If you ask a non-cyclist why they don’t cycle in London, the chances are they’ll say “it’s too dangerous”, or “it’s too hard to navigate”. The two assumptions are often linked: people are worried that getting lost on a bike will make them more vulnerable.
Wouldn’t it be great, then, if London had a cycle network that was as safe and easy to get around as the London Underground? If London had cycle routes similar to the Victoria Line, the Circle Line, the Bakerloo Line, and so on? If London had a cycle map that was as user-friendly, clear and stylish as its famous Tube-map?
Wouldn’t it be great, that is, if you could cycle throughout the capital just by consulting a London Cycle Map, remembering a few colour-coded routes, and then following signs on a safe, continuous and reliable network just as you do on the Tube?
Most people’s reaction to this is: “Great idea! It would make cycling in London so much easier!” (Except those who think it means cycling through tunnels: it doesn’t). But truly great ideas must stand up to scrutiny. So, in this article, we respond to some of the most common questions and criticisms relating to the idea of a London Cycle Map.
Why is it needed?
At the moment, London has a variety of different cycle route systems, including many quiet routes, often with dedicated provisioning for cyclists (e.g. cycle lanes and other road markings). Most prominent are the London Cycle Network and its successor the London Cycle Network Plus. Then there are lots of different local authority routes, a range of London Cycling Campaign advisory routes, the Mayor’s new Cycle Superhighways, and finally the various routes managed by the transport charity Sustrans, namely, the National Cycle Network routes, Greenways routes, and Safe Routes to School. All of these various route systems are supported by different signs and maps: there is no single map, or system of signage, for a unified network of cycle routes extending throughout the capital. So, for many cycle journeys you need multiple maps and a knowledge of multiple systems of signage.
You also need to know the names of the streets the routes are on, because the signs can be insufficient. Usually this means remembering lots of ‘turn rights’ and ‘turn lefts’ to get to your destination – either that, or consulting multiple maps throughout your journey. This is especially true for longer cycle journeys in the capital.
In a nutshell, London has a tangle of cycle routes, with different signs and maps, and often insufficient signage at road level, meaning that detailed planning and memory is necessary for all but the most local cycle journeys. The situation is similar to catching a tube train in the early twentieth century. In 1931, Harry Beck’s famous Tube map succeeded in taming a complex system of tracks – making it far easier to navigate. He was an uncommissioned hobbyist at the time, but now Beck’s design is synonymous with catching the Tube in London: you just take one look at the map, identify which lines to travel on, which direction to travel in, where to change, then away you go. With a minimum of planning and memory you can follow signs that take you from virtually anywhere to anywhere in the capital.
Something similar is needed today for cycling in the capital: a single London Cycle Map that you can take one look at, identify which routes to travel on, which direction to travel in, where to change, then away you go. With a minimum of planning and memory you could follow signs which would enable you to cycle from virtually anywhere to anywhere in London.
Who is it for?
Pretty much anyone who needs to get around in the capital – whether commuters beating the rat race, students hopping from lectures to cafes to parties, shoppers hitting the highstreets, football fans cruising to the game, families exploring on a fun day out, friends meeting for a bike ride, tourists using bicycles to visit parks and landmarks, or health-conscious Londoners keeping fit.
The most exciting thing about a London Cycle Map is that it would benefit potential cyclists – 'would-be' cyclists – above all. By removing the two main perceived barriers to cycling – navigation and safety – it would provide encouragement to people who otherwise might not have had the confidence to cycle.
Perhaps, indeed, one of the reasons why there isn’t already a London Cycle Map is that, by definition, there isn’t a lobby group for would-be cyclists! There are, of course, lobby groups for cyclists in London, but that’s not the same thing. If you’re already a regular cyclist in the capital then it might not be obvious that regular Londoners don’t share your knowledge, confidence and navigational skills on a bike. It might not be obvious, in other words, that a London Cycle Map is so sorely needed. This is an irony, because the best way to improve conditions for current cyclists – for the lobby groups to achieve their aims – is to get more people cycling, by removing the navigational and confidence barriers.
One of the oddest objections I’ve heard to the idea of a London Cycle Map is that some very experienced cyclists might not necessarily want to cycle on networked routes – they may prefer the freedom of choosing where to cycle, perhaps choosing their own favoured routes from memory. Well, no-body’s telling anybody where to cycle! Even if the capital had a proper London Cycle Map, cyclists could still cycle on whichever streets they wanted to (indeed, they’d have to – to get on and off the network). And they could still use the networked routes as normal streets – simply by not consulting the map. If some cyclists didn’t want to exploit the enormous increases in journey-planning efficiency those routes would provide then that’s up to them. They could just ignore the routes. Or ignore the signs, just like you ignore all the rubbish bins, pigeons and parking meters you see when you’re cycling around. It would be like visiting, say, Amsterdam or Hamburg and riding around without taking notice of the excellent cycle networks which make cycling in those cities so much easier for tourists and residents alike.
