I signed up as a member of the London Cycle Hire scheme because I had already booked train tickets for a two day visit to London and was keen to try out the new scheme. I wanted to see what it would be like to use the scheme as a tourist. Unfortunately, I discovered that casual use would not be available on the dates I would be in London, so I ended up purchasing two keys, one for myself and one for eldest son and 24 hour access. It took half a dozen attempts to get the cycle hire website to accept my credit card and I ended up trying 3 different cards before finally getting it to accept one. After that things seemed to go quite smoothly, my keys arrived in the post a couple of days later and I registered them online to activate them, several days before travelling.
On arriving in London in St Pancras on Monday 9th August 2010 at 10.30am using the map that had been sent with the keys, we went straight to the nearest docking station at King’s Cross, Belgrove Street. I inserted my key in the slot and the red light changed to flashing orange for quite some time before finally turning red again. So I tried again, the same thing happened, so I tried another bike and another, we tried the other key, still no luck. So methodically, we tried every bike left in the dock with each key, but each time the same thing happened. During this time, several other people came and went and no one else appeared to be experiencing any trouble, so I concluded that the online activation had not worked properly and so I phoned the helpline.
It took quite some time being put on hold and repeatedly told I was in a queue and that they were experiencing high call volumes. Finally, I got through to a female operator who was very apologetic and sympathetic. She went through all my account details and checked everything was fine, the only “problem” she could find was that I had registered for ‘auto-renew” of my hire period and that the computer system was experiencing problems with recognising customers with this setting on their account. After checking several of the bikes, that the computer system at the helpline end was recognising as available for hire, and still experiencing the same problem, the lady at the helpline wasn’t able to offer any further help. I was advised to wait “a good five minutes” to let the system “reset itself” and to try again and if the problem persisted to ring the helpline again. In the meantime, my problems would be logged against my account.
So while we were waiting I had plenty of time to take some pictures
Trailer to transport the bikes around
Another lady appeared to be having trouble with her key. I told her we were having trouble too and had rung the helpline and been told that the computer was having trouble recognising customers with “auto renew” on their accounts. It turned out she had also got the “auto renew” setting on her account. So, she rang the helpline too. After about 8 minutes, not wanting to take any chances by being too soon, we tried again, but still no success, by this point the other lady had walked off in disgust. We decided to try another docking station, so we walked to the next station marked on the map St. Chad’s Street.
Again, after trying all the bikes, the problem persisted.
We next walked to Ampton Street,
which although it had bikes in the dock had a sign saying “docking station coming soon”
and yellow and black tape around some of the posts.
Arriving at Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury
we then went to Cartwright Gardens
and Russell Square
The Brunswick Centre
before abandoning our search at Brunswick Square.
It was midday and we had spent an hour and a half trying bikes at seven different docking stations and had no luck at any of them.
Reluctantly we went to get on the tube as we had already lost the morning. We travelled to the Science Museum.
First Apple computer
Claude Butler racing bike from 1950 with twin water bottles like this one!
After a couple of hours we decided to go in search of some lunch and on the way we spotted another docking station at Queens Gate. As several hours had now passed, we decided to have another attempt at trying to get some bikes. The keys still would not work. So, we tried at Sumner Place,
and finally Sidney Street.
From here, I rang the helpline again to complain, this was getting ridiculous! After again waiting a very long time to get through to an operator, I explained the situation and was told that someone would ring me back later that day. In the end, they did not ring back that day or the day after, but left a voicemail on Friday afternoon at 4.30pm!
So, we went to get some food and then walked through Chelsea and down to the river.
Spotted in the wild
After this we went to the Army Museum.
Folding bicycle used in the Second World War in Burma
As a long shot, we saw a docking station on the Kings Road at Royal Avenue as we were walking back to the tube and decided to give it a try.
It was 5.30pm by this point. Amazingly the keys finally worked! After some wrestling we managed to get the bikes out, they are heavy and require quite a bit of force to lift them out.
So what is the “Boris Bike” like to ride? All the reviews I’ve seen have been from people who normally ride lightweight bikes, whinging how heavy they are, so I was curious to see how it compared with my Gazelle Bloom which weighs 22.5kg according to the Gazelle website before you add on the two Bobike childseats (and kids). Although they are heavy, the “Boris Bikes” are definitely lighter than the Bloom and although described as upright city bikes, the handlebars are much lower than a Dutch bike and more like those on a BMX.
The seat geometry isn’t as relaxed as a Dutch bike either and it is difficult to get the seat in a comfortable position for pedalling and be able to touch the ground easily for stopping. They have clearly been designed by someone who has never ridden a proper city bike and really doesn’t understand what is required for urban riding. Having said that, it was a smooth ride and the gears changed easily.
They are geared ridiculously low, but that is fine as they are supposed to be for people who don’t normally ride. The BMX analogy goes beyond the handle bar design, it reminds me very much of riding my brother’s mate’s Mongoose BMX when I was 10 years old (that was also an incredibly heavy bike) and I spent most of the time riding standing up, which I never normally do (it is pretty much impossible on my Bloom) because I found more comfortable than sitting down.
The front rack has a bungee cord with two positions, which managed to both fit eldest sons anorak snugly without it falling out on his and stretch to fit my rucksack. The grips are well padded and comfy, but the BMX, mountain bike position isn’t great, the seat goes low enough for me at 5’1” and also was fine for eldest son.
