Cycle hire is a public service

The biggest cycle hire docking station opened today at Waterloo, with 126 spaces. It will presumably be used by lots of commuters although the scheme is not aimed at them because, oddly, the demand would be too great.

Looking at the figures, the scheme is both enormously successful and a financial disaster. There have been over two million ‘rides’ so far, and barely a handful of accidents. The hire-bikes are buzzing round London, helping to turn it into a cycling city, not quite yet on the scale of Amsterdam, but definitely on a par with many European cities which we once lauded.

However, to get the scheme past the bead counting nerds who rule our lives, there is an enormous pretence going on, as highlighted by the recent assembly report into the bike hire project at It says that the annual running costs of £18m is supposed to be covered by income from use within two to three years, and even start covering some of the set up costs of £79m, but that is clearly voodoo economics, set out by the plan’s promoters in order to pull the wool over the eyes of the accountants. I’m sure B By November, the income from the first four months of the scheme was just £1.9m, and clearly given that every additional user ends up creating costs in terms of bike movements, maintenance, call centre use, and so on, the scheme will never wash its face.

But so what? It is a public service, just as road sweeping, traffic light signals or street lighting are, and adds in all kinds of ways to improving life for Londoners, whether they use them or not. In terms of economics, it has lots of externalities which cannot be quantified or monetised accurately. It is, to repeat, a public service. I’m sure Boris is in on this. He understands that the scheme is not commercial. But why do they have to play these games? Why cannot policy makes accept that some things are not commercial but need to be provided. The bean counters and their neo-liberal bible rule…

  • What is the fiscal impact of opening up the service to casual users though, as they will be paying £1 per day for usage?

  • IanVisits That will help, but you need an awful lot of £1s. The worry is that there will be a temptation to say it is all too cheap and push the price up, and then that will reduce number of users.

  • I fear you mis-represent (at least some of) us who are sceptical of the scheme. For my part I am quite content that it does not make a cash profit and I’m not anti government investment in public transport. It is a necessary component of ensuring that the transport system in London is fit for purpose. Given I am a cyclist myself I’m also keen to see measures that will encourage more people on two wheels.

    I also have no doubt that it will be successful in its own terms and that many people will use it. My main complaint is that there has there has been no rigourous assessment that this is the *most effective* way to spend £109M (as this is TfL’s latest assessment of the cost-to-complete for the scheme) either as a way to encourage cycling or as a transport measure in general.

    Most research (even TfL’s own) agrees that preceived safety issues are the real disincentive for most would-be cyclists, rather then availability of a bike. This can only be substantially resolved by taking road space away from private cars and commercial vehicles. Something Boris has set his face against. Cycle hire allows him to dodge that political quandry by appearing to encourage cycling but without having to alienate his favoured constituencies. It would have been nice for money to be channelled to wherever it was likely to have the best effect – that seems like a forlorn hope.

  • Christian Wolmar

    DavidM I did actually write before the scheme that spending over £1OOm on the cycle hire system may not have been the best way of boosting cycling.But actually, I’m not so sure now.
    Yes, having a super network of cycle lanes etc throughout London would be great, but we may well get there anyway tks to the cycle hire scheme. Not only does it greatly increase the number of cyclists, it also is a fantastic advertisement for the whole concept. It makes cycling mainstream in a way that spending money on improving the infrastructure would not have done. Many of the hirers will become cycle users once again. I have talked to people who had not been on a bike for years, and are now considering getting one. So actually, the scheme may turn out to be far more effective in boosting London’s status as a cycling city than spending that money in any other way.

  • “preceived safety issues are the real disincentive for most would-be cyclists, rather then availability of a bike.” (DavidM)
    But another disincentive is that one’s bike may be stolen. I have a bike but I have joined the hire scheme as well, for doing errands around town, which I’ve never felt like doing with my own bike. The great beauty of the scheme is you leave the bike at a docking point and get another one later when you’ve completed your business in that area. That is a big difference from trying to find a secure place to tie up your own bike and then worrying whether you’ll find somebody has nicked it or trashed it when you return to get it. So I think it is a great scheme, and I agree with CW that it should be subsidised by the (council)taxpayer. £109 million is a piddling sum for such a tangible improvement in the general quality of life.

  • Chris Sharp

    One of the other “externalities which cannot be quantified or monetised accurately” will be the confidence it gives to other cities in the country to follow London’s lead.