How much would it cost?
Brian Deegan,development manager for the London Cycle Network, has estimated that it would cost just £1.6 million to implement a London Cycle Map (£50,000 for each of the capital’s 32 boroughs). This is staggeringly cheap compared to the combined cost of Transport for London’s recent Cycle Hire and Cycle Superhighway schemes (around £250 million in total). The reason the London Cycle Map would be so affordable is that its implementation would be based on a well-established concept known as ‘minimum functioning’. The idea here is to do as much as possible at least cost first to get a cycle route or network up and running.
How would it be implemented?
After designing the map itself, the most important requirement would be to sign the routes properly. This would mean adding information to already existing signs, or providing additional signs where current signage is insufficient. The key to sufficiency is that all the routes on the network should be navigable using the roadside signage. This is what would make the London Cycle Map equivalent to the London Underground: in both cases the only information needed for making a journey should be a simple map, together with the corresponding signage on the network.
Actually, this could be achieved for cycling even more cheaply than Brian Deegan has estimated. In theory (although not legally, so I am not endorsing this), a committed group of amateurs could get a London Cycle Map and network functioning minimally more or less for free, with a few tins of paint. They could mark lampposts all along the routes with the appropriate insignia (rings of colour with numbers and letters, in the case of Parker’s design) plus arrows showing where and when to turn.
Once the London Cycle Map and network had been minimally implemented, people would soon start cycling on the routes – probably in their hundreds of thousands. Thereafter, better provisioning for cyclists could be added. Coloured road markings could be included, the existing signs could be upgraded with lamps to make them more visible at night, and London Cycle Maps could be positioned at junctions along the routes, just as there are Tube maps positioned throughout the London Underground. There could also be subsidiary local (perhaps ‘grey’) routes signed, leading off the network and towards landmarks and popular destinations.
Isn’t permeability a bigger priority?
‘Permeability’ in cycling is a technical term meaning the number of connections that can be made on a bicycle between streets, parks, canals and other cycleways. Think of it as being like holes in a sieve. If there are only a few holes then it takes longer for the water to get through. Likewise, the fewer connections there are, the longer it takes for cyclists to get through the capital. Things which reduce permeability for cyclists are traffic systems like dual carriageways and gyratories (where the volume and distribution of motor vehicles makes it dangerous to be on two wheels) or physical blockages like railways lines.
Permeability is undoubtedly important at a local level, but London needs a ‘global’ (so-called ‘strategic’) network as well. This is because it’s much harder to cycle from, say, one borough to another than it is to cycle within your own borough, and this is what is preventing London from being a cycling city, as opposed to a series of cycling localities. Smaller towns don’t face this problem, so increasing their permeability correlates strongly with increasing cycling. But things are different in a metropolis like London, where people’s social, leisure and work activities are typically spread across a relatively large area. Until people can routinely and spontaneously cycle from one part of the capital to another, its predominant modes of transportation will reflect the ease with which this can be done by other means.
Of course, more and more people are discovering that cycling is worth the extra investment in preparation and navigation. But the fact is, if you want to encourage people to make positive lifestyle and environmental changes then you have to make it easy for them. A London Cycle Map would make it so much easier to cycle throughout the capital.
Which routes would a London Cycle Map use?
This is a matter for critical consensus. Ideally, the network should extend throughout as much of the capital as possible, but inevitably there will be a bias (just like on the Tube) for including routes lying within, or heading to and from, the zone 1 area. This is because so many journeys in the capital involve its central areas.
Another sensible bias will be for using the routes which currently make up the London Cycle Network and the London Cycle Network Plus. (The difference between these two networks is based mainly, although not entirely – see below – on historical/political considerations; so for the purposes of this Q and A I’m going to refer to them both simply as the ‘London Cycle Network’, or ‘LCN’). You will probably be familiar with the LCN’s blue signs, with their iconic white bicycle logos, and you’ll have seen those logos painted on the capital’s roads as well. This system of routes has been identified, over the course of decades of government-funded research, as being well-suited to supporting cycle journeys. Most of the routes on the LCN have been provisioned with cycle lanes and other useful cycling facilities, to make cycling on these roads a safer and more salient activity.
