London's Bike Hire scheme is due to start in May 2010. It's coming a bit late to the citybike party: Barcelona and Paris have had popular, and generally successful, schemes running for a few years now.
And many other cities have them, each with some lessons for what London might want to copy - or avoid. So this week I'll be talking about some of the other European city hire schemes I've used recently, starting with Copenhagen's.
Uniquely, among the cities to be considered here, Copenhagen's scheme is free and requires no registering or booking. You look for one of 110 special bike racks round the city which hold the city bikes (top right). Though a range of colours, they're characteristic in appearance, with solid rear wheels, clear branding, and a metal map of the city centre (with rack locations) fixed on the handlebars (right).
To release the bike from its chain, you simply insert a 20 kroner coin - a bit more than two quid, so just about enough to buy a can of coke - into a slot (visible on the right), just as you would with a supermarket trolley.
In fact, the bike rides very much like a supermarket trolley too. The saddle goes no higher than four inches off the floor, meaning anyone over the age of seven will find their view of the road continually blocked by their knees.
There are no brakes on the handlebars: the only ways of stopping are either to engage the back-pedal brake, usually by accident; or to collide with a lamppost. This being cycle-friendly Denmark, the insurance company generally assumes the lamppost was responsible.
They make some interesting noises, too. This one sounds like a corncrake; that one, a distant car alarm; the other, a looming cloud of tsetse fly. The quality and variety is remarkable. I know musicians at Goldsmiths who've got PhDs in electronic music with less.
And there's the cobbles. They don't cope well with cobbles. If you try nipping out to the shops for a pint of milk on one, it'll be butter by the time you get home.
You're only supposed to use them in the couple of square miles of the city centre - there are big fines for taking them outside the boundary. (Your basket-mounted map shows you if you're near border country.) In practice, twenty minutes on a city hire bike is enough. They also don't have lights, and are only available from March to November.
If you're a local, of course, you don't need them: you have and frequently use a bike of your own, even going shopping with the kids (right).
Still, the scheme is popular: the racks are often empty at peak times, so you can't guarantee instant use. And they are handy if you're a visitor and just want to shuttle between the station, youth hostel, mermaid, and city-centre musts such as the Bog Museum. (That's 'book museum', sadly.) And they're free, in a city that feels about 50 per cent pricier than London. (There is 'normal' bike hire available from various places, for similar rates to Britain, about £15 per day or so.) And they are, indeed, enormous fun.
You might also use one to grind your way out to Christiania (right), the semi-legitimised hippy community on Christianshavn. Cars are not allowed there, along with other dangerous and immoral things such as hard drugs and photography. Soft drugs on the other hand are virtually compulsory. At the market stalls you see mighty blocks of cannabis resin on sale the size of breeze blocks. There are also several scruffy but atmospheric bars and restaurants.
So what are the lessons for London? Well, having a soft-drugs-tolerant enclave such as Christianshavn would obviously be a fantastic... oh, I see, the bike hire lessons for London. Only that free unregistered bikes wouldn't work, I suppose. After the first week, half would be in canals and the other half in Lithuania or somewhere. It may be shorter on pound shops, but in terms of social discipline, Copenhagen does rather put London in the shade.