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.

London Cycle Hire Scheme – First Thoughts

London’s gaudily sponsored Cycle Hire Scheme launches tomorrow. After the seeds were planted during the 2008 Mayoral Election, London will follow Montreal and Paris’ lead in providing docks around the capital from which tourists and Londoners can hire bicycles. There have been teething problems, notably a month-long delay to the date at which casual users can hire bikes, planning permissions wrangles with London boroughs, and initial software issues with the registration process. For some incomprehensible reason, the map showing where docking stations can be found is not due to go live until the 30th July. Ever helpful, TfL.

My access key arrived less than 24 hours after registering, along with a foldout map showing the locations of docks in Central London and a letter full of bluster informing me I was a “pioneer”. A few seconds with some nail varnish remover, and my key’s now unbranded. Before:

A few gripes:

1. The over-zealous branding. It may not bother some people, but cycle lanes are traditionally green, so painting great swathes of London Barclays Blue rankles. Every cyclist is prone to philosophising on how traversing the streets on foot, or outside of a metal tin gives you a greater sense of ownership of your city. Branding the roads takes that away. Excellent post on this point here. Also, “Barclays Cycle Hire” doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Velib” or “Bixi“.

2. They’re only in Zone 1. I understand they’re primarily to help people get around central London, but there are very few south of the Thames, and installing a few docks at say, Clapham Junction, Balham or New Cross would enable people to commute quickly and cheaply into Zone 1, using the new Superhighways.

3. The sheer weight of them. I had a little poke at one in Vauxhall earlier. They’re heavy. About 20kg. This won’t be an issue to everyone: I’m a three-speed, Dutch bike hipster, so heavy is normal. But it takes a while to get used to heavy bikes, and if users without much experience ride straight into the road, turning corners or braking suddenly could cause problems. I’m not sure how adjustable they are either. I’m 5″9′, so I’ll be fine, but I can’t imagine women under 5″4′ having a lot of fun on them.

4. Oyster cards. Why on earth can’t the docks accept Oyster cards? Surely the software can be programmed to only accept registered Oyster cards, removing the problem of people buying an Oyster card, then disappearing with a conspicuously branded bike?

And some good points:

1. The first half hour is free. There have been some gripes that the scheme is expensive, but you can get pretty much anywhere in Zone 1 in half an hour. I’m relaxed on a bike, and spend most commutes getting steadily overtaken by the Clapham Cycling Mafia. I can cycle from Vauxhall Bridge to Regents Park in half an hour whilst daydreaming: and it only costs £1 for an hour. Plus, the average bike hire cost in London is currently around £5 an hour, with the extra hassle of paperwork.

2. There are plenty of docking stations around, and if you find one that is full, you can add an extra 15 minutes to your journey time for free. I might use the hire bikes instead of my own if I’m ambling about the city all day, as it means I don’t have to carry a lock, lights and then return to the original parking space.

3. It’s exercise, and it’s cheap. A non-cyclist friend is excited by the scheme, as it’s both cheaper than the gym and a travelcard. He thinks he’ll get a bus to Vauxhall from Battersea, and bike from there. Even with the bus fare, if he bikes for less than half an hour at a time, he’ll have saved at least £2.80 a day.

4. There will be bikes, every where. Cheap bikes. Masses of my friends envy cyclists, and explain how they’d like to get a bike, but they’re not sure if they can cycle, or if they’ll panic on the roads. Now they can try them out in their own time, without having to fork out for a bike, accessories and a lock.

I’m willing to be optimistic about it until I try it. I think that having registered users using them exclusively for a month is annoying, and a failing of TfL and the Mayor, but I also think that means more enthused people ride first, whilst the kinks are being ironed out. I’d like to think Londoners will embrace the scheme as Paris and Montreal have done, and that TfL won’t screw up too dramatically. We’ll report back tomorrow once we’ve given them a test-drive. Happy Cycling.