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.
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.
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.