Part Two: Test-driving the Cycle Hire Scheme

First things first: I’m cynical as all hell, and I have an unbridled antipathy towards Boris Johnson. In spite of this, I adore the London Cycle Hire scheme. After outlining my previous impressions of and concerns surrounding the scheme, I cycled along to the Southbank with my artfully unbranded key.

The fruits of two minutes and a spot of nail varnish.

The docks in Waterloo were all full, whereas many I passed in the City were 75% empty. In a touristy area prior to casual use, this wasn’t a surprise. Removing the bike from its dock was straightforward, with instructions clearly printed on the dock. Handy tip for easy removal: lift the back of the bike, then pull. We had some issues when attempting to replace the bike in the dock: the dock wouldn’t recognise the bike, despite being used correctly. There’s a button to report a broken bike on the dock, but not a button to report the dock. A passerby on a bike told us he was having a similar problem and had tried a number of docks. It sounds as though TfL recognised this, and as a result all journeys were retrospectively made free on the launch day.


The bike was heavy. I knew this from research and nosing around docks prior to the launch, but its still a shock when you handle one for the first time. The wheels are fat, and that combined with the weight made the bike stable: a factor that will hopefully increase safety by minimising the wobbling of new or unsteady cyclists. I struggled a little to work out how to use the bell and gears. The gears are integrated into the handlebar, though it’s not immediately obvious. A three speed is all you really need in Central London, and it prevents people racing them.

Having experienced dynamo lights before, I was wary on hearing TfL had decided to install them on the bikes. Dynamo lights are notoriously unreliable, often cause drag on tyres and are prone to ceasing to work without the cyclist noticing. My university days were marked by regular swearwords and dynamo fiddling on the delightful streets of Coventry at 2am. Luckily, the dynamo mechanisms used on the bikes are top of the range, fully incorporated into the wheels with minimal drag, and staying bright rather than flashing with each pedal as standard dynamos do. They’ve sensibly added a picture between the handlebars, warning of the dangers of cycling on the left hand side of Heavy Goods Vehicles.

There’s both a chainguard and skirtguard, to prevent skirt-caught-in-the-wheel-whilst-its-pouring-with-rain-and-you’re-swearing-like-a-trouper moments, and a half-basket with a bungee attached to secure your belongings. But not your friends: 10kg maximum weight, a sticker chides. The seat post is a masterstroke: a small lever releases the seat to be adjusted, then locks it, with a rim preventing it being stolen. It’s a great design, and I’d love to see it on more bikes. At least 11 people took the bikes on Critical Mass. I spoke to two of them, who remarked that though the bikes were heavy, they were easy to manouevre, and the weight didn’t affect speed. I was chided for using the term “Borisbike” by a male cyclist who was worried the scheme would work well, and we’d have to give him credit for pulling it off. Snagging another bike on Grays Inn Road, we gave it another test drive at the pub. Friends of all heights gave it a go, with Lizzie at 5″2′ having no problem, even with the seat not at its lowest. The boys predictably attempted to do wheelies (it’s possible, but not really worth the effort). A couple were entranced when I docked it, and I let a woman ride it briefly before returning it. It turned out she’d never ridden before, but after a few screams and some premature braking she was steady and enjoying herself.

Here’s the crux: whenever people chimed “London’s no Paris though, it won’t work” I dismissed them with a flippancy and gauche that only comes with being young, immature, a bit thick, and having lived here for just shy of five months. London’s great! It’ll be a cycling city to rival Copenhagen in a decade. You wait. I bundled into Euston close to midnight after a day out, noting the slew of drunks weaving into the Underground. Aware that the Northern Line was closed south of Kennington I knew I’d have to change at Stockwell and get a bus regardless. Why not take a bike to Kennington, and catch the N155 from there? A couple spotted me grabbing a bike and quizzed me about it, enthused and intrigued. After a brief chat, they thanked me for answering questions and left planning to register themselves. I set off, buoyed by their enthusiasm. Then I met with the maddening chaos of Oxford Street, littered with roadworks and one way systems. The only signs I encountered bore A-road codes, which meant nothing to someone whose mental map of London is constructed entirely of Tube stations and gig venues. Frustrated by my inability to escape a quarter mile radius of W1, cycling in ever-decreasing loops and resenting the helpful jeers I’ve come to expect from taxi drivers, I tried to spot a docking station. This took a further ten minutes. I abandoned my bike in a dock next to Broadcasting House and headed towards the Tube.

