8 things I learnt driving in London
I've got some top tips for anyone venturing into the English capital
Driving in a heavily populated city can be pretty intimidating for a new driver. No matter how much experience you have, a city centre like London can throw up obstacles that will test the best of us.
Growing up in North Wales I basically had a race track to learn how to drive. My first driving experiences were clipping imaginary apexes in the Evo triangle whilst avoiding suicidal sheep. It’s fair to say I’m a pretty confident driver when it comes to open roads, but having virtually no experience driving through a city centre, until three or four years after passing my test, meant that I found it pretty intimidating when it came to driving in my new home, London.
The first thing I witnessed when I got off the tube in East London was an angry man throwing a laptop at a bus (true story). Now, I don’t think I’ll be able to help you avoid flying laptops, but in the last year or so, I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks that should ease your first drive through the unpredictable London streets.
Lesson 1 - Drive an Automatic
Let’s get this one out of the way first. If you take anything away from this article, please let it be this. Don’t drive a manual. Before you all start lighting your torches and sharpening your pitchforks, give me a chance to explain.
Any other location, give me a manual any day of the week, but having driven a hot hatch with 6 gears around London for a year, I’d take pretty much any automatic in the world for a city drive. Despite having a pretty easy-going light clutch, after 20 mins of stop-start traffic, my left leg has basically had a full gym workout. And I mean a proper gym workout, not my ‘wander around the gym, do a few stretches, drink a Powerade and have a light jog’ gym workout.
Lesson 2 - Never try a shortcut
This was a lesson I learned whilst driving a manual Chevrolet Corvette C1 which amplified the problem ten-fold. I had the privilege of driving this American icon around the narrow streets of Kensington for a few hours on pretty much the hottest day of the year.
I had a semi-planned route around the area with our very own Mike Fernie directing me. The first Welsh and Scottish driving combination since Colin McRae and Nicky Grist… but one that would prove much less successful. Instead of instructions like ‘flat over crest’ it was more ‘oh shit, we should go down that tiny road and become completely lost, James.’ This all led to me becoming sweatier and wetter than an otter’s pocket down several dead-ends with a Scottish man crying with laughter at my expense.
If you think you’ve seen a much quicker route through London that no-one is taking, it is 100% a bad idea. Londoners know what they are doing when it comes to directions, don’t try and outsmart them. I guarantee they’ll have figured out the fastest way to get out the city they lament every day and back to their comfy and quiet suburbs.
Lesson 3 - Don't drive a car you love
This was the hardest lesson to learn. Like most of you, I can only afford one car and I’ve bought a car that I love (consensually). When you stop to take a proper look at most of the cars in central London, you’ll see little nicks and chips all over the majority of them. There are enough bad drivers in London to always put your car at some level of risk of being clipped.
A little part of me dies inside when I come outside to see my poor innocent little Fiat Panda 100HP has scuff marks on the bumper. Most likely the result of someone who has let London life sap any ounce of remorse or emotion out of their empty shell of a body.
Lesson 4 - Congestion charge
This could have been a very expensive lesson to learn, but I was bloody lucky. Any tourists driving through London need to take note of this as I reckon it catches a lot of people out. Or it might just be me being slightly stupid. The congestion charge is applied to vehicles driving at a certain time of the day through a certain part of central London.
It isn’t cheap either at £11.50 a day. Unbeknownst to me, I’d be merrily driving through central London without really checking where the congestion charge was and for a year I’ve been one street away from about £1,000 worth of charges.
If you do go into the congestion charge zone they don’t notify you until you get a fine though the door. Sneaky buggers.
Lesson 5 - Let white van drivers do whatever they want
There is no doubt about it, van drivers rule the roost when it comes to London driving. This isn’t through superior driving abilities, just their superior confidence that they need to be somewhere more than you.
If there is a small gap 1mm wider than their van, you can bet your bottom dollar that they are going for it. My advice is to let them do what they need to do and stay out of their way. I’ve also learnt that there is a direct correlation between how nice you car is and how little respect they give you.
Lesson 6 - Be confident with your decisions
Not to sound like a cheesy movie, but this is a driving tip my father taught me and it is at its most applicable in London. By ‘being confident,’ I don’t mean that you need to be winking at everyone you drive by and giving it the full Fonzie (although, I’d be fully supportive if you did).
I’m referring to confidence in your driving decisions. If you’ve made a decision to change lanes or you’re entering a roundabout, don’t hesitate. If you hesitate by lifting off or braking, you’ll cause doubt in other drivers around you and it sets of a chain reaction. 1 mile back down the road is now a massive traffic jam and it is all your fault.
Lesson 7 - Cyclist awareness
In a similar vein to the van drivers, I’d give cyclists a pretty wide berth. Despite being on two wheels and having a crumple zone of their face, they seem to think that they should have right of way at every point. They’ll dice between cars scything through traffic faster than you can say “visible scrotum.”
Their decision making can sometimes be slightly erratic, so try and predict their movements as best you can. This is a challenge as you’ll be trying not to be sick in your mouth when you see literally every inch of their bouncing and gyrating bodies.
Sidenote: If you’re the bloke that leant against my Fiat Panda 100HP at the traffic lights so you wouldn’t fall over, next time I’ll be making sure my car doesn’t fall over by leaning it on your bike.
Lesson 8 - Electric cars are actually pretty bloody great
All the die-hard petrol/gearheads may treat them like the devil, but in a city such as London, they just make sense. If you’re just visiting the city for a short period I’d rent one. You won’t have to pay congestion charge and charging is super cheap.
According to DriveTribe’s own Tim Rodie, the other benefit of the electric car is that you feel utterly zen. As it is so silent, you become aware of your surroundings and it heightens your senses like a ninja of driving. Disclaimer: Your experiences may be less zen than our resident meditator Tim.
Have you got any other tips on London driving, or have I covered everything perfectly (Doubtful)?
Also, have you had a particularly bad experience driving in London?
Let me know in the comments.