What London’s Cycle Hire Scheme Got Right (And What it Got Wrong)

London’s cycle hire scheme got some international press recently when Arnold Schwarzeneggerformer Governor of California – went for a spin with the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Later tweeting that he ‘loved riding the Boris bikes’, Mr Schwarzenegger has joined the not-so-elite fan club of London’s cycle hire – a scheme so successful its users have cycled 10 million kilometres in six months (that’s the equivalent of 13 trips to the moon and back, for those of you into factoids).

For London – a city used to public transport failures – this is a strange position to be in. So what did the city do to turn its cycle hire scheme into such a success?

1. Price

Whilst the pricing system for London’s cycle hire varies depending on usage, used wisely it is the cheapest transport option by a long shot. Annual membership comes in at £45 pounds, and if you only use the bikes for trips of 30 minutes or less, that’s all you’ll pay all year. Compared to around £14 for unlimited daily travel in the city, the motivation is clear. Those on flexible memberships (myself included) pay £1 for 24 hours unlimited access as they need it. Trips over 30 minutes long start incurring additional charges, but with 93% of all trips lasting less than half an hour, most people are getting their money’s worth.

2. Starting BIG

Launch day saw nearly 5,000 bicycles and 316 docking stations activated on London’s streets. Since then, numbers have climbed even further, with over 400 functional docking stations throughout London’s Zone 1 – an area of around 45 square kilometres. By launching in such large numbers London has been able to avoid the fate of Melbourne’s cycle hire scheme. Despite being functionally identical, it is yet to be used in large number thanks – in part – to its measly 600 bikes and 50 docking stations.

3. Flexible growth

Soon after the scheme’s launch I said ‘the frequency of docking points in central London needs to be increased, making the scheme more convenient, practical and attractive for short journeys in the city‘. London must be listening, as that is exactly what’s happened. New docking stations have been introduced throughout the city – including an enormous 124-space dock at Waterloo Station – and existing docks have been extended to meet demand. In addition to this, I called for an expanded footprint, which is also gradually being introduced eastwards in time for the 2012 Olympics. The growth of the scheme into east London – shown by the map above – will bring 2,000 new bikes over an additional 20 square kilometres, with 4,200 more individual docking points introduced across the whole cycle hire area.

4. Treating it as an extension of the public transport system

Whilst my suggestions for the scheme’s growth have materialised, one of my initial criticisms was very wrong. The London cycle hire bicycles are not fitted with a lock, meaning the only way to securely leave your bicycle is to drop it off at your nearest docking station. Based on this, I concluded that ‘these bikes are not as useful as they could have been‘, which I now realise is the opposite of the truth. Demanding users return their bicycles when they don’t need them frees up as many as possible for collective use, creating a more convenient system as a whole. This functionality – as well as the system’s pricing structure – says a lot about the intended use of these bicycles. London’s cycle hire scheme is an extension of its already extensive public transport network. You wouldn’t expect the bus to wait for you as you nip into Tesco to grab a pint of milk, and neither should you expect that from your bike.

What did London get wrong?

Despite 100,000 members and 1.7 trips in the first four months alone, the London cycle hire scheme is not perfect. For us Londoners used to complaining about the public transport network, this next section might make a more comfortable and less self-congratulatory read.

So what did the city get wrong, and what can we do better?

1. Barclays Cycle Hire

One of Britain’s biggest banks gave London a couple of million pounds, and now every cycle hire bike and cycle superhighway in the city is emblazoned with its name and logo. Whilst the ethical questions alone could be the topic of another post, it simply isn’t a good name. My personal opinions aside, who in London has yet to hear a friend or colleague saying ‘I cycled to work this morning on the Barclays Cycle Hire’? We’re an inventive bunch in this city, and if you give something a stupid name, we will simply collectively rename it. One of our most iconic buildings is called ’30 St Mary Axe’, and thanks to this ridiculous title and its curved shape, we call it ‘the gherkin’. Unsurprisingly, the same fate has fallen on the Barclays Cycle Hire, which Londoners have renamed ‘Boris Bikes’ in honour of the Mayor, Boris Johnson. With Schwarzenegger’s tweet acknowledging this nickname, critical mass has been reached.

