Cycle hire scheme may not be the best way to boost cycling

The London mayor’s cycle hire scheme terrifies me. Superficially, it sounds very exciting. There are to be 6,000 hire bikes which, it is hoped, will generate 40,000 extra cycle journeys per day in central London. The idea is to effect a substantial modal change, attracting people who would otherwise take the tube or a bus, or even possibly out of their cars.

 So how can this be anything other than good news? Well, lots of ways actually. For a start, London is different from most other cities with similar schemes, notably Paris, because there is, already, a cycling culture here. People who want to cycle probably do so already. Where are all these new cyclists going to come from?

 The cycle hire scheme is costing £140m and there is no guarantee that it will achieve anything like its target which is amounts to seven trips per bike especially given that some

are bound to be out of order, stolen or vandalised. There will have to be lots of shifting around of bikes and a very efficient repair and replacement service to maintain availability. The whole point of these schemes is that they have to be on a big scale in order to ensure that most people will find a bike or docking facility when they need one.

 Oddly, the most popular locations for bike docking facilities, the mainline stations, are not being used because it is thought that demand will be too high and it would need too many bikes to be stored there. That demonstrates a real paucity of imagination and shows the lack of commercial nous. After all, what company would eschew its biggest market through fear of excess demand? Nor will the payment system be compatible with Oyster, the obvious cashless solution, for reasons that have not been properly explained, though it possible that system will be adapted later.

 Other cities introducing similar schemes have all had major teething problems. According to Kevin Mayne, the head of CTC, the cycling organisation, ‘there’s never enough bikes, and they are never in the right place’. Mayne strongly supports the scheme but warns that it will take time to bed in as Serco, the contractor learns to shift the bikes around efficiently.

  All this mitigates against success which will put at risk other cycling developments since our venal media sharpen their knives nightly in readiness for tomorrow’s prey with the consequence that there will be coverage writing off the scheme before its had a chance to prove itself.

 My gut instinct is that the £140m being spent on the first six years is not the best way to deliver cycling improvements in the city. The cycle hire scheme is in the mould of a grand projet, an attempt by a politician to grab the headlines with a high profile scheme, rather than doing the patient donkey work to slowly develop cycling. It is an attempt provide a one off rapid boost to cycling but I suspect that if this huge sum of money were spent on cycle training, mentoring, transport planning, guided rides and the like, and making the roads safer then the objective of getting more people on their bikes would be achieved more easily.

 I live in Islington where over the past decade or so, a cycling culture has emerged stimulated in great part by the efforts of the council. It is the road hump capital of the world, and that has changed the whole feel of the area. They have made it safe to cycle down roads which previously were death traps, attracting thousands of tentative cyclists back in the saddle. Seeing the streets dominated the other morning by the glorious combination of Lycra-clad and business-suited cyclists darting around the cycle routes, the back streets and the bus lanes is a testimony to a radical change that has taken place since I moved to the borough a decade and a half ago.

 This is very different from the cycling superhighways which is the other Boris Johnson trailblazing scheme. These are supposed to give cyclists direct routes into and out of central London along main roads but from the initial descriptions, they seem little more than a navigation scheme. Certainly, there seems to be nothing ‘super’ about them. They will be blue – why introduce another colour when there is already green is for cycles and red for buses? – and apparently be continuous, but there will be no segregated sections and virtually nothing will be done to help cyclists at difficult junctions. This too is designed to attract those lost cyclists with rotting bikes in their garages, but unlike in Islington where the traffic has been slowed down, the philosophy at Transport for London under Boris Johnson is that all road users should have equal access to available space.

 Both cycle hire and superhighway have the feel of being rushed in to suit a political agenda, rather than being part of a sustained plan to boost cycling in the capital especially as other measures, such as cutting back spending on the London Cycling Network, allowing motorbikes in bus lanes and giving power to the boroughs to stop schemes seem to be moving in the opposite direction. I hope I am wrong and that both succeed in generating more cycling, but I suspect that there will have to be a considerable rethink about both projects before they bums on saddles.

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  • Lucas

    I have to agree with most of the points here. The biggest market for the cycle higher scheme has got to be mainline commuters wanting to finish their trip by bicycle – there must be space for them at or near the main terminals.

    The cycling superhighway really seems to be nothing more than just a rebranding… which is a good thing – the more people are aware of the option and the more we get a network of good cycle paths the better it’ll be for all of us cyclists in the end… but you can hardly call it super when all you’re doing is adding a bit of colour and putting up some signs.

  • mike

    You don’t mention that the Superhighways project has a hefty a budget (around 30% of the total) for complementary measures which include the “cycle training, mentoring, transport planning, guided rides and the like” that you rightly want to see.