Focusing on the LCN is sensible because of its suitability for solving London’s ‘global’ navigation problem. The LCN can fulfill this role because its routes are not just good for cycling on; they’re good for connecting on; they were selected from the beginning by the authorities because of their usefulness for transportation purposes, for making logistically meaningful journeys on a bicycle from one part of the capital to another. In comparison, some of London’s other cycle routes are more scenic – like a steam railway that you’d ride on for the pleasure of it, rather than to go anywhere. The irony is, the main thing the LCN lacks (as anyone who has ridden on it will tell you) is a decent map and system of signage showing how its routes connect together! This is where the London Cycle Map Campaign comes in. The current LCN is like the ‘raw material’ for a London Cycle Map: a set of routes that already exists in a useful pattern of connections, but which – just like the underground network was before 1931 – is crying out for a decent map and system of signage to help people find their way around on it. You could think of a London Cycle Map as completing the LCN; accomplishing its original mission of providing a London-wide network of navigable cycle routes.
Another of the reasons for using LCN routes as the basis of a London Cycle Map is that those routes are, on the whole, quieter and calmer for cycling on than the capital’s major roads. (Although to be completely accurate here, one of the differences, mentioned above, between the LCN Plus and the original LCN is that the former prioritizes speed slightly more than the latter did. Still, on the whole, both networks are safer and quieter than many of London’s major roads). Some of the capital’s more hardened cyclists might dispute the policy of using calmer roads, preferring the speed and directness of London’s major roads. But in a way it doesn’t matter – because they’re the people who need a London Cycle Map the least. The ones with the greatest need are all those cyclists and would-be cyclists who find riding on the capital’s major roads (amid heavy, fast-moving traffic) intimidating, i.e. the vast majority of Londoners (myself included). When you take into account the fact that avoiding major roads makes it harder to plan longer journeys, a London Cycle Map using quieter roads becomes even more important for getting people around on bikes in the capital.
There’s a safety issue involved too – one which suggests that the capital’s hardened cyclists may need a London Cycle Map more than they realise. Ted Reilly from the Department of Transport recently compiled a map showing the locations of the cycling fatalities and serious injuries which occurred in the capital between 2000 and 2008. Most such accidents occurred on major roads – unsurprisingly, since that’s where Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs), the most serious threat to cyclists, are in higher concentration.
Of course, some will argue that this means resources should be spent on improving safety on the capital’s major roads, rather than funneling cyclists away from them. And there’s apparently an ideological point backing up the practical one: that people should be able to cycle on any road they like, without fear. However, there are two considerations which favour the London Cycle Map as the truly progressive option.
First, on the practical side, the capital’s major roads are often unsuitable for incorporating effective safety measures for cyclists. Many of these roads are so narrow, and carry so many pedestrians on their footpaths, there’s no room for cycling infrastructure. Second, the ideological point ignores the fact that London will always need HGVs and other forms of industrial transportation, and major roads are their only realistic means of conveyance, since London’s quieter streets aren’t suitable for heavy traffic (and are more likely to have, say, children playing in them). It’s a case of ‘horses for courses’. Cycling, and therefore a London Cycle Map, is usually better on calmer streets.
A capital city whose major roads are mainly full of cyclists is a nice, utopian thought. But the problem with utopias is that they’re unrealistic. The real way to get more Londoners onto bicycles is not to crowbar them onto major roads, like reluctant insurgents, but to introduce them gently to cycling. This is not to say that cyclists shouldn’t be allowed to use major roads, and be respected by drivers when they do so. Let me be clear: cyclists should be able to cycle, in an atmosphere of respect, on any road, however major, on which it’s legal to do so. Nothing in the idea of a London Cycle Map jeopardises this fact. Indeed, those hardened cyclists who do prefer major roads would soon benefit from a London Cycle Map – because it would succeed in getting more people out of their cars and onto bikes, so the main roads would lose a few cars, if not vans and trucks.
What about TfL’s Cycle Superhighways?
If you do want to cycle at high speed on busier roads, then of course the Cycle Superhighways are great. They should be incorporated into a London Cycle Map (as they are in Parker’s), and marked as routes for more experienced cyclists. There could even be a simple grading system for the whole network, so people would know how much traffic to expect on each of the routes.
How will people know where the routes are?
