London Cycle Hire: good, but not great

For Hire

The hideously named Barclays Cycle Hire scheme – also known as borisbikes, kencycles, bankerbikes and so on – has been running for a few weeks now, and after a slow start I’ve finally had time to try it a few times. So is it any good? Well sort of. Ish. Maybe. From the perspective of a pedestrian who’d like to cycle far more than he does – no room for a bike at home – here’s how it works out at the moment.

Wheely good

There’s a lot to like about the scheme. First of all, it’s good that we finally have a cycle hire scheme in London – god knows it’s taken long enough, and other cities in Europe have had one up and running for ages. Secondly, there are lots of bikes. Loads of them. Also, plenty of stands – as long as you’re within the covered area, you shouldn’t be too far from one or two docking stations.

The key system for members, which allows you to release a bike in about ten seconds, is convenient, and the pricing system – although ridiculously complicated – isn’t ridiculously costly. The scheme provides an API that allows developers to create handy apps showing where docks are located, and how many slots are free: Cycle Hire Widget, for Android, is brilliant.

And when the scheme works, it’s great: on Wednesday I had to get across town to a press conference in 15 minutes – not long enough to walk it. A month ago I would have jumped on the tube, but this time I got on a bike, scooted over there and docked it just around the corner. Perfect.

Crap cycling

But then there are the problems. Putting aside the hideous Barclays sponsorship – you’re riding around on a billboard for a bank that operated in South Africa under apartheid, loans money to Robert Mugabe and invests in arms manufacturers – there are quite a few issues that need ironing out.

First, the bikes. I’ve ridden, so far, just one bike that worked properly. Every other one has had problems: one had dodgy brakes, but the most common issue is knackered, slipping gears. The bikes have three gears – reasonable, low, and so stupidly low you could probably cycle up K2 – and many have a tendency to slip out of the higher gear, so you can be cycling along when your foot will suddenly fly down without resistance as the bike drops into lor or crazy-low. This makes the bike wobble – eek – and there’s often no way to shift back up without braking hard first. The bikes are currently almost new, and only accessible to members – I dread to think how they’ll be in six months.

Next, the docks. These have a three-light system that’s simple but unhelpful: fine when you get the green light, but no help when they randomly reject the bikes. Surely an LCD display wouldn’t have cost too much to add – or even just a few labelled error lights? The pricing has the opposite problem: it’s pointlessly overcomplicated, with two charges applicable to every journey. And it doesn’t work with Oyster.

Then there’s the distribution problem. If I could pick up a bike from near Charing Cross and cycle to work every day, that’d be great – but of course other people have the same idea. Bikes move in droves, leaving some docking stations almost permanently full, so often this journey is sometimes impossible. Serco does try to move bikes around by van, but what’s needed – as people have suggested online – is an incentive for people to move the bikes themselves: cheap, free or paid journeys if you move the bike in an unpopular direction could help.

Finally, the computer system behind the scheme is clearly very flaky. Having made one perfect journey on Wednesday, I picked up a bike for the return trip, cycled back across town and docked it. Randomly, though, the dock rejected the bike. I tried again, and it locked in place. According to the Serco systems, this journey never took place – it’s not listed, shown on their computers or billed. It appears that you can, if you’re (un)lucky, move bikes around without the computer’s knowledge. Other people have reported the opposite issue: their accounts show journeys they’ve never made. I’ve spoken to at least one keen cyclist whose account was hit by several phantom journeys and eventually suspended. That’s one customer gone.

Fix the wheels?

I’m still hopeful that the system can be made to work. The bikes could – should – be fixed, and hopefully they can upgrade the gear system to something less prone to uselessness. A change to the pricing could help keep the distribution of bikes more even as well as simplifying the costs (ditch the access fees for casual users and it’s instantly easier to understand). Oh, and Serco should be able to fix the sodding billing computer. As for Barclays, they’ve signed up for five years. Hopefully when the time comes to renew the deal we’ll have a Mayor of London who’s more inclined to find alternative funding. As it stands, will I fork out for the annual membership? No, but I’ll hang onto the key for occasional use.

Photo by Sweens308, used under Creative Commons license.

All © 2020 Tom Royal