Overall, I love them. I have no issues with the bikes, and I find it fantastic how Londoners feel completely comfortable asking you about them, and feel a sense of ownership over the scheme. I’m not sure I’ll renew my 7 day access however. Until the shambles that is the London road system is rectified, road safety and cycling will still struggle to reach the level instigated by Paris’s Velib. Little has been done to prepare the roads for  a sudden, large increase in casual cycling. Simple things, like more signposting of areas, rather than just roads, and contraflow cycle lanes would make cycling simpler, more accessible and benefit London cycling far more than a few gallons of blue paint.

26 thoughts on “Part Two: Test-driving the Cycle Hire Scheme”

  1. What’s interesting about CPH cyclists and those in London is that in CPH all bicycles are registered and almost all cyclists obey the traffic rules. Could you imagine that in London?

  2. Eventually perhaps: I cycle from Battersea to Woolwich every day, and where there’s a high volume of cyclists they tend to obey traffic laws far more. I hope more cyclists means I get less abuse from motorists too. I’ve yet to make a single trip in London without getting a lewd comment being yelled at me.

  3. Awesome.

    The number of people I see with Sky-Ride Hi-Viz vests that have the Sky bit blacked out (or just worn inside out) is something I’ve been enjoying all year. I suspect many others will follow you. Maybe there’s a market on etsy for things to stick over the branding on your key? (next Xmas’ Oyster card holders? Or… ooo, get SciencePunk to work out a hack like he did for Oyster cards)

    I also think taking them on Critical Mass is a bit wonderful. My one Critical Mass experience was rubbish so I swore off them. I nearly tried again on friday with you, but my bike was bust (and I hadn’t registered for hire scheme). Maybe another time.

    1. I can certainly see a lot of culture jamming happening over the coming months. I’m unclear as to whether, like the Oyster card, the key belongs to TfL ultimately. A friend got fined for hacking the Oyster card a la Frank (video here if you haven’t seen it).

      It was my first Critical Mass, and I really enjoyed it, mainly because I was in a big group. Join us for August if you can!

  4. I think you’ll find that currently there is no place in the world that registers bicycles, but please prove me wrong. The Swiss system of carrying little 3rd party insurance plates is in the process of being abandoned.
    I also think that you’ll find that anywhere where there are rules, there will be people who, if they think they can get away with it, will ignore them. Regardless of activity.
    You are right about the road system being bike unfriendly. And as any Netherlands resident will tell us – it’s the infrastructure that matters.
    Trouble is, the Brits are still such a bunch of arrogant know-alls who think that Johnny Foreigner is somehow beneath them, they refuse to listen and learn. Until we wise up and catch up with the rest of Europe, this scheme, laudable that it is, is likely to fail.

    1. “Nice. Try and get some upskirt shots next time yea?”

      What, and strengthen the already profound relationship between you and your right hand? Careful, you’ll go blind eventually, which would no doubt be a mercy to the female half of society already fed up with leering sweaty neanderthals like your good self.

  5. Good point about the roadworks signs not being helpful for cyclists. I’d always just accepted that as a bike rider I’m left to my own devices when it comes to directions.

    Maybe they could include basic directional info like they do with the blue cycleway signs?

    1. I think people would benefit hugely from small signs highlighting where the tube stations are. Especially tourists. I generally think to myself “I need to meet friend at this pub near St Pauls” and take it from there. And if it’s clear where tourists/new cyclists need to go, they’ll be less likely to cycle the wrong way down a street, or indicate late.

  6. fuck off. why would a girl post pictures unless she wants someone to comment. i’m not a cyclist but if your all like this then no wonder everyone hates you.

    1. It *seems* to me (though do correct me if I’m wrong) that she posted images to illustrate a post on the new bikes, including several not of her, or of a person at all.

      Imagine a world where images of women aren’t currency, go on, I fucking dare you.

    2. It’s true. Ladies never, ever do anything that is not about YOU and YOUR PENIS. Riding a bicycle, for example, is a way of showing you our arses and any transportation we obtain thereby is merely an unimportant side effect.

      Similarly, a lady posting pictures on a blog may employ the cunning deception that the pictures are there to illustrate the accompanying blog post, but you saw through the ruse! It can only be because she wants, nay yearns, for YOU to turn up and boke up some breathtakingly stupid comment or other! We’ve been rumbled, girls.

      1. This is unutterably true. I’m not a cyclist, never have been. I just thought up an elaborate way of posting pictures of myself on the internet to try and net a husband. Hence the old shorts and crappy top. I styled my hair to look as though I’d cycled 26 miles before arriving at Southbank, and wore a backpack for added appeal.

