Bike Cameras for my Brompton

For some time now I’ve been thinking about putting a camera or cameras on my bike for my commute. While there was no single thing that tipped me over the edge, and I’ve been lucky to only have some rare incidents with other traffic, the ease with which you can fit cameras to bikes meant that I needed to bite the bullet. On camera footage definitely helps with prosecutions of bad behaviour – especially driving.

I wanted to do it cheaply and I already owned an inexpensive GoPro Hero camera. These retailed for less than £100 or so a couple of years ago (that’s cheap for a GoPro). These models aren’t available any more, but they shoot 1080 at 25 frames a second which is fine in this instance. I know that today, there are a wide range of cheaper action-cams available online and on the high street. I suspect that some of these may supercede a three-year-old base level GoPro, but the footage is of high enough quality for my needs, and I already had the camera.

I attached it to my saddle using an adapter that fits to the rails at the back of the saddle (although see below for a better value package). This mounts the camera upside down, and as long as you make the change in the settings, it records video in the correct ratio. Mounting it under the saddle hides, to some extent, the size of the camera.

For the front camera, I chose a GoPro Hero Session which is just under £150 and is the cheaper of the two Session cameras currently available (Note that GoPro will probably update their range soon with a rumoured Hero6 being launched at the top end). There’s a Hero5 model that costs another £100 and adds things like voice control and automatic upload to the cloud. The more expensive model is 4K, whereas the model I bought maxes out at 1440p (2.7K). GoPro says that stabilisation comes with the more expensive model, but there is definitely some stabilisation in this cheaper one – at least when you record in 1080p. You can see an example of that in the video of above at around 7:30, when I go over some cobbles. You can see my bag bouncing around on the cobbles while the camera’s view is relatively stable (the bag was a bit overstuffed, but is attached firmly to the bike). The image remains stable as I believe there’s some electronic stabilisation going on – probably throwing away some of the extra pixels from the wider 1440 image.

The cheaper Session is still waterproof without a housing to 10m, and has Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity, although I tend to leave these off to maximise battery life.

Other cameras I considered were the Cycliq Fly6[v] and Fly12. These are cameras specifically designed for bikes, and are built into LED lights. While the rear Fly6[v] was reasonably priced at a little under £100, and includes a very decent looking light, I already have plenty of rear lights. I currently use the Blaze Burner which I backed via Kickstarter. The problem with the front light is that it’s over £200, and is massive. Mounting it on a Brompton would not be easy as you want something that doesn’t stick out when you fold the bike. So it was a non-starter.

Contour cameras are popular with some cyclists and include functionality like over-writing older files that you don’t want to keep. But the camera quality isn’t that great, and there don’t seem to have been any updates in a while. The GoPro Session does have some reasonable low-light imagery for rides in the evening.

To mount the Session to my bike I bought a set of adapters which was good value on Amazon. I was specifically after a minimalist mount that would let me hang the Session below my Brompton’s handlebars. This set came with two options, and I used the smaller one, meaning that the camera doesn’t get in the way when the bike is folded. The camera casing is firmly afixed to both the bars and the GoPro which means removing it all requires a hex key. However the Session itself can easily be popped out via a quick release. The mount set also included another adapter for saddle rails.

Both cameras can be set to use single-button quickstarts – indeed the Session only has one proper button, with a second tiny one set out of the way. So a single press of a button on each camera both turns them on and starts a recording.

The sample video above gives you an idea of what the cameras are capable of, although I know that I could do a bit better with the Session’s output, especially with Protune which allows a “Native” output for finer colour correction in post processing. The regular Hero has no such options with the video quality.

Overall I’m pretty satisfied with my solution. A series of beeps let me know that I’ve switched the cameras on (and off), and I’ve left the LEDs on for confirmation that all is working. The set-up is fully waterproof – the cheaper Hero doesn’t actually come out of its case – and the battery life is sufficient for my needs. I’d say that it’s roughly 2 hours for each camera. Importantly, both cameras fit onto a Brompton very comfortably, and don’t shout “camera” too much.

No sooner had I written most of this entry than I was on my daily commute and the following incident happened. It all happened slowly, and I was unlikely to get hurt as I had plenty of time to brake, but the car driver simply didn’t look to see if there were any cyclists coming as he crossed the junction where I had right of way. Note that while the rear facing camera wouldn’t seem to be much help in this instance, it does allow me to clearly read the driver’s number plate.

RideLondon Classique 2017

A few weeks ago, it was the annual RideLondon. This year I didn’t get a space in the main RideLondon 100, but I still popped down to watch the RideLondon Classique race around a central London course. Unfortunately it was a miserable day, with fairly unrelenting rain.

I meant to arrive a little earlier than I did, but by the time I got to the bottom of Piccadilly where the teams were warming up and had parked up their various buses and vans, they were mostly all heading to the start line.

I positioned myself near the top of Whitehall where the cyclist came past twice a lap, once heading out onto The Strand, and once again when they returned around Trafalgar Square, through Admiralty Arch and into The Mall.

The rain meant that nobody wanted to let a breakaway go, and the race was tight all the way through. That also meant that any riders who dropped off the back would stay dropped for the remainder of the race. You felt very sorry when you saw the same riders, lap after lap, doing their own wet-weather time-trials.

RideLondon pays equally for both men’s race and the women’s race, and as a consequence offers more prize money than any other race in the Women’s World Tour calendar. For that reason alone, the teams take it seriously, even though I suspect many would rather race something more akin to the men’s route out in the Surrey Hills and back.

I suspect that the organisers don’t think that they could fit it another ride along that route when they already run both the RideLondon 100 and RideLondon 46 along those roads, making sure that they’re clear for the professional men who set off some 5-6 hours after them. There’s also the issue of TV coverage of both men and women. As things stand the Women get live TV on Saturday evening, while the men get coverage on Sunday afternoon.

Back to the race, and Sunweb took it very seriously. They always had riders at the front of the race, and were looking for intermediate sprint results too. At one stage I found myself standing next to team director or helper who had a radio, and was busily instructing his riders from his viewpoint where I was near the top of both Whitehall and The Mall.

In due course the race was won by Coryn Rivera in a closely fought sprint finish. Cevelo’s Lotta Lepistö came second while Canyon-SRAM’s Lisa Brennauer was third. Just behind them was Marianne Vos who had been reasonably anonymous in the race. I’d not seen her since I’d seen a couple of spectators grab a selfie near the start (I kicked myself I didn’t do the same).

A shame about the weather which I think neutralised the race too much. While a criterium like this affords plenty of views to see the riders, there’s a limited amount they can do to get a break.

Plenty more photos over on my Flickr page.

