Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Why all London cyclists should actively support a rapid and extensive expansion of the Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme (Boris Bikes)

I've noticed on London cycling blogs that some regular cyclists can be slightly sniffy about Boris Bike users.

They, in my opinion, are failing to realise that Boris Bike users are the London cyclist's best friend.

As I've already written about in detail, all London cyclists have a very strong vested interest in seeing overall cyclist numbers increase. The only way this will happen is if new people get cycling. These kind of people do not read cycling blogs; they are probably unaware of the relative joys of Copenhagen; and they may not even understand what the phrase 'segregated cycle lane' means.

Boris Bikers waiting at traffic lights
These 'Boris Bikers' represent a far more diverse cross-section of Londoners than the two regular (athletic, male, geared-up) cyclists pictured at back of the photo. It is this kind of broad range of Londoners that will have to start cycling regularly before we can see figures as high as 10-20% of journeys made by bike in the capital. Moreover, the 'Boris Bikers' pictured here are intelligently unafraid of cycling in the middle of the traffic lane, helping to slow motorists, prevent dangerous overtakes, and make the road safer for everyone, including pedestrians.

However, it is only these people than can give cycling the kind of majority support that will mean we can start seeing more of the kind of infrastructure which Love London Go Dutch are trying to implement, because these improvements to cycling infrastructure will necessarily require not just an allotment of significant amounts of government money on cycling (and away from other areas of transport) but also a very real political cost to those in power in the form of a relative decrease in motorist space/freedoms.

There is, quite simply, a direct correlation between the Mayor's room for manoeuvre with regard to utility cycling, and the amount of Londoners who regularly cycle. The more cyclists on the road, the more London authorities can do to improve cycling. That is the definition of a democracy (unfortunately).

So we know they're important, but how do we get these 'newbies' on their bikes? Well, the Boris Bikes are one extremely effective way. In fact, recent costumer research showed that 49 percent of Barclays Cycle Hire members say that the scheme has prompted them to start cycling London.

Boris Bikes provide a distinct and recognisable visual reminder to everyone in London that utility cycling is a perfectly viable method of transport.  Their users are also often less experienced than other cyclists meaning that newcomers feel less nervous having a go themselves. Motorists give Boris Bike users more space and are likely to adapt their driving accordingly in an area where there is a steady stream of Boris Bikes, thus making the area safer for all cyclists. Boris Bikes are quite literally bigger (in terms of width) than most other bikes on the road meaning motorists feel less inclined to share lane space with them so will sometimes give Boris Bike users an entire lane of road, and perhaps in the future might support the creation of segregated cycle lanes so that they (the motorists) no longer have to worry about the Boris Bikers swerving in front of them or hitting their wing mirrors when they try and filter through traffic at the lights.

Arnold Schwarzenegger on a Boris Bike providing an important piece of positive publicity for all London cyclists.

Furthermore, perhaps getting a day pass for a Boris Bike (£2) and have a short jaunt around London is actually much less daunting financially, and indeed socially, than buying a good road bike, high quality helmet, high-vis wear, and suddenly deciding to commute to the office one morning?

And once you've had a jaunt, maybe you get a pass for a week and try using the Boris Bikes to get home from work a few times when you're not particularly pressed for time. And then maybe you realise that getting around London on a bike is far cheaper, quicker, and easier than driving. Perhaps you even feel better after a short cycle around town and you like the health benefits of cycling regularly.

And then you might think, "man, these bikes weigh a ton, all these people are shooting past me on proper bikes". So you russell up the cash and get a proper bike which is even easier to travel about town on than your old Boris Bike, especially now you know a few good cycle routes into town and to/from work. Or, you might even think, "actually I like not having to worry about locking my bike up, I'm going to get a year membership and become a regular Boris-er; the weight factor just makes them better exercise".

And, in either case, hey presto, we've got another 'convert to the cause'. We've got another person (every vote counts) calling for better cycling lanes in their area, maybe writing to the local councillors. And suddenly a year after installing Boris Bike racks the council have decided to widen the cycle lanes leading to and from these racks in response to the increased cycle traffic on the roads.

