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.