This sounds like a strange question. But consider what happens when you use the London Underground. You need to know where the stations are at the start and end of your journey, otherwise you can’t get on the train in the first place, or from the last stop to your final destination. To solve this problem, the Tube stations are marked on other maps (for example, the A to Z) which you can consult, or other people can give you directions to and from the stations. The same is true for the routes on a London Cycle Map. You’d need to know how to get onto the network in the first place, and how to get from the network to your final destination. So the same solution would apply. The network of routes would be marked on other maps (such as, again, an A to Z) or other people could give you directions to and from the network. (As an illustration of how such a supporting map would work, Parker has programmed the routes for the Greater London Cycle Map into the Google Maps interface).
Despite these similarities, there are a few differences between the London Underground and a London Cycle Map, in respect of planning a journey. The first is the obvious fact that when using a London Cycle Map you’d be on a bike for the whole journey, rather than (typically) walking to the Tube station at the start of your journey, and again at the other end. So you’d need to know how to get on and off the network using other roads which are suitable for bikes. This could be aided by using local cycling maps showing how their routes connect with the London Cycle Map’s network: like a road map showing how to get from a village to the motorway. In this way, a London Cycle Map would complement, rather than undermine, local cycling infrastructures – just as it would complement, rather than undermine, people’s freedom to choose which routes to travel on.
This point hints at a second difference between a London Cycle Map and the Tube map in respect of journey planning: you can get off a cycle network pretty much wherever you like, but you wouldn’t want to get off the Tube wherever you like (you might be in a tunnel). This means that the London Cycle Map wouldn’t have ‘stations’ on it like the Tube – just a series of routes. But then the map itself would have to give some indication of where its cycle routes go, in the same way that the names of London’s Tube stations give some (although not a comprehensive) indication of where they are in the capital (e.g. Leicester Square). Without this orienting information, a London Cycle Map would just be a bunch of coloured lines.
Putting actual road names on a London Cycle Map is not an option: there’d be too many of them, since the routes would include thousands of roads. So the logical option is to show the locations of all of London’s Tube stations on the London Cycle Map itself. Then you could consult it and spontaneously cycle to anywhere you can get the Tube to (or, at least, in that vicinity). The London Cycle Map can even exceed the Tube’s navigational powers, by showing the locations of major landmarks (parks, palaces, galleries, etc.) and general areas of the city (e.g. ‘Shoreditch’), in relation to the cycle network. One final option, as I suggested earlier, could be ‘grey’ routes funneling cyclists off the main network and leading them to popular destinations.
There is, of course, a limit to how much information you can put on a London Cycle Map, aside from the routes. But it would need to contain enough information to allow spontaneity. As an illustrative scenario: you and your friends may be having lunch somewhere in central London, when everyone decides to head to Shoreditch for the evening. The problem is, your friends are catching the Tube, and you’re on your bike. So you’d need a London Cycle Map to tell you how to get there, enabling you simply to get on the network and go, without needing to spend a long time planning your revised journey.
An interesting possibility is that people could create their own bespoke versions of a London Cycle Map. If you want your map to show the locations of every football pitch, art gallery, market or gig venue in the capital, then the technology is readily available. This isn’t to suggest, of course, that there needn’t be a ‘standard’ London Cycle Map: this would surely be most useful for tourists.
The third, and final, difference between the London Cycle Map and the London Underground, in respect of journey planning, concerns how you determine which direction to travel in when you reach the network. On the Tube, you simply go to the station and follow the signs to the correct platform for whichever direction you want to travel in. But since there are no stations on a London Cycle Map, you can’t do this. So you need another way to work out the right direction.
A simple option would be to mark on the signs themselves which direction the routes are heading in – say, by including a little compass direction next to the code for each route. Alternatively, there’s an even simpler method which doesn’t involve putting additional markings on the roadside signage; one which is familiar to anyone who’s ever used a map of any kind. All you’d need to know is the direction you arrived at the network from. For instance, if you want to go south, and you arrived from the east, then head left. For north, right. And so on, for all the other possible directions. On the rare occasions when you’re not sure which direction you’re arriving from, it’s a matter of making a best guess and then checking that you’re not passing any landmarks or junctions you shouldn’t be. So if you passed, say, the London Eye on your right, and it was supposed to be behind you on the left, then you’d know you were going in the wrong direction. There’d be so many junctions and landmarks on the network you could make these comparisons regularly, and turn around promptly if you’d made a mistake.
What about the Cycle Hire scheme?