We were trying to get to Oxford Circus and realized that we would have to make a break in the journey to stay within the free half hour so we stopped at Alderney Street in Pimlico where there were two spaces, we had just docked the first bike when someone else nipped in and took the last space. A local shop owner commented that the racks had only recently been refilled, but that the guys refilling, didn’t make allowances for anyone returning the bikes and kept filling up ALL the stations and he had seen people in our predicament every day since the scheme started. I went to the machine to try to find out what I was supposed to do to tell it that we needed to look for an alternative docking station, but the screen was displaying “busy” and refused to do anything.
I managed to find a free space at Warwick Square, but had gone over the time by 1 minute 30 seconds according to the print out I managed to get later that night (at about 9pm) when the machines were finally working. Particularly annoying as that should not have happened if the computer system had been functioning correctly.
Unfortunately, even after waiting 10 minutes the keys would not work again at either Alderney Street or Warwick Square, so we had abandon making the rest of the journey by bike and had to walk to Victoria to get the tube.
We went to try again later that evening at 9 pm and found that the docking station outside the BBC on Portland Place was completely empty. Although the hire system is supposed to be 24 hour there does not seem to be any evidence of any tfl employees distributing the bikes outside of working hours, which clearly means that the scheme is not 24 hour at all if there a no bikes available to hire.
The computer system was not functioning correctly displaying 17 bikes available in 16 positions at a docking station, which is clearly impossible. It was also wrong as we had just walked past and there were a total of Zero bikes there!
The next morning Tuesday 10th August, It was raining heavily, but by about 9am it had eased to drizzle so we decided to have a final attempt and travel from Oxford Circus to the London Eye. This time the keys worked. As we had had so much trouble the day before, I decided it wasn’t worth worrying about staying within the free half hour and risk being stuck with a long walk to the tube again if the system decided not to work again, as it was only £1 for an hour. However, we had trouble finding a traffic free route and found the behaviour of London taxis so intimidating – revving their engines like boy racers and blaring their horns in an effort to try to make me ride in the gutter as they didn’t have the patience to wait to overtake safely and showing a total disregard for the highway code. I consider myself an experienced cyclist and well aware of how to position myself safely in the road, but this kind of behaviour would scare a novice sufficiently to make them fall off and have a nasty accident This kind of bullying by drivers in London seems unfortunately the norm and will be an obstacle to the success of the scheme. Dublin brought in a 30Kmh (18.6mph) speed limit for the whole city centre before launching their city bike scheme – something London Cycle Hire should be actively campaigning for here given the appalling lack of any cycle infrastructure in London. I thought Sheffield’s cycle infrastructure was pretty pathetic, but having seen London’s it is clear they have set the bar much lower!
In the end, we had to walk most of the route. Eldest son found the idea of trying to ride in four lanes of traffic too scary and to be honest so did I. I also had a bike (no. 16663) with a defective pedal,
which was on a lean and made pedaling uncomfortable. I reported it as defective, but as there is no way of reporting what is actually wrong it may well be overlooked as it had clearly been set up wrong in the first place as there was no sign of any damage. It was quite misty and we lost our bearings several times.
The absence of any docking stations around Westminster due to the government’s ludicrous security paranoia meant we had to go to the docking station at St Thomas’s – except when we got there it did not exist. Par for the course the cycle hire scheme has issued a map with incorrect information on it – how they expect a tourist supposed to find the docking stations I don’t know, by telepathy? When we arrived at the next nearest docking station, we had again gone over the hour, which would not have happened if we had been provided with correct information. After that, we decided to give up completely and stick to the tube!
So, my overall impression of the cycle hire scheme. Compared to the simplicity of the Danish scheme in Aarhus that we tried a couple of months earlier, the London scheme is ridiculously complicated. Although I understand the paranoia about bikes being nicked in London, given how much it is costing, they could have gone for the simple option and replaced the bikes on a daily basis for the next 10 years or something like that. If nothing else it would’ve provided plenty of employment in keeping the bike manufacturers in business, not to mention totally saturating the second hand market to the point where the resale value would be so low it wouldn’t be worth bothering. But politicians like high tech impressive expensive schemes, not simple ones that work. Hopefully the computer problems will eventually be resolved, but given the track record of government IT projects, I wouldn’t bet any money on it!
However, the main reason I wouldn’t recommend the scheme is London’s appalling lack of cycle infrastructure and the feebleness of what little there is.
This is about as impressive as it gets with physical separation in the form of a concrete curb on Southward Bridge, unfortunately it is too narrow for safe overtaking.
Without separated infrastructure London is hellish for cycling at the very least there needs to be a citywide 20mph speed limit. Some areas are better suited than others are. The quieter streets around Chelsea (which has crap tube provision), or `Pimlico or Bloomsbury. The recommended cycle routes (part of the national cycle network) are a complete joke
and round the City a nightmare. Another reason it is impractical as a tourist is that signposting is non existent and having to stop all the time to check street names totally negates any advantage of going anywhere by bike. I have a pretty reasonable mental map of London having lived there for 6 years before moving to Sheffield, but it is slightly disjointed from using the tube and I found it very difficult to navigate around, not helped by constantly encountering “no cycles” or “cyclists dismount” signs everywhere.
London is about as bike friendly as it is child friendly (which is why I moved to Sheffield).