London cycling / Boris bikes – a review

Posted on August 28th, 2010 @ 19:18 in Uncategorized

So today I went and cycled around London using the Barclays Cycle Hire, also known as Boris (Johnson) Bikes. These are my impressions – as compared to, mostly, the Paris VĂ©lib’ scheme. FYI, here is my route on Runkeeper. (more or less, I had to correct it a bit cuz Runkeeper messed up)

First off I must say it’s extremely pleasant to be using the bikes so early after the launch, as they are still new and in perfect condition, and not yet vandalised. A nice change from the Paris bikes, where you often have to try a few before you find one that’s working or, even worse, only notice once you’ve checked it out that the gears aren’t working. Speaking of gears though, these are definitely too low (light?). Third gear has you pedaling like a loon as soon as it goes even slightly downhill, and I can’t imagine a hill in Central London steep enough to require first gear.

The bag holder on the front is also rather inadequate – here’s a pic of a bike for reference. While it holds a bigger bag reasonably well in place, it makes it extremely difficult getting into it – to have a refreshing sip of water for instance. And you can’t just chuck the bottle in the holder of course. Or take multiple shopping bags. Or pretty much anything else. I did like the damage report button on each cycle dock – I’ve still not figured out how to do that in Paris.

There are definitely not enough stations around yet, and this is worsened by the fact that the bikes don’t seem to have locks (?) so you can’t get rid of them at all if you’re not near a station. What if you urgently need to pee? I also had some trouble finding a docking station with a free spot at the end of my ride (I had to go from Tottenham Court Road to Waterloo). Less central stations typically seemed about a third full.

I used the London Cycle App to help me locate stations, as the map I got with my key seemed a bit outdated. This does seem to indicate that they’re still actively adding docking stations. Hopefully they will go further out soon, as at the moment the scheme is pretty useless for commuters, and more of a tourist central sightseeing toy. Or rather, “cycling around Hyde Park” toy as five of the eight Boris Bikers I encountered on my roughly hour-long ride were within the park (and I only spent about ten minutes in there).

The fact that at the moment you have to register online and can only use it with a key fob doesn’t make it very tourist-friendly of course. Even worse, there is no information at all about how to use them on the docking stations themselves, as I noticed when I was asked for advice by some clueless foreigners. Alisdair tells me there are often stewards around the busiest stations to answer questions, but I didn’t see any about today. I guess they were all on their well deserved bank holiday vacation.

For someone like me the keyfob idea is ideal of course, much preferable to the Paris tickets, where you have to register again every day with your credit card. The ‘Pass NaviGo’ you can use in Paris, which is similar to this system, is only available on a monthly or yearly basis. So the one massive point I will grant London over Paris is their easy to use Pay As You Go system (this mirrors the Oyster card of course – also something you can’t get on PAYG in Paris).

Enough about the bikes themselves, let us now talk about the general experience of cycling in London, which I hadn’t done before. I can’t say much about traffic as it was pretty quiet, see above bank holiday. Only Oxford Street was a right nightmare, predictably enough. Much fun for someone like me who likes to squeeze in between buses and ignore traffic rules. But very very busy, and full of annoying pedestrians.

Now, drivers. As regular readers will know I’ve cycled in Paris and New York, neither of which are known for their polite and considerate drivers. Well, let me tell you, they beat Londoners by miles! Cycling around London you can’t shed the impression that the drivers all hate you, bus and cab drivers especially. These seem to take pleasure in frequently blowing their horn at you for no other reason than saying “how dare you be in the way, you little shit!” I wasn’t outright insulted like the woman in this funny, but exasperating blog, but I was shouted at once by a bus driver for being in a bus lane I shouldn’t have been in.

Now this is yet another thing Paris definitely does better. Bus lanes, generally, also work as cycle lanes. I’ve seen this in most places I’ve cycled. Sometimes however a bus lane is buses only. In Paris, this fact is made abundantly clear at the beginning of the lane, and also repeated along the way. In London, there is nothing of the sort. The only indicator you have is the standard sign at the beginning. If you miss that, or join later, you have no clue that you’re not allowed to be there. Until a bus driver ‘helpfully’ honks and shouts at you of course. So boo, C minus London, get it sorted!!

Two things are the same as everywhere else though: pedestrians don’t give a flying fuck about cyclists, and cyclists don’t give a flying fuck about red lights. *lol*

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