Dwindling Choices

A couple of weeks ago, Ofcom released its annual Communications Market Report. It’s always stuffed full of information about the UK media marketplace that can be fascinating to dissect.

In 2016, ownership of DVD players (including Blu Ray and games consoles with DVD functionality) was 67% of UK households. This year, it’s just 63% of households. That’s still most homes, but it’s indicative of the way that physical media is in decline as consumers move to streaming services.

Then yesterday, Amazon announced that it was closing Lovefilm. You may recall that Lovefilm was originally the UK’s version of Netflix in that it was a DVD rental by post business (Yes – that was Netflix’s original model too). Their basic service saw users renting films for a flat monthly fee and then posting them back when you’d watched them. In time, Lovefilm added a movie streaming service, so that by the time Amazon swooped in to buy them, it was the streaming service that Amazon was really interested in. That morphed into Amazon Prime Video, but the Lovefilm postal service remained.

And it still worked well, because unlike streaming services, customers had the ability to watch just about any film or TV series released on disc. That included classic films, genre titles and world film titles that never make it onto major streaming services.

And there’s the rub.

We have ownership of machines to play discs falling, and yet digital is not a direct replacement.

It’s all very well have a Netflix or Amazon Prime Video account, but those do not represent a full range of choice. In a Guardian piece bemoaning the death of Lovefilm, the author likened the film selection on the streaming services to the DVD selection in a petrol station. A handful of decent titles – all of which you’ve seen – and a load of trash you’d never want to watch.

That’s a little harsh, but it’s not far from the truth. Yes, the catalogues are slowly improving, but the reality is that on any given day, it’s hard for anyone to actually know what films are available on what services.

Distributors package up groups of films – some are good, some less so – and licence them to the online streamers for certain periods. That period might be measured in months, or it might be measured in years. By and large, the same film is unlikely to be streaming on both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix at the same time. So which do you buy? Both?

The reality is that the all-you-can-eat streaming services offer a fairly meagre range considering the vast breadth and wealth of cinema history. There are a few choice morsels alongside a lot of filler.

Furthermore, you can’t be certain on any given day, that a service you subscribe to will have the film you want to watch available to you.

Ah, but that’s OK. I can get everything else I want to watch from iTunes, Amazon Video (the rent-per-film part) or Google Play Video!

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

If the film was pretty popular and released in the last twenty years or so, then yes, for around £4.49 for a rental, you probably can stream a copy, with luck in HD. But I think you’ll find there’s an awful lot missing.

Older films, classic films, mid-list films, genre films, TV series and many more.

Question for Film Distributors

If you’re a bit of a film fan like me, then from time to time you suddenly have the urge to watch a film. Assuming you don’t have your own Blu Ray or DVD copy to hand you head to the streaming services and search for it. Only to find it’s not there.

Why in 2017, is not a distributor’s entire catalogue online?

It seems to me that if you own the rights to a film, then you’re deliberately leaving money on the table if you do not at least make it available to purchase digitally in places like the iTunes and Google Play Video stores.

I’m not talking about things you’re holding back to repackage in various ways for maximum revenue – Disney, I’m looking at you!

I’m talking about average films, that if I wait long enough will pop-up once every couple of months on FilmFour or BBC2 anyway. I’m talking about solid mid-range titles, that once upon a time, I could happily find in physical format in a largish branch of HMV or the Virgin Megastore.

Here are a handful of films that I have genuinely wanted to stream but not been able to find on streaming services when I looked, all from within the last thirty years, and all currently or previously released on physical media.

  • Truly, Madly, Deeply
  • The Grifters
  • Rambling Rose
  • Enchanted April

If I started searching for older films then the list would get much longer much more quickly.

What I really don’t understand is that the costs of making catalogue movies available on these services is surely basically nil. You don’t even have to worry whether HMV will give up shelf space to a title, or Amazon warehouse space. You just list the film and let the money run in (or at least trickle in).

In 2017, if you’re a bit of a movie buff, then while the streaming services might sate your appetite a little, you’re not getting the full picture.

What you can’t do is draw an analogy with music. Spotify has a catalogue of ~30m tracks, so perhaps you could ditch your physical music collection and rely solely on their service (I wouldn’t personally, but many do). The same simply isn’t true for films, and we don’t seem to be close to that point.

Indeed if you don’t own a DVD or Blu Ray player, you’re limiting yourself enormously. And that’s before getting into the lack of extras that most streaming or download services offer.

As a consequence of all this, my physical film collection continues to grow.

Netflix and Disney

Last week came news that Disney would be pulling its movies from Netflix at the end of the current arrangement, and that Disney would in future launch its own streaming service. This licensing agreement generated a vast amount of coverage, much of it ill-informed, and ignoring wider issues in the market.

There are a few key issues to discuss here.

Disney Films on Netflix

Netflix originally signed a deal with Disney back in 2012, whereby Netflix took over from a previous Pay TV deal Disney had with Starz. Library films became available immediately on the streaming service, while Netflix gained the Pay TV window rights for new Disney movies (including Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm) released theatrically from 1 January 2016. In reality, that means first-run films would appear from late 2016 when the Pay TV window opened.

A Note on Windowing

It’s probably worth detailing how movie studios traditionally “window” their wares.

The Theatrical Window is usually first, and theatre owners demand that films don’t get released for usually three to four months (it varies by territory, with countries like France enforcing much stricter rules). Then is the so-called Video Window with digital pay-to-own (e.g. iTunes or Google Play Video) and physical DVD and Blu-ray releases. The former is often released a week prior to the latter. Then, a few months later, comes the Pay TV window, when films end up on premium cable and satellite channels like Sky Movies in the UK, or Starz in the US. After that initial Pay TV window, films may then go into a Second Window with perhaps a free-to-air broadcaster, or streaming service like Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Obviously with both Netflix and Amazon active in making and acquiring films, they can choose to either go straight to streaming, or miss out some of the other windows. And there is talk of a Premium Video On Demand (PVOD) window between 30 and 45 days after theatrical release that would be priced high for early streaming access. Theatre owners worry about such things because if you know you only have to wait thirty days, then you might not bother going to the cinema to see a new film.

The key thing throughout all of this is that films tend to get less valuable as the windows progress.

At the time of the Disney deal, media estimates were that the deal was probably around $300m a year for Disney, and was seen as a good deal for all concerned. Netflix paid big, but got big films as a result. Disney dramatically increased what Starz (or HBO or Showtime) would have paid, but as a studio they couldn’t miss with their Marvel films alongside the relaunched Star Wars series, as well as their high-performing Disney and Pixar output.