    As for Cycle Hire, this project also includes a budget for infrastructure improvements, many of which are being influenced by cyclists themselves (http://www.lcc.org.uk/index.asp?PageID=1543)

    As for saying “People who want to cycle probably do so already. Where are all these new cyclists going to come from?” – in surveys, 20-30% of people typically say they’d like to cycle more – if we build the provision, they will use it. New cyclists will arrive and existing cycilsts will take more journeys. I would use the scheme tonight if it were in place, but instead my lack of a bike today means I’ll take the tube.

    Yes, of course the mayor likes these high-profile schemes, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work if they’re implemented properly.

  • “The cycling superhighway really seems to be nothing more than just a rebranding… which is a good thing – the more people are aware of the option and the more we get a network of good cycle paths the better it’ll be for all of us cyclists in the end… but you can hardly call it super when all you’re doing is adding a bit of colour and putting up some signs.”

    The exact same rebranding technique was used to “build”—and I use that word quite wrongly—the A205 “South Circular”. Nice to see nobody’s bothering to learn from history. Again.

  • Dan

    I agree with your line of thinking Christian – but it makes the error of assuming the sum would otherwise be spent on other cycle projects – highly unlikely I suspect. Users could vary – tourists can be one user, visitors from out of town who can’t bring a bike ude to restrictive ATOC practices (but of course they will need them at stations as you say….maybe demand will force this issue to be resolved).

    My brother worked in Paris for 6 months after their scheme was introduced – he was a regular user and when I visited him used the system too. Indeed you do need regular vans movign the bikes around as too many end up in the wrong place – and of course if a docking station near your destination is full you have to cycle on to find another or you are keeping accruing a charge – so you need lots of them. Also regular repair and removal of those where repairs are reported quickly is vital (for those that don’t know, if you dock a bike with a fault, report the fault then, it is locked into the dock until removed for repair, to stop others watsing their time using it) – but you need fast response and proper reapirs or people lose faith – the scheme muts be run properly in other words. I’d expect the London scheme to be aware fo these obvious points of course.

    I was interested to see a scheme in place like the Paris scheme in Nantes when I was on hols in the summer. A more modest size regional scheme working in a provincial city. Technology seemed the same as the Paris scheme. Not sure how many other similar schemes there are.

    One assumes the Paris scheme has been ‘examined to death’ by those responsible for the London initiative.

    Like the Congestion charge – it could have gone badly wrong on implementation – but did not. This needs the same focus or it will be a waste.

    I fear the main variable is the problem – ie the avg UK citizen’s capacity to steal / vandalise / strip down for parts / break any item in the public realm not spot welded to an immovable object….

  • Anthony Day

    A similar scheme has just been launched in Dublin by the city council in partnership with a private company which provides bikes in return for free advertising space. It’s been very successful and much against the received wisdom which doomed it to failure from the get-go, mainly because of Dublin’s persistent petty thievery and vandalism problems. There are about 400 bikes in 40 different locations around the city centre.
    In practice, people use the bikes mainly to get around the city centre quickly. Dublin has fragmented business, shopping and entertainment districts and the bikes are handy for getting around these areas. The locations of the bike stands tend to reflect that.
    On the downside, no stands are located beside bus or train stations which would have been obvious locations. I don’t know whether the scheme will be expanded but given its success (50,000 subscribers, I think), I hope it will be.

  • John B-H

    Many valid points of course, e.g. supply at stations seems an obviously sensible idea, however i don’t agree with the generally pessimistic slant of the article. yes we have a cycling culture here, against the odds, but there are many, many more people who would cycle if they could. many of these people are either unable to bring their bikes into town, perhaps have nowhere to store a bike, or maybe have a bike that has fallen into disrepair. And some are thinking of buying a bike but would like to try it out first. for all of these people the rent-a-bike scheme will be perfect. I have tried the Paris scheme and it is by and large very convenient and cheap (although the saddles are not high enough for taller users). I am convinced that, with proper safeguards against theft and vandalisam, it will be a great success here in London. As for whether the money would be better spent elsewhere, we can regard this as an investment: a bike rental scheme = more cyclists = more cycling voters = more political influence = more money for other cycling schemes…

    Fingers crossed!

  • RapidAssistant

    My observations of it having just come back from London after seeing it for the first time was that I frequently saw trailerloads of the things being moved from one docking station to another – which seems a bit of an overhead that erodes the benefit….

    On Saturday, the station at the intersection between Wardour St and Old Compton St was full in the morning, by late afternoon walking past it was empty yet after 2 days solid trawling the streets of Soho and Fitzrovia I only saw one actually in use.

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