Greenwich Council is considering setting up its own cycle hire schemes, after once again ruling out paying for TfL’s Santander Cycles to reach the borough.
The council has rejected a new call to work on an expansion of the London Cycle Hire network, following a petition handed to the council last month by Conservative councillor Matt Clare.
While the Labour administration does not object to the idea, it has baulked at the idea of paying the estimated £2 million cost of bringing the scheme south east.
“Boris bikes” have been a common sight in Greenwich town centre since the scheme was extended to the Isle of Dogs, with a cycle dock close to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel at Island Gardens. However, coverage is poor south of the river, with just a single hire dock east of Tower Bridge.
An electric bike hire scheme is due to launch in east Greenwich and Greenwich town centre on 8 April as part of the City Hall-funded Low Emissions Neighbourhood (LEN) scheme. The 16-bike scheme will “encourage residents of the LEN to trial more sustainable alternatives to the private motor vehicle”.
Electric bikes would certainly work on the hilly terrain around Greenwich, Blackheath and Charlton; although plans to set up a hire scheme in the borough of Haringey – which features some punishing inclines around Highgate and Muswell Hill – have been dropped after TfL said they were poor value for money.
There are also plans being developed to make folding Brompton bicycles available at Greenwich station. Bromptons are already available at a handful of locations in London including Peckham Rye station, while there used to be a scheme at the University of Greenwich.
The report says: “Development work on the implementation of a Brompton Bike Dock is in progress. If the scheme were to progress 8 Brompton Bikes would be available at Greenwich Station. Residents would be able to hire these for just £2.50 per day with no initial sign up fee. By comparison the Santander Cycle Hire scheme costs £2 to access per day, the first 30 minutes is free and then £2 for every 30 minutes.
“Based on the outcome of these trials proposals may be developed for wider expansion of these or similar schemes to suitable locations in the Borough.”
“In the longer term, a variety of public bike sharing models are being evaluated. This includes traditional dock based models as well as ‘floating’ models that do not require substantial infrastructure to operate.”
Despite looking at different models, the report says Greenwich would still be interested in having the London Cycle Hire scheme – so long as it didn’t have to pay for it. “Officers will continue to work with TfL to ensure that TfL is aware that the Council would welcome an extension of the Mayor’s cycle hire scheme into the Royal Borough and to explore the opportunity to fund any expansion at no cost to the Council.”
With TfL facing steep financial cuts, any expansion of the loss-making scheme (it requires a £10m subsidy each year) would have to come from councils or developers, meaning its coverage of London is likely to remain somewhat lopsided. The most recent boost to the network came last year when bikes were made available in the Olympic Park, which is controlled by a City Hall agency.
While Greenwich has ruled out contributing to an expansion, Southwark Council said three years ago it would consider paying for the scheme to be extended to Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Camberwell and Peckham, which would pave the way for a further expansion east.
But little has been heard since, and when asked last year, Sadiq Khan would only say that TfL was talking to “council planners and land developers in Rotherhithe” about expansion there.
Back in June, this website reported Boris Johnson giving his backing for cycle hire bikes coming to Greenwich.
A few weeks back, Greenwich’s Tories decided to put a motion before the council suggesting it talk to City Hall about introducing such a scheme in Greenwich town centre, where the bikes are a regular sight. The motion was thrown out, and a bit of a daft row ensued. I’ve written about it this week for Londonist – Will Cycle Hire ever come to Greenwich?
Here’s a spoiler, though – nobody wants to pay for them. Despite Johnson promising the scheme would be self-financing, London Cycle Hire is a gigantic loss-maker. That’s not a bad thing in itself – most public transport loses money, but the wider economic and social benefits tend to be judged worth it.
There’s a good debate on whether the cycle hire scheme – still largely used by affluent men – is actually worth having. I’d argue that it is, as it frees up space on public transport and gets you fit – I used it as part of my commute for a few months last year and found it very useful.
But the main failing is that at £95 for an annual membership it’s absurdly cheap, but the £2 daily hire if you aren’t a member is worse value than taking a bus. Recent figures show that problem still hasn’t been cracked, despite changes to the pricing structure.
But it’s probably less of a priority than investing in safe facilities for people to ride their own bikes in. And that’s something Greenwich Council has been quietly doing over the past couple of years – either with TfL money or when a bit of road needs renewing. The bad old days of the Dear Leader’s tantrums are, in this arena at least, long gone.
Indeed, next year it’s likely we’ll start seeing plans emerge for the first cycle superhighway to Greenwich – phase one of CS4 from Tower Bridge Road to the Old Royal Naval College. If the scheme survives May’s change of mayor, it could revolutionise thousands of commutes. Less revolutionary is Quietway 1, a long-delayed backstreet route from Greenwich station to Waterloo, which is finally due next year.
Ignoring the logistical difficulties of getting the bikes to and from Greenwich, and the absurdity of not having