2. Forgetting about south London

South London often gets left out of exciting developments, and with the cycle hire scheme that hasn’t changed. Whilst Zone 1 falls mainly north of the river, opportunity for further expansion southwards seems obvious considering its population density and relatively flat terrain. Thanks to the Olympics developments and ongoing efforts to improve the fortunes of east London – home to the city’s poorest borough – it will be a while before Boris Bikes become a regular sight on the streets of south London.

3. No Oyster integration

London’s wildly popular electronic ticketing system – called ‘Oyster’ – allows entry to all forms of public transport simply by touching the card against a ‘reader’. All forms except the cycle hire, that is. Had London integrated the Oyster card, a significant barrier to entry would have been removed, allowing the scheme to become even more successful than it already has. Instead, members have to apply online for a digital keyfob, and non-members must use their debit or credit cards. Future plans to integrate contactless debit and credit cards into London’s transport network also appear to have bypassed the cycle hire scheme.

But…

Lets get back to the self-congratulation. No, London’s cycle hire is not perfect (the bikes themselves are two wheeled equivalents of a tractor), but the numbers seem to suggest that it is working. Just like you wouldn’t complain that your bus isn’t as good as a limousine, we don’t need to complain about the Boris Bikes. People of London, take it in. We got it right this time.

Images courtesy of conservativeparty, Grande Latte, abroadjz, and tompagenet on flickr

  • Olaf Storbeck

    Nice post. They also forgot about North London – and the casual usage is a real nightmare, as I describe here: http://cycling-intelligence.com/2011/03/28/some-issues-but-even-more-fun-my-experience-as-a-casual-boris-biker/

    • http://twitter.com/thisbigcity Joe Peach

      Thanks for the comment. It’s a shame about north London, though its more hilly terrain I think makes it more justifiable than south London, which is pretty flat within most of zone 2.

  • http://twitter.com/markasaurus Mark Hogan

    Great post, however Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t the Governor of California any more. Jerry Brown, the new Governor, was elected in November.

    • http://twitter.com/thisbigcity Joe Peach

      Epic fail. I have no idea how that passed me by.

  • Ezragoldman

    I agree on all points. Just a few comments to help understand some reasons why London probably got these things you mention ‘wrong’-

    1. As for the advertising, unfortunately none of these systems are profitable on their own. Pretty much every bikesharing scheme relies on advertising for a significant portion of their startup and operating costs (especially considering that the rides are basically free as you mentioned). They could have been a bit more savvy though (as in Paris with ‘Velib’) and given it a catchier name so it wouldn’t have been renamed. I’m not complaining, but I suspect Barclay’s might be.

    2. Bikeshare schemes- like biking itself- has been mainly a tool for the relatively educated in the global north (in contrast to the poor in the global south). This is a broader issue which should be addressed. (http://bit.ly/fjfo4i)

    3. Integration is a key aspect for the future of mobility. Unfortunately, it often boils down not to technology (which is relatively easy) but to politics (much more complicated). This is a key issue for all new mobility (think of carsharing and integration!) but it is a bit of a ‘wicked problem’ in practice.

    I have a post on my blog about the ‘true value’ of bikesharing in general, which is more about marketing and gaining legitimacy for bicycling as a means of transport- not increasing ridership per se (http://bit.ly/fTehyp).

  • Duncan_neish

    “around £14 for unlimited daily travel in the city” – I’m not sure what sort of Travelcard you’re using!

    It is a nuisance that Oystercards can’t be used with the bikes – but using specific memberships or credit cards probably means it’s easier to identify users and to deter theft and misuse (you know they’ll take the money off you if you don’t return the bike).

