Why a Boris Bike can be an existential hell: London’s cycle-hire scheme

 I wonder how much this impacts the growth of what is basically a very good idea? Is any publicity better than none? From Gulliver on The Economist 

LAST July, this Gulliver wrote, with great anticipation, about the arrival of London’s cycle-hire scheme. It is with some sadness then that, nine months on, I report that my relationship with the Boris Bike has broken down. Perhaps irreparably.

In common with another Gulliver, it’s not that I didn’t try to make it work. Its heart is in the right place. It’s just that its faults have finally tired me out. 

Consider how, in an ideal world, a journey by Boris Bike would pan out. You would stroll to your nearest bike station, pick up a machine, cycle it to your destination and deposit it. Obviously, this is London, not an ideal world, so one cannot expect such harmony every time. But in my experience, this chain of events is (by some margin) the exception, not the rule. I have thought back over my last ten bike hires. My journey has been seamless twice; a success rate of 20%. I can’t say for sure, as I don’t have a perfect memory of every ride that I have taken, but that percentage feels about right for the whole of the last nine months.

There are three things that can go wrong when you hire a Boris Bike. Of the eight out of ten recent times I have had problems, it was because of one, or often a combination, of these.

Firstly, you can arrive at a docking point and find that there are no bikes to hire. This is the norm at the beginning of the day at docks close to train stations, and at the end of the day in the centre of town. London’s biggest dock is outside Waterloo station, one of the main London termini. It has 124 racks. Yet spotting an actual bike there is a rare treat. To check that I am not being overly harsh, I have just checked Transport for London’s interactive cycle map. At midday, it confirms there is not a saddle in sight.

The second, seemingly increasingly common problem, is that you can stumble upon a rack full of gleaming bikes, only to discover it to be a mirage. Something in the computer system has failed and the rack refuses to release its fruits.

But both of these problems are mere bagatelles when compared to the third danger. It is not unusual to arrive at a destination and find the rack full. Often you will end up having to rack your bike a good cycle ride from where you want to be. This is bothersome. But several times, I have found myself in a Kafkaesque hell, where every rack for miles around is full to the brim. This is much worse than not being able to find a bike in the first place because, once you have one, you are stuck with it until you can get rid of the thing (the fine for non-return is £300). My record is 35 minutes of cycling in ever increasing circles desperately searching for a rack with a space.

Does two successful journeys in ten sound about right to others who regularly use the scheme? Or have I been particularly unlucky? In some ways I hope so: I would love to be tempted back. Having finally secured a bike this morning, Mrs Gulliver and I cycled to work past the Serpentine and through a beautifully balmy Hyde Park, and momentarily everything felt good with the world. Until I spent an anxious 15 minutes trying to find an empty rack at the other end.

One thought on “Why a Boris Bike can be an existential hell: London’s cycle-hire scheme

  1. Pingback: Cycle Rack Dock

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