Will cycle hire scheme bring a 'revolution' in London transport?
Jun 22 2010 By Dan Hodges
London Mayor Boris Johnson is promising nothing less than a cycling revolution in the city, a key part of which will be the bike hire scheme launching in nine boroughs at the end of July. DAN HODGES was given a sneak preview of the capital's newest form of public transport
A leisurely pedal through central London would not usually turn many heads, but straddling one of the new Barclays Cycle Hire frames before their general release is liable to make the rider feel a bit like a minor royal.
Emblazoned with the bank's vivid corporate blue – for which Barclays paid £25 million in a five-year sponsorship deal – the Chronicle drew fascinated gazes from pedestrians and fellow cyclists as the still-unfamiliar machine streaked past some of the capital's busiest tourist spots.
First impressions were good. The seat is quickly adjusted, the frame feels robust but easily manoeuvrable, and the effective brakes even come with a dummy's guide for which to squeeze first.
Shifting between the three gears is smooth and simple, although they do somewhat limit the bike's speed on long, straight stretches like the Victoria embankment. If there is one criticism, it is that the heavy bikes are not ideal for pushing uphill or carrying up flights steps, of which there are many next to the capital's various bridges.
Still, taking one of these for a spin around the Parliament Square and the South Bank six weeks before they hit the streets – the launch date is July 30 – is a thrilling and liberating experience which feels like a fantastic addition to London's transport network.
Tourists will be welcome to rent the bikes from pick-up points across the capital, but the real target is Londoners looking for a quicker way to travel short distances between docking stations, which should never be more than around a quarter of a mile away.
"The point is to make short trips," said the Transport for London spokesman handing out prototypes. "We're not looking to get into a situation where people are taking them all day. You don't necessarily have to be part of the cycling fraternity or the lycra set to be involved in it - it's a very interesting way to get around and there are some really positive health benefits.
"A lot of people might be nervous about cycling, but TfL is funding cycle training in all the boroughs. When you've got more cycles on the road, cyclists are more confident, because it's strength in numbers."
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, hopes the scheme will follow successful projects already established in many other European cities, persuading many more Londoners to give up their cars.
TfL has drawn some criticism for choosing a Canadian firm, De Vinci, to manufacture the bikes instead of one of the few remaining British bicycle manufacturers, but the spokesman said the chosen firm has a proven track record in Montreal, with the London models closely resembling those already supplied there.
"There is a tried and tested system in Montreal," he said. "It's a fully proven system that didn't require the development costs which would have made the bill a lot higher. But the Montreal system is a seasonal system, whereas ours will be 24 hours, seven days a week."
Some fear that theft and vandalism of the bikes and docking stations is inevitable, although they will be monitored by CCTV, and community groups will be encouraged to embrace the scheme by taking ownership of their local pick-up point.
At its launch, the scheme will cover nine boroughs in the centre of the city, including most of Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, and it will ultimately be rolled out to wider areas including the Olympic site and other boroughs like Hammersmith and Fulham.
"The scheme is going to be growing over the course of the next few years – there's never going to be a point where it's all finished," said the spokesman. We have to plant the seed and start somewhere, and where better to do that than central London."
THE VIEW FROM THE STREET
Office workers wandering past the first new cycle docking station in Southwark Street last Friday were intrigued by what they saw, while a group of TfL electricians milled about learning the basics so they can install more thousands more spaces in the coming weeks.
Those who the Chronicle managed to stop and speak to gave a wide range of first impressions and views on the bike and the cycle hire scheme as a whole.
Alice Humphrys, 30, working nearby, said: "It's a good idea, it looks great and it's outside my office, but I don't know whether I'll ever make use of it. I think the cost is too expensive – at £6 for two hours it might be cheaper to get a cab, and if you don't return it you have to pay £300.
"It also looks really heavy. I ride a bike which is really light, and when I used to cycle to work I'd have to carry it up the steps and across Tower Bridge. I wonder what guys will think of them because it looks like a ladies' frame."
Sarah Lewis, 40, said: "If I was going to a meeting nearby I might use it. I've never cycled in central London before so I'd be a bit nervous, but if it came with a helmet I'd be happier."
Some of those whose interest was captured had already discovered the benefits of similar schemes overseas.
Jamie McLaughlin, 35, said: "It's a very good scheme, and if you go to a lot of European cities they already have them up and running. I went to Barcelona a month ago and there were thousands of people riding them. The bike looks quite smart, and I wonder how long it will be before they get nicked."
Patrick Rafa, 41, said: "I tried it out in Paris and I loved it, it's a great way to get around even for long distances, because after half an hour you can just drop one off and pick another one up. The only problem is that people will vandalise them and steal them, which is what was happening over there – I hate CCTV, but I think it will be needed around these bikes."
On the South Bank, hordes of tourists wandering past the London Eye shot curious glances at the passing bike, while performers from the frightening Death Trap tourist attraction insisted that the Chronicle stop so they could take a closer look.
Actor Michael Rotsa, 27, said: "It looks stylish and I think I would use it. I've been thinking of riding a bike to work because I spend so much money on transport. The only thing I'd be worried about is taking it back to a docking station and finding there isn't a space."
HOW THE SCHEME WORKS
Getting hold of a bike will require users to either pay £45 for one year's membership, giving them a special swab key for faster release, or to swipe their bank card at an on-street machine for short-term access - £1 for a day, or £5 for a week.
The first half an hour is free, and it will be acceptable to ride one bike for half an hour, return it, then wait a couple of minutes for the system to reset before taking out another free bike.
After the first half hour, charges begin to rise steeply - £1 for up to an hour, £4 for up to 90 minutes, £6 for two hours, £10 for two-and-a-half hours, £15 for three hours, £35 for six hours and £50 for the maximum 24 hours. After that it costs £150 for a late return, £300 for damaging the bike, and £300 for failing to return it altogether.
There will initially be 6,000 bikes and more than 10,000 docking spaces available at 400 locations across the city. Bikes will be available all day every day to anyone over the age of 14, and there is no need to book ahead.
What do you think of the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme? Add your views below.