Starting out on Cycle Commuting

What’s it like to start cycle commuting…

Today, I guided a friend on a weekend trial run of her route to & from work from Corstorphine in West Edinburgh to Waterloo Place at the East End of Princes St – a journey of 5 miles.

For me as an experienced cyclists a straightforward route down the Bus lanes on the A8 and then either Princes St or George St across the centre depending on my mood for battling buses.

On the way to meet her, I tried to think of the key pieces of advice I would give her. I came up with 3:


1. You are traffic.  Don’t ride in the gutter / door zone and don’t be afraid of holding your ground in the traffic flow to make it absolutely clear that there isn’t space to pass.

2. Don’t ride up the inside of Lorries, Buses or Coaches.

3. Just because there is cycle infrastructure doesn’t mean you should use it. Badly designed cycle infrastructure can put you into more danger than none at all (e.g. lanes in door zones or getting caught midway to an Advanced Stop Line (ASL) at the front of a traffic queue). Meanwhile good infrastructure makes all the difference.

(we came up with another one whilst out on the road, shown further down)


We started out on the quiet back streets of Corstorphine and could put rule 1 into practice by staring down some oncoming traffic who were deterred from squeezing us as they overtook parked cars. So far so good.

We were following Quiet Route 9, which takes in the Pinkhill Railway and whilst a bit wiggly is ideal for a beginner. The thing that is unnerving is not knowing the streets and so the potential to feel a bit lost.



We got to Roseburn fairly straightforwardly with my friend in good spirits.  Rather than battling traffic on the main road we decided to take the infamous NCR1 which heads along Russell Road before tackling the ZigZags – a bit of hard work for my friend.

Russell Road Zig Zags

The route then heads along Balbirnie Place and down a narrow path to one of the trickiest parts of the route – Haymarket Yards, with tram tracks that are impossible to cross anywhere near a 90degree angle.  The only solution is to take the very narrow edge of the road without crossing any tramtrack, breaking rule number 1.

Haymarket Yards Tram Tracks

It is on National Cycle Route 1, but that name doesn’t imply quality. Think of it like the A Roads round the very North of Scotland. They appear on a map to show you it is possible to travel there and encourage you to visit but when you get there you find that they are single track, with sharp bends / inclines and limited capacity.


To go for the ASL or not?


Leaving Haymarket Yards we took a left onto the A8 and then an unpleasant right turn where we were left stranded in the lane while we waited for a gap. The cobbles of Coates Garden weren’t very good to cycle on and Eglinton Crescent was fairly benign on the weekend but I fear will be problematic on a weekday.

The rest of the route through the West End gave us chance to practice rule 3 and not try to get to the Advanced Stop Line and instead waiting in line.






George Street



More cobbles getting round West Register House and we were soon onto George Street, which is currently in a state of flux having had a trial with segregated cycle paths and now is back to the old road set up whilst we await the permanent solution.The wide cycle path outside the kerbside parking wasn’t too bad but I could tell my friend was tensing up at the increased complexity and multiple vehicle movements to be aware of.






Heading on to St Andrews Square we got our first (& only) piece of aggressive driving. Turning left we were tailgated by a taxi. We headed for the right hand lane and the red traffic light shortly ahead to continue round SAS. The taxi driver decided to undertake in the left hand lane and then drift into the right hand lane where we were. As politely as I could manage, I asked him what he was doing as we were already in the right hand lane. We don’t pay road tax apparently…


More cobbles again as we skirt round Cafe Royale with more practising of taking the lane to keep a different taxi behind us.  The Balmoral junction is our last mincemeat junction to cross.  This time I stressed the need to take the ASL and get ourselves visible. Not very pleasant but we made it.

Balmoral Junction

We paused for breath and started to head for home. Facing the Balmoral junction heading West and struggling to think of a safe route we settled on a new rule. Here is rule 4:

4. If in doubt, get off and walk.

We took our own advice and walked down James Craigs Walk round the side of the St James Centre and then through Multrees Walk rather than attempting Princes St.

A telling failure of infrastructure.

Retracing our route West we faced similar challenges as before, although Haymarket Yards is even more tricky as you have cross the tracks at the top and again at the bottom. In between you have a very narrow lane to follow while trying not to hit the kerb or go into the tram tracks and its hard to manage any traffic if you are constrained in a narrow path.

