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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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  • In answer to earlier comments, the bid in which Pashley's bikes were featured, did include an electric 'assist' demonstration prototype as an option and was part of an UK based consortium.

    Unfortunately the powers-that-be appear to have been looking for a more 'off the shelf' solution with a finite time scale to delivery and the clout of a heavy corporate backer. Without fully developed UK solutions available, that sent them down only one road - outsourcing elsewhere. If a different time scale had existed, or UK backing for such hire schemes had emerged earlier, the outcome might have been different.

    So, yes, Government in the widest sense could have helped to create the jobs, skills and productivity needed, if it had thought about this earlier, instead of only watching our competitors.

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  • I don't know why T. Koka assumes that London has a lower percentage of drivers?
    I suspect London has just as many, it's just that to reach central London it makes more sense to go by Tube or Bus, plus there are then no parking issues!
    As for the bikes - time will tell. I hope they are successful, as it seems like a good idea, and has worked elsewhere.
    The key might well be in the area covered by the scheme. Put the docking points next to a Tube station and to Places of Interest, and you might be onto a winner.

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  • The issue of saftey is an easy one to resolve, by following the Dutch. In the event of an accident the driver of the motorised vehicle is presumed to be the guilty party in an accident, hence the Dutch drivers are more observent and careful. Afterall who in their right mind would intentionally expose themselves to an object of nearly a tonne (the car). The car driver on the hand may just get a dent from a cyclist and bike combined weighing less than the overweight driver.
    I have personally commuted on a bike for twenty years and most car drivers have very little respect or consideration for cyclists. A change in the law might change this.

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  • If ever there was a sign of changing times, this is it; China's streets are becoming devoid of cycles, while the UK's are soon to be clogged up with them.

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  • I hope that lots of people will use these bikes.. and afterwards they will be more considerate of cyclists when they return to their cars.
    +1 for the night racing! hahaha

    (I am a cyclist)

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  • I think bicycles are an excellent idea and hope that the scheme works. As both a car driver and a cyclist I am very cyclist aware but do not feel well disposed towards bike riders who disobey road signs and traffic lights.

    One small point of grammar in John Marchant's message. It should read "the wearing of helmets IS not mandatory" as although helmets are plural, the mandate is not! Sorry.

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  • Interesting comment about China - they are moving from an enlightened position to one that is less so, whereas we are moving painfully slowly the other way. This is on a purely logistical position - though I am a keen cyclist - the use of inefficient (in fuel and road space occupation per passenger mile) cars makes little sense.
    Think of this in production line planning terms rather than 'my car is a fundamental human right' ones if the logic of not using cars in crowded cities hurts.

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  • Following rain I expect that usage will be reduced whilst the saddles are wet. The bicycle stands could have a cover in the saddle area or provide disposable wiping cloths.

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  • Demarcating a lane for cyclists is a good idea specially where traffic is indisciplined. Personally I like the thrill of weaving in & out of traffic albeit Sunday traffic since that is the only day I use a bike.

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  • With regards to the comments about using a UK supplier; would it not be fairly straightforward for the company putting the tender in to point out how much tax the company and staff would pay the Government while working on the project? That should make UK firms look a bit cheaper.

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  • There are too many cyclists already and hundreds of inexperienced ones on these won't help.

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  • Of course there are not too many cyclists. What a daft thing to say. Too many irresponsible cyclists certainly, just as there are too many irresponsible drivers. But more cyclists and less drivers means a healthier and richer population, and fewer premature deaths by knock-down or heart attack.

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  • Well done Boris! Now we need the motorists to use them for a day and see their attitude to cyclists change. Yes, I have cycled in London.
    I hope the scheme has an expansion plan whereby British companies get a second look in.
    Also, try putting dedicated cycle lanes and right of ways in to encourage the faint hearted.
    As for electric power; you might as well sit in your Prius, at least you could carry passengers.

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  • First try today I hired 4 diffrient blkes all good conditition. Bikes a bit heavy gearing good, got about realy well.
    better than bringing my Brompton on the Train

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  • Great idea Ken,
    Next time it might be an idea to consider the contract going a British cycle manufacturer such as Pashley from Stratford on Avon, or any other manufacturer who makes them in the UK.

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