In a recent ranking of how cycle-friendly Britain’s 20 biggest cities are, London came a dismal 17th. But the capital’s mayor, Boris Johnson (often pictured improbably balanced on his bike during the morning commute) has vowed, in his usual quirky English, to “cyclise the city” during his term in office. An important step towards this goal will be taken on Friday with the launch of the Barclay Cycle Hire scheme, which will, despite a £25m outlay and the best branding efforts by the bank, inevitably become the “Boris Bike” in the city’s consciousness.
You have to register online to use the scheme (3,500 people have reportedly done so ahead of launch) and can either pay £45 for an annual membership, £5 for a week or £1 for a day. This gives access to 6,000 bikes parked across central London, which are then paid for at hourly rental fees – the first half hour is free.
At first glance, the Boris Bike seems unlikely to turn London’s cycling fortunes around. It’s as if Fisher-Price has been asked to rethink the 150-year-old concept of a bicycle – all child-friendly plastic moulding and nitrogen-filled monster-truck tyres. The Boris Bike looks ungainly and, once you clamber on your 23kg steed, it feels pretty ungainly too, with a weight, momentum and intention all of its own.
Settle in, however, and there’s an old-world bicycling experience to be had. The Boris ploughs on oblivious to potholes that would atomise a city-racing bike. And even in top gear the pace is sedate, while the lowest gear practically leaves you pedalling on the spot.
When Monocle took one out for a pre-release test ride, there also seemed to be a lot of good feeling towards the scheme, with passers by smiling, waving and asking where you can get them. Whether this positivity will hold up against the tabloid onslaught that will inevitably follow the first encounter between a Boris Bike and a Bendy Bus is yet to be seen. London’s clogged streets are no Paris or Berlin either, and the city is coming late to the rental cycle game. The French capital launched its much celebrated Velíb back in 2007 and now has over 20,000 across the city, while London will have well under a third of that only covering an area of 44 sq km (despite London having around four times the population of Paris). Is the Boris Bike destined to become a token, credit-crunch version of its more urbane European cousins?
Far from it, says Mick Hickford, head of special projects for Transport for London (TfL). “We’re planning to intensify and expand the scheme, and there are already plans for an extension out towards Stratford in the east to coincide with the Olympics footfall in 2012. Since TfL’s inception in 2000, cycling rates have increased by 117 per cent, while accident rates have gone down. We’re actually a very cycle-friendly city.” London’s commuters may not agree, but then again, they haven’t met the Boris Bike yet.