Every cyclist can use these lanes. Indeed every cyclist in London benefits from the whole range of advantages brought by the Boris-er. Therefore every London cyclist should actively support the rapid and extensive expansion of the BCH scheme (and the altered tariff plan giving 60 minutes, instead of 30 minutes, free use to registered users - described in detail here - which will help promote longer journeys, more registered users, and a more socially diverse ridership).

Primarily because they can't go as fast as regular bikes, Boris Bikes don't always appeal to cyclists. This doesn't matter. The critical political advantage of the Boris Bike is that it appeals to non-cyclists (like One Direction), and can therefore produce dynamic political change.

Boris Bikers help 'normalise' cycling in London, showing even the most idiotic Daily Mail reading retard that anyone can use a bike to get from place to place in the UK, not just lycra louts and other fictional characters.

You could argue that the money spent expanding the scheme could be better spend on cycle infrastructure, e.g. a segregated lane so that your child can cycle to school. That is undoubtedly true.

However, the keystone problem with this kind of thinking is that it fails to take into account the fact that heavy political concessions are required to take a lane of traffic out of a main road so that you can replace it with a two-way segregated cycle lane. Ditto the removal of a street's worth of car parking spaces. By contrast, very few political concession are required to remove three parking spaces on a street (or perhaps slightly reduce the amount of space available on a pavement) in order to make space for a 25-bike Docking Station for BCH users.

I'm not saying London cyclists shouldn't campaign for better cycling infrastructure. This is, of course, crucial, necessary, and on-going. There are, of course, still some town planners out there who genuinely believe that cyclists mixing with traffic on busy roads is something to aimed at (!) and these people should have their eyes opened to best-practice in countries like Holland and Denmark. All this can hopefully by now be taken as standard by anyone interested in improving cycling rates in London.

What I am saying is that if the political climate is not yet sufficiently bike friendly to get a cycle lane installed, then campaigning for the inclusion of your residential area in the BCH scheme (and the altering of tariffs to encourage more cycling - e.g. first 60 minutes free instead of first 30 minutes) could, after a year or two, change the political climate sufficiently to get that cycle lane installed in the future.

Boris Bikes getting large amounts of love from a range of different people, none of whom resembles your 'typical cyclist'.

Furthermore, if we saw the BCH scheme expanded to 30,000 bikes over the next few years (not an unrealistic aim given that 12-14 million live in Greater London) we just might see a lane of the Euston Road being given over exclusively to cyclist traffic and much bigger concessions granted to cyclists in Central London (through which the majority of BCH users travel).

So, if the BCH scheme doesn't include your local area, why not write to your councillor and ask for it to be included (you could also add that it was socially unfair that only rich areas of Central London currently had the right of residential access to a scheme that all tax payers are funding); Islington, a very cycle friendly borough, has already realised the importance of getting better BCH coverage implemented; they're even clever enough to start an online petition.

If your local Docking Station is always empty/full, why not write to your councillors and MP (using the brilliant wesbites: and asking for it to be expanded.

If you have friends coming to visit in London, why not suggest they have a bike ride around Hyde Park, or even use Boris Bikes to travel about in town. Or, if you're making a journey for which you can't use your regular bike, consider using a Boris Bike instead. If you can do the journey in under 30 minutes, at £2, Boris Bikes are (almost) the cheapest form of transport in London (even without a yearly registration!). If you can do the journey in under 60 minutes, at £2 + £1, Boris Bikes are still cheaper than many other modes.

Sign any petitions you can to increase Boris Bike cover, such as:
Lastly, when you're on the streets, show a little bit of love to your blue-cousins, because like it or not, they might represent one of the best chances of getting the government to implement the Dutch-style of cycling infrastructure that all London cyclists desperately want.

(comments welcomed)

P.S - For on-street evidence of increasing numbers of cyclists causing a lane to be created to accomodate them (rather than vice-vera - both methods are good!) please see this.

P.P.S - After politically campaigning for the extension and intensification of the BCH scheme, the second best way to support its expansion is to actively promote usage as much as possible. This is because the higher the usage figures are, the easier it is to persuade local  and central government to extend the scheme since it can then be shown to be benefiting a larger proportion of voters and tourists.