So I had a ride on the Boris bikes yesterday. And on Saturday. And on Friday. – I’m completely won over by them. Friday was the first time I’d actually taken to the saddle in well over 20 years, but – ooh, steady there, where’s the brakes again? – I was on the move after a chat with the TfL helper, a few wobbles and uncertain moments, and five minutes later I was actually enjoying myself.
I chose Hyde Park for my inaugural ride – big, easy to get to, no traffic. But emerging at Lancaster Gate, I ended up getting the bus to Queensway to find the cycle station at Kensington Gardens. Co-ordination between the bikes and other forms of transport could be better. It’s early days, though, and at the moment there’s be no better way of getting yourself noticed than pedalling one of these blue bikes through central London.
You’ve probably heard all about the actual bikes already – they’re chunky, heavy things, but absolutely perfect for complete novices like me who barely know how to work the gears. I rode down to the south side of Kensington Gardens, but found going back uphill a bit of a struggle (those gears again – I worked it out later) so popped the bike into the station, had a chat with another TfL helper, and walked off. Five minutes later I spied another docking station in Queen’s Gate, by the Royal Albert Hall, and was off again; really getting the hang of it this time.
I ended up cycling almost all the way back to Charing Cross station, through Green Park and along The Mall; although I ended up cursing the lack of docking station at Admiralty Arch – the nearest are on Pall Mall or across Trafalgar Square at Craven Street.
I enjoyed myself so much I was back in the saddle on Saturday, but discovered Regent’s Park isn’t anywhere near as cycle-friendly as its neighbour. But at least a circuit of the Inner Circle and a part-circuit of the Outer got me used to riding alongside traffic. That practice came in handy – I couldn’t find a docking station near Westminster once I’d finished a ride down Horse Guards Parade, and ended up pedalling to Victoria Station, a delay which just took me over the half-hour limit for free riding.
And on yesterday, a ride around Hyde Park seemed a great hangover cure – resulting in my first ever Sunday trip to Speakers’ Corner, where the crowds spill over into the cycle path. Now it’s Monday, I’ve got a case of Boris Bike Bum, but since I’ll be in town later I’ll probably have another spin.
I imagine it’s people like me who will be test of whether the cycle hire scheme is successful – non-cyclists tempted to have a go rather than get the Tube or bus. I’m not a confident enough cyclist to even think about using anything but the quietest side street, but safe routes through the royal parks are a good place to start. It’s actually amazing how many paths in the parks are barred to cyclists – I wonder if this will change if Boris gets his hands on them?
Over three days, I lost count of the number of people who have come up and asked about the bikes, and us cycle hire riders have been swapping conspiratorial smiles as we ease our way through the capital. The cycle hire scheme’s first weekend reminded me that despite the crap spouted by professional northerners about Londoners being unfriendly, the fact is we love shared experiences and we love new toys.
An encouraging sign for the scheme is the number of tourists who seem fascinated by them – Barcelona’s Bicing and Paris’s Velib’ are squarely aimed at city residents, along with Montreal’s Bixi, which London’s service is based on. In fact, Barcelona’s scheme is only open to Catalonia residents. But on Sunday came across countless people trying to hire bikes with their credit cards, despite the service currently only being open to members. Once card payments go live, expect use of the cycles to rocket.
The biggest winner out of all this? Assuming all goes well – expect teething problems (I encountered a couple over the weekend with the stands) and accidents to be magnified – it’ll be Boris Johnson, even though he merely inherited the idea from Ken Livingstone, who presumably spent the weekend seething. The term “Boris bikes” will stick in the collective memory long after he’s been booted out or become prime minister, and is infinitely preferable to the their clumsy sponsored title, and Pantone Process Cyan isn’t just Barclays blue, it’s good honest Tory blue too.
The mayor deserves the credit for carrying forward the idea – it could easily have been binned like other transport improvements – because it is so bloody good, and it works like a dream. The other aspect I really like about the scheme is the help given to walkers as well as cyclists – little maps on the stands fit in nicely with the Legible London scheme for pedestrian signs which started under the previous mayor and continues under Boris. Hundreds of these signs across central London will help lost wanderers – and offer a reminder that the mayor has actually done something. They could well transform the way he is seen.
When it comes to 2012’s election, these bikes could save Boris’s chances of being relected – unlike the rest of his party, who are taking things away, he’s giving us stuff. Like Ken before him, he’ll be seen as a representative of the capital, not of his party.
But this feels like only a start – the scheme has to expand beyond zone 1, and as Dawn points out in At War With The Motorist, London still isn’t a particularly cycle-friendly city. The cycle superhighways feel a bit of a token gesture, although it may not seem that way by 2015, when (if?) the network is due to be completed (with routes from Lewisham opening in 2012, and Woolwich in 2015). When I was in Paris last summer, it looked like a greater effort had been put in to make the city easier for cyclists to negotiate, including little cycle-only roads like the one below.
The feeling that this is only the start is what makes the cycle hire scheme so exciting. I think 30 July 2010 will be the day London started its journey into becoming a cycling city. The fact that the mayor doesn’t quite seem to know what he’s let himself in for adds a thrill to all this.
So what next? It’s reported that Boris is looking at an electric car hire scheme – based on Paris’s Autolib’ – but I’m going to read something into what he said on Friday at the scheme’s launch, and something I spotted at Hyde Park Corner…: “In 1904, 20 per cent of journeys were made by bicycle in London. I want to see a figure like that again. If you can’t turn the clock back to 1904, what’s the point of being a Conservative?”
Going back to 1904? Saddle up!