Written by Cycling

Barclays Boris Bikes – A Few Weeks In

The London Cycle Hire scheme has been live for a few weeks now, and although there have been the odd teething problem such as people being overcharged or the system crashing entirely, a more fundamental problem has reared its head.
As someone who’s currently cycling between King’s Cross and the West End daily on his own bike, as well as being an occassional user of the bike hire scheme, I’ve been able to see this first hand in a small way. But the problem has been reported to me by more than one person.
So far, the scheme is only open to people who pre-register to get a key to unlock the bikes. By the very nature of this limitation, these are likely to be Londoners. More specifically, they’ll be Londoners who for whatever reason, go into Zone 1 – the very centre of the capital. In effect, that means people who work there, or commuters.
TFL did anticipate this, and deliberately didn’t put docking stations in mainline stations. They realised that they wouldn’t be able to meet demand in either direction. But they put them near enough mainline stations that eager commuters were able to seek out the bikes. So if you cross the Euston Road, there’s a rack of about twenty bikes. Up until now, the last bike in this rack has usually been taken by about 8.30am. And when you pass the rack in the evening at around 6.30pm, it’s full again – meaning you have a problem if you want to dock a bike.
What’s more, in the West End, the docking stations tend to all be full by around 9.00am – at least in my part of Soho. And I don’t just mean the nearest dock, but many further away.
Talking to people who’ve been frustrated by this, it’s clear that not many people know that you can get information about nearby empty docking station places from the computer units in each bay. Just touch the screen and choose the appropriate button. Similarly, people don’t seem to know that you can get an extra 15 minutes cycle time by using the same console if your preferred dock is full.
These are mentioned on the TFL website, but in no great detail. A friend also claims he phoned the helpline and wasn’t told about either of these things when he complained – he’d ended up parking his bike in Russell Square when he wanted to be in Soho. Of course, there are also all the various apps that make use of TFL’s API to tell users where there are spaces.
So it was interesting to visit Kings Cross last night. I was using a hire bike rather than my own for various reasons and was concerned that my 6.30pm arrival would probably be met by no free spaces and I’d have to back track a little to find a space.
But no! There was a team from TFL’s contractors stacking bikes outside the docking station, leaving plenty of free spaces for new cyclists to dock their bikes.
I had a chat with the man in charge, who I can only assume is a manager of the scheme. I know they’ve done similar things at other mainline stations, but this was the first time I’d seen this at King’s Cross. He told me that, yes, logistics was an enormous issue. He said that they were now getting 40,000 hires daily from 6,000 bikes – 6.5 trips per bike daily on average. He also said that they had to put some bikes into storage to allow this peak time to work.
That’s an interesting thought because a colleague and I had not much earlier been trying to work through possible options. One option was to remove bikes from the scheme leaving a higher space to bike ratio. Mainline stations are an easy place to ease the issue, but racks near workplaces in the West End and the City get full in the mornings too, and that’s a harder equation to balance.
In the short term, the only solution is to keep the bikes moving via those trailers of bikes. In the medium term, letting more people use the scheme by turning on the system that allows people to just pop their card into a slot, might ease the issue. If more of the bikes are being used at the same time and not in docking stations, then the problem eases.
Other things that could be considered:
– Variable pricing (which seems to go against the principle of the scheme)
– Incetivised pricing (e.g. free travel if you return a bike to a mainline station before 9am)
– Higher dock to bike ration (involves capital expenditure, and there may be none left at this juncture)
One other thought is that more people would use their own bikes if they had somewhere secure to leave their bike in central London somewhere. While land is expensive, there must be a solution using some unused rail/tube land in various locations.
There are some really interesting visualisations of the problem being faced by the bike hire scheme using data from the TFL API. This one from Oliver O’Brien is a good one. I’m looking at 9am, and it already shows outer areas being empty, and the central area being full (although at time of writing, there are still 6 bikes at King’s Cross!).
You only have to look around the city in the morning to see people cycling the bikes in helmets and reflective clothing (which aren’t provided), to realise that many have adopted these bikes as part of their commute. The scheme is undoubtedly a success. But that brings with it its own problems.