The bikes that saved Boris?

So I had a ride on the Boris bikes yesterday. And on Saturday. And on Friday. – I’m completely won over by them. Friday was the first time I’d actually taken to the saddle in well over 20 years, but – ooh, steady there, where’s the brakes again? – I was on the move after a chat with the TfL helper, a few wobbles and uncertain moments, and five minutes later I was actually enjoying myself.

I chose Hyde Park for my inaugural ride – big, easy to get to, no traffic. But emerging at Lancaster Gate, I ended up getting the bus to Queensway to find the cycle station at Kensington Gardens. Co-ordination between the bikes and other forms of transport could be better. It’s early days, though, and at the moment there’s be no better way of getting yourself noticed than pedalling one of these blue bikes through central London.

You’ve probably heard all about the actual bikes already – they’re chunky, heavy things, but absolutely perfect for complete novices like me who barely know how to work the gears. I rode down to the south side of Kensington Gardens, but found going back uphill a bit of a struggle (those gears again – I worked it out later) so popped the bike into the station, had a chat with another TfL helper, and walked off. Five minutes later I spied another docking station in Queen’s Gate, by the Royal Albert Hall, and was off again; really getting the hang of it this time.

I ended up cycling almost all the way back to Charing Cross station, through Green Park and along The Mall; although I ended up cursing the lack of docking station at Admiralty Arch – the nearest are on Pall Mall or across Trafalgar Square at Craven Street.

I enjoyed myself so much I was back in the saddle on Saturday, but discovered Regent’s Park isn’t anywhere near as cycle-friendly as its neighbour. But at least a circuit of the Inner Circle and a part-circuit of the Outer got me used to riding alongside traffic. That practice came in handy – I couldn’t find a docking station near Westminster once I’d finished a ride down Horse Guards Parade, and ended up pedalling to Victoria Station, a delay which just took me over the half-hour limit for free riding.

And on yesterday, a ride around Hyde Park seemed a great hangover cure – resulting in my first ever Sunday trip to Speakers’ Corner, where the crowds spill over into the cycle path. Now it’s Monday, I’ve got a case of Boris Bike Bum, but since I’ll be in town later I’ll probably have another spin.

I imagine it’s people like me who will be test of whether the cycle hire scheme is successful – non-cyclists tempted to have a go rather than get the Tube or bus. I’m not a confident enough cyclist to even think about using anything but the quietest side street, but safe routes through the royal parks are a good place to start. It’s actually amazing how many paths in the parks are barred to cyclists – I wonder if this will change if Boris gets his hands on them?

Over three days, I lost count of the number of people who have come up and asked about the bikes, and us cycle hire riders have been swapping conspiratorial smiles as we ease our way through the capital. The cycle hire scheme’s first weekend reminded me that despite the crap spouted by professional northerners about Londoners being unfriendly, the fact is we love shared experiences and we love new toys.

An encouraging sign for the scheme is the number of tourists who seem fascinated by them – Barcelona’s Bicing and Paris’s Velib’ are squarely aimed at city residents, along with Montreal’s Bixi, which London’s service is based on. In fact, Barcelona’s scheme is only open to Catalonia residents. But on Sunday came across countless people trying to hire bikes with their credit cards, despite the service currently only being open to members. Once card payments go live, expect use of the cycles to rocket.

The biggest winner out of all this? Assuming all goes well – expect teething problems (I encountered a couple over the weekend with the stands) and accidents to be magnified – it’ll be Boris Johnson, even though he merely inherited the idea from Ken Livingstone, who presumably spent the weekend seething. The term “Boris bikes” will stick in the collective memory long after he’s been booted out or become prime minister, and is infinitely preferable to the their clumsy sponsored title, and Pantone Process Cyan isn’t just Barclays blue, it’s good honest Tory blue too.

