a city through the eyes of a girl who's not sure how she ended up here

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Biking with Boris - London's bikes for hire

Finally I have achieved a London goal - I recently took my first Boris Bike ride. The Barclays-sponsored bicycle hire scheme has been in action across the city since the middle of 2010, and championed by our city mayor Boris Johnson, they have rapidly become known as "Boris bikes".  After the scheme's introduction, bright blue stands (in sponsor Barclays' bright hue) popped up across town; on pavements, beside parks, on quiet side streets, outside stations. Often you see tourists staring at them in bewilderment. Ranks of bikes are held hostage in locked docks, beneath a short blue tower with an electronic panel.  To borrow a bike on a pay-as-you-go basis, you have to insert a credit or debit card into these tower-like stands, buy your hire time, and receive an activation code that you punch into the panel on the dock of the bike that takes your fancy.  Regular users can obtain a handy tag, for which they pay an annual subscription, and they simply insert this directly into the bike dock, without having to faff around with credit cards and codes.  
Currently the 6000 bikes are distributed across docks in the more central areas on London, which is part of the reason I have not sampled a Boris bike before; there are simply no docking stations near my flat.  Mornington Crescent is as far north as they seem to go.  But an Accidental pal (who is spoilt for choice of docking stations where he lives) is a Boris biking pro, so he gamely offered to instruct me in the ways of these cycles. Our first attempt was in Hyde Park a couple of months ago.  It was a total failure. Neither station we tried would accept my debit card to pay my single Great British Pound for access for 24 hrs, so that I could take a quick 20 minute spin around the park.

We abandoned that abortive expedition and tried again a few weeks later. Thwarted again. Finally hefting a bike from its docking point (actually the Accidental pal did that bit, I was too weedy) we discovered it had a flat tyre and a mangled front end. We attempted to return the bike but it wouldn't dock. We made the first of several calls to the bike office. My activation code would not be valid for another five minutes - we were advised to walk to the next docking station and try to use the code to extract another bike. As we approached the dock looked empty but we spied three bikes available. All had their red broken lights on. Grrrr.  We were by now only a ten minute walk from our destination so just gave up on our plan. But after a wander around Kennington, and its surprising village fete, we tried again for the return trip.

I obtained a new access code, punched it into a bike dock, then watched as a mysterious flashing amber light blinked unhelpfully at me.  Does this system ever work as it should?!  Another call to the helpline, my third access code of the day and our fourth docking station, finally I obtained my bike.  After fiddling around with my saddle, I took a short test-ride up and down the pavement and discovered the gears were a bit, well, shaky. Nevertheless with two bikes in our possession, we strapped our luggage onto the front of the bike with its peculiar elastic strap (wouldn't a basket have been more use?) and set off. Whilst the Accidental pal wore his cycle helmet (which I'd badgered him to buy when he started biking), here it seems the scheme is missing a crucial feature.  Why encourage those unaccustomed to cycling to go wobbling off into the busy London traffic if you are not going to ensure they protect their delicate heads?  I felt somewhat exposed as I followed the Accidental pal through Vauxhall's traffic.  I had to pedal like a maniac to get the heavy bike to lurch into action lest I get swallowed up beneath the wheels of a van every time we stopped at red light.  A few minutes after we set off we were back north of the river, and docking our bikes once more.  My first trip was over.

So that was Boris biking.  And whilst the scheme is a super idea, and should be an affordable and convenient way for Londoners to travel around the city, it has a few design flaws.  Its limited geographical reach makes it less useful for travelling longer distances - or even shorter distances which extend beyond Zone 1.  I would love to be able to hop on a Boris bike near my flat and cycle to the docking stations behind my office.  But by the time I reach the nearest dock to pick up a bike I am practically at work already.  Plus there's my inability (unless I get down the gym and start pumping some serious iron) to heft one of the heavy bikes out of the dock.  I hate to play the 'poor little woman' card, but a quick survey of other girls who've tried to use the bikes reveals a common complaint that they are too heavy to use; this being a problem not only releasing and replacing the bikes from the docks, but also when steering and getting the bikes moving quickly at junctions.  These bikes were designed to be a certain weight to discourage their being stolen, but you'd have to be a weightlifter to make off with one of these.  I fear I need some more practice to try and master Boris' bikes.  And I may need to put in some time in the gym to build up my biceps too... 

8 comments:

  1. I must confess that I never did it. It looks far too complicated and from what you are writing you need a man to do it...Thanks for sharing your experience and I am glad that the Accidental boyfriend is so fit (he needs to speak to the 40husband).

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  2. Too bad your experience of the  Barclays cycle hire scheme was so frustrating. There are some things that don't work perfectly and the strength you need to release the bike is ridiculous - I don't know if they will manage to fix that. The bikes are quite nice to ride though, after a few rides you get used to a sedate pace and more weight that usual, and come to appreciate the extra stability. I'm sure the scheme works best for regular users, not just occasional hire -  then you get used to the handling, know where to find docking stations and which ones are likely to be too full or empty, even come along braced for a massive tug to release it in the first place. The really great thing though is not leaving your own bike locked up and worrying about it getting stolen - to arrive somewhere, dock your bike and walk away, end of responsibility.

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  3. It is sad to hear that so many Londoners have not yet tried the scheme. I read a recent report that its now used more by tourists/occasional users than those people with memberships. If you do try it, Muriel, I recommend taking the 40husband along!

    Thanks for the reassurance that even men recognise it takes strength to release the bikes, Duncan. (Makes me feel less weedy!) And I think you're right about getting used to the bikes...I will try and persevere...! And good point about the lack of responsibility for the bikes' safety; it's a significant part of their appeal.

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  4. it's interesting to compare all these biking systems ("all" means so far three for me: london, barcelona, oslo :). oslo bikes are light, pretty available and there's of course almost no traffic here. and if there is any, the cyclist is the king. hills make cycling hard. and downhills (usually coordinated with the fjord panorama) make it easy :)

    boris city bikes are biggest and heaviest bikes I've ever seen - they represent somehow the scale of their city. and maybe everlasting competition with the grand capital on the opposite side of the channel? :). and barcelona bike is somewhere between - smaller nimble tapas-style

    I think we are like lab rats experimenting today with different city biking systems, like hundred years ago people were experimenting with first automobiles. funny that city transport evolves this way, not the other way round. imagine telling "good old city bike stories" to grandchildren, whatever city transport would consist of in the future

    I miss now the main regent's park passing and I wouldn't mind riding it boris style

    sorry for any language faults, I'm not a native on this very British blog :)

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  5. Ah,so you're something of an expert, mgws! You've trialled far more schemes than me. I love the links you've made between the styles of bikes and the cultures of the cities in which they're used - what a fascinating observation (and perfectly written!).

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  6. britishly polite :). polishly... I cant's find a rhyme

    city bikes testing could be my research for PhD, haha, paid with oil money. good plan

    still feeling sentimental about london: regent's park: the view so well exposed in "king's speech"; topshop (nope. here they have CUBUS. imagine!) and cheap beef :)). and so one of my favourite stupid ytb pieces http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rB5Nbp_gmgQ to pay homage to good british sense of humour. stupid because it's stupid to watch such things, not because it's stupid itself. it's brilliant. btw royal albert hall could be on your to do list. I don't know if to go or to write about it :). proms will start soon

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  7. I guess by "sentimental" I meant "nostalgic", thank you dictionary. might be due to Famous Grouse bottle standing behind my screen ;)

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  8. Well, mgws, glad this blog reminds you of London's best bits! And thanks for the Royal Albert Hall idea...it's a topic that's in the pipeline!

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