  • Matt

    I’m a keen cyclist – it’s a great way to travel. I am also a pedestrian and the father of two small girls.

    People who cycle on pavements are a complete menace. I have been nearly been hit several times by cyclists, usually secondary school children or young adults who are scared to cycle on the road (where they should be). It is a matter of time before they kill one or more pedestrians, most likely a small child.

    I know it’s great we are promoting cycling, and the docking stations at Waterloo are a good thing. But more has to be done to separate modes of travel. More investment is needed in cycle lanes to encourage this separation, but also more enforcement is needed by the police to stop ‘menace’ cyclists.

    I know it’s not sexy, and doesn’t provide the nice photo ops for the Mayor of London. But if the current strategy is not changed, tragedies are inevitable. When (and not if) they occur, it will lead to a tremendous backlash against cyclists.

  • Dan

    Matt – I sympathise with the point you make – but as an aside I wonder what the stats are for cyclists injuring pedestrians off the road way? – statistically insignifcant I’d say – and nowt compared with injuries and deaths of cyclists caused by motor vehicles or pedestrians caused by motor vehicles.

    As an aside I recall the thing I 1st noticed when cycling on a dedicated cycleway that was divided space with pedestrians – an absolute nightmare with pedestrians wandering into cycle way with no attempt to look where they were going or glance behind them as they stepped into path of my bike. My mate had such a problem when a pedestrian suddenly stepped sideways into his path when he was cycling quickly. He hit the pedestrian (who would have felt the force of the collision) but his fall from bike caused him more injury than the pedestrian, plus damage to bike (frame) meant the bike was no good for cyling at speed on the highway any more.

    Despite all this I’m not convinced by segregated modes – as the car always wins the segregation battle – leaving others a legacy of gloomy (1960s / 70s style) pedestrian underpasses, miles of walking round carriage way barriers and the rest of it.

  • Richard Selby

    Beware, scheme members. TfL have a rather underhand way of boosting their Cycle Hire income. I bought 3 cycle hire keys (at £3 each), one for each keyring I possess, and set the account up to automatically dock me the £1 daily hire fee from my bank account. I spent a very enjoyable week using the scheme, but when I saw my bank statement, I was rather horrified to see that TFL had charged me £3 per day rather than £1. Turns out because I possessed 3 keys, they charge me as if I was riding three bikes at once.

    I also have three oyster cards, but I only expect to pay for my tube ride on the one I use, not the other three in the drawer at home. So why should bike keys be any different?

    When I complained, I was told this was in the t+cs I had okayed. Eventually I got a refund, and had my two spare keys deactivated.

  • Keith

    I use the scheme most days for the last leg of my commute and rarely have trouble finding a bike. It is amazing how liberating it is to have this other transport option, and never worry about tube strikes again.

    I think we need to have the cost compared to the health benefits and NHS savings. As has been said a million times – the remote risk of an accident is far, far, outweighed by the health benefits of cycling.

    The great thing is that it’s cycling as transport, not as a “leisure activity”. We just need it rolled out to other UK cities!

    And when will people like BRAKE realise that it’s not about whether you have a piece of polystyrene on your head. To be technical, in the unlikely event of coming off, your neck is much more vulnerable than your head, so unless you go for a full motorcycle-style helmet you might as well not bother, and may even be at more risk from the false sense of security.

  • Dave Holladay

    Ironically on the first day of operatiohn at WAT it was CTC’s Christmas Lunch and so many of us took a look as we passed through WAT on our way to GFD at 07.15 the racks on the Station Approach were almost 100% filled, a colleague passing through at 08.00 reported that the racks were cleaned out.

    Whilst at the lunch someone else who dives down to ride along the South Bank reported seeing late at night a stack of obviously un-docked bikes piled up close to the riverside by a docking station and was taking a peek when the security guards presumably paid to stake out the valuable haul flashed up the lights on their van parked nearby.

