Boris bike extension still leaves big question

Boris Johnson has announced plans to extend the cycle hire scheme westwards as well as eastwards, and confirmed that Barclays will continue supporting the scheme till 2018. I love the idea of what is essentially free cycle hire – for those with a credit card – in central London, but I remain unsure as to what the thinking behind it is. What, in other words, is the strategy behind the cycle hire scheme?

On the plus side, the scheme has undoubtedly contributed to getting more people to cycle in central London. The numbers of cyclists at times seem prodigious.I’m sure some of these new cyclists have started using bike because initially they tried out a Barclays bike and realised that cycling is easier/more pleasant/quicker/cheaper etc than the alternatives. That’s well and good but it has come at a price – some £100m and still rising. There is no chance that the cycling scheme will ever pay for itself.

Nor, in fact, is it that environmentally sound. The number of times that cycles have to be moved by van, and taken off for repairs and the like, means that the cycle hire scheme has generated some not insignificant amount of extra traffic. People who used this bikes for the most part would have previously undertaken the journey by bus or Tube, and therefore their carbon footprint has not really been reduced.

Sure, by taking a few people off the tubes and buses at peak times, the bikes do help reduce congestion a little, but the effect of a few thousand bikes is pretty marginal. By their own admission, the creators of the scheme admit that it is impossible to cater for , say, large flows of commuters coming into London’s mainline stations.

The real failure, though, is that TfL and Boris are not thinking through the implications of getting many more people to cycle. Space has to be allocated to cyclists, and taken away from motorists. That’s the key lesson that Boris, in particular, will never learn or rather the policy he will never dare to implement.

Don’t get me wrong. I would rather have the scheme, than not, and I think its use as a catalyst to convert people to cycling is useful. But Boris’s failure to understand how to turn London into a cycle friendly city with a range of measures – listed in the latest edition of London Cyclist – means that the cycle hire scheme will not achieve its full potential, and nor will London begin to see the levels of cycling common in large cities abroad.

  • Agreed: it is all about the road space, Boris. Especially if we want cycling to be seen as an everyday choice for families, children, older people – anyone beyond the suits and tourists who currently appear to dominate the Boris Bike demographic. Minor quibble: I’d like to have seen some stats/links to back up some of the assertions in this piece.

  • Daniel

    Christian, it looks as if you are just trying to find the flaws in a mayor that you choose not to back politically.

    We’re clearly at the “let’s see if we can give this thing a go” stage, rather than the next, more expensive stage of actually making hard infrastructure changes to accommodate the cyclists.

    The blue lanes, in my view, are little more than a marker for the future. When the time comes (probably when it is evident that these lanes actually make a difference), then some thought can be given to the bottlenecks and the best way to improve the lanes. This may involve reducing the space available to vehicles, or it may involve reducing some of the very wide pavements that are sometimes under-utilised.

    I know you are anti-vehicle and anti-Boris, but some of the assertions in this piece are ludicrous, particularly the one about the Cycle Hire scheme not particularly benefitting the environment because of all the vans required to service it. I fully suspect that you research this, the figures will show that this scheme is worth it.

    Oh, and the dig at the beginning regarding the credit card required to use the scheme was unnecessary too

  • Agree that more space needs to be given over to cyclists, and that this should happen sooner, rather than later. Hopefully the presence of the cycle hire bikes will make the problem more visible though, and as cycle numbers go up, there should be more of a clamour to extend and widen cycle lanes and paths. Boris and TfL should be being more pro-active though.

    As to the benefits of the scheme, I’d say that these go beyond simply relieving congestion and introducing more people to cycling. One of the major benefits is the ability it gives you to casually ‘hop-on/hop-off’ a bike, removing the need to think about where and how to secure your bike, or how to transport it on your onward journey (e.g. on the tube or train). In many ways it’s a far better ‘last mile’ mode, integrated within a wider transport system, than buses or taxis (although let’s not forget walking).

    I bet many people use the scheme even though they have a bike of their own, for occasions where they don’t have their own bike with them (e.g. on a night out or with other people).

  • Anonymous


    I agree that the big blue lanes might have a catalytic effect, too. I hope so, but it is not unfair to say that Boris still does not ‘get’ cycling given he refuses to reinstate the modal hierarchy that should be at the centre of any sensible transport policy.
     The credit card remark is not fatuous. It does mean that the scheme is aimed at the well-heeled. Admittedly, it is difficult to find a way round it, but that does not bely the truth of the remark.
     Nor is the environmental argument off the mark. The scheme does require enormous motorised support and it is not taking cars off the road. So environmentally, it is pretty marginal.
     Tim Gill – this is a blog and therefore does not have same amount of work going into it as a proper article. There are stats to back up my points, but I am too rushed trying to earn a living to dig them all up!  

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  • “We’re clearly at the “let’s see if we can give this thing a go” stage”

    Odd way to characterise the expenditure of the thick end of a quarter of a billion quid, but hey ho.

  • Greg Tingey

    And far too many employers STILL provde NO FACILITIES for cyclists – like:
    Somewhere to store/lock the thing.
    Lockers – for clothing
    Showers – for the people coming to work sweaty ….

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  • This is a very disappointing read – I was all in favour of the Boris Bike scheme (even the fact they’re too clunky to be nickworthy) and really thought it would help.  Are you certain that the repair vans are counteracting any CO2 savings?  I agree that to make Zone 1 largely closed to motorised traffic would be a sensible thing, though it will be necessary to allow deliveries to be made within certain hours and the disabled and residents to park.

  • Anonymous


    I didn’t say that the vans are counteracting all CO2 savings. I have no idea. But clearly given that few of the Boris bike journeys would have been undertaken otherwise by car, and the fact that the scheme itself does generate considerable CO2 because of the movements of bikes across the city, then any potential savings are likely to be small. Clearly TfL should undertake this work.

  • Mike

    The Cycle Hire scheme is excellent, and has raised the profile of cycling immeasurably, but the Mayor needs to (among other things) tackle London’s major junctions, reallocating roadspace to cyclists and doing away with the 3-lane and 4-lane monstrosities in the city centre (and elsewhere) that make cycling for most people nothing more than a dream. 

    And just in case you don’t the magazine to which CW is referring:

  • Richselby

    Yes, the key issue is road space and to effect a transformation, road space has to be reallocated away from motor traffic and towards bikes/pedestrians. But  there is no way TFL / the boroughs will allocate more road space to cycling unless it is clear there are zillions of cyclists willing to use it. In this city, we don’t do it ahead of time in the hope people will use it, no we do it belatedly after the fact. 

  • Stewart Whitworth

    The need for vans to move the bikes around could be hugely reduced by providing incentives for people to take bikes from full or nearly-full racks and return them to empty or nearly-empty ones. For example, 10p credit on your account for taking a bike from a rack 80% full or more and returning it to a rack 20% full or less. With the right numbers (10, 80 and 20 are wild guesses) many bikes would find their way to where they should be without motorised intervention.

  • Anonymous


    That is a brilliant idea. I had thought of something similar myself, actually, but could not work out how to do it. Your idea seems perfect, though obviously needs to be calibrated as you suggest. 

  • Guest

    We really need some legislation (planning laws, highway design regulations etc.) and a UK version of the Dutch Bicycle Masterplan, so that all new road infrastructure is designed to make cycling as fast and pleasant as possible. This is the only way to achieve sensible levels of bicycle use.

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