31 July 2010

Hire Bike Scheme: First day full report

We had a full day of wheeling round London on the new hire bikes yesterday. Our second impressions are much as our first: there are many teething troubles, some urgent but straightforward to fix, others more challenging and long-term. But we're still very positive about the way the hire bikes will add to the capital's cycling culture.

First, the urgent but straightforward-to-fix. There are too many bikes with overtightened brakes whose rear wheels hardly go round - about half of them, I'd guess. Some stands had few, or no, bikes with acceptably smooth rear wheels. This must be addressed over the weekend, or else a large proportion of the bikes aren't usable.

Second, and potentially more challenging, is the problem of cycle flows. During the afternoon, every docking station we saw had both bikes and docking stations available.

But in the evening rush hour it was different. Round Elephant and Castle, presumably because of commuter flows outwards, the docking stations were empty of bikes. We had a quarter-mile jog from this one, at Hampton St, to the next station with available bikes. (At least the information screens telling you where to find the nearest available bikes were mostly working.)

Conversely, the magnet-stations around the South Bank were all full. This is more serious. If you can't dock your bike you can ask for extra free time somehow (I never quite found out how in my rush to redock) and cycle to the next station with free docks. This wasn't easy at the South Bank last night, where the six nearest alternative docking stations offered a total of one free space, which had gone by the time I got there.

It was all rather exciting; I've always wanted to go orienteering. I found a vacant space near London Bridge eventually, almost a mile away, but it meant a long jog back to my intended destination, and that did rather defeat the point of hire bikes.

(Yes, this full docking station in the picture is in front of the Gherkin, not the South Bank. I didn't have my camera during my South Bank exercises, and anyway the pictures would have been too blurred.)

This, we expect, will be sorted out eventually. It's trickier than taking a spanner to a few thousand back brakes, though. The transfer-trailer wagons that scoop up spare bikes and ferry them back to empty docking stations will be very busy in the coming weeks as TfL work out how the flow patterns work. We pioneers are also guinea pigs, and there could be a few more unscheduled jogging sessions for some of us.

I didn't know the hire bikes were going to keep me so fit.

A few other niggles too: some docking stations weren't letting you take bikes out (St Paul's); some screens weren't working (Godliman St); sometimes the docking post didn't register your bike as docked even when you couldn't get it out again.

But it's remarkable that the scheme is working to any extent, given the Boris-induced schedule it's been put together to. We're pleased to have it working, even if it is only eighty per cent right at the moment.

And all those provisos apart... we still had a great time shuttling round between all that London stuff: free outdoor concerts, cafes, museums, sights, and surprise table tennis at the Barbican. There was a camaraderie among the first-day pioneers, and lots of smiling double-takes from passers-by.

We're convinced the scheme will bring a new dimension to exploring and commuting round London. Several times yesterday we were shouted at by blokes in vans and taxis - not telling us to get off the effing road, as usual, but giving us thumbs-up and saying whoa, nice bike, how do I take one out?

And every docking station had curious and bemused groups of tourists and locals poking about the stands and prodding the screens, asking us what was going on and then nodding thoughtfully.

Problems? Yes, lots. Inevitably. But we still think it's a very promising start.


  1. Brilliant! I admire your (plural) dedication to shaking down the system on day 1.

  2. The whole principle is self-defeating. In order to go from A to B, you must walk to C, take a bike, cycle to D, dock your bike, and walk to B. Of course that applies to any train, metro or bus system as well, but they are used for longer journeys. Bicycle hire systems are designed for short trips, and deliberately penalise longer use, in order to keep the bikes in circulation. That makes it more likely that the time and effort involved would be outweighed by simply walking from A to B. Any delay, or being forced to use another docking station, will escalate that time penalty. Any intermediate stop will escalate it further.

    The inconvenience of the system is enormous. The people who designed it know that of course, but they are working to a political agenda.

  3. going on longer journeys just break the journey with a swap of the bike.

    nothing stops you from cycling from C to D via E, where you drop off one bike and take another

  4. Lets be careful not to confuse the wonderful benefits of 'a' cycle scheme with the benefirst of 'his' cycle scheme.
    The author has clearly shown the fun and excitement and usefulness of a cycle hire scheme. The problem with this one are showing on day 1. There are simply not enough docking stations and more importantly 'spare stations' which restricts the flexibility of the scheme. If you look at the system at day 0 all the bikes are in all the docking stations - in order to go to barbican (for example) you need someone to go from barbican first.
    Secondly, if you look at he tfl map, this is clearly a scheme for the tourists. With the reach of the scheme only covering central london - it is not possible for commuters to use it prctically from say...battersea.
    I saw 1 person actually riding yesterday and he did not look safe - however I feel this is actually beneficial for other cyclists (like myself) as these inexperienced riders will cause drivers to take a lot more notice and care - this is how it works in holland, you don't look out for cars - they look out for you!
    I do hope this scheme is successful and is expanded - just for the good of London, however I do think the politicalisation of this scheme will hinder it's success.

  5. Something does stop you from swopping bikes at successive stations, namely the extra inconvenience, on top of the general inconvenience of the whole scheme.

  6. Of course it's not for commuters! If you want to commute you'll want your own bike, even if you happened to have a hire station outside your front door and another (with space guaranteed) at your work.

  7. It's not for commuters . . . but it may just be for people who want to get from the office to a meeting, or to pop over to the shops at lunchtime.

    What's critically missing from the Boris Bikes is a lock. Without that, you've no choice but to return your bike to a docking station - even if all you want to do is pop into a shop to get a sandwich.

    It would also have been a good idea if there was some sort of integration with the Oyster Card system - probably not the regular cards, but those that also have bank details tied to them for automatic top-up.

    Finally, given the volume of greenwashing advertising space Barclays has bought itself through the sponsorship deal, it's a shame that London's scheme is so expensive when compared with hire schemes in other cities.

  8. I presume the lack of a lock is to stop people docking their bikes but keeping them locked for their own personal use whenever they choose to return... though you could do that with your own lock if you really wanted.

  9. The lock lack, I've been told, is in response to the Paris experience. Their Velib bikes come with crappy little locks, which thieves find easy to snap apart.

  10. Ho Rob, Mark Ames felt you would not mind me lifting a few photos with credit for my blog.

    (http://situp-cycle.com) As you may know I organized the demo, which Paul Martin played a prominent part, supporting our bike share scheme in Melbourne, and am reporting on why our helmet law is killing our scheme.

    I suspect it Helen Pidd you feature in several photos, Right?

  11. @Michael - yes, lift any photos you like (so long as I get a credit/link).

    Nice try, but no: the lass who often features in my blog photos is certainly not Guardian journo Helen Pidd!

    [ I'd better not go into detail about how you can tell them apart for fear of pissing off either or both of them... ; ) ]

  12. Thanks for correcting the error about Helen, Rob. I've changed the photo and added two of yours a bit later. Could you check the bit of text I've written about you and Real Cycle?



  13. Nice blog, Michael. I can’t answer for Rob re content, but there are certainly a few typos (not to mention stray commas and evil American spellings) –

    Barclays Bicycles has certain a ring to it

    One that great London blog, Real cycling

    Noe have been stolen

    it’ll help to have a stop watc with you

    tracker GPs (dunno about Oz, but in the UK, GPs are family doctors…)