05 August 2010

London on two wheels

It's been a week now since London introduced its bike hire scheme, and thousands rushed to register as a member. I was one of them, on my computer at 7am on 30 July to get in there early. Everything went smoothly until the website crashed just as it was processing my payment. So far, so expected. Things were bound to go wrong with such an ambitious scheme, weren't they?

Straight on the phone, then, to a helpful but not entirely clued-up Transport for London staff member. At least he managed to get my membership sorted and told me the key would arrive within a few days. A week went by – nothing. Back on the phone. They said I hadn't paid for access. Oh, right. Access (daily, weekly or annually) isn't the same as usage (the most quoted one being the first half hour being free). So I've set up an automatic thingy that means I can hop on a bike as often as I like within 24 hours for only £1 – assuming my journeys were less than 30 minutes. As I planned to cycle only from the Tube station to The Independent's office in Kensington no more than three times a week, I thought that was the best option. No journey would take more than half an hour.

I insert my new black key into the docking station near Queensway Tube. Red light. Even if you're not familiar with the system, you can assume that a red light doesn't bode well. Back on the phone. (By the way, use the 020-8216 6666 number from your mobile rather than the expensive 0845 number.) Problem with the system, madam. Can you try again in two hours? No I can't, as I have to be in work in 10 minutes. I trudge through Kensington Gardens in a bad temper, wishing I could swoosh through it on a bike.

I get the chance on my lunch hour. Hurrah! It works. I pootle along Kensington High Street, dock the bike at a station, nip into the supermarket, pick up another bike with my shopping and return to the office. Later, when I'm going home, I cycle through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, ending up at Speaker's Corner before I reluctantly dock the bike and head into the Tube at Marble Arch. If Oxford Street hadn't been such a nightmare, I could have gone on and on and on...

Yesterday morning, I try the bikes at Lancaster Gate. Obviously a popular spot, as only two bikes are left. Neither would accept my key. More swearing. I stomp through Hyde Park towards the Serpentine to the next docking station was, all the time on the phone to a TfL staff member. Thousands of people have registered, madam, and only a few have had problems. Yes, and I'm one of them. But I cheer up when my key works and I get a bike. Lovely ride through the park to the office. And then another lunchtime bike ride. Great exercise. Who needs a gym?

Leaving the office to go home, I insert my key. Red light. A man beside me tries his key. All the bikes are dead. We walk to two other stations. Red lights. He gets on the phone to TfL. They've been having problems ... could take up to two hours. Another bad-tempered trudge through the park.

I know a scheme like this would be full of glitches, and I'm not the only frustrated one. But much as London Mayor Boris Johnson annoys me, I have to admit his bike scheme is an excellent idea. I love the Boris bike, and I'm now officially a fan. Just get the sodding thing working properly, please.


  1. Charlotte W06 August, 2010

    Same frustrations from my side, had great experiences with the Boris Bikes but when the light turns to red... I turn to red too! I was lucky to be finally able to commute to work today with a Boris Bike though and cycling through Hyde Park is bliss...Hope they manage to get this scheme to run smoothly soon!

  2. I've used the excellent Sevici scheme in Seville many times and it works well. But it took months to get it working properly. I am sure they have nowhere near enough stations or bikes for London. You need loads and unless you have them, people get disillusioned really fast. They added lots more stations and bikes in Seville and that made a big difference.
    I wonder about the key system too. Much more technically complex than Seville. There you just have a PIN number that you type into a keypad at the booth at the station.

  3. I feel your pain, Charlotte! And you're right, Jeremy, they should have more stations and bikes. I just hope these teething problems don't get out of hand and put people off. By the time the scheme is open to casual users, the bikes could be seriously knackered unless they get more out there. And then it'll be autumn and the weather could put off fair-weather cyclists (including me).