Cross Talk: London's cycle-friendly river crossings

Tower Bridge in rush hour. Photo: Rhys Herbert.

There are dozens of ways to cross the River Thames, but very few are ideal for cycling. Joshua Worth looks at some quirky options and ones to avoid.  

Crossing the river is a major obstacle for any cyclist in London. Wherever you are, there’s almost never an easy, pleasant or efficient way to get across — which is a shame, seeing as there are in fact 33 dedicated crossings of various types that can be used by cycles.

Use this map to navigate the 33 crossings and see which are the best suited for cycling.

In central London there’s only one bridge that has decent cycle infrastructure. Southwark Bridge is the quietest road bridge in all of London, due to the security restrictions on the north side that prohibit motor traffic from entering the City. It’s part of Cycle Superhighway 7 and there are fully segregated cycle lanes on both sides, with just enough room to overtake — though there are gaps which allow for easier overtakes as well.

The majority of the other bridges have little or no cycling provision, such as London Bridge and Putney Bridge. The problem with many of these, however, is not the lack of cycle lanes — Tower Bridge, for example, has no lanes, but is generally fairly congested with slow-moving traffic and so this is not a huge problem — it’s the junctions at either end that are problematic. Between 2009 and 2013, four of the 10 worst accident blackspots in London were junctions on the approach to bridges.

Riding south across Westminster Bridge. Photo: Richard Pohle, Times.

There are improvements planned with the construction of the new Cycle Superhighways, particularly at Vauxhall (to tie-in with the Vauxhall Cross redesign) and Blackfriars Bridge (where the new North-South Superighway will cross the Thames), so we can hope that these issues will be addressed in the near future.

Some of the better bridges can be found further west, such as Chiswick and Twickenham road bridges, which have shared space pavements heading in both directions, and no large junctions on either side. There are a few footbridges too, such as Fulham Railway Bridge and Richmond Lock footbridge, though both of these have several flights of steps. There are also enough crossings, regularly spaced, so that cyclists won’t usually have to ride too far out of their way to cross.

Few options in the East

It’s the east of London that’s particularly badly serviced — Tower Bridge is the last bridge over the river within Greater London. After this, there are only six ways to cross the river by bike — and none is really suitable for regular use.

There’s the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which is surely the most unpleasant experience one can have on a bike; incredibly hot and polluted, we seriously suggest you avoid this option completely. The ferry service that operates between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf is conveniently located, but expensive — £3.78 for a single with an Oyster card, or £5.98 for a return.

Then there’s the foot tunnels at Greenwich and Woolwich, which are a pleasant enough way to cross, but cycling is not permitted in the tunnels themselves, so it takes five minutes to walk through plus lift-waiting time.

The Dartford Crossing

The Dartford Crossing is the busiest river crossing in the UK and consists of two tunnels northbound and a bridge heading south. In the 1960s, there were specially-modified double decker buses that transported cyclists through the tunnels, but these were eventually discontinued due to low usage.

The bridge was built in 1991, and a clause was inserted into its contract that insisted it have provision for bicycles to cross, but you are unable to cycle in either direction. Instead, you report to a control point at either end and use the phone to call for a free shuttle service (a 4x4 with rack for three bikes).

On the day we visited we waited about 10 minutes, which by all accounts is not bad — at busier times it can sometimes take 40 minutes or more for the shuttle to arrive. On weekdays the shuttle only operates at certain times too, so if you turn up at 9.01am, you’ll have to wait until service resumes at 10.30am. Rather amusingly, the poster detailing the operating times advertises these closures as being ‘for the benefit of cyclists’!

The approach to the crossing is not enjoyable regardless of which way you’re heading. There are some very fast roads and big motorway-style junctions to navigate — there are cycle lanes but they are not easy to locate, and the crossing offices themselves are not easy to find either. Particularly on the north side, you are deposited in the middle of the industrial sites that cluster on the riverbank, left to battle the constant stream of petrol tankers and HGVs that operate in this area 24 hours a day.

For a one-off, it’s a novelty and quite enjoyable, but for the small number of people that use it as a daily commuting service it’s far from ideal.

Unusual ways to get across

There are certainly ways to cross that don’t involve battling traffic, but they’re not really suitable for regular use, or for those in a hurry. The Hammerton ferry near Richmond is a lovely way to get across, hearkening back to a more idyllic age of river travel — the service has been running since 1909.

The lovely Hammerton Ferry. Photo: Joshua Worth.

The Peace of Mind is a tiny little thing and it will transport you and your bike for the princely sum of £1.50 (cash only). But, it’s hardly practical for regular use, as it can take a few minutes, and is not really situated in a particularly useful or easily accessible point.

Take to the air

The Emirates Air Line has no restrictions on carrying bicycles, but suffers from similar problems to the ferries. It’s fun floating over the river 90m up in the air and the view is spectacular — but it’s slow, expensive and not at all well located. It does come into its own if you’re heading to an expo at ExCel or a show at the O2 Arena as it means you can avoid the nearby Blackwall Tunnel and its associated traffic.

What does the future hold?

Arup’s shortlisted proposal for the new cycling/ walking bridge from Battersea to Pimlico. Photo: TfL.

There’s a clear need for a better way for cyclists to be able to cross the river. There are numerous traffic-free options, but none of them allows cycling, meaning that whilst they may be a safer option, they’re fairly impractical and slow for regular use.

The much-criticised garden bridge, from the SouthBank to the City has been rightly pilloried for not including bicycle access in its initial design. With money potentially coming from TfL, it’s hard to see how a bridge in the very centre of London that doesn’t offer a safe space for cyclists can be justified as a transport link.

There have also been a number of schemes for cycling/walking bridges proposed in recent years, with an open architecture competition held for a bridge at the new Nine Elms development in Pimlico, and for one between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf.

The latter has been crying out for a connection for years, and plans for a pedestrian and cycling bridge have been in the offing since 2008, when Sustrans announced plans for a new £65m bridge, though this was shelved later in the year. But in June of this year, TfL again commissioned a £200k feasibility study into a bridge here, with the result due in August 2015. We await the outcome eagerly.

In the meantime we hope that the ongoing Cycle Superhighway developments bring safe space for cycling to the city’s bridges.

OTHER CROSSING OPTIONS

This article is focussed on dedicated crossings — ie bridges, ferries and tunnels that exist for the sole purpose of getting across the river. However, there are, of course, more ways to get across the water with your bike, as part of the wider London transport network — on board the DLR, Overground and Thames Clipper ferries and mainline trains.

After a successful trial in July 2013 (the result of lengthy LCC campaigning), bicycles are now permitted on board DLR trains outside of peak hours. This opens up new crossing options between Cutty Sark and Island Gardens, and King George V and Woolwich Arsenal, which are both very useful locations.

The Overground allows bikes outside peak hours, so in the west you can use it to get across from Kew Gardens to Gunnersbury and Clapham Junction to Imperial Wharf. In the East it will take you from Rotherhithe to Wapping, which offers a great alternative in this area. Of course, these options are not free, and are not much use for commuting as they are off-peak only, but they are definitely a very useful addition.

The Thames Clippers operate along the length of the river with regular stops on both sides. There are no restrictions on bicycles and they can accommodate about 10 on average. However, this is an expensive way to get across — a single Oyster fare is £6.44 and a return £11.34.