Now the deal is coming to an end, and films released from 1 January 2019 will not appear automatically on Netflix. Furthermore Disney is launching its own streaming service. More on this latter point below.

Cue lots of words about how this could be the beginning of the end of Netflix. The thinking is that if Disney can do this, then surely others can too. And that breaks Netflix’s model.

Well only up to a point.

It’s worth reiterating that this was a US only deal. The deal does not, and did not apply elsewhere. That’s not to say that Disney material hasn’t and doesn’t appear in other territories. It does. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released just ahead of 1 January 2016, so didn’t make it to Netflix US. It did appear on Netflix in Canada however. Meanwhile Netflix UK has a number of Marvel films on its service, although these are second window films. They have already had runs on Sky as part of Sky’s deal with Disney (In the UK, Sky has exclusive Pay TV deals with most of the major US studios, usually locking out competitors for twelve months).

In Netflix’s recent earnings release, they reported that they had 94.36m paid memberships of which 49.38m were in the US. That leaves 44.99m outside the US, and that’s important. Within the next two or three quarters it seems likely that international will outstrip the US in terms of paid subscriptions. While that isn’t reflected in profits (international rollout is expensive), it’s important to remember that Netflix US is not the same as other versions of Netflix. Due to the way that the entertainment industry has historically worked, rights are sold on a territory by territory basis. Furthermore, different studios may own the rights to different films in different territories.

What this all means is that while Netflix losing Disney seems like a big deal, on further examination its notable that the deal didn’t extend to other territories. And those territories are growing just fine without Netflix serving up first-run Disney films.

Disney Already Streams

The other big part of this was that Disney announced that it’d launch a new Over The Top (OTT) streaming service once the Netflix deal ends.

A fact that has escaped many – including a large number of British news reports – is that Disney already has a streaming service. It’s in the UK, it’s called DisneyLife, launching at the end of 2015. Originally priced at £9.99 a month, making it more expensive than Netflix, in time it dropped its price to a more palatable £4.99. For that you get unlimited streaming access to Disney and Pixar movies, as well as all Disney’s TV programming. That amounts to about 400 movies available. The TV programming is both live and on-demand box sets. The service also offers Disney music and audiobooks, and it offers a 10% Disney Store discount.

That all said, new Disney films still get onto Sky Movies before they reach DisneyLife (in other words, the service doesn’t offer first run films during the Pay TV window), and Disney still sells its top films to free-to-air broadcasters like the BBC. I assume that maximising audience also means maximising merchandise revenues from those later rebroadcasts.

Whether Disney renews its Sky agreement in the future, or goes it alone in an attempt to bump up overall revenues will be worth looking out for. But it would seem that the UK has been used as a beta test market for the newly announced Disney service.

(Note that DisneyLife is a different service to Disney Movies Anywhere, which is Disney’s own brand download-to-own digital service.)

It’s notable that the UK DisneyLife does not include Marvel or Lucasfilm output. That’s likely to be either because Disney already had lucrative deals in place with Sky or others at the time of launch, or that including that output it doesn’t make quite as “clean” a service. The audience for Frozen is different to the audience for Ironman.

Perhaps, in time, Disney will want to include these properties in its streaming service, but I’m not sure. The core Disney (and Pixar) offering is very defined and a parent subscribing knows what they’re getting from a service. Offering a film like Deadpool (15 rated in the UK; R rated in the US) would not work. Yes — I know Deadpool is a Fox film and not formally part of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” but the possibility of R rated Marvel material is still there. Season 1 of Jessica Jones was rated 15 for its DVD release for example.

Finally, Disney just bought BAMtech, the streaming specialist company that was originally set-up in-house for Major League Baseball to stream their fixtures. It was spun off by them to offer streaming support to many companies around the world, and now Disney has bought it ahead of a larger rollout of a streaming service. Doing streaming well is hard as many companies have learnt to their costs, so this pay prove to be a very wise investment.

Disney Going It Alone is not Replicable

The reason that Disney is able to even contemplate a full-service streaming offering is because it has uniquely strong branding. Even the very youngest Disney film viewer quickly learns the name of the studio it comes from. They want to visit Disney Stores or visit Disney Theme Parks. I’m not at all sure that other studios have such significant branding across a wide range of output.

For example, do you know which studio is responsible for the Despicable Me franchise and its related Minions? How about Kungfu Panda? Or Shrek? Or Lego Batman?

All of those have been incredibly successful properties, but they don’t have the same consumer recognition at a studio level. I’m not saying that they couldn’t try to do the same, but that it would be hard. Most consumers, unless they work in the industry, have little to no knowledge of which studio produced which film. In today’s world, where budgets have soared, there are now multiple opening production logos at the start of feature films usually indicating many companies have stumped up the budget. What films would even be in Dreamworks or Universal branded OTT offering?

The regular concern you hear about Netflix is that its reliance on third party programming leaves it vulnerable. What if other studios pulled their output to get onto

I’m not saying that Warners, for example, couldn’t launch an OTT service off the back of their DC Universe films, but that might be a bit of a stretch. A handful of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman films does not make a full service, even if you throw in some animated and direct-to-DVD material.

A case in point might be Sony’s Crackle service which, although advertising funded, has not really broken through in the years it has been operating. Perhaps its biggest original hit, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld is moving to Netflix.

How Many Streaming Services Are Sustainable Anyway?

In the US, the market seems to have reached the point where cable cords are being “cut” in sufficient numbers to be of major concern to the industry. Where once a consumer might spend $100 a month on a few hundred channels, only a few of which they actually watched, they’re now increasingly choosing a mixture of “skinny bundles” (Perhaps $20-30 a month for a handful of key channels, possibly internet streamed), and OTT services (Perhaps HBO Now to get Game of Thrones and Veep, or CBS All Access for The Good Wife spin-off, The Good Fight, and the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery – which notably will be a Netflix exclusive outside the US). Currently, that’s a cheaper option than the $100 bill. But how many services cumulatively would a household buy?

In the UK, the market is slightly different, but beyond Netflix and Amazon, I could also subscribe to Now TV (for subscription free Sky TV), or something like Mubi for arthouse films.

Amongst many others, the BBC and ITV recently launched BritBox focusing on UK shows that are otherwise not sold to US broadcasters. There it competes with Acorn TV’s similar streaming offering.

Meanwhile sports organisations and channels from MLB to the NFL, and the NBA to NBC Sports Gold offer paid OTT options.

How many of these individual packages is one household likely to pay for? 2? 3? 5? More?

NBC has recently announced the closure of its comedy-focused Seeso network, when many might have thought that it was NBCU’s foot in the door into the paid streaming marketplace.