TfL’s excellent Cycle Hire scheme launched in August 2010. You can now hire a bicycle from hundreds of docking stations throughout the city. Great idea, yet something’s missing. When you look at the official map, showing all the docking points for the bicycles in central London, what you see is a conventional street map of the capital, with no information whatsoever about which streets are good for cycling on, or which are heavy with traffic. Lots of people have pointed out this omission, and a London Cycle Map is the obvious solution. It would be a simple task to superimpose its routes onto the Cycle Hire map (as well as the smaller, local maps displayed at each of the docking stations), and thus give people the wherewithal not just to hire a bike, but to use it to navigate throughout central London conveniently, confidently and safely.
Why not just use the web?
Many people today own smart phones. So why not just download an ‘app’ for cycling in London? Or get a cycling SatNav? Or consult one of the many cycle mapping resources available on the internet? One of most popular online options is the ‘open source’ map interface www.cyclestreets.net, which lets people add routes to an interactive map, Wikipedia-style. The result, in the case of London, is a map showing many of the available cycle routes in one place – and if you type in your start location and destination, the software will even recommend the quickest overall route for you, complete with gradient data and an estimated journey time. Most people would agree this is an improvement on the series of fragmented, localised cycle maps available at present. (Most people. I’d rather use an A to Z than click and drag my way around a screen, but that’s just me.)
People can be too quick, however, to assume that the internet must provide the solution to everything. In this case, I don’t think it is sufficient. The main drawback for online mapping interfaces is that they don’t fully solve London’s ‘global’ navigation problem: they don’t make it easy to navigate across longer distances in the capital like the Tube does. For instance, the recommended routes on cyclestreets.net are presented in the form of a long list of ‘turn rights’ and ‘turn lefts’ for you to scroll through then print out for each journey. Not to mention the environmental costs, these pages of lists are far less efficient than a London Cycle Map. As an illustration, for a 55 minute journey I was given a list of over 100 directions (compared to the two or three you'd need when using Parker’s London Cycle Map). Obviously, you can’t remember 100 directions before you go, so you’d end up cycling around with a piece of paper flapping in your hand. And then you might get lost anyway, so you’d probably still need to consult your smart phone, or an A to Z, or a series of cycle maps, to help get you back on the right track.
Perhaps most people would prefer to have a SatNav or a smart phone ‘talking’ them through the city as they go, instead of remembering all those directions. This seems like a great idea at face value. But it has shortcomings that a London Cycle Map doesn’t. For one, there’s no substitute for proper signage on the road, showing you where to go. If you doubt this, consider what it would be like catching the Tube with a SatNav, rather than a Tube map and appropriate signage. You’d be blindly following the voice your ear, scurrying round corners and up escalators whenever it told you to. You couldn’t ask a fellow-Londoner if you missed your turning or got confused, because they’d only know what the voice in their ear was telling them. Plus you’d have to be constantly vigilant – just in case there were further instructions in your ear, lest you missed your stop or train. You’d be so disoriented you’d probably end up designing a Tube map.
Of course, you’d still need to be vigilant on a Tube-style network of cycle routes, looking out for signs telling you where to go. But the vigilance would be so much more natural. If you knew from the London Cycle Map that you had change onto a different route after a certain junction, you’d simply monitor the junctions on the signs as you went, just as you monitor the stops on the Tube. You’d be using your eyes anyway, looking at the road ahead, so counting a few junctions wouldn’t be difficult: no more so than it is on a motorway, or finding the right screen in a cinema.
In contrast, with a SatNav you’d usually end up listening and looking out for your turn: another layer of unnecessary effort. And then, when you inevitably got lost – when it guided you into the proverbial field of cows – there’d be no-one, and no infrastructure around, to help point you in the right direction as there is on the Tube, or as there would be on a properly signed cycle network.
Perhaps the biggest problem with using SatNav technology for cycling is that it’s so exclusive. People often refer to the ‘free information’ available online, but since when was a laptop or a smart phone or a mobile broadband connection free? One of the wonderful things about a London Cycle Map is that it would make travelling in the capital genuinely free. And this would benefit some of the poorest Londoners the most. That’s because if you reduce the price of something for which everyone pays (more or less) a fixed cost (e.g. public transport, a poll tax, water prices) then the poorer the people are, the higher the proportion of their income the reduction allows them to keep. For similar reasons, a London Cycle Map would surely encourage enterprise and social engagement among the capital’s poorest residents. By lowering the cost of getting around, a properly accessible cycle network would, in a stroke, lower the baseline level of expendable income needed for people to be able to participate in the economy, whether they’re starting a business, hunting for a job or travelling to work.
What's so good about Simon Parker's map?
Parker's map is based on his 'compass colour system', an ingenious solution to the problem of conveying a huge amount of route information economically and simply. To appreciate the brilliance of Parker's solution, it helps to consider the alternatives.
