I was wandering around Greenwich town centre on Saturday evening, taking a look at the GDIF attractions, when a couple approached me. They’d just tied their bikes to the new racks at Cutty Sark Gardens – I was unlocking mine – and they asked me if I’d take their picture, which I did.
Nothing unusual in that, but one of them was riding a Barclays Cycle Hire bike. She’d clearly walked it through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel (and hopefully didn’t have to lug it up the stairs) and opted to lock it up south of the river, where there are no docking stations. Hiring the bike must have cost her a fair bit – particularly when there are docking stations available to use near Island Gardens.
And half-an-hour earlier in Greenwich Park, checking out the Audible Forces installation at the top of the hill, there were two Boris bikes, left on the grass while their riders checked out things which made noises with wind. Those hire fees must have been clocking up nicely too – especially as the bikes must have almost certainly been walked up the hill (I can’t imagine trying to pedal one of those things up The Avenue).
In the 16 months since the cycle hire scheme was extended to cover the borough of Tower Hamlets, the blue bikes have become a common sight in Greenwich. Yet there after no docking stations south of the river beyond Tower Bridge, and no plans to extend the scheme south-east any time soon. Even if you were to leave Greenwich via the cable car, you’d face a roundabout journey north of the river to reach the system’s most easterly docking station, at East India DLR station.
This isn’t what the scheme was designed for – public cycle hire schemes are meant for short trips where you drop off your bike at each place you visit. The pricing reflects this, as do the sturdy, cumbersome bikes themselves. But what seems to be happening here is that people are taking the bikes from stations north of the Thames, and taking them for extended periods of time to explore south-east London. I’ve seen them pedalled down Trafalgar Road, ridden into Deptford, and taken as far out as the Thames Barrier.
All of which must be costing their users a fortune. Three hours and one minute with a Boris bike will set you back £35 (plus a £2 access charge) – yet Flightcentre in east Greenwich will let you have a bike for a whole weekend for that sum, and one that doesn’t feel like riding a tank.
With such sums helping offset Barclays Cycle Hire’s leaky finances, it’s no wonder there are no plans for docking stations to appear in Greenwich any time soon. Boris Johnson’s Vision 2020 map appears to show an extension heading towards Charlton, Blackheath and Lewisham, but carries the disclaimer that it is merely “indicative and is an example of the area that the network might extend to in the future”.
In any case, despite the mayor’s appeals to the public to badger Barclays to extend its sponsorship to expand the scheme, it’s been boroughs that have been footing the bill, at up to £2 million a time. I can’t see Greenwich Council going for that – and it’d be hard not to blame them. Even installing just one or two docking stations would end up being a logistical pain to manage – the scheme would have to be properly extended through Bermondsey, Rotherhithe and Deptford (and be funded by Southwark and Lewisham councils too).
If you’ve a few quid to invest, perhaps setting up a cycle hire place over at Island Gardens, promising to undercut the Boris bikes, might do people a favour and turn a profit. But for now, with people playing small fortunes to ride to Greenwich and beyond on bikes they can’t dock, the current head-scratching situation remains. Maybe they just have more money than sense.
(I should, of course, thank Greenwich Council for its long-overdue expansion of cycle parking spaces in Greenwich town centre, with new racks appearing in Cutty Sark Gardens. They were doing healthy business at the weekend, showing the demand’s there…)