Written by Cycling

Hire Bikes and Hire E-Bikes in London

Uber Jump Cycle

There are now at least four major public bike hire schemes across London. There is the original TfL run Santander Cycles (aka Boris Bikes) using docking stations, the Chinese-owned dockless bike system Mobike, the electric-assist Lime bikes, and now the electric-assist Uber Jump bikes which launched this week in London.

There was also Ofo, another Chinese company. But they pulled out of London at the start of the year. You do still see the odd Ofo branded bike around the city.

Finally, there is Secret Cycles, currently conducting various trials in London.

Lime bike parked in front of row of Santander Cycles

At one time or another, I’ve used all these systems – most recently giving an Uber Jump bike a go.

Unlike many other US and European cities, London is missing electric scooters – at least the hire kind. While companies like Bird and Lime have deluged some cities with these bikes, the UK is an outlier because as the law stands, electric scooters are not legal on either the pavement or the road. While the UK’s Transport Minister is said to be looking at changing that law, it’s likely to take some time to an enact. And in the meantime, despite the scooters becoming more prevalent on London’s streets, they remain illegal. Only this week the Metropolitan Police have been Tweeting that you may have your scooter seized and get points on your driving licence and/or a fine!

Santander Cycles

As far as the pedal bikes go, I’ve been a regular user of TfL’s bikes since launch. I have one of their keyfobs and although release is available via their app, I just about use the bikes enough during the course of a year to make an annual subscription worthwhile.

These bikes use docks and the spread is reasonably good in Central London, extending west as far as Shepherd’s Bush, east as far as Stratford, north as far as London Fields, and south… well… not very far south of the river at all.

The bikes are good – although I prefer the older ones to the newer Pashley built ones. Somehow those bikes, with their better illumination and seat tube clamp, feel slower to get around on.

Santander Cycles bikes aren’t light, but they’re well made.

The scheme costs from £2 a time. You pay that fee once a day, allowing you to ride for up to 30 minutes at a time at no further cost. If you want to ride for longer, you either pay an increased fee, or you can dock your bike, wait five minutes and then undock it again, or get another. Your £2 may be enough for you to commute both to and from work, and get in a couple of other trips as well – potentially making it very good value. Beyond that, passes are available.

My only real complaint is that the system has not grown out as far as it might. TfL could easily extend it further away from the centre of the city, but that comes at a cost. Each dock costs money to build, and the docks need to have space found for them. Also, the front “rack” can be fiddly to use, requiring a bungee to secure anything firmly. There’s a lot to be said for an old-school basket.

Mobikes

Mobikes are a dockless type of bike, and the downside with that is that people leave them everywhere. Famously, Mobike pulled out of Manchester when vandals threw too many of them in canals.

The bikes are very cheaply made, and seem similar to a lot of other schemes. I believe that they’ve refreshed the models they use, but the bikes are not as high quality as those in the other schemes. As a taller person, I found the bike almost unrideable going up even modest hills.

Mobike itself may be struggling. As well as withdrawing from Manchester, they’ve shrunk their operational area in London. If you stray outside the area, you have to pay £20.

Mobikes cost £1 per 20 minutes, and again passes are available. All of this done via an app. When you’ve finished with your bike, you lock the rear wheel and the trip ends.

Lime

I first used a Lime bike in Berlin last year – a city where Lidl also seems to offer a hire bike service with very similar bikes. Lime’s bikes are electric-assist (e-assist) bikes – in that you start peddling and the electric motor kicks in to give you a push.

You find the bikes via the mobile app, and unlock them by scanning a QR code from within the app.

The bikes themselves are reasonably well built. They can rattle, but at least have a basket on the front as well as a clamp to place your mobile phone – so you can use Google Maps or similar to navigate around the city.

Despite not looking like the heaviest bikes in the world, they’re actually remarkably weighty. In large part, that’s due to the big battery on the rear rack. The app tells you how much range the bike has – allowing you to ensure that you don’t get one with a flat, or nearly flat, battery.

The bikes cost £1 to unlock and then 15p a minute to ride. You load up some credit in advance, and there are various deals you can get if you top up more than the minimum.