The most obvious alternative is to number all of London’s eighty or so LCN routes individually on a single map . With a route-numbering system like this you'd have to remember all the numbers of the routes you’d need to follow during your cycle journey, and change from one to the other where appropriate.
One problem with this option is that for many cycle journeys in a big city like London there would be quite a few route numbers to remember. Another problem is that representing hundreds of numbered routes on a single map looks cumbersome. An alternative solution would be to number the places where the routes cross each other, at locations called 'nodes' – as in the node-based system in Flanders, Belgium. Again, though, in a big city like London you'd have to remember lots of nodes to get from one place to the other (up to twenty for a journey of seven miles), and hundreds of numbered nodes would clutter up a London Cycle Map. There’s also something arbitrary about nodes: they’re just isolated points, therefore less informative than proper routes.
There is a further problem shared by the route-numbering and node-based systems: neither numbered routes nor numbered nodes are as user-friendly as colours. One of the great things about catching the Tube in London is that the coloured lines are a simple and compelling way of presenting journey information visually. This is true of both the map and the signage on the network. On the map, following a coloured line with your mind's eye makes it easy to trace the route you intend to pursue. And, likewise, on the actual Tube network the coloured signs make it easy to work out where you're going, because you can clearly see the markers you’re looking for amidst numerous other distractions you encounter in a busy underground station.
So the logical option would be to use eighty or so colours to mark all the routes on a London Cycle Map, right? Not quite. The problem is: there aren't eighty colours that the human eye can distinguish between easily. The Tube map contains about the maximum viable number - and even then it uses graphics as 'colours' for some lines, such as the Docklands Light Railway.
Parker's system is ingenious because it divides eighty or so routes into a manageable number of colours. Five colours, to be precise. How is this possible?
Well, the first trick is to derive the fewest possible routes from the eighty or so shorter ones which form the 'raw material' of Parker's London Cycle Map. The simplest way to do this is to turn two or more routes into one, wherever possible. This gives you a set of longer routes, and fewer of them. Parker's system creates about forty longer routes in this way.
This yields a simpler map than before, but forty is still too many for each of the routes to be given its own easily distinguishable colour as on the Tube map. With London being so big, and having so many cycle routes, that's just the way the cookie crumbles. So how do you represent forty cycle routes with fewer than forty colours?
This is where Parker's system really comes into its own. His second trick is to group the routes by colour depending on their orientation with respect to a series of compass axes (hence the name 'compass colour system'). All routes on the North-South axis are allocated a particular colour. All routes on the East-West axis are allocated another colour. All routes on the North-East to South-West axis are allocated another colour. And so on. Actually, things are slightly more complicated than this. In his London Cycle Map design, to achieve maximal economy, Parker divides the compass face into five axes, rather than the four which are usually defined by the North, South, East and West axes along with their diagonal combinations. (Another useful feature of Parker's design is that he uses ‘cold’ colours for the axes running generally in a North-South direction, and hot colours for the East-West axes: a neat mnemonic invoking the difference in temperature between the Earth's poles and its equator).
Colour-coding London's cycle routes by compass axes may sound abstract, but it has some important practical consequences. One consequence is that compass-coloured routes are always straight. This is a good thing because the aim of cycling in London is usually to travel to your destination as directly (and hence, energy-efficiently) as possible, and Parker’s map would help you to do this. You’d seldom need to change from one route to another when using it, especially since Parker’s routes are long as well as straight.
Another consequence of colouring routes by compass axes is that routes of the same colour are always parallel to each other, never intersecting. That is, on Parker’s map, routes of the same colour always head in the same direction, so (with a couple of exceptions) they don’t cross each other. For instance, no red route crosses another red route. No green route crosses another green route. And so on. Each of the parallel coloured routes on Parker’s map has its own number, i.e. red 1, red 2, red 3, green 1, green 2, green 3, etc.
Giving parallel route lines the same colour is important because it means that while cycling on a route you’d only have to concentrate on following its colour, since all the other numbered routes of that particular colour would be irrelevant – you wouldn't encounter them. This would make cycling on Parker’s (predominantly long, straight, direct) routes really simple; as if you were using a mini-map (i.e. one with only one route of the particular colour you're following) within a larger map. Of course, you might deliberately swap from, say, one red route to another via a second colour. And in this case you would need to make sure you’d paid attention to the number code accompanying the second colour. But in almost all cases it would be literally impossible to swap accidentally from, say, one red route to another. As long as you kept following red, you couldn’t go wrong.
