What do cycling and supermarkets have in common? Both have two-for-one offers. No, I’m not talking about tandems but about THE London gyratory, Elephant and Castle. You’re bracing yourself for one, you get two, a double whammy. And an ex-pink, wonderfully tacky shopping centre in the bargain. That’s not all you get with E&C (not to be confused with A&E, although there are similarities). You get a lasting shoulder injury, like one of my housemates. You get headlines like ‘London’s highest cycle casualty location’. You get cars overtaking you left, right and centre and a sense that there must be a reason behind this madness, but you’re not sure. You get scared by its size and reputation, by the smell of danger. You get an adrenalin rush, if you like that sort of thing. You get. Or you lose: your wits about you, your life. Only last month another cyclist was killed on the E&C gyratory.
But there is really no way around roundabouts. I’m not an adventurous cyclist but I have to negotiate several on a weekly basis in London, not to mention other giant one-way systems like in Central Brixton or West Norwood. Here are the spearheads of 1970’s road design, functional, efficient, with one obsession: speed*. Getting as many cars through as possible in the shortest possible time. No straying. No room for poetic licence either. You have to know where you’re going and to concentrate on making your way to your exit. One-track bike, one-track mind. That’s how one gets up the Alpes d’Huez, I suppose, but then what of cycling as an everyday, normal activity?
Gyratories are one-way systems. Literally. And figuratively. They don’t lead anywhere. Traffic, fumes, noise, speed, collisions, fear are overwhelming. There used to be a time when pedestrians were sent underground to cross the E&C monster. You have to wonder what are ‘the social, environmental and health consequences of obliging healthy and harmless walkers to yield priority to inactive and polluting drivers’ observed Dr Ian Walker in an insightful 2012 interview for The Psychologist (vol. 25 no. 9, September 2012).
Like flyovers or motorways, those other relics of – or odes to, depending on your point of view – modernity, it is difficult to imagine how to make them welcoming, save for breaking up all that concrete. The redesign of E&C was half-hearted and never fully materialised. A recent London Cycling Campaign newsletter announced a ‘major campaign success as Mayor Boris Johnson makes a concrete [!!] commitment to transform or rip out 33 London gyratories and to provide safe crossings to cyclists and pedestrians.’ So, will I see the end of gyratories in my lifetime? How long is a piece of string?
But they have a secret life too: late at night, they transform into my own private velodrome. I can’t resist so much space and often brave that nagging feeling (what if something happened?) to go for a spin. I love momentum! When I have them – almost – all to myself, I’ll notice their split personality, their gentle core, the island in the middle, unreachable, forgotten, peaceful, like the eye of a cyclone. What’s going to become of gyratories, I wonder, as these areas will inevitably, eventually, get redeveloped? Will they be turned into parks, into film sets? Will I miss them when the time comes and join the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society? Perhaps best to forget some of the worst road design a 21st century city has to offer and to let them sink slowly to the bottom of my heart.
*Speed of motor traffic, that is. For an ordinary cyclist like me, it’s not faster, since I tend to go out of my way to avoid roundabouts.