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Why a Bike Makes More Sense than the Annual London Travelcard

The “great value” London zone 1-6 travelcard costs £2,408, and comes with a year’s worth of life-sucking commutes and rush-hour madness. But what if you got a bike instead?

The benefits of recreational cycling and cycling to work are immense and rather well documented already. As a bike mechanic, I see proof of that every day.

In this article however, I want to focus on how switching to cycling can benefit an Oyster-buying Londoner in particular.

So without further adieu:

1. It's Healthier

According to polls, London commuters suffer more stress than those in any other major city in Europe. For crying out loud, they even made a ‘Meditation bus’ after that 24-hour Tube strike early this year.

Cycling has been proven to help manage blood pressure, aid in weight loss and even improve your self-esteem. As a bike mechanic, I’ve witnessed firsthand the profound impact that recreational cycling can have on one’s health, body and mind. And trust me, nobody needs stress relief more than a 9-to-5 Tube commuter.

Per British study, even a small amount of cycling can have substantial health benefits, including improved strength, stamina and cardio-vascular fitness, stress reduction, weight loss and more.

If you're switching to cycling however, air pollution in the city must also be addressed. In January of this year, Mayor Khan issued the highest air pollution alert in London for the first time, and the city’s filthy air was dubbed a health crisis. It passed Beijing levels of air pollution during that week.

But according to an international team of researchers, the health benefits of cycling still outweigh the harm from ‘filthy air’, in all but 1% of the world’s cities:

"Even in Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world – with pollution levels ten times those in London – people would need to cycle over five hours per week before the pollution risks outweigh the health benefits."

2. It's Faster

Remember that legendary Top Gear episode where they tried to find the quickest way to get across London? James drove, Hammond hopped on a bike, Clarkson got in a motorboat, and The Stig opted for the good old Tube. The results?

1. Bike

2. Boat

3. Tube

4. Car

According to that same poll from a minute ago, London commuters are also late for work more often on average, and an overwhelming majority adds another half an hour to their commute to allow for any delays.

Peter Thum-Bonanno of FindProperly took a more methodical approach to the Top Gear problem. He devised a ‘commute time minimisation algorithm’, and input travel data for over 750,000 London-based journeys. His results were clear:

"‘I was really surprised by this. Nearly all journeys less than 5km are faster by cycling. Only until journeys are longer than ~13km is it quicker in most cases to take public transport!"

His data even suggests that public transport is slower than walking for short journeys. I’m still somewhat of skeptical of his methods, to be honest, but there’s been plenty of other anecdotal evidence to support his findings.

For example, Andreas from London Cyclist conducted a similar commuting experiment of his own. He selected three routes:

1. Swiss Cottage to Covent Garden

2. Covent Garden to London Bridge

3. London Bridge to Mornington Crescent.

..and made all three journeys both by bike and via Tube. When it was all said and done, he concluded:

"[...]I mentioned earlier the result should be neck and neck. Needless to say I was very surprised when I totalled up the times[...]The bike was on average 33% faster. Someone could therefore save 1/3 off their travel times or in the case of these journeys nearly 30 minutes!"

He was also less than impressed by TfL’s (Transport for London) journey planner:

My guess is it doesn’t calculate the time required to get down to the tube and back out again.’

*Also, and I know this is considerably besides the point, but exploring London by bike is just so much more gratifying. If you need tips on where to go, I wrote extensively about 30+ different London cycle routes, from short to 'gone the whole weekend'.

3. It's Cheaper

This is less straightforward than it sounds. Most folks just assume that cycling is always cheaper than public transportation. This is simply not the case.

BBC compared the cost of cycling to the cost of public transport in 12 different cities:

‘We took the average cycling costs for a country – the cost of a bicycle, accessories and maintenance – and compared that to the cost of a monthly travel card on public transport.’

Basically, cycling still requires a (potentially significant) initial investment, plus add-ons and continuous maintenance costs. It is by no means a 'free ride'.

‘We found that although cycling has a high up-front cost, those costs are soon recouped in a city with expensive public transport. The lower the public transport cost, the longer it takes for cycling to become cheaper than transit.‘

In Krakow, for example, the math is on the side of public transport. A monthly travel card costs around £2, while a brand new bike comes out at about £390.

Much to no one’s surprise, the cost of London’s public transport is comparatively abysmal. As I already mentioned, the annual London zone 1-6 travelcard costs a whopping £2,408. So the BBC concludes:

"If you live in an expensive city like New York or London, cycling is the most cost-effective option. It won’t take much time to pay off the initial investment of the bike, compared to the cost of monthly travel cards (assuming you just buy a brand-new bike for about £300 or $200, it takes 2.1 months in London and 1.7 months in New York to break even compared with a monthly transit card)."

4. It's better for the environment

If you think this is just a throwaway argument, I’ll gladly refer you back to that ‘filthy air’ alert from early 2017.

In London (as well as the whole EU), transport is responsible for 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions. According to the European Cycling Federation, if all EU member states managed to reach ‘Danish levels of cycling’, it would lead to between 57%-125% reduction in transport emissions, relative to its 2020 climate change goals:

"Cities are responsible for creating over 70% of global CO2 emissions and transport emissions account for a major part of those" says Sunstrans London, "Which is why cities and transport policies have such a major role to play in tackling climate change.”

The Mayor’s Clean Air Action Plan includes calls to ‘encourage cycling’, and introduces Cycle2Work schemes, but that’s just not cutting it so far. If you’re serious about London’s air quality, (and, you know, the planet), cycling is simply the preferred means of transportation, even despite its own dubious carbon footrpint.

Based on Sunstrans London research, cycling journeys saved over 260,000 tonnes of greenhouse gasses back in 2014 – the equivalent of 82,000 cars.

"If Londoners can hit the target of 1.5m cycling trip per day in London by 2026 we’d save over 641,000 tonnes of carbon a year, equivalent to the emissions of over 200,000 cars."

In conclusion, compared to the annual London Travelcard, cycling is healthier, cheaper, faster, and saves us from toxic air alerts. Is that worth switching to a bike next year? You tell me.

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