It’s worth remembering that the cable bundle offer meant you get quite a lot for your money, even if you don’t watch much of it. For example, perhaps you don’t watch the food TV channels

A la carte OTT offerings mean that if you’re not interested in food networks, then you don’t subscribe to them. The corollary of that is that if you do want to watch food TV networks, you’ll probably have to pay more to see them.

The economics of 100m US cable subscribing households all contributing perhaps $0.50 a month to make the channels viable with a monthly revenue of $50m. If only 5m viewers choose to watch, they would need to pay $10 month to achieve the same revenue for those channels.

It seems likely that a lot of more niche channels will become unviable without a significant number of subscribers prepared to pay a significant fee to see them.

Netflix in the Future

Netflix has made so secret of wanting to own more of its own programming. Whether it can become completely dependent on acquired programming is questionable, and perhaps isn’t really in its business plan. But beyond the not-insignificant production costs which are eating money, once it has built up a significant library, it becomes a more attractive proposition. That is, assuming that future generations will still be at least partially interested in today’s television. While Dumbo and Snow White are ageless, it’s not clear that the same is true of House of Cards.

Netflix’s international ambitions are not insignificant either. To achieve success in these markets invariably means locally produced programming. Making locally produced shows in France, Germany, India, Brazil and the UK is not cheap. But to break properly into these markets, that’s what Netflix has to do, and that does mean a huge cash burn.

It would be a fool who tries to predict the future of a company like Netflix, and I’m not a fool!

However, I don’t see the end of Netflix’s Disney deal as nearly as groundbreaking as some would position it. Netflix probably does need to broaden its portfolio in terms of earning income. Notably they made their first acquisition last week buying the comic company Millarworld which gives them access to a number of comic book characters as well as opening a new revenue stream. It seems that owning a comic-book franchise is critical for any serious studio. Could this be the start of a wider investment portfolio which supports the main subscription offering, but provides some diversity of income?

RAJAR Q2 2017

RAJAR

As ever, this post is brought to you in association with RALF from DP Software and Services. I’ve used RALF for the past 9 years, and it’s my favourite RAJAR analysis tool. So I am delighted that I continue to be able to bring you this RAJAR analysis in association with RALF. For more details on the product, contact Deryck Pritchard via this link or phone 07545 425677.

RAJAR is upon us once more, and so this will be something of a canter through the results. However, I’ll also throw in a few pieces from the most recent RAJAR MIDAS survey that was also recently published, and is very illuminating.

I think I will start with digital listening, since we’re now incredibly close to half of all radio listening being on a digital platform. In this quarter it reached a high of 48.7% of all listening being digital, up from 47.2% last quarter and 45.3% a year ago.

You can see from this chart that progress has been constant over that time. And of course DAB radio is the largest part of that listening. But it’s always worth having a look at internet listening, because that seems to be growing much faster. Apps improve, and data packages increase. You may even have seen improved 4G coverage!

Internet listening is now up to 8.8% of all radio listening. Also a new high.

If you just look at 15-44s, then internet listening goes up to 14.6%. This is becoming an important platform.

Overall 49.2m people listen to the radio each week – an all time high. Although we should be careful to note that RAJAR updates its population estimates in Q2 each year, and as the UK’s population continues to rise, you would expect listening to rise – even if radio listening is actually “flat.” And so it is that 90% of the population listen to the radio, which is in line with previous quarters.

Each radio listens for 21.0 hours a week, which actually represents – just – a record low under the current RAJAR methodology. This isn’t necessarily surprising, since as I’ve said here before, it’s not so much reach and listening hours that are challenging radio the most, particularly in younger demos. But average hours are worth keeping an eye on.

National and Digital Services

Radio 1 will be pleased to have bounced back from some awful results last time around. They are back up to nearly 9.6m listeners, representing an increase of 5.3% on the quarter and a 1.4% increase on the year. In terms of listening hours, they’ve done very well this time with 64.3m hours which is the best they’ve had for nearly two years now. Last quarter does look much more like a “blip”, but this audience remains challenging and other metrics undoubtedly come into play as far as the station goes.

Radio 2 saw a small decrease across the board in its listening figures, with a fall below 15m for the first time in a few quarters. Notably hours fell too, down 6.0% on the quarter and down 3.0% on the year. But with 14.8m listeners tuning in for an average of 11.7 hours a week, they’re not exactly struggling. Obviously we do now know that their presenters are generally fairly well remunerated!

Radio 3 saw its reach breach 2m again, up 9.4% on the quarter, yet down 6.3% on the year in reach terms. There was a similar trend with hours.

Radio 4 had a stronger quarter in reach terms, rising to 11.6m. By the skin of its teeth, that’s a new record reach for the station, breaking the previous reach set in Q2 last year. Obviously there continue to be one or two things in the news which may well be helping. Hours were down a bit on the quarter, however, while being up on the year.

Five Live had a second successive disappointing quarter, being fractionally down in reach on the quarter, but more substantially down on the year. They’ll be keeping an eye on hours too, with 35.0m down 14.5% on the 41.0m they had a year ago. Obviously there’s no major football tournament this year, and the end of the football season wasn’t quite the story it was a year ago.

In a massive shock, 6 Music has somehow not achieved a record audience this quarter! Reach is down 4.9% to 2.2m, while hours dip below 20m. The latter in particular feels a bit like a blip and will be worth returning to next quarter.

I’ll note that the World Service is up 19.4% in reach terms this quarter, and 28.5% up on the quarter in terms of hours.

LBC has had another exceptional quarter, up 14.5% to 2.0m, and up 11.8% to 21.6m listening hours. These are both records in terms of the station in modern times, since it went national. The station really is going from strength to strength.

Absolute Radio was down 3.0% on the quarter and a little more on the year to 2.1m, while hours were down 1.8% on the quarter, but up 15.8% on the year. Absolute obviously has Dave Berry beginning his new drivetime show from this October, while this quarter (just) saw the departure of longtime presenters Geoff Lloyd and Annabel Port from that slot. We won’t truly be able to see the outcome of that change until the Q4 figures come out early in 2018.

Classic FM had a strong quarter with reach up 7.8% to 5.8m, while hours were up nearly 16% to 40.3m. Those both represent the best numbers the station has had since the first half of 2011, so a really great set of results for the team in Leicester Square.

Talksport on the other hand, has not had a good set of numbers this quarter. They’re down 3.9% in reach on the quarter, and down 20.3% in reach on the year. Hours are worse, down 16.6% on the quarter, and down 28.2% on the year. As with Five Live, there’s been no major football tournament this summer, and the end of the season wasn’t perhaps as exciting as in some other years. However, the reach is the worst since 2010, and hours the worst since the end of 2003. You must think that News UK can help the station with some solid marketing, but also wonder if we’ll see some significant programme changes. Some of those audience losses can be balanced against some growth in Talksport 2, which achieved its best results so far, with 336,000 reach and just short of 1m hours.