The mayor deserves the credit for carrying forward the idea – it could easily have been binned like other transport improvements – because it is so bloody good, and it works like a dream. The other aspect I really like about the scheme is the help given to walkers as well as cyclists – little maps on the stands fit in nicely with the Legible London scheme for pedestrian signs which started under the previous mayor and continues under Boris. Hundreds of these signs across central London will help lost wanderers – and offer a reminder that the mayor has actually done something. They could well transform the way he is seen.

When it comes to 2012’s election, these bikes could save Boris’s chances of being relected – unlike the rest of his party, who are taking things away, he’s giving us stuff. Like Ken before him, he’ll be seen as a representative of the capital, not of his party.

But this feels like only a start – the scheme has to expand beyond zone 1, and as Dawn points out in At War With The Motorist, London still isn’t a particularly cycle-friendly city. The cycle superhighways feel a bit of a token gesture, although it may not seem that way by 2015, when (if?) the network is due to be completed (with routes from Lewisham opening in 2012, and Woolwich in 2015). When I was in Paris last summer, it looked like a greater effort had been put in to make the city easier for cyclists to negotiate, including little cycle-only roads like the one below.

The feeling that this is only the start is what makes the cycle hire scheme so exciting. I think 30 July 2010 will be the day London started its journey into becoming a cycling city. The fact that the mayor doesn’t quite seem to know what he’s let himself in for adds a thrill to all this.

So what next? It’s reported that Boris is looking at an electric car hire scheme – based on Paris’s Autolib’ – but I’m going to read something into what he said on Friday at the scheme’s launch, and something I spotted at Hyde Park Corner…: “In 1904, 20 per cent of journeys were made by bicycle in London. I want to see a figure like that again. If you can’t turn the clock back to 1904, what’s the point of being a Conservative?”

Going back to 1904? Saddle up!

See also: Tory Troll, Adrian Short, At War With The Motorist.

20 comments

  1. I’ve signed up for a day’s access to start with, so it’s reassuring to hear these tales from other novice cyclists. (Last time I was on a bike, I crashed into a railing in Central Park…).

    I think it’s a great idea, and I hope it’s a success. My only worry is that, for Londoners, the barrier was never the actual bike but the traffic – if Boris could sort that out, it would be brilliant. (But I don’t think he can)

  2. Because I use a bike as my main means of transport, I’m already on a bike when I get to a docking station so the scheme is definitely not for me. But I did stop to inspect some bikes yesterday and, it’s true, people seem intrigued by them and are very happy about chatting with other interested people.

    One of the more memorable statistics about cycling is that there’s safety in numbers – the more that cycle, the safer it becomes. Drivers become more used to expecting to see bikes on the road and may even get used to riding themselves – which will give them an insight into what it’s like to cycle.

    So, while it’s not for me, I wish the scheme the greatest of success.

  3. Excellent post Darryl. I’ve been hearing many similar experiences, including my own

    I’ve set up a community forum for the new scheme. When you have a minute it would be great if you could post a link to your bog entry to share with everyone on the forum. The address is http://www.borisbikes.co.uk

  4. It’ll be interesting to see whether cycle lanes will be forced to make some sense with an increase in users. The number of metre long cycle paths on pavements are maddening. Interesting review, and good to see one from someone who isn’t a militant London cyclist!

  5. Apart from the initial glitches, I’d be very surprised if this doesn’t become a success.

    Re the often bizarre cycle paths; why not designate some of the many side streets in the centre as ‘cycles only’ and create a network of safe bike-friendly roads criss-crossing the West End?

  6. Hmmm, well, I wait with bated breath for my key to turn up so I can try them too. I *am* a militant London cyclist (well, not that militant really but I do cycle every day) and I’ve got this sneaking snobbery about them not being proper bikes.

    But, that makes them OK to ride in normal clothes, and I think I’ve got more chance of not ending up with oil over my trousers on one of them than on my own bike. So, I see a future where I’ll cycle to work as normal, but use these to get to meetings across town where otherwise I might have walked or used the tube. Having a docking station 30 sec from the office helps, of course.

