pushy drivers and congested streets, the biggest hazard for cyclists is pedestrians not bothering to look as they cross streets. As a result of the high cycle flows – over 10,000 movements per day - and high density, the City has by far the worst casualty rate for its size of any local authority in London. Still there has not been a fatality for a couple of years now.

The cyclists could not be more different: couriers, suits, freight carrying quad cycles, commuters, and now the occasional rickshaw. With only two hills the terrain is largely flat, though you can sense the valley of the River Fleet, London’s largest underground river, flowing down from Farringdon to Blackfriars.

Fortunately the streets are not paved with gold or you might have problems in the wet. But for such a rich area the road surface conditions are appalling. While there are few potholes, many streets have deformed sections after having been dug up too often and resurfaced too infrequently.

At least there are next to no road humps. You can however try the UK’s first inflatable hump though, just on Blackfriars Passage east of the station: it deflates for vehicles going over if they are below a set speed.

Only a fifth of on-street cycle stands are occupied - better sites and security are needed. The free secure parking in six off-street car parks is underused due to lack of publicity. At least new on-street stands with space for 400 cycles and secure lockers at Fenchurch and Liverpool Street Stations will be available soon.

Due to the crowded pavements it’s important to be considerate if locking your cycle to street furniture. However the Corporation no longer removes considerately parked cycles, though watch out for private buildings and their security guards. Theft of cycles and even their components is rife: fortunately all new buildings must include off-street cycle parking. If anything does get taken, there are only two cycle shops (off Farringdon St) in the City though there are more up in Holborn.

Cyclists leaving Bank junction

The routes

The London Cycle Network in the City was worked out by seeing where most cyclists went through the one-way systems and then painting “advisory cycle lanes, where carriageway space is available”. The result is of little benefit to cyclists: where there are cycle lanes they are usually occupied by parked vehicles.

Local cyclists are demanding higher standards on the final parts of LCN which in theory should be implemented by April 2002 and to a higher standard. These are the crossing of London Wall by Moorgate and the Holborn Circus to Spitalfields route. Hold on to your maps - there’s no news yet on when any signage will go up.

The biggest benefit to cyclists is the Ring of Steel that has reduced through traffic by 30%. It has been extended twice since being built in 1993 to keep IRA bombs out and now covers all but the City fringes. A very different defence to the Roman Wall, its hi-tec cameras scan and then check all vehicles’ number plates against the Police National Computer within 4 seconds.

The Corporation was forced to allow cycle access through many of the road closures: planning law allows road closures for environmental but not security reasons. However there are still missing links and check points which squeeze buses into cycles rather than segregating them.

The nearest to a leisure route is the north bank. Starting at Tower Bridge you have to wheel your cycle along Tower Wharf or risk being skewered by an irate Beefeater. Local cycling groups are asking for a trial cycle route there with the eventual aim of a route leading to Embankment. You can wheel your bike all the way along the banks apart from the City’s last dock at Queenhithe. Cycling is not allowed on the walkway but takes place informally on the wider sections.

You can continue at the western edge of the City by working your way up Middle Temple Lane then round the sights until you spiral into Bank, taking in as many backstreets as possible.

City of London LCC

City Cyclists, a catchier title than City of London LCC, started up in Spring 2001 after a few years of quiet. With only two dozen paid-up members its focus is on improving conditions for cycling in the City. Of course many other LCC members either work in the City or cycle through it. Some of them are involved with the group generally or just regarding certain issues or streets.

We are developing close links with neighbouring branches and rely on them for offering the social and rides side of things. In addition we are really keen for City businesses to affiliate, not just for their funds but also for the resulting lobbying clout. And if you need help making your workplace more cycle friendly, we can try to help: there is already a scheme called the Business Cycle. Our website provides a starting point for those wanting to find out more, while our e-mail list can keep you up to date and informed.

Current Campaigns

Our main campaign is entitled “World Class not Third Class”. The vision is one of total permeability of the dense pattern of streets and strategic routes through back streets and on segregated tracks through busy streets. The river has not been forgotten either with plans for safe crossings being developed.

So if you do work or cycle through the City, we can help you and you can help us: don’t be afraid to get in touch even if you live in a different borough.

Written by Ralph Smyth and reproduced from the London Cyclist, January 2002.

If you work or live within the City of London to become a member join the London Cycling Campaign and put “City of London” down as your area.

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