Talkradio has also seen some positive shifts, with its reach and hours both healthily up in percentage terms. It now has 275,000 reach with 1.1m hours. Those results put the station about on a par with Virgin Radio which was down in reach but up in hours on the quarter. It has 364,000 listeners spending 1.1m hours with it. The challenge for Wireless Group (and owners News UK) was always supporting all these new brands over the early part of their existence. Speech radio in particular is not necessarily a cheap format.

The Capital Network jumps back up 3.8% in reach and 3.1% in hours this quarter, with the overall brand (including Capital XTRA) similarly improving. Overall they have a reach of 8.6m reach with 48.4m hours. Does Global have Radio 1 in its sights?

Sister Heart Network is basically flat in reach, and down 3.6% in hours on the previous quarter. The overall Heart Brand is up 2.8% in reach but down 0.9% in hours. It reaches 9.2m a week with 67.0m hours. A recent trip to the cinema suggest that they’re spending on the brand currently (although the cheery ad perhaps felt at odds with Dunkirk, which we were about to see).

Over at Kiss, reach is up 4.6% to nearly 4.4m, while hours are down slightly 2.8% on the quarter. The overall Kiss Network (including the very successful Kisstory which itself achieved record figures of 1.7m reach and 7.5m hours) is up 6.4% in reach although down 2.0% in hours.

The Magic Network has seen its audience grow 2.0% to 3.6m this quarter (down a little on the year), while hours have slipped 3.5% on the quarter and about the same on the year.

Finally let’s enter the battle of the 80s. Absolute 80s has increased its reach this quarter by 11.3% to 1.5m, although it’s slightly down on the year, and hours have fallen 9.4% to 7.4m. They’re the lowest they’ve been since Q3 2014.

So what’s happened, and why did I call this a battle? Well Heart 80s has happened. They’ve come in with a reach of 852,000, which is slightly over half the reach of Absolute 80s. Meanwhile they’ve got 3.9m listening hours – again just over half what Absolute 80s achieved.

I would imagine that Global will be delighted with those numbers, while Bauer is disappointed. I’ve mentioned previously that Bauer moved from the Digital One DAB multiplex to the presumably cheaper D2 multiplex. However, that multiplex covers significantly less of the population, and that move in itself saw a decrease in listening almost certainly as a direct consequence. In the meantime. Global saw an opportunity to put a new 80s service on Digital One, and Heart 80s is the result. You can assume that some listeners who lost access to Absolute 80s on DAB have now started listening to Heart 80s. While Absolute 80s is comfortably ahead as things stand, that has got to be a mini-battle worth watching in the future.

London

As ever, the biggest station in London in reach is… Radio 4. It’s up 7.4% in reach. But nobody ever wants to hear that. They want to know about the music stations.

The next biggest station in reach terms is Capital, who’ve had another great result, up 3.3% in reach 2.3m. Hours are up a bit too.

Kiss has had a good result this quarter, and is just behind (if we exclude Radio 2) with 2.0m listeners up 13.8% on the quarter, although down on the year. That’s quite a bounce back for Kiss. Hours are up a little too.

Then it’s Heart with 1.7m listeners, up an astonishing 21.9% after a couple of really poor quarters. Again, listening is down a little.

Skipping past Radio 1, we get to LBC with 1.4m listeners, up 31.6% this quarter, and up 9.2% on the year. But of course it’s the hours of LBC that really do well with 15.7m hours, it can rightly claim to be London’s most listened to commercial station (Radio 4 has more).

Absolute Radio is struggling in London right now with 637,000 listeners, down 17.6% on the quarter and more than 25% on the year.

But I’d finally just note that BBC London is up a colossal 88.8% on the quarter in reach terms and 156% in hours to 621,000 and 3.3m hours. Now while I’m dubious about massive jumps either up or down, 621,000 represents an all time record reach for the station under the current RAJAR methodology!

MIDAS

Finally, I thought that it was worth having a little look at the recently published RAJAR MIDAS survey. This examines listening against other types of audio listening, including on demand music streaming (OMS) services such as Spotify, mp3s, vinyl and so on. It’s important to note that the research is carried out separately to the main RAJAR survey, and as such, isn’t directly comparable. Nonetheless, the most recent set of data was published last week, and it seems as good a time as any to check out some numbers.

It’s always worth looking at the Share of Audio % which shows what radio is “up against.” Some might think that radio’s very retro, and that nobody listens to anything other than Spotify and podcasts, because that’s what they do as a cutting edge media-type. Of course this isn’t true as the chart below shows.

Share of Audio - Summer 2017

That chart shows that live radio dominates listening with 76% of (non-visual) audio. That’s down very slightly from 77% in the last spring release. Other facts that come out of the survey include:

  • 26m people, or 49% of the population haved downloaded a radio app for their phone, with on average users have 2 apps.
  • 5.6m adults listen to a podcast in any week, with smartphones being the most popular device. That’s up from 5.5m in the spring MIDAS survey.
  • 4.2m adults use listen again or catch-up services.

Obviously listening trends change substantially by age group.

You can instantly see that OMS listening is the most significant difference between age groups. Amongst 15-24s, this listening accounts for 23% of all listening, while only accounting for 1% of listening amongst 55+’s.

The growth in listening to OMS amongst 15-24s is quite alarming. There’s no other way to put it, since in Winter 2016 it was 21%. How big will this slice of the pie continue to grow to?

What devices are people using? Well analogue and digital radios are at the top of the list in terms of share, but it really depends on how old you are. For 15-24s, the smartphone is key – and there’s often not a radio built into these (or if there is, it’s pretty bad). But computers are also really important for this group. Only 36% of their time is spend with traditional radios compared with 62% overall.

One final thing worth looking at is what people are listening to by device. I wanted to highlight this, because the Amazon Echo is included. Now, although I don’t have the full data tables for MIDAS research, I suspect that the Amazon data will be on very small sample sizes, so should be treated with caution. However, if it’s in any way indicative, it shows that Voice User Interface devices like the Echo could be very important ways of listening to the radio in the future. Ahead of any other internet connected device that MIDAS measured, more live radio was consumed on the Echo.

As someone who owns two Echos, I can attest to the fact that it’s easily the most painless way of listening to the radio full-stop. You just bark your order at the device and it starts!

