It’s been a quiet month on Ink & Compass because its been a busy month in the actual lives of its editors. Franny started a new job and Izzy spent two months touring Canada with her band, The Strumbellas. As her sister, but also as a fan of indie country pop, I cannot pimp this band enough. You can stream the album off their website.
I wrote about my old job, coordinating design review for the east of England, in a post a few months ago. My new job is at a small planning consultancy in London; the thing they do that I’m most excited about is university facilities planning. I have a small project in Cambridge to start with, which is super great news. I’m really eager to get going.
The commute to London is not fabulous, but the best discovery so far has been the London Cycle Hire scheme. In the space of three weeks, I have become evangelical about cycle hire. I pick the bikes up from a station on Belgrove Street, hop on the separated cycle lane on Tavistock Place, and after one slightly nervous-making right-left turn combo, cruise down residential streets until I get to my new Office Neighbourhood. I park the cycles around the corner from work.
I’ve been riding the bikes for two weeks, and for the most part have been blown away by how easy it is, and how pleasant the experience of riding through London has turned out to be. The cycle lane on Tavistock is jam-packed; on Friday it took my several traffic light cycles to cross the street, because there were 15 people ahead of me. In my last post, I complained about the cycle traffic in Amsterdam, and how stressful it was. There is an element of that in London, but for the most part the cycles are just short of overwhelming. Instead, the hordes of cyclists make riding a bike safer and more pleasant, and if it occasionally takes me a little longer to cross the street, its a price I’m willing to pay.
On all but one occasion, picking up and returning a bike has been easy-peasy, and the one time it wasn’t, I just walked to the next docking station.
While I’ve used bike share before (in Chicago, Dublin, Valencia and Toronto), this is the first time I’ve used it in any sustained, regular way, and also the first experience I’ve had cycling in London. I registered online, and received a plastic key in the post three days later. Only annual subscribers get the key, but it makes a huge difference in its functionality. You stick the key into the docking station of the cycle you want, and a moment later a green light goes on, indicating that the cycle is released. Then there’s an awkward moment where you have to pull the back wheel straight up (heave, really) and roll it out – and then you’re good to go. Short-term users have to check in at a solar-powered tower and enter a code every time, which adds a couple minutes to the journey.
Here are some stats:
– cyclists on Boris Bikes (so called for Boris Johnson, the mayor of London) are 3x less likely to be in accidents, presumably due to the fact that these bikes signal to everyone that the cyclist is possibly a tourist and probably an idiot (that’s me!)
– on the busiest day in the scheme’s history (during the 2012 Olympics), the bikes were used for more than 47,000 discrete trips
– a yearlong subscription to the scheme costs £45, although this is set to increase to £90 in 2013
– an article from last January gives some stats on the riders themselves, who are overwhelmingly male and wealthy
What are the cons? Well, there was that one day when I couldn’t get a bike at my usual station. A crowd of sad commuters stood next to the docking station, gazing mournfully at the lack of bikes. In the scheme of things – even in the scheme of the last leg of my commute – it was a minor inconvenience, but in the moment it was briefly, intensely frustrating. A common complaint of cycle hire schemes is The Helmet Issue. I ride my bike from my house to the Cambridge train station, and just bring my helmet with me on the train, so I have yet to ride the streets of London with an unadorned head. I see a number of people on Boris bikes wearing helmets, but it is an issue that has plagued all the cycle hire schemes in the world. There has been talk in Boston of helmet vending machines, or some sort of complementary Helmet Hire Scheme. Boston also ran special uber-cheap helmet offer in conjunction with local bike shops when they unveiled Hubway last summer. But in general, helmets are an unresolved issue.
The other major con is the design of the bikes themselves. They are heavy – 28 kilos (51 lbs). While I appreciate the heft of the bikes, which leaves me rosy-cheeked after my 16 min, 2 mile trip, it also means that they are hard to get going and heaven help you if you have to go up a hill. The other frustrating thing is the gearbox. There are only three gears, and they’re all low. This was intentional, to keep speeds down (another reason, presumably, the Boris bikers have fewer accidents than other cyclists). But they really keep speeds down. These things are tanks.
Another obvious complaint is that the IT support for the bikes has not quite kept up. Transport for London has a live map (with smartphone app) showing the locations of all the docking stations and indicating how much space is available, but I’ve found it to be inaccurate as often as not (fortunately, this hasn’t been an issue for me as of yet). And for whatever reason, the TfL map isn’t synced with Google Maps. Google lists Tube and bus stations, and cycle hire is, fundamentally, public transportation, so even if they don’t add the “how many bikes are available” feature, I hope that Google at least upgrades its maps to indicate where the stations are. It’s a pretty egregious oversight on the part of TfL and Google.
While I’ve been amazed at the popularity of the bikes (I see dozens on my way to work every day), its also clear that the system could support more intensive use. To me, the bikes are a totally viable system of public transport, and everyone should start treating them as such.