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Boris bike gets The Engineer test

I’m not used to people staring and pointing at me (believe it or not). Riding through London on one of the city’s new hire bikes attracted a great deal of attention when I tried one out in advance of the scheme’s official launch today. One taxi driver even stopped to chat to me through his window while we were waiting at a red light.

bike street

Source: Stuart Nathan

Stephen finds that the bikes attract attention outside Engineer Towers

For the majority who don’t live in London it might not be obvious why a simple idea like cycle hire is gathering so much fuss. But those who’ve been stuck in a sauna-like Tube train for half an hour when they only needed to travel a couple of miles will understand the appeal.

Perhaps more interesting is the way a new spin is being put on a 150-year-old technology to tackle a modern problem. London isn’t the first city to try out such a scheme: it’s modelled on a similar service in Montreal, while Paris has been winning praise for its ‘Vélib’ bikes for years now. But the new ‘Barclays Cycle Hire’ highlights how bikes are still being adapted.

Firstly, in opposition to most advances in bike technology, they weigh a tonne. Twenty-three kilograms to be exact, thanks to the strengthened aluminium alloy frame. Though this makes them slow to ride and a pain to lift onto the curb, it should help them survive longer at the hands of casual and inexperienced users. You get the feeling that if a bendy bus ran over one, the bus would come off worse.

All the basics are covered: three gears, an adjustable saddle and dynamo lights that keep flashing when you stop at a junction. Almost all the cables and moving parts are encased in metal, making it difficult for vandals and thieves to tamper with them.

Even the tyres are extra-durable, and filled with nitrogen to help maintain pressure even with a puncture. And if your bike is in need of repairs, you just hit a button on one of the 400 electronic docking stations when you return it.

This computerised infrastructure is a key part of the system and one of the elements that makes it most likely to succeed in an overcrowded city like London. You have to provide credit card details to take out one of the bikes and the hourly price goes up rapidly after your first free half an hour usage each time, removing the incentive just to keep one at home for yourself.

If there are no bikes at your nearest docking station, an interactive map will guide you to the nearest available one. And the same goes for when you want to return a bike and can’t find a free spot – you’re even given extra free time while you look for one.

Transport for London seems to have thought of everything and rebound each question with ease. Why is there no portable lock? Because London’s ingenious criminals would just cut through them – better to return to a docking station. Why no proper basket, just a rack with a bungee cord? Because people would use the baskets as rubbish bins.

Jon bike

Source: Stuart Nathan

Editor Jon Excell abandons his beloved Brompton for a spin on Boris’s bike

One of the biggest criticisms has been that the bikes weren’t made in Britain. Pashley, the country’s oldest bicycle manufacturer, had its bid rejected in favour of international services company Serco, which sub-contracted to DeVinci, the Canadian firm behind Montreal’s scheme.

While giving the tender to a British firm would have been a welcome boost for the manufacturing sector, really this is one example of a more fundamental issue that goes to the heart of debates about Britain’s economy. Should the state support homegrown firms to create jobs or should it act like any other client looking for the best deal and get out of industry’s way? Not an easy question to answer.

The scheme is bound to have teething problems ­­– even London mayor Boris Johnson has been quick to admit this. And it doesn’t help that London is a difficult city to navigate, with dangerously narrow streets and too much traffic.

But the basic idea is a brilliant one that could make a real difference to people’s lives and help relieve a transport system creaking under its own weight. Given the buzz that’s been created recently, it seems there are plenty of people out there who agree. Plus it really was fun to ride.

Readers' comments (25)

  • This is a good idea if people are fine riding bikes, but i cannot help feeling that the weight will preclude a large number of potential users. Other problems are safety, how many riders, particularly newer ones will adopt the strategy of "we own the road" as many others do? What will happen in the event of the numerous accidents which will occur, and what insurance will they carry.

    One other solution is to use electrically powered, or electrically assisted bikes, these come as bicycles or tricycles, and as either single or up to three seaters. This would open up the markets to the less physically able, and parents with a couple of children and allow them to use them for shorter commuter journeys.

    Once again we appear to have a good idea which is poorly considered and implemented, but with so much scope if it were considered properly.

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  • Why didn't they use electric bikes?
    Pashley bikes are superior to any foreign bike that I've seen and it would have been a boost to our boys in this country, but perhaps those that made the decision were in for a quick kill and didn't give them a second thought.

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  • Never understood the use of Nitrogen in anything that Joe Public happens to own.

    Also not sure Nitrogen will help to maintain pressure with a punchure!

    BTW Air is @ 78% Nitrogen.

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  • Having witnessed the scheme in Paris, I believe this is a very good idea. Possible issues with the bicycles and their infrastructure seem to be well covered and it is evident that TFL is running an on-going program to overcome the teething issues.

    However, there is a fundamental problem this scheme has totally overlooked.
    What about the knowledge and road awareness of the potential riders?

    I don’t know for sure, but I’d imagine the percentage of population holding a valid UK driving licence would be a lot lower in London than smaller cities or towns in UK.

    Which means those people who don’t possess driving licence have never received any formal training on the use of the road and they will be free to ride these bicycles in busy roads/streets of London?

    Needless to say where I see a big problem. Whoever signs up for the scheme should receive some form of training/induction to learn about the Do’s and Don’ts on the public road in order to avoid this potentially brilliant scheme causing chaos on the road.

    Even experienced drivers probably won’t have a clue how to safely ride a bicycle on the road.

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  • The time for electric bikes will come. Lets just get on with this using a bit of leg power and see how it goes. I think it's a great initiative and I'd like to see it - or something like it - in our other congested cities. I hope it is a huge success

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  • The scheme in paris has been very sucessful. With reference to the fact that the bikes are not made in the UK, at least the power supplies for the docking stations are. Well done TDK-lambda UK

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  • A great idea and well over 80% of the way there! I trust it will be a great success. But.... If you are going to wear a helmet, Stephen, please wear it properly, not tipped back away from your forehead.

    Bear in mind also that the wearing of helmets are not mandatory and there is still an active debate about the safety value of helmets.

    Maybe some entrepreneur will step forward to provide proper rider training so that having a Boris Licence earns a reward or discount.

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  • The problem is that the government still hasn't understood that successful manufacturing requires extended support and high levels of sustained expertise. It's not a few gigantic hedge fund gambles over a few days. It's long hard unending race to the finish with jobs and profits as the prize. Pashley is just one example of how utterly uncomprehending most government is, just look at how many MPs have had real jobs in SMEs or met a payroll or taken any product to market.

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  • Do we REALLY need electic bikes to ride a couple of city blocks? The greener alternative is to use you legs! This may also be the leaner alternative considering the increasing size of people in the developed world. I agree that some rules of the road training is on order.

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  • Good to see and not before time! Even Lyon in France has had a similar system in place for years. I'd definitely use one in preference to the tube when I visit London next.

    As far as supporting local industry, I completely agree with Anonymous at 2:49pm. Government ought to be at least a little biased, if not have an outright duty to reinvest such funds back into the local economy - even if that meant negotiating the bikes and control system were made under licence in the UK.

    One of the secondary effects of sourcing from abroad when we have capable engineers on our doorstep is, ultimately, (and rather simplistically) less capable engineers on our doorstep. That can only be a bad situation for the long term health of UK PLC.

    So, who's up for a bit of night racing then? At least that would be completely fair ;-)

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