        But you seem to have overlooked poor Joe. He’s been photographed too! Why would anyone stick a photo of them performing a relevant activity that illustrates points in a post, other than to be objectified by someone who has no interest in the subject matter? Mind. Boggles.

  7. We definitely need something like that round Birmingham. We’re lucky enough to have miles & miles of canal towpath & cycle paths, but to have a hire scheme where you could get a bike from near any train station or bus depot would be great.

    Oh & dc, do fuck off, there’s a good chap. Kudos to MissPrism for her comment. Pwned, I believe.

    1. It would work beautifully in Birmingham: I regularly used to cycle there when I went to Uni on the outskirts of Coventry. Canals, paths, and a really clear signposting strategy. And it’s the second city. I’ll ask around the local government bods I know in Brum to see if there are any plans underway.

      1. Definitely – if they make it widespread throughout the greater Birmingham area & give longer free times, like in Hamburg, it’d be perfect.

  8. Dawn, why did you not take photos of me the Boris bike too? I even had a skirt in my bag for bicycle-related husband bagging (that’s ‘bagging’ not ‘banging’ boys, don’t get excited now) opportunities.
    Which brings me on to the point that you are not even wearing a skirt in your photos, are ‘up the shorts’ shots even more sought after I wonder, perhaps for the fact that it is REALLY hard to get a photo of your knickers when you are wearing shorts and tights.
    Would it have been possible to get shot of Peter’s knickers when he was weelie-ing on the Boris bike for wife-bagging purposes do you think? He was wearing shorts that day too and as his pseudo-wife I can guarantee they are very nice knickers as well. We really missed a trick there.
    We could try next time we are in the same neighborhood on our bicycles if you want, in fact, I feel a whole new blog post coming on….

    1. Even with a skirt, I don’t think a pervy photographer would get much joy unless it were a glorified belt – the bikes are of the step-through variety designed to allow women to ride while wearing skirts & preserve their dignity.

  9. I tried the Parisian bikes last year and was entranced. I am petrified of cycling on the streets of London, despite living here my entire life and knowing the city reasonably well. After this though, I have registered for my key and will let you know how my first London bike ride goes!

  10. I am amazingly impressed at Boris Johnson – only he could take an international scheme – highly successful in a host of European capitals, implement it here and make it a total shambles.

    First of all we have overcharging of bike hire – because Boris is a thick twat who probably has an ‘assistant’ to help him switch on his GLA laptop – he naturally ‘stood back’ when that part was done….badly.

    Then we have the problem I spotted on day 1 – the SYSTEM IS A CLOSED SYSTEM – what that means boys and girls is that you need someone to take a bike from your destination in order for you to park it there when you arrive. This was brought on by the idiocy of not supplying locks (which is why it doesn’t happen elsewhere) – we’re going to get problems like last night where customers got hacked off at the lack of spaces and loads of bikes were dumped at Kings Cross and Waterloo (I mean who would have thought it – all the bikes being used to get from the station to work and then returned to the station – all at the same time, I mean it’s almost like we all work the same hours or something!!!)
    Well……until some bikes are nicked to create spare capacity, and the kids I saw on them in southwark seemed like the ‘ingenious type’ who could get them off in no time.
    I am astounded by the stupidity of the people who designed the scheme – have any of them even bothered to try one of the systems abroad? If they had spent less time ordering the bikes from Canada and had them made locally instead maybe the thick idiots could have thought of this in advance.

    I have about 50 cheap ideas which would enhance the scheme and increase the takeup – but I’m not going to send these to TFL until we get a mayor who not a complete moron.

    Still, with residents like these twats – what chance do we have of electing a ‘non-twat’ as mayor?

    …and if one more right wing paper describes these as ‘Boris bikes’ – I’ll be down the office with a milk bottle and a rag. There’s no point calling them ‘Boris bikes’ unless the right wing wankers want to make it a ‘Stalinist mayorality’ so Boris remains forever (even after he’s dead) – or maybe we’ll just do that other continuity thing where ever mayor in the future needs to be called ‘Boris’

    Considering this was a scheme started by Ken Livingstone I’m unsurprised at Boris’s attempt to claim more credit for something he didn’t do.

    …oh wait a minute – they’re all at it!!

    Shall we just give credit to the man who invented the bike and be done with it??
    All I know is it wasn’t Boris – he hasn’t had a good idea since he became mayor! – oh wait a minute, there was one…

    The best Boris ideas are DEAD ONES!
    I swear, that man will drive me to violence one day….

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