The overall effect of using long straight routes coloured in parallel is that Parker’s map covers London with waves of coloured routes at five different angles evenly spread throughout the 360 degree range of a compass. This might sounds complex, but in reality it yields the map’s stunning simplicity. Imagine you were somewhere in London, and wanted to get, say, four miles away. Because Parker’s system dissects London so comprehensively, wherever you were there’d be five routes near you, each of which extends out in one of ten different directions evenly spread throughout a 360 degree range. To appreciate this, just draw a star with five lines, and look at the centre of the star. From there, you can 'travel' towards the edges of the page in ten different directions. On Parker's Map this means that wherever you were in London, you would always find a long straight cycle route nearby which is marked by a single colour and which runs in the general direction of your destination, wherever that is. And, at the start of your journey, all you’d have to do is get onto that route.
Now look at it from the point of view of your destination. It would also have five different long straight routes near it which extend out in ten different directions. One of these routes would extend out towards where you are, using a single colour. Hence, in order to get from where you are to where you want to go, you’d just need to end up on that route.
And here’s the crucial point. Since it’s true that wherever you are in London there will always be a long, straight coloured route that heads away from you in the general direction of your chosen destination, and vice versa, it’s virtually impossible to find any two points on the network that aren’t connected by a direct trajectory comprising just a few coloured routes. Think of it this way: every point on the map is ‘reaching out’ with a long straight coloured route in more or less every possible direction, so any two points logically must ‘reach out’ to each other more or less directly – like Adam and God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Sometimes, of course, the route that you started off on would be identical to the route you’d need to end up on: in other words, one straight coloured route would lead you all the way to your destination. Other times, you’d need to thread your start and end routes together – perhaps with a third or fourth route in between. But in either case you’d just have to use your mind’s eye to trace the straightest trajectory linking where you are with your destination on the map, and then remember the colours and numbers of the routes along that trajectory.
Well, that’s my explanation for how Parker’s map achieves such amazing economy. But it doesn’t matter if it’s correct. The fact is, Parker’s system would enable you to get from anywhere to anywhere in London on a vast network of cycle routes simply by remembering (in almost all cases) three routes or fewer. Even without an explanation, that’s impressive enough: you don’t need to know how an engine works to be able to drive a car. Parker’s system blows the current cycling mapping options in London – and, indeed, any others I’ve seen across the world – out of the water.
Why does the earliest version of Parker’s map look so complicated?
Download all versions here.
The earliest version of Parker's map looks complicated because, unlike the Tube map, it comprises a reasonably accurate cartographical representation of the routes on it; meaning, in particular, that it portrays the lengths of its routes relative to each other, and the twists and turns that those routes take. (When you consider all this detail, it’s frankly quite remarkable that Parker was able to discern a pattern of parallel coloured routes in it.) In contrast, the newer versions of Parker's map, like the Tube map, abstract away from detailed information about route lengths and precise trajectories.
Harry Beck’s iconic map doesn't include accurate route information because when you’re sitting passively on the train you don't need to know your precise route trajectory. So should Parker’s map be abstract – i.e. stylized – like Beck’s? It’s open to debate. One consideration in favour of using a more realistic cartographical representation, as Parker's earliest map does, is that cycling differs from catching the Tube in that arguably it is important to know the lengths of the routes you might take when you’re actively pedaling on a bike. You’d rather take the shorter option on a bike, and Parker’s earliest map makes it a little easier for you to choose accordingly. You could also argue that the little twists and turns depicted on Parker’s earliest map are useful, because they’d help you to anticipate where the signs on the route would lead you.
I’m more convinced by the first of these points than the second (after all, if you’re navigating by following coloured signs, then you’re not going to be concentrating on matching up details on the map with your precise trajectory through London’s streets). But even the first point is debatable. Is it really necessary for a London Cycle Map to show exactly how long each of its routes are? Perhaps not – and perhaps the more recent versions of Parker’s map do benefit from being more stylized like the Tube map.
This topic highlights a fundamental difference between Simon Parker and Harry Beck (as useful as the analogy between them is in other respects). In a way Parker has achieved more: his compass colour system offers a radical overhaul of how London’s cycle routes are named and identified, compared with Beck’s Tube map which merely tweaked the presentation of a network of Tube lines that were already named and identified (as the Victoria Line, Bakerloo Line, etc). You could say that Parker has designed something much deeper than a stylized mapping representation: he’s designed a logic, a system, a method for simplifying an awkwardly large system of cycle routes. But for the very same reason his system is arguably receptive to stylistic design innovations.
