So, there I was walking through Greenwich at dusk on Monday, admiring the view (above). It was a gorgeous, warm evening, so I resolved to repair to a beer garden to pretend I was in Barcelona until last orders. As I strolled past the Cutty Sark hoardings, I heard some familiar bells.
Yes – Boris bikes. I’d heard tales of them being ridden down here, but this was the first time I’d seen them, as a couple headed rode around the half-rebuilt ship. I grabbed a photo, and strolled on. Then I heard those bells again…
More Boris bikes! Three tourists were using them to navigate the tiny riverside path by the naval college (even at the height of summer, the Old Royal Naval College shuts its gates to cyclists at 6pm). As the final one tried to navigate the cobbles and bollards, I said hello and added I hoped they weren’t hoping to return them to a dock anywhere nearby.
“Oh, we’re going to find somewhere across the river,” she said.
But they wouldn’t be able to cross anywhere beyond Greenwich – the Woolwich Ferry had stopped, while the Woolwich Foot Tunnel remains closed. Worse still, only a fool would try to lug a heavy hire bike down the narrow Greenwich Foot Tunnel stairs. They would have to return their bikes to the nearest docking station, just over four miles back the way they’d came (via the Thames Path) at Shad Thames, near Tower Bridge.
I felt a spoilsport as her mates returned, and they thanked me for my help as they turned back and headed back into down again. I’m not sure how far they’d have made without turning back anyway – it’s not much fun riding past the Blackwall Tunnel entrance by day, let alone at night; while the gravelly, unfenced bit south of Delta Wharf after dark would probably have convinced them they’d reached the edge of the civilised world.
But hopefully I saved them a shedload of hassle and a few quid in inflated bills – while tourists are able to use the hire bikes, the charging scale is ostensibly set to encourage them to use private operators.
From next year, though, we might be seeing a lot more lost souls on Boris bikes (or by then, maybe Kenny farthings) in Greenwich. I discussed earlier this year how the eastwards extension of the cycle hire scheme is solely restricted to the borough of Tower Hamlets – there’s no extension south of the river, even though cycling along the Thames is now being encouraged with the “new” Jubilee Greenway (in reality just a series of paving slabs on existing routes).
A cluster of bike hire stations is planned for the area around the northern entrance to Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Ferry Street, to the west of Island Gardens, will see a 20-cycle station put in, while two docks on Saunders Ness Road will be able to take 106 bikes between them. By the time they’re up and running, the foot tunnel will be up and running again (hopefully) with a lift working all day and all night, so the blue bikes will be a common sight in Greenwich – even though there’ll be nowhere to dock them south of the river.
This could be bad news for organisations like Greenwich Cycle Hire, which charges a flat £4 per hour and is much better value for tourists seeking an afternoon’s bimbling around. In Barcelona, where the ubiquitous Bicing scheme is only available to Catalonia residents with a two-hour limit on hire times, the hire stations carry advertising for private companies to encourage tourists to use them. In London, it’s tempting to conclude that TfL is hoping tourists paying a fortune to hire bikes for hours will unwittingly offset the scheme’s huge losses.
It also makes not extending the scheme south of the river look that little bit more silly – if people are riding four or more miles out of the cycle hire zone to visit Greenwich, they’ll definitely make the short river crossing. Green mayoral candidate Jenny Jones has made a big thing out of giving London a cycle hire scheme the size of Paris’s – but that’s a hopelessly modest ambition if people are taking them to the Cutty Sark, since that would only see the scheme run as far as the Rotherhithe Tunnel.
(A quick aside – I used the Paris Velib’ scheme earlier this month and found the same problems as in London, if not worse. I got charged four euros extra because my bike did not dock properly, the docking station systems were unreliable, and when I fancied a drink down near the Bastille, all the stations were full up and I had to turn back. If anything, it’s Paris’s infrastructure we should be taking a lead from, not the Velib’.)
Granted, I’ve the cycle hire scheme to thank for persuading me to cycle around London. But it’s clear that its implementation wasn’t thought through properly. When lost tourists are cycling around Greenwich or Deptford next year trying to find a place to dock their bikes before the hire fee rockets past £15, it’s just going to prompt more puzzlement. A lack of docking stations won’t be a brilliant advert for Greenwich, either – if I was a tourist, I’d be baffled why I couldn’t use the scheme south of the Thames.
It was a beautiful view across the Thames that night – but the river still remains a formidable barrier.