I’ve done an awful lot of talking about how great I think the Barclay’s Cycle Hire program (known as “Boris Bikes” for short, after London Mayor Boris Johnson) is. I think bike-sharing systems are, in general, a great asset for any city dense enough to have homes, jobs and places to shop within an easy biking distance of one another (and of course a large enough population to take advantage of the investment). Among the cities that already boast bike-sharing in some form are Paris, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Minneapolis, Washington DC, Denver … the list goes on, and I’m sure it will continue to grow.
I sure love the idea. But until Wednesday, I had never actually used a bike-sharing system.
My Boris bike initiation was not without flaws, but the shakiness of that first ride was mostly due to my own inexperience. The pay-as-you-go kiosks are simple to use: prompted by the touch-screen, I paid my £1 tax to cover a 24-hour rental, and received a ticket displaying my bike release code. After several minutes of vigorously tugging on three bikes that I couldn’t seem to budge from their docks (humiliating!), I freed my humble, creaky steed and careened through Shoreditch in rush hour for an unnerving 30 minutes. Let alone the insanity of British drivers, it’s hard to retrain your North American mind to stay on the left side of the road!
Click here for a video I shot while riding on cobblestones in the safety of Hoxton Square. All the clatter and groaning you can hear is coming directly from my bicycle. Also, I rode around the entire time on a very, very short bike, wondering how taller cyclists could ever get on. I realized later that the seats are easily raised and lowered – see the variety of heights in the photo below?
The experience was enough to convince me to commit to keeping my feet on the ground, in a bus or on the tube for the year. I even invested in an unlimited transit travelcard – an absolute necessity for anyone who uses the tube daily, and a good incentive to explore as many areas of the city as possible before classes start. I was ready to give up the dream of bike ownership.
And then we bumped into a friend Wednesday night – on his bike, no less – who won me back to the fold with one statement. “Oh, but this city really opens up for you when you travel by bike.” Access to a secret local London? I can’t deny myself that.
The very next morning, I decided to give Boris another try. I checked out the bike (expertly this time), raised the seat and took off for the canal. I rode east along the water, then through the center of Hackney, hit a few side streets and wound back through expansive Victoria Park before taking the canal route back to Shoreditch.
Not ready to give up just yet, I decided to check out Brick Lane in the daytime:
Outside of peak traffic, and as I got more comfortable finding and following the left-hand bike lanes and side-road routes, the ride was a lot more fun.
For the right user, Boris Bikes provide immense convenience – the ability to cycle without buying a lock or lights, finding space to store the bike at home, spending time or money on routine maintenance, or worrying about the very real threat of bike theft. But the system is deliberately designed to accommodate and encourage commuter cycling. If you know your start and endpoints and plan to take a direct route, they’re perfect; if you can get from dockstation to dockstation in less than half an hour, the ride also costs you nothing. But keep the bike out for more than 60 minutes and the price quickly climbs. Most importantly for me, the Boris docking stations are concentrated exclusively in central London, making them impractical for trips to the Eastern neighborhoods where I think I’d like to use a bike the most.
It seems that, at least until I have a set daily routine, ownership trumps access. Which all leaves me back where I started: in the quest for a perfect secondhand Dutch cruiser with a big wicker basket.