Are Parker’s route choices set in stone?
No. Parker’s map is still evolving, and the process of implementing his compass colour system within London’s cycle network would no doubt involve practical considerations that would mean the map evolving further still. Parker is clear that the knowledge of, say, borough officers and cycling infrastructure development experts would be important in determining which specific routes would make it onto the London Cycle Map. The only thing which would be fixed is the compass colour system itself as the rubric for organizing London’s cycle routes – the overall scheme within which particular routes would be chosen to fit. Why? Because, when it comes to choosing a system for organizing London’s cycle routes on a single map, “no one has shown me a more elegant solution than Parker’s,” as Brian Deegan, current development manager for the LCN, has remarked.
Is Parker’s network fine-grained enough to aid most cycle journeys in London?
Parker’s system isn’t designed explicitly for very short cycle journeys, such as popping to the shops, or weaving around housing estates using alleyways and cut-throughs. Although Parker's system can certainly be used to make short trips (just as you can jump on a long-distance train for just one stop), his London Cycle Map is primarily a ‘strategic’ network, for making cycle journeys from one part of the capital to another. These are the kinds of journeys that often bring people out of their local comfort zones, into personally unexplored territory. But the point is that Parker’s proposal would ensure that no cycle journey in London would ever be into unchartered territory, because the map and coloured signs would convey cyclists to their destination without them needing to know any prior route information other than a few codes.
So would we abandon current local cycle maps?
Not at all. Local maps would still have a role. There would be no need, for instance, to abandon the fourteen TfL cycle maps covering different areas of the capital. Parker’s routes could simply be marked on those maps alongside the more fine-grained local routes, like motorways linking up each of the fourteen covered areas. One nice possibility would be to place not just a London Cycle Map but a local map at each of the junctions on Parker's network, showing details of the immediate streets and cycle routes.
Cycle-commuters ride the same journey every day, so is a London Cycle Map really needed?
Yes, it is. For a start, a London Cycle Map would encourage many people who currently don’t commute by bike to give it a go: it’d be a lot easier for non-cyclists to muster the conviction to follow a few coloured signs than to plan and negotiate a complex, snaking route without assistance through London’s streets. Secondly, cyclists often (indeed, very regularly) want to undertake cycle journeys other than the daily ride to work. For instance (to pluck just a few examples from countless others): to attend meetings elsewhere, to go to an away football ground (fans and players alike), to meet friends after work for a meal somewhere unfamiliar. A London Cycle Map would make travelling by bike on occasions like these so much more convenient, dramatically reducing the amount of planning needed, thus enhancing spontaneity. In fact, it is surely due to the inconvenience of cycling on these kinds of occasions that so many Londoners don’t consider the bicycle to be a realistic transport option for them on a daily basis.
Who’s going to want to cycle more than a few miles in London?
Some will say that only hardcore cyclists want to cycle more than a few miles in the capital, and that these cyclists are so proficient they don’t need a London Cycle Map to help them navigate. The first part of this statement is certainly false. There are plenty of Londoners who don’t fit the normal cycling stereotype but commute further than, say, 5 miles by bike, and would like to cycle elsewhere if only they knew the way. There are also plenty of non-cyclists who regularly exercise strenuously, and could certainly handle a gentle 5 mile ride to work. It’s not the distance that puts this latter group off, but the labyrinthine, intimidating streets of their capital. A London Cycle Map would bring more sense and safety to cycling, bringing more Londoners into the fold.
Even the second part of the statement above – that hardcore cyclists don’t need a London Cycle Map – is arguably false. Using the Greater London version of Parker’s map you could cover over twenty miles in the capital remembering just a few route codes. This would surely be a boon to those cyclists who regularly ride long distances throughout London.
There’s also the important fact that users of electric bicycles would benefit from the gains in efficiency afforded by Parker’s map when navigating longer distances. You could even think of his compass colour system as preparing London’s streets for a future (an inevitable one, perhaps) in which electric bicycles and similar forms of transport are necessities. By making it possible for a regular person to cycle with electrical assistance and without fuss, from anywhere to anywhere across vast swathes of the city, Parker’s London Cycle Map would truly be a world leader.
There you have it - a London Cycle Map. With a bit of imagination and a bit of engineering, the capital could be changed forever – into a greener, cleaner, healthier and happier place. So if you want it to happen, please help us to make it happen. Sign the petition, tell your friends, join the campaign on twitter and facebook, or write to your MP. But whatever your view, feel free to get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org.