30 July 2020

There are many ways of looking at what was the Barclays, now Santander, London cycle hire scheme. It has both pros and cons.

With the launch of the Paris Vélib cycle hire scheme in 2007, it seemed all but inevitable that London would follow suite. The London scheme built on some of the learning of the Paris system, though not all.

The scheme has its good points. It’s a great tourist attraction with the most popular hire station at Hyde Park corner. It makes a great statement about the City: forward looking, sharing, caring, clean and green. It gets people to try cycling, or maybe retry cycling, and makes cycling look like something anyone can do. For some it may be the start of a new way of getting around the city.

Cycle hirers are often not helmet wearers, are never seen in lycra and sometimes in a suit. It has paved the way for cycle parking on the carriageway rather than the pavement – a win for London TravelWatch at the time.

One downside is the cost of the operations. We have all seen van loads of hire bikes being moved around town. That’s because travel can be tidal. In the morning it’s away from the station. In the evening it’s the reverse. Whilst you’d hope the cycles would be used more than twice a day, that’s not always the case and so they have to be relocated. The Paris experience had some specific learning – don’t install cycle hire at stations because there will never be enough of them. TfL and users have found this at Waterloo. But the operators do a good job replenishing the bikes as peak hour commuters hire them more quickly than they can be replaced or returned.

The scheme gets a hefty subsidy with the docking stations costing six figure sums and so expansion is difficult beyond the central area. So although everyone wants the scheme in their borough, both the capital and revenue costs are prohibitive. Some may well be funded from development agreements.

The scheme has come into its own in this crisis. One day in June it recorded the highest ever usage, one assumes as a great way to get around socially distanced. Some bikes will have been used by NHS workers who have a concession of free rides under 30 minutes, but also one imagines, they are used for local journeys. Either way it will get some to try, or try again cycling.

One gripe from users is the explanation of the charging scheme on the website. It is £2 for 30 minute rides, all day, but they must be separate rides with the bikes docked after 30 minutes, or you will be charged much more. This can catch users out and they can receive a larger bill than they thought. We are in dialogue with TfL about this.

So all in all it’s a happy 10th birthday to London cycle hire and it looks like there will be many more birthdays. They are a good advertisement for the city and it’s good to see the city animated with bicycles. Perhaps best of it all is that they have a docking system, which means they don’t block pavements for others to trip over them. Here’s to 10 more London cycle hire years.

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