(I will note that “digital tracks” don’t seem to show up in the Echo’s results, and since you can listen to services like Spotify and Amazon Music on the devices, I would be very wary of the absolute numbers here. Something to watch in future. [UPDATE: Actually, I was misreading the chart. The “On Demand” represents On Demand Music Services including Spotify. It’s actually personally owned Digital Tracks that you can’t really play via an Echo and is therefore missing – well you can but it’s very fiddly and limited. Thanks to Mike for pointing this out. I still suspect the sample is small, so would be wary of absolute numbers, but the fact remains that Live Radio is crucial part of the Echo audio experience.])

The full publicly available summary is available here on the RAJAR website.

Further Reading

For more RAJAR analysis, I’d recommend the following sites:

The official RAJAR site and their infographic
Radio Today for a digest of all the main news
Go to Media.Info for lots of numbers and charts
Mediatel’s Newsline will have lots of figures and analysis
Paul Easton for more lots analysis including London charts
Matt Deegan will have some great analysis
The BBC Mediacentre for BBC Radio stats and findings
Bauer Media’s corporate site
Global Radio’s corporate site

All my previous RAJAR analyses are here.

Source: RAJAR/Ipsos MORI/RSMB, period ending 25 June 2017, Adults 15+.

Disclaimer: These are my views alone and do not represent those of anyone else, including my employer. Any errors (I hope there aren’t any!) are mine alone. Drop me a note if you want clarifications on anything. Access to the RAJAR data is via RALF from DP Software as mentioned at the top of this post.

Encryption – A Failure to Understand

Today in the Telegraph, Amber Rudd, the UK Home Secretary has written an opinion piece (subscription) trying once more to explain the Government’s views on encryption.

Broadly speaking, they’re very upset that it’s really hard to break into terrorist and ne’er do well’s encrypted messages over services such as WhatsApp. It would be much easier if such services didn’t employ strong end-to-end encryption.

While the message does seem to be slightly getting through that encryption actual has a lot of commercial uses, there does seem to be a real failure to understand that it’s actually really useful for everybody – including “real people.”

I’ve annotated some of the column:

Encryption plays a fundamental role in protecting us all online. It is key to growing the digital economy, and delivering public services online. But, like many powerful technologies, encrypted services are used and abused by a small minority of people.

Yes. This is all true.

The particular challenge is around so called “end-to-end” encryption, where even the service provider cannot see the content of a communication.

That’s kind of the point about encryption. If my messages are sitting unencrypted on some kind of central server at WhatsApp or wherever, then they’re vulnerable. We’ve seen a non-stop series of hacks and data leaks of all kinds from everywhere. Unencrypted data is essentially a vulnerability waiting to happen.

To be very clear – Government supports strong encryption and has no intention of banning end-to-end encryption.

Good.

But the inability to gain access to encrypted data in specific and targeted instances – even with a warrant signed by a Secretary of State and a senior judge – is right now severely limiting our agencies’ ability to stop terrorist attacks and bring criminals to justice.

Undoubtedly this is a significant challenge. But either you allow end-to-end encryption or you don’t. And if you don’t, the consequences are vast.

I know some will argue that it’s impossible to have both – that if a system is end-to-end encrypted then it’s impossible ever to access the communication.

That’s right. It’s impossible – at least without access to the devices at either end where the messages are unencryted.

But you either have end-to-end encryption. Or you don’t. The choice is binary.

That might be true in theory.

Not just theory.

Practice.

It’s mathematics.

In this kind of area, there aren’t shades of grey. It works or it doesn’t work.

But the reality is different.

No it’s not.

Real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, unbreakable security.

Where to begin?

This is a false dichotomy for starters. WhatsApp offers all the features alongside end-to-end encryption. A priori, you can have both.

And who are “Real people?” Are they business colleagues dealing in commercially sensitive data or intellectual property? Or friends and family sharing banking details? People sending naked selfies to each other? People having affairs or relationships they’d like to keep private? People seeking support for sensitive medical issues? Conservative MPs plotting in WhatsApp groups who will be the next PM?

“Real people” actually like a bit of privacy it would seem. There are countless good reasons for this. And encryption allows this.

So this is not about asking the companies to break encryption or create so called “back doors”.

OK – good. Because that would be horrifically dangerous.

Who uses WhatsApp because it is end-to-end encrypted, rather than because it is an incredibly 
user-friendly and cheap way of staying in touch with friends and family?

Um. Quite a lot of people. Encryption makes our lives safer. WhatsApp has managed to be both incredibly user-friendly and provide end-to-end encryption.

Are you asking WhatsApp to remove that encryption then? Because it’s really not clear from any of this what you expect them and others to actually be doing.

Companies are constantly making trade-offs between security and “usability”, and it is here where our experts believe opportunities may lie.

Except in this instance there is no trade-off. It turns out that we can have both! So I’ll take both thanks.

So, there are options. But they rely on mature conversations between the tech companies and Government 
– and they must be confidential. The key point is that this is not about compromising wider security.

Er. Yes it is. You want encryption switched off. That compromises my own security, and that of millions of other users.

It is about working together so we can find a way for our intelligence services, in very specific circumstances, to get more information on what serious criminals and terrorists are doing online.

Let’s think this through. If Facebook switches off encryption in WhatsApp, then do you think it’s at all possible that terrorists et al might migrate somewhere else? And you do understand that encryption isn’t something you can stuff back in the bottle. It’s out in the wild. There are dozens, if not hundreds of messaging services. Many businesses can’t, or won’t, work without full encryption, so you can’t ban the tools. They’re used throughout the world.

I thought previously that it was technical naivety that has led a succession of Home Secretaries to spout nonsense about encryption. But I’m beginning to think that it’s almost purposeful.

The Telegraph piece does not make any sense. And it really doesn’t spell out what the Home Secretary would actually like these companies to do.

I suspect it’s to turn off encryption. But that would just leave the vast majority of users globally far less secure while any terrorist with a semblance of intelligence would move to another platform that does offer encryption.

We’re lucky enough to live in a democracy in the UK. Many people don’t. Encryption has proved vital to millions of people throughout the world. But it’s not just dangerous regimes, but personal data that people would just prefer not to share with anyone apart from their intended targets.

At this point, a failure to not understand this must be construed as willful.

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan is clearly one of this generation’s outstanding film makers. From Memento through to his Dark Knight trilogy, to Inception and Interstellar, he does something interesting every time. Not only are his films glorious to watch, shot with large-format film including IMAX for much of his latest, but his films are very successful at the box office. He’s one of the few directors working who can make a $100m+ film not based on a franchise.