    There has been a vast change in just 10 years – back in 2000 we cycled illegally but tolerated up Station Approach to get to WAT from York Road. By 2002 we had a cycle lane and around 30 spaces in toastrack stands at the top. In 2006 the W&C blockade saw the extent of cycle use rocket up as it was clearly a no brainer to cycle to the City rather than endure the alternatives on offer I estimate the boost was around a 100% increase over the 6 months of closure (not quite as impressive as the 1000% increase in parked bikes alone delivered in 2 months by the Thameslink blockade at St Pancras)

    By 2010 that 30 bike spaces has increase to over 320 at exit 3 WAT, and 250 bikes per hour go through exit 3 alone coming to and from trains – 60% of these are folding bikes and in this 60% 2 in 3 are Bromptons. Southwest Trains has shown that they have a better grasp of their customer’s needs than many others and now lease Bromptons in SWT branding to season ticket holders – most of the fleet is out on long term contracts So instead of a ratio of 1 bike to 2 docking stations (or the chaos of never finding an empty or available docking station as you need one) the Waterloo and Richmond sites have storage bins supporting a fleet 2-3 times larger than the storage bin capacity, and no major core costs for redistribution and servicing.

    The other solution which has been pointed out is to offer a user tariff based on the Dutch OV-Fiets model for the same bikes – and a model of multiple tariff operation works in Montpelier (rather like mobile phones) – collect the bike from a major rail station and pay a day-hire (08.00-18.00 or similar) rate, parking the bike in the cycle storage at your office – Network Rail might take a look downstairs at the Guardian and other cycle parking at Kings Place – and the picture is repeated widely across the city where I’d estimate that for many major employers around 10% of employees now cycle to the office, and cycle parks of up to 600 bike capacity are insidiously hiding the scale of the modal switch.

    Coming back from the CTC Lunch we caught the Guildford flyer GFD-WAT 18.17 non-stop, and counted 3 Bromptons on this train and around 10-15 others moving around the concourse – around 80% of the bikes moving around the station at that time.

    The delivery of an effective scheme is potentially something to delight the bean counters. By boosting cycle-rail-cycle commuting the London Commuters can save a direct cost of UKP1500-2000/year and indirectly save on running a second car, gym membership etc, and at an instant cut up to 60 minutes from their door to desk joureny times. The rail operator delivers this radical reduction in journey times at a minimal cost and minimal lead time compared to the billions spent on track and trains to gain just a few minutes, but further – the hideous and inefficiuent structures to build a second or third level of car parking are excised as for one SWT station, the change has delivered 25% of the car park capacity now available to accommodate off-peak travellers and increase use/ticket sales for filling off-peak trains, without any need to build car parks whcih we as the taxpayers have to underwrite by providing NR with the capital to buy the enhanced assets from the TOC and write these down over the appropriate period. It would make an interstin question to ask just how much NR capital expenditure has gone towards the ‘buying’ of some of the massive car parks which sit like carbuncles alongside many fine stations, and lie almost empty for substantial periods during the 24 hours of the day.

    Coupled with the detail that one of the longest running city bike schemes funds its basic running costs through branding deals for the bikes (with major retail clients) the delivery of sustainable – and potentially income generating schemes is here but we still seem to have some blatantly obvious mistakes being made .

    The Waterloo system might work if the Bixi system was used as designed and not as modified for TfL – palletised bikes in docking stations could be stored at Waterloo (Eurostar Car Park) and wheeled out to switch as the bikes were taken in the morning, reversing this process at night, and the bikes would be day-hired by the tidal commuter users – parked at offices, and thus eliminating the problem of where the mass of bikes leaving the Waterloo site in 30 minutes all want to park in the same area of the City. The arrangement was used in Paris for their RATP (=TfL for Paris) supported bike hire scheme 20 years ago – still I believe running as an alternative to Ve’Lib. In this instance bikes were loaded on converted single deck buses (60 per bus – 100 on a bendibus?) and as a full bus was cleared a fresh full bus was driven to the site.

    Maybe if the rail operators actually engaged thier customers and the cycling community the right solutions can be delivered sustainably.

  • AJ

    No matter what anybody thinks about the finances, nobody can deny that this has changed the face of central London. I can’t believe how well it has been embraced (including by me) and I still smile to see so many bikes around.

    Perhaps there WERE more effective uses of the money, but to be honest I’m not sure, and I can’t really see there being more VISIBLE uses of it! In the end that visibility is what has the potential to make the biggest difference.

  • Dan

    Bixi system

    But thanks for this one “RATP (=TfL for Paris)”

  • Peter

    Make mine a double Bixi please!

    Seriously, though, I am concerned at the cost of this scheme. I can think of a number of rail reopening projects that cannot get off the ground due to lack of funding, but would meet their operating costs once running.

    Is a scheme like this, that will in all probability always been a loss maker, a good use of scarce tax money?

  • Anoop

    We definitely need a bike hire scheme in Cambridge.

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