Paris did it, albeit with a few setbacks, and now it’s London’s turn to implement a public bike-share program. The mayor has championed cycling in the capital as a green and healthy means of navigating the city. He was also keen to be snapped riding about on one of the new bank-sponsored bikes for the launch of the Barclays Cycle Hire system on July 30, 2010. But how is it working out for the city of London one month later?
Many of us underestimated Londoners’ enthusiasm for such an idea and predicted the public bikes would fall victim to abuse after Paris’s Vélib’ scheme experienced some teething problems in the form of theft and vandalism. It’s still the early days for London, but so far there have been positive reports, and a surprising number of these clunky, heavyweight machines are to be seen daily on the roads and in public parks.
How the program works
You currently need to register online for an access key before you can hop on a bike. You’ll receive a slim blue key in the mail, which you then take to one of the 315 docking points across central London, shown on this map. Slide the key into one of the docking points, and the bike, which comes with lights and a small basket at the front for your belongings, is released. When you’ve finished your journey, you need to return the bike to a secure docking station, and once you get the green light you’re off the meter and free to go about your business.
Your account is charged according to usage at the end of your access period (see below), and if your bike has suffered damage you can report a fault at the terminal.
What it costs
TFL plan to implement a casual use system in the near future for which you’ll be able to pay your access fee by credit or debit card at the terminal. For the moment, you need to register as above, and the membership key will set you back £3.
There’s an access fee per cycle, based on specific time periods, and then a usage charge on top. Access fees start from £1 a day, rising to an annual fee of £45. In terms of usage fees, if your journey lasts less than half an hour it’s free, up to an hour is a mere £1, and then prices escalate up to £50 for 24 hours. Clearly, £50 a day on a borrowed bike isn’t a particularly sensible option, so the scheme is better suited to short journeys.
Whatever you do, don’t exceed the 24-hour rental time: the late return fee is punitive at £150. Also be sure to wait for a green light and a clicking noise when you re-dock your bike. If it doesn’t register as returned, your timer will keep ticking and you’ll face a nasty extra charge.
Bear in mind that there are no locks on the bikes, and there are light-fingered folk around. Therefore, you can’t stop off for lunch and leave it anywhere except a docking point. If the dock at your destination is full, you need to find a space elsewhere, which isn’t ideal if you’re in a hurry; a map at each terminal shows you where the nearest available racks are, and you can add a free 15 minutes if you’re running out of time. Interestingly, registered users of the scheme outweigh the number of bikes by several thousand, so it’s yet to be seen whether there will be enough bikes to go round at peak times.
Also note that until the “casual access” program has launched, non-UK residents will not have an easy time participating in the program. The official Web site doesn’t give specifics on the timing of opening up the program to those without a UK address. It simply says, “coming soon.”
So far, “Boris’s bikes,” named after our much-caricatured mayor, seem to be effectively encouraging a greener lifestyle, are affordable at the very short-term end of the scale, and will hopefully provide a good sightseeing tool for tourists. One controversial talking point is that the mayor should have pushed for cycle helmets to be obligatory; in many people’s opinion, you’ve got to be stark raving mad to ride without one on London’s frantic central streets.