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.

Weekly War Bulletin, 31 July

Apparently some sort of new bicycle thing — a hire scheme of some sort — launched in London on Friday.  After things got heated with an organised anti-bank stickering campaign, a man was arrested for kicking one of the poor things.  And if we had known that usage on Friday would be free — and with hindsight, we probably should have expected it — we’d have taken one on the Mass.

The Olympic Road Network (the news have been misnaming it Route — all of the routes are in fact roads) has been confirmed: Park Lane, Embankment and Upper Thames Street are in.  25,000 “sponsors and their guests” will be able to use them, thus guaranteeing that the Olympics will not be ruined by the absence of “sponsors and their guests”.  Some are already expressing their shock at hearing that even taxis will not be allowed to use them.  We really have been expertly conditioned to believe that taxis have some sort of right push in and drive wherever they like.  With the fine for “improper use” at £100 (or, in newspeak, £200 with a 50% discount if paid on time), a nicely flowing Olympic lane will no doubt prove very tempting to the sort of idiot who already thinks it’s a good idea to drive in the congestion charging zone.

Ho ho.  Parking, eh?  Harrods owners’ luxuary cars clamped on Knightsbridge.  Kensington & Chelsea council have realised that a £70 fine means nothing to the sort of person who already thinks that it’s a good idea to drive into their borough, and so instead of a token fine that merely gives the fine payer the feeling of having paid for a service, K&C are taking away the children’s toys and making them stand in the corner.

Those new Victoria line trains that we’ve been expecting for three years turn out not to work perfectly first time.  They shut down if you stand too close to the doors, and are therefore described as “23 times less reliable” than the old ones.  Except, as London Reconnections points out, this won’t be a surprise to the engineers and project managers, who will know that this is how engineering projects work, and be ready with the fix right away.

Of a more long term concern to tube commuters should be the cuts to station staff, which this week are prompting strike ballots, and the Mayor’s great Air Con.

Meanwhile, talentless banjolele players accuse TfL of discrimination after being told they’re not good enough to play on the tube.

Bus firm repudiates last week’s racist abuse story.

Camera on world’s most blindingly obvious “Buses and taxis only” road rakes in £2 million from Motorists who get confused and think they’re a bus.  I for one welcome this tax on the stupid.

The New West End Company have an artists impression of St Giles’ Circus after the Crossrail works are completed at the station below: a scene delightfully free from street furniture clutter, where pedestrians and cyclists meander about in the junction, while buses, whose motion blur implies quite some speed, plough through them.  Most depressingly of all, they tell us that the Queen musical will still be playing a decade from now.

Finally, after Tom Hall suggested six uses for a hire bike, your moment of zen: the author demonstrates how a 20kg hire bike can be a complete replacement for a gym membership:

Bike Hire: the bikes are just the start of the process

The Guardian speculates on the likely effects of the bicycle hire scheme that launches tomorrow morning, based on observations of other cities that have mature systems.  The scheme is not expected to make any significant difference to private car journeys.  This is hardly surprising.  Some London drivers of course can not easily switch to the hire bike — deliveries, and the disabled.  Most, though, will notEver. Most London drivers are the kind of bankers and drug dealers for whom there is simply insufficient mental capacity to even begin to understand how harmful, selfish, and ludicrous their behaviour is.  The congestion charge does not affect them; parking charges go unnoticed; no amount of traffic jams will get them out of the shell that protects from the proles.  Like religion and conservatism, driving in London is purely irrational; impervious to reason.  This we already knew.

What the hire bikes are expected to provide is faster journeys for those who would have walked; relief for overcrowded trains and buses; and most interestingly, a cut in taxi journeys.  During the day, bike hire will displace a particular type of taxi journey: the businessman, journalist, politician, academic, civil servant whose journey is short, but has a strict deadline in a busy schedule.  The bus wastes time at stops; the tube station too far away; you don’t have time to wait and you can’t take even the remotest risk of getting stuck in a tunnel.  So you reluctantly flag a cab.  Except that, now, with docking stations outside both your office and the place of your important meeting, and an ominous queue of traffic building at the end of the road, the hire bike looks like the faster and more reliable option.

These hire bikes are conveniently located outside the Rose and Crown in Southwark.

Meanwhile, at night, when the last tube has left, and the night buses have filled with tramps and creeps, wannabe gangsters and spotty chavs, one might have found tempting a taxi home from your late evening working, your evening classes, cultural performances, or — we know you — pub.  Now you can grab a hire bike, and sober up with the wind in your face.

This leads us to the inevitable conclusion that the full introduction of the bike hire scheme must be followed immediately by at least two other changes to London’s transport infrastructure.  Firstly, the clear evidence we see is that London’s streets already host an extravagant surplus of taxis, driving around empty, producing enough pollution each for a thousand of us, or else sat idle on the side of the road, day and night, occupying valuable central London land.  The bike hire scheme makes our quaint old fashioned taxis even more redundant and, for the sake of the taxi drivers who will be facing ever tougher competition for fares, their numbers will need to be reduced.  We propose retraining the drivers to operate the cute little electric trucks that will redistribute bikes from popular destinations back to popular starting locations.

Secondly, there will be a jump in the numbers of people taking a hire bike home from the pub.  They are liable to wobble, and, if action is not taken now, could end up scratching an Important Person’s paintwork.  Which is why next week we will be explaining why there is sadly no avoiding the fact that the time has come when, for the Motorist’s own protection, we simply have no choice but to remove all private cars from unclassified roads in zone one.

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.

Weekly War Bulletin, 24 July

TfL aren’t happy about delays to the cycle-hire scheme.  I’d have thought TfL would have bigger contractor fuckups to get upset about — implementation of the bike hire scheme looks fabulously competent compared to most transport projects.

Speaking of which, TfL have resorted to banning colour photocopies and first-class mail, in order to save every penny.  Network Rail, though, seem happy to chuck another £600k bonus at boss Iain Coucher, with the DfT actively stepping back from the matter.

Kids in Slough are shining laser pens at aeroplanes; kids near King’s Cross are chucking rubble at sub-surface line trains.  Woman with veil thrown off Russell Square bus; Metroline investigate.

Hammersmith & City line closed for three weeks in order to demolish a taxi rank at Paddington in preparation for Crossrail.  That’s, erm, the war on taxis?  No engineering work during the olympics, though.  The IOC and olympics organisers have decided that they can cause enough disruption by themselves.

Regeneration plans at Wembley include a residential and retail development focussed on a street that people will be expected not to drive on.  That’s the war on the motorist, that is.