Which brings us to Dunkirk – his telling of the story of the evacuation of over 300,000 troops from the beach, where they were pinned down by advancing German soldiers during WWII. This isn’t the first film telling the story of the rescue of so many soldiers against the odds. The 1958 Ealing Studios film was one of their most of expensive, and also one of their last, produced by the famed Michael Balcon. And perhaps the most memorable sequence of Joe Wright’s Atonement, features the lines of troops on a massive scale on Dunkirk beach.

Time is a key component of many of Nolan’s films, from the reversed timelines of Memento to the physics of space and time in Interstellar. In Dunkirk he plays with time once more. Captions reveal that we’re going to see three key stories over a week, a day and an hour.

We follow the troops on the beach across a week, as they are marshalled, amongst others, by Kenneth Brannagh’s naval commander onto the limited supply of vessels able to dock at “The Mole” a wooden pier that allows access to vessels that couldn’t otherwise come ashore.

Mark Rylance and his young crew, are leading a pleasure yacht across the Channel from Dorset, across a single day.

Finally there is Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot who’s mission, limited by the amount of fuel he can carry, is limited to just an hour.

These three timelines are played out simultaneously, with the strands linking together at key points.

There’s not a lot of dialogue in this film, but there is a lot of music, much of which is layered within sound. Nolan has worked once again with Hans Zimmer, and even more than in his last two outings with Inception and Interstellar, the music is a vital part of the whole. This is music that is front and centre. And individual music cues run between the different timelines, making the film feel as a single piece. The limited dialogue means that music becomes ever more important. As Zimmer did with Inception, with its deconstruction of Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien, so he works skillfully with Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

This is a 12A film, and that’s actually quite important. Saving Private Ryan, for example, is classified as a 15. That films heart-stopping opening changed war films forever, meaning that other films that came in its wake felt the need to mimic its blood soaked verisimilitude. The short shutter speed (actually a 45 degree or 90 degree shutter angle) led to a staccato experience for the viewer. The same effect has since been repeatedly used in large scale action sequences.

But I could never help feeling that Saving Private Ryan was two very different films glued together. That opening, and then a more by-the-numbers war film with a dubious over-arching premise. Band of Brothers, the HBO series that came directly in its wake, seemed to have a more cohesive narrative structure.

Dunkirk has a more even feel to the film as a whole. That’s not to say that you don’t truly believe that anyone could die at any moment. From the opening scene in which Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and his fellow troops pluck a leaflet from the sky warning them that they are surrounded, the action rarely lets up.

The stoicism of Rylance as he heads into the unknown, with just burning ships on the horizon guiding him towards Dunkirk, and the bravery of the Spitfire pilots as they battle to protect ships in the Channel laden with men and being targeted by German bombers.

There have been complaints that the film doesn’t portray everything completely accurately. French troops are largely ignored despite the fact that many of them were holding up the Germany army while the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated. Then there’s the complaint that there are no faces of colour when there were significant numbers of Asian and East African troops serving. In fact, the film does include some black faces, but admittedly not very many. In the end, I would say that the film concentrates on a small handful of soldiers, and despite the scale of the film in places – thousands of extras lined up on the beach – we are mostly dealing with individual characters.

I was fortunate to be able to see Dunkirk in its IMAX film presentation at the BFI Waterloo. The majority of the film, including nearly all the action sequences, were shot on these enormous cameras. Only the very closest scenes – often below deck on ships – was shot on the “smaller” 70mm cameras. What this means is that the film’s aspect ratio is actually close to square for a lot of the film but on such a large scale that it just fills nearly all your peripheral vision. Then it’s “cropped” to a 70mm aspect ratio for some sequences. But strangely, you really don’t notice this except when you’re looking for it. (I recall seeing the final Dark Knight film in this manner, and there the jumps between formats were somehow much more noticeable). The key thing is that all the big set pieces are simply stunning to look at. The aerial combat scenes are some of the most fantastic I’ve seen. Exactly where real planes were employed and where CGI might have been used is impossible to tell. The credits reveal that they definitely did use real planes, and it does feel as though you’re in there with Tom Hardy as he tries to save the lives of troops, as all the while a lack of fuel means that he doesn’t have enough to return to England.

Similarly, when you see ships being attacked and sometimes sinking, they feel very real. I know that real ships were used on the production – lots of them. But we’ve moved to a point where CGI can make real things look very real indeed.

While the nature of Dunkirk means that we know what will happen in broad terms, that doesn’t apply for individual characters, and we are left on the edge of our seats throughout.

Overall a film that left me wanting to go back in and see it again, because seeing it on the big screen is essential – ideally from a film print. Essential.

oBikes – Initial Thoughts

oBike 1

On Saturday night, I was returning to my north London home when I noticed something I’d not seen before – a new type of hire bike.

Now us Londoners have become used to “Boris Bikes” – or Santander Cycles as they’re officially known. This is a scheme that I’ve been using fairly consistently since its start, using the bikes to traverse central London if I don’t have my own bike with me. London has a network of docking stations, and you can take a bike from one station and lock it up somewhere else. The scheme works well, and is certainly useful for commuting. If you arrive in London at a mainline railway station, you may complete your journey on a bike. Or if you live in Zone 1 or 2 – the central area of London where most of the docks are to be found – you might carry out all your commute on a bike. They’re popular with tourists too – especially in some of the larger parks like Hyde Park.

But there are some significant flaws, or at least shortcomings.

You can only really use the bikes within the area that has had docks built. This is largely Zone 1 and 2 in the middle of London. And while the bikes extend a fair way east to Docklands, they don’t extend that far in other directions. They don’t even extend as far as the inner gyratory road system, let alone straying into the outer boroughs.

You have to return the bike to a docking station, and they can often be full in popular locations. While a mobile app can help you a little with that, the flow of bikes is such that a team of vans has to move bikes around to prevent key spots being filled all the time. The bikes are also fairly heavy, but they come with three gears, so while you won’t be racing too much on them, you can get pretty much anywhere.

But back to the oBikes. I asked the proprietor of the shop I was in on Saturday evening, how long the bike had been there. He said that it was the council that had put the bikes out (this is very much not true), and that the where many along the entire street. When I left the shop, I saw that on a closer inspection, there were several more along the length of the road.

Well, always keen to give a new bike scheme a go, I pulled my phone out, downloaded the requisite app, registered my card details, and tried to release a bike. The app seemed comprehensive, if a tiny bit confusing at times. There was some kind of deal on giving free hires, but it really wasn’t clear from the app because you could click through to get the details. I paid a £29 deposit and then got a free hire. It seems that in fact, hiring remains free for the remainder of July, but I only learnt this later on the website.