    As for the infrastructure thing, it’s totally counter-intuitive but cycle lanes and the like can end up being more dangerous than riding with traffic, even though they feel safer. What seems to make the biggest difference to cyclist safety is (a) cyclist numbers – the more the better – and (b) not cycling like an [expletive of choice].

  7. John has it nailed on. More people, cycling better, WITH other road users will have infinitely more of a positive effect on London traffic and driver behaviour than segregation.

    Darryl if you want some training on London cycling I’m happy to go out with you.

    Also, to pick up on the conspiratorial nods and winks. This is something which cyclists know very well. The majority of cyclists still acknowledge their peers (and often horse-riders and runners too) with a nod or a wave. There is complaint about it being in decline but its still very much in evidence.

  8. I hope the scheme is a success. I’ve seen quite a few people take it up already which is promising. If it takes off then there is a greater chance of increasing the cycle networks which would help someone like me. I would love to cycle to work but am terrified of London roads so more paths would certainly help me to get the confidence for it. Interesting to know that experienced cyclists think diferently though

  9. Those people on the other bikes who were smiling at you were probably northerners 😉

    I think the idea is really great but would caution you that when you get up courage to use the roads more, it helps to be very sure of your route before setting out. Even as a commuter cyclist I get nervous when I have to divert from my normal route. You cannot rely on signage and there are plenty of odd turns/counter-intuitive junctions to catch cyclists out. That having been said, it’s still a great way to travel!

  10. Definitely agree with DD that it’s good to be sure of your route: on the other hand, some of the prettiest views of random London buildings have come to me because I’ve gone wrong.

    That said, I’m a fan of Zen navigation – point in roughly the right direction and trust that I’ll end up in the right place – buoyed by the notion that I won’t end up losing more than a few minutes even if I do take a wrong turn.

    In terms of mixing with other traffic, the vicious circle is that to do it confidently and comfortably, you need to *be* confident and comfortable. It helps to remember that you’ve got a right to be on the road: it also helps to be predictable and not to ride in the gutter – if drivers can see you easily and are sure what you’re going to do, they’ll tend to give you more room.

    H – where do you live/work? A lot of boroughs offer adult cycling lessons cheap or free, and they get really good feedback in terms of helping with skills and confidence. I went for one a month or two back despite thinking I know it all ‘cos I’ve been riding in London for years, and really enjoyed it: it was nice to have some confirmation that I’m not a complete liability on the roads, and some advice on what I could be doing differently.

    Also, some of the local London Cycling Campaign groups will try and find you a partner for your first few rides to work: less about turning you into a mad campaigner, more about helping find a decent route and showing you ways of coping with drivers (and other cyclists …).

    The issue with cycle tracks/lanes is essentially that they make dealing with junctions more complicated for both cyclists and drivers, and the extra confusion makes a crash (generally minor, but still …) more likely. On almost any route you take you’re going to have to deal with motor traffic, and generally at junctions it flows more easily if you’re going along as part of the main traffic stream. Like I say, this is a bit counter-intuitive especially if you feel a bit nervous being on the road with cars and the like – but that really isn’t half as bad as it’s possible to think it is.

    (All a bit long. Sorry – I do rant sometimes.)

  11. I would be coming from Greenwich. I will definitely check out the local groups that you mentioned. Need to take the plunge at some point!

    I certainly hope that the cycling scheme does get more people to ditch their cars and some public transport (thinking of Southeastern here).

  12. @H: Greenwich Cyclists do a ‘buddy’ scheme where you can get someone to ride with you on your first week and show you the routes. Until you get into town there are some pretty quiet routes, depending on your destination – it’s only when you get into Central London (and particularly if you have to cross the river) that you really have to mix with the traffic.

    I do agree with John that bimbling around is a great way to discover new parts of London – also make sure you are seen by motorists and use hand signals to let them, pedestrians and other cyclists know where you intend to go. A bell is essential for warning pedestrians and letting other cyclists know if you are going to overtake them.

  13. i would love to ride a bike.I live near Hyde park and holland park. I hate public transport . can I get lessons.boris should give people like me cycling lessons.

Comments are closed.