It is no surprise that cyclists have come off their bikes here.  The problem is that nothing will put others off cycling more than hearing that it isn’t safe and nothing says it isn’t safe like a broken bone or road rash.

Cycling isn’t unsafe; it’s very safe. Interacting with motor vehicles on poorly planned infrastructure is what introduces the risks.

That’s why the Roseburn to Leith Walk cyclepath is so important. It gives a clear safe path for people to travel on bikes across the city. Edinburgh residents want more people to travel by bike around their city [62% per BikeLife survey] . A proper path will be welcoming to new cyclists, by limiting interactions with motor vehicles, by avoiding tramtracks- or at least enabling them to be crossed at a safe angle, and – crucially – it will signpost a direct route, that is easy to follow and that doesn’t need a practice run with an experienced friend.


[A more detailed review of the problems with current NCR1 Roseburn-Haymarket can be found here]



And here are the views of my friend:



The route is very complicated – I own a spokes map and used to commute on the north edinburgh paths in the past – and before today I had tried and failed to work out on paper how this route all connected up – particularly at Roseburn and Haymarket. There are signs up but it was still pretty confusing in places. I might have been tempted to give up just past Murrayfield if I had been trying it on my own. I suspect I might have lost the route altogether at Haymarket and ended up terrified in a bus lane on Princes Street! It makes a lot more sense now I’ve done it – thanks.

With a guide, it turned out to be much more enjoyable than I expected – but I’m still not sure I’ll be brave enough to do it on my own in rush hour. If we’re serious about promoting green travel then commuting a few miles by bike shouldn’t really require bravery!

It was slower than I expected – some of that will have been me – but the route from Roseburn to George St is far from direct. I suspect that’s why a lot of faster cyclists just stick to the main road – whether or not that is also a more dangerous route.

It was nice to discover that most of the route is on quieter roads and not in bus lanes. As a driver, I know how pushy the airport buses can be and don’t relish the idea of sharing space with them on a bike. 

There were a lot of parked cars and no marked bike lane on most of the roads. I’ve not done much cycling on city roads and riding down the middle of the lane wouldn’t have been my instinctive reaction. It turned out to be fine – although not that relaxing with a van or a taxi stuck behind you. When designing bike routes it is perhaps worth remembering that most novice cyclists won’t have a guide to remind them to watch out for car doors and not to give into the temptation to ride in the gutter!

There are a lot of places where the route crosses busier roads – Corstorphine High  St, Balgreen, Roseburn etc. That’s probably unavoidable and they were fine on a Saturday afternoon. Not sure how easy they would be to cross in rush hour though and I wouldn’t want to take a wobbly child on a bike across them.

I didn’t like the unprotected right turns off main roads – particularly at Haymarket. Suspect you could be stuck in the middle of the road, feeling a bit vulnerable and waiting for a gap in the traffic for quite a long time at busier periods.

The gap between the tram tracks and the pavement on the way up and down from Haymarket yards is far too narrow. I wondered what would happen if there was a tram behind me on the way up or down the hill. Would it wait or try to sneak past?

I was concerned in advance about the need to cross tram tracks  (having heard all the stories about injured cyclists). Crossing them at right angles was fine but the road markings don’t make it clear that that’s the only safe way to do it and there isn’t always enough room – particularly when turning back down at Haymarket.

The cobbled stretches are uncomfortable to ride on. Some of them looked quite uneven and I would be more concerned about falling off in rush hour traffic.

George Street was quite pleasant – nice wide cycle lanes, no cobbles and not too much traffic. Getting in and out of George St at Charlotte and St Andrews squares was a faff (no bike lanes and not much signage). St Andrews square was particularly confusing to navigate.

Most of the junctions in town were fine but I felt quite vulnerable at the Balmoral/North Bridge junction.

If there were a more direct route into town with protected bike lanes then cycling would be the obvious way for me to commute to work. As it is, I know I need to get more exercise and I don’t enjoy the bus but I need to balance the risks and work out if I’m brave enough before I start commuting by the existing route.


More information on starting to cycling in Edinburgh (or elsewhere) can be found at

Starting out on Cycle Commuting