While the bikes aren’t locked to any physical infrastructure, their rear hub is locked in place until it’s released wirelessly. Using the app, you can locate the rough whereabouts of a free bike, although in practice I found that the GPS coordinates could be up to 100m out. You then scan your phone on a QR code on the stem of the bike and a few seconds later – mobile data permitting – the lock on the hub is released. A trigger physically pinging up.

The mobile app warns you to wear a helmet, and ensure that the rear light is switched on. But in fact, the lights seem to come automatically, powered by a dynamo system when the bike is moved. While Boris Bikes’ lights work on a similar basis, they seem to store more residual power meaning that lights start immediately when you move. Even with the low demands of LED lighting, these lights seem more ineffective, especially when you set off.

What about the bikes themselves?

Well, they’re awful.

oBike 3

oBike 4

On the plus side, they’re much lighter than Boris Bikes, and they have a proper basket on the front rather than the often irritating affair that Boris Bikes have, that require a bungee cord to hold bags in place. But beyond that, I have no good things to say about the actual bikes.

They’re clearly cheaply made. There’s a single gear, and somehow it doesn’t seem suitable for anything other than a really slow potter around. It feels incredibly spongy too – something that a fixed gear bike really shouldn’t feel.

The seat post goes from low, to not-quite-as-low. Now I realise that at 6 foot 2 inches, I’m not the shortest person. But for me, this was like riding a BMX. My knees were nearly at the handlebars, and it was generally incredibly inefficient for me to cycle on. Indeed anyone much over 5 foot 10 may struggle with these bikes.

There’s a feeble bell rung by a twist-grip affair. Nobody is going to hear it. At least the hub brakes did seem to work well. The bikes have mudguards of sorts, but they’ve tried to remove as much surplus plastic as possible meaning that there’s very little real protection. I wouldn’t want to ride one of these in the wet without completely covering myself with muck.

Overall the bike felt like one those awful super-cheap supermarket bikes that I’d never recommend anyone ride, no matter how little money they had to spend. And at least those bikes have some gears.

Now I live at the top of a hill. It’s not a steep hill, and nor is it a long hill. In fact it’s 900m at an average gradient of 4%. While you feel that in your legs, it’s not going to stop the average cyclist comfortably riding up it. I can do this on my Brompton with extra shopping bags hanging off my handlebars.

But using the oBike I struggled. I mean I really struggled. The single gear was neither fish nor foul, and the uncomfortable riding position didn’t help. I ended up cycling on the pavement as I was going so slowly. In the end I gave up. I parked up in a responsible location and ended my ride, locking the bike by pushing a trigger down over the hub. My phone beeped as the app acknowledged that my bike hire had come to an end.

I was very unimpressed.

The following morning, however, I needed to get back down the hill and then travel further into my local town centre to catch a train. It would be tight walking there in time, but as I came back down the hill, I saw that the bike I’d parked the previous night was still there. So I unlocked it once more, and took it out for another ride.

Going down the hill was fine, although I still felt as though I was riding a BMX, and found myself having to get out of the saddle to stretch out my legs. I rarely get out of the saddle on Boris Bike, which seems much more suited to carrying a wider range of differently sized people. I don’t even max-out the seatpost on those bikes meaning that riders of perhaps up to 6 foot 4 can comfortably ride them.

On reaching the flat, the limitations of the single gear were once again in evidence. I have no idea what gear the bikes are, but again I found it incredibly slow going. It took me much longer to get to my destination than it would have done on any other bike. And it was much harder work as well.

I parked the bike up by some Sheffield stands in the town centre quietly vowing not to use the bikes again. As I did so, two separate people came up to ask me about the bike. What was obvious was that the lack of a requirement to dock the bike somewhere specific was popular. “It’s like Uber, for bikes!” said one man.

However I had to tell both people that I thought it was only good for travelling somewhere very flat, that it was not for tall people, and that nobody was going to get somewhere very fast with one of these bikes.

Subsequently I learnt that although hundreds of bikes had appeared across London the week before, no permission had been sought from any council to run the scheme. While it’s not completely clear why council approval would be required, there is almost certainly concern for how the bikes are treated, and in particular, where they are left. There are horror stories in China, where these bikes are made, and where this type of hire scheme has become prevalent, about hundreds of bikes being literally piled up on pavements near places like stations. In some instances pedestrians struggle to walk along pavements to avoid thoughtlessly placed bikes.

All the bikes I’ve seen so far have been left in decent places, often by existing bike stands. But I can see why many would prefer the more ordered system that Boris Bikes use.

There’s also the question of people vandalising the bikes. Although the hubs lock the rear wheels, the bikes can easily be lifted and placed somewhere else. A similar scheme in Manchester has already seen a number of bikes ending up in canals, and my borough has the New River – effectively a non-navigable canal.

I do feel a little torn about the oBike scheme. On the one hand, I’m very much for encouraging bike use, and my local council is doing a lot for bikes, building new cycle lanes in the face of sometimes quite hostile local opposition. But a badly run bike hire scheme is probably not the answer either.

It certainly feels that the Singapore-based company that launched these bikes has bought the cheapest bikes they could get in China, and not remotely considered local needs. While dockless schemes seem like an excellent idea, in that it reduces the costs dramatically since there’s no infrastructure required, I worry that it also means doing things on the cheap, and not worrying unduly about the social and environmental consequences.

And a bad scheme can have a significantly negative impact on cycling as a whole. If people find bikes abandoned in inappropriate locations, then they will take against the scheme. Similarly, would-be cyclists might well be put off from cycling after experiencing poor quality bikes that don’t make travel easy. These bikes are not a good introduction to cycling, whereas I would argue that while heavy, Boris Bikes are a decent introduction, and may well have persuaded many to invest in their own bikes and cycle more as a result (I’m hoping the upcoming replacement model will be even better).

The reaction overall has not been positive thus far, and in fact my local council has reached an agreement for the bikes to be removed locally pending a wider conversation about how the bike scheme should work. I believe that the same is happening in other London boroughs.

While Boris Bikes were a TfL initiative, and cost millions to set-up, and require continued investment to maintain, the scheme has been well conceived, and there is full support as well as maintenance of the equipment. The bikes, currently manufactured by Canadian company, and seen in other cities such as New York, are well suited to their environment and in general are a boon to encouraging cycling as a form of transport. It’s worth noting that for TfL, cycling is not just a “nice-to-have” but an essential part of London’s transport mix. Every cyclist on the road is one less tube passenger for example. I can’t say the same for oBikes.

This morning, as I got on the train at my local station, at the top of the same hill I live on, I noticed someone had parked a bike by the station to get their train. All I can do is give kudos to whoever rode that bike up the hill this morning!