One of the best ways to get around the city is by foot – yet if you want to go further and see more, you really should consider renting a bike.
In this series, Lonely Planet’s team of writers and editors answers your travel problems and provides tips and hacks to help you plan a hassle-free trip. We passed a reader’s query about cycling in London to Tasmin Waby, who has ditched the Tube in favor of getting around the city on a rental bike.
Question: I love getting on a bicycle but have heard mixed things about the cycling culture in London. Will I be safe?
Tasmin Waby: If you’re in London for a short time, we don’t recommend spending all your time getting from place to place underground on the Tube. One of the best ways to get around the city is by foot – yet if you want to go further and see more, you really should consider renting a bike. London has numerous cycle-hire schemes to choose from, including TIER and Dott; read on for more on the three most commonly used ones: Santander, Lime and Human Forest).
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How do I rent a bike to ride around London?
You have several options in inner London if you want to hop on a bike.
Santander Cycles are the cheapest option
At £1.65 ($2) for each 30-minute ride, Santander Cycles are the cheapest option. If you’re staying for a while it might be worth downloading the app and paying £20 for a month of unlimited rides (each up to 60 minutes). Santander also rents e-bikes, the fleet of which is growing.
A bike-share program of the sort now found in cities all over the world, Santander bikes are hired and returned to docking stations dotted around the city. You can rent a cycle for a single ride by following a (somewhat laborious) check-out process at the kiosk at the front of each dock.
Planning tip: With more than 12,000 bikes at around 800 docking stations across London, you likely won’t have too much trouble finding one. That said, during peak times (in the middle of a sunny weekend or around 5pm to 7pm on a weekday) you may need to walk further to find an available bike and cycle around to find a space to return one. Check docking-station availability on the app or Google Maps.
Lime e-bikes are ubiquitous in London
US-based Lime’s e-bikes really took off in London in 2022. The app (for iOS and Android) is simple to use, and these pedal-assisted, dockless e-bikes can be parked just about anywhere.
To end the ride you just take a photo to show you’ve parked your e-bike somewhere safe and considerate of pedestrians. In some London boroughs, you need to park within designated places (this is noted in the app). The cost does add up over longer trips, though: after an initial £1 unlocking fee, it’s £0.23 per minute, making a 30-minute ride around £8.
The first time you ride an e-bike, the initial kick when you first gain speed can come as a surprise: make sure the brakes are functioning properly, and be prepared to use them almost instantly. Lime bikes are speed-limited to 14.8 miles per hour (that’s quick in a busy city like London), a rate (electronically) restricted in quieter zones like parks.
Planning tip: Unlike Santander Cycles, the baskets at the front of a Lime bike don’t have a strap to hold coats and bags in. So don’t leave anything in there that might fly away as you speed up.
Human Forest is the ethical e-bike alternative
London-based company Human Forest makes sure every one of its e-bike’s batteries is charged by renewable energy. What’s more, the rental fees are low: the first 10 minutes per day are free, then it’s £0.19 per minute plus a £0.50 parking charge at the end. Another bonus for Human Forest e-bikes is the “minute bundles” available. The £10 Bundle gives you three hours total of riding in a day. The Daily Explorer Bundle (£15) allows for eight hours within 24 hours – just about the perfect offer for seeing a huge chunk of London on two wheels.
Planning tip: Human Forest doesn’t have very broad London coverage as yet. If you park “outside the forest” you’ll have to pay an extra parking charge (£2).
Is it safe to cycle in London?
London is relatively flat, especially in the central areas near the Thames, making cycling accessible for riders of all fitness and experience levels. What’s more, over the last decade there’s been a concerted effort to make London friendlier for cyclists. Dedicated bike lanes called “cycle superhighways” are often separated from traffic, with cycleways well demarcated alongside road markings. Backstreets safer and quieter for cycling are mapped and usually signposted, as are “quietways.” I recommend downloading Citymapper, which offers three ways to sort cycle routes: quiet, regular or fast.
As with driving and walking, it’s impossible to eliminate all risks with cycling. Yet cycling is getting safer with every passing year, and most journeys around London by bike are pure joy. You’ll feel the breeze on your face as you pedal by London’s varied architecture, historic cobbled lanes and glorious green spaces.
Tips for safe cycling in London
Transport for London (TfL) publishes tips for safe cycling in London. Some are fairly standard (always pay attention, wear a helmet, etc) but others are useful for non-European cyclists in London.
First, never cycle on the sidewalk. Not only are you not allowed to, you’ll probably get abuse (or worse) hurled at you by irate Londoners if you hop the curb (remember that accidents often occur when a cyclist transitions from pavement to road). Dismount and walk along a footpath if there’s no other option.
Second, stay central on narrow roads. You could think you’re doing the right thing by keeping to the side to allow cars to pass you, but this can in fact be more dangerous – especially if you need to swerve to avoid a pothole or a pedestrian stepping into your pathway.
While pedaling in the middle of narrow streets, ignore any cars behind you: since most side streets in London are short as well as narrow, so you’re not going to hold up an impatient driver for long. The driving speed limit is only 20 miles per hour, yet if someone is really tailgating you, pull over and let them pass as soon as there is room.
Things to look out for when cycling in London
You’d think those double-decker red buses would be the biggest hazard for London cyclists – but in my experience, bus drivers are generally always aware and usually pass with plenty of space. Cycling in bus lanes is expected; still, if a bus signals that it’s pulling away from a stop, hold back. They’re running on a tight timetable and won’t wait for you to pass.
Keep your eyes peeled for potential collisions at all times. In particular, give trucks – with their wide turn radiuses and large blind spots – plenty of berth. Dangerous intersections are also a major concern for cycling campaigners. Holborn is one you should avoid if you can, as well as the major roads around Kings Cross and Euston.
In high-traffic areas, bike lanes can be very busy during peak hour – and some commuters seem to think they’re training for the Tour de France. Stick to a slow and steady pace, and make eye contact with other cyclists (plus walkers and drivers) to make sure you’ve been seen.
Paths along Regent’s Canal and other waterways may seem like a good place to ride away from car traffic, but in reality a mix of oncoming cyclists, dog walkers and groups of pedestrians can make it slower and more stressful than simply riding on the road.