    • http://www.thisbigcity.net Joe Peach

      Check out the prices here!

      http://www.tfl.gov.uk/tickets/14416.aspx

      Zone 1-6 peak is £15 a day, even on an Oyster card if you use the rail network. Granted, a peak zone 1 ticket is £8 and less on Oyster, but 2/3 of London’s population living in outer areas and work more central.

      There’s so many different prices, of course, but however you look at it, the Boris bikes are your cheapest option. That was kind of my point!

      • Duncan

        I must admit – as a Zoner 2-er – I hadn’t realised peak-time outer zone Travelcards had gotten so expensive (when did there become 9 zones?!).

        Boris Bikes are cheap though, that’s for sure. If I lived close to a docking station I’d probably use them for commuting and sacrifice a bit of speed for the saving in maintenance time and cost of my own bike!

      • Duncan

        I must admit – as a Zoner 2-er – I hadn’t realised peak-time outer zone Travelcards had gotten so expensive (when did there become 9 zones?!).

        Boris Bikes are cheap though, that’s for sure. If I lived close to a docking station I’d probably use them for commuting and sacrifice a bit of speed for the saving in maintenance time and cost of my own bike!

  • Kelcie R

     I’m administering a survey about opinions about the Boris Bikes and cycling in general. The survey is for both cyclists and non-cyclists and takes less than 15 minutes. All answers are strictly confidential. Everyone who completes a survey will be entered to win a £50 prize.  Access the survey here: https://spreadsheets.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dDlJSnNueXhpbnZQVHB6MVBRNmhDX3c6MA

  • Kelcie R

     I’m administering a survey about opinions about the Boris Bikes and cycling in general. The survey is for both cyclists and non-cyclists and takes less than 15 minutes. All answers are strictly confidential. Everyone who completes a survey will be entered to win a £50 prize.  Access the survey here: https://spreadsheets.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dDlJSnNueXhpbnZQVHB6MVBRNmhDX3c6MA

  • Gtelling

     Another thing the scheme missed out was any form of consultation with Commercial Vehicle users who use the kerb as an interface between vehicle and customers’ premises.  When I challenged TfL on this they acknowledged that such use had completely passed them by.  The result has been that some parts of the logistics sector have been vociferously opposed to the scheme which has hindered genuine attempts by industry as a whole – led by us, the Freight Tansport Association – to work with TfL to make the scheme fit for all users of the road.  The end result is that TfL has now shut down some of its communication with us and subsequent roll-out of Superhighways has missed the opportunity to improve.

    Similarly with the docking stations we were presented with hundreds of proposals across London.  When we pointed out that the pavement spaces were regularly used to move goods – such as beer barrels, cash and fresh food – from kerb to premises we were told to make individual, evidenced cases for each complaint.  We pointed out to the local authorities in question and TfL that they had a duty of care not to create new hazards but they chose not to respond.

    • http://www.thisbigcity.net Joe Peach

      A lack of consultation certainly sounds like Tfl. With docking stations though, isn’t it simply a case of parking a few metres down the road?

    • http://www.thisbigcity.net Joe Peach

      A lack of consultation certainly sounds like Tfl. With docking stations though, isn’t it simply a case of parking a few metres down the road?

  • Gtelling

     Another thing the scheme missed out was any form of consultation with Commercial Vehicle users who use the kerb as an interface between vehicle and customers’ premises.  When I challenged TfL on this they acknowledged that such use had completely passed them by.  The result has been that some parts of the logistics sector have been vociferously opposed to the scheme which has hindered genuine attempts by industry as a whole – led by us, the Freight Tansport Association – to work with TfL to make the scheme fit for all users of the road.  The end result is that TfL has now shut down some of its communication with us and subsequent roll-out of Superhighways has missed the opportunity to improve.

    Similarly with the docking stations we were presented with hundreds of proposals across London.  When we pointed out that the pavement spaces were regularly used to move goods – such as beer barrels, cash and fresh food – from kerb to premises we were told to make individual, evidenced cases for each complaint.  We pointed out to the local authorities in question and TfL that they had a duty of care not to create new hazards but they chose not to respond.