The bikes don’t have any gears, just a bell. The faster you pedal, the faster you will go, with the motor kicking in some more until you max out the speed. While Lime bikes claim to reach 14.8 mph, I’m not sure that any I’ve ridden really do. You quickly reach top e-assist speed, and if you go faster, that’s just you peddling an actually quite heavy bike.

The app isn’t perfect, sometimes claiming you have ridden hardly anywhere, when in fact you have. That said, it seems to charge you properly.

The bikes seem to be fairly plentiful in Central London, although strictly speaking they only operate in certain parts of the capital, including Brent, Ealing, Islington, Croydon and Bromley. But their app shows their bikes as far afield as Barnet and Twickenham. I think you’re OK as long as you stay inside the M25.

However, I did notice some Lime bikes outside King’s Cross station the other day, with a Lime notice on the handlebars noting that you could be fined by the app if you leave a bike in the wrong place. In particular, they don’t seem to want their bikes anywhere near the Regent’s Canal which is close to King’s Cross, despite much of the canal path being a cycleway. I’ve no doubt the limitation is related to Mobike’s experiences with Manchester’s waterways.

Locking the bike when you’re finished is easy. You engage the manual rear-wheel lock as with Mobikes, and the ride ends. You’re asked to park the bike responsibly, but there’s little to stop you leaving it wherever you like.

Uber Jump

The newest bikes are Uber’s Jump bikes. As with Lime, these are e-assist bikes. But in appearance they seem closer to Santander Cycles. To say that these are solid bikes would be an understatement.

I wouldn’t be surprised if these are purpose built for Uber (Update: Actually, I suspect that they’re based on a standard model, since they look very similar to rival Lyft’s bikes in the US). Lime’s bikes look similar to others suggesting that their bikes are at least based on a standard model produced in bulk in China. But Jump bikes are very different. The build quality is also similar to Santander Cycles, with almost identical seat adjustments.

Up front there’s what I can only describe as a full console with a series of light alerting you to whether the bike is locked or not, how much power is left in the battery, and potentially whether you have wandered out of area (others use their apps to do that).

The bikes claim to have a maximum speed of 15 mph, or very nearly 25 kph, which is the maximum speed these kinds of bikes are allowed under EU law.

In my brief experience, I would say that’s very accurate. The bikes do indeed “jump” up to that speed very quickly from a standing start. The “e” part of the assist comes in very quickly, making peddling a breeze. Indeed if, like me, you tend to put your foot on the peddle with a little force when stationary, you can actually find the electric motor’s “biting point”, eager to pull you away from the traffic lights!

As with the Lime, you can reach maximum speed relatively easily, but the Jump bike feels more punchy – like driving a 2 litre engine car when you’ve only ever previously driven one with a 1 litre engine. It is worth dropping down gears to get away from traffic lights though.

The bike has three gears, clearly marked on the right-hand grip, with the left hand having a reasonable bell. The bikes are a vivid red colour, and there’s a basket up front. Notably, the bikes are using Schwalbe Marathon tyres which many commuters know is a bombproof tyre perfect for commuting on sometimes poorly maintained streets.

As with Lime, the Jump costs £1 to start and then 12p a minute to ride – a little cheaper than Lime. The first five minutes is free. You can find a bike via the regular Uber app. Just tap the “Ride” icon at the top of the map, and change it to “Bike” to find bikes locally.

One difference between the two bikes is that the Jump has a built in cable lock. When you park up, you have to loop the cable around a railing or post. The cable seems pretty solid, and while I’m sure it’s partly Uber protecting its investment, the requirement to lock the bike to something probably also makes people a little better behaved about where they leave a bike when they’ve finished.

The app also allows you to hold onto a bike for a while once you’ve locked it – perhaps while you pop inside a shop. This isn’t something any of the others allow. Someone else can always grab your bike when you’ve finished with it under the other schemes.

The biggest issue with Jump right now is where you can use it. At the moment you’re limited to an area north of the river, with the western edge being roughly Regent Street – which is a very odd place to stop as it neatly bisects the West End. The area extends east as far as Limehouse and then north to Stoke Newington and Walthamstow, but excluding Stratford.

[Update] Having now used Uber Jump a couple more times, it’s worth noting that Uber is continuing to improve the app, with clearer delineation of where you are not allowed to park the bike – mostly public parks.

That said, I’ve also run into some odd issues in my usage. First there are “phantom bikes.” The app shows that there is a bike in the area, but hunting high and low, you can’t find it. This has happened twice with me. Once, near some office blocks, the app was showing three bikes available. Despite spending nearly 10 minutes searching I eventually found just one of the supposed three, despite being on top of them in the map. I suspect that tall buildings don’t really help with accurate GPS locations.

On a second occasion I found myself hunting around some flats for a bike. Of course, the previous user may have parked the bike somewhere inaccessible like a storage area. Users aren’t supposed to, but people do like to hang on to things.

The other oddity is when you find bikes that weren’t showing on the app at all. I had been looking for a bike, but there were none on display on the app, so I started to walk. I turned a corner, and there were four bikes parked together. I double checked the app. Nope.

Were these bikes being used by a group of people already? I tried to hire one. No problem at all. The bikes just didn’t appear on the app full-stop.

My conclusion to all of this is to rely on your own eyes as much as the app for bike availability.

Secret Cycles

I confess that I don’t know much about these bikes. Secret Cycles is run by Beryl the company formerly known as Blaze. They began making bike lights, raising finances via Kickstarter, and later getting investment from Richard Branson’s family. Their lights are incorporated into Santander Cycles – notably those laser-projected images you see in the dark on the ground.

A year ago, they rebranded to Beryl (Perhaps as a homage to Beryl Burton?) and seem to have shifted away from bike lights towards hire bike schemes.

There seems to be an initial scheme live in Bournemouth, and further schemes being tested, notably in Islington and Enfield. I saw a bike from the latter trial scheme locally. The bikes look closer to Santander Cycles than to the cheap Chinese bikes. I suspect that Beryl might still be finalising their design, as their front mounted basket had a couple of what looked to be retro-fitted supports running down to the front hub.

The bikes are not e-assist, and have gears. But as I’ve not cycled on one, I really can’t say much more. They don’t use docks per se, although they do promote the use of designated bays (Note that I’ve not seen any of these locally). Like most of the schemes require an app. According to their site, it costs £1 to release a bike and then 5p a minute to use them.

Conclusion

TfL’s Santander Cycles still lead the pack. They might not be e-assist, but they’re very affordable, and there are more of them than any of the other operators. TfL are proactive in redistributing bikes, particularly at major train stations like King’s Cross where they constantly refresh the docks in the morning and empty them in the evening for commuters. The bikes are decent quality and work in all weathers.

But Uber Jump bikes also look really excellent. They’re easily the better of the two e-assist bikes available in London right now. The bikes look as well made as Santander Cycles’, and the ride is great fun.

The key to riding an e-assist bike with least effort is to not try to exceed the bike’s top speed. That way, you can speed around without breaking into a sweat – useful if you’re heading to an external meeting.

Their only problem right now is the limited area that Jump is working within. As with Lime and Mobike, it seems that operators have to work with every London Borough individually to gain local acceptance. Usage in Royal Parks like Regent’s Park will also be interesting – they’re not currently included. London is a controlled by a complicated mix of different authorities who all have their own issues and concerns.

By enforcing the use of a cable lock, and requiring you to lock the bike to something, Jump’s bikes should be parked more responsibly than some other dockless bikes. Time will tell.

Getting people out of cars and onto bikes is only a good thing. Extending these schemes beyond central London is also critical. People are far more likely to take cars for short journeys outside of the North/South Circular area than within it, so I look forward to these schemes extending much further. Doing a moderate grocery shop with something like a Jump would be an absolute breeze.

Right now, Uber has priced Jump aggressively, undercutting Lime. But for most users, Santander Cycles remains the cheapest option.

Note: This article was published in May 2019. I’ve no doubt areas these services operate in, and the prices they charge will evolve over time.

Updated in June 2019, to include more details on issues with Uber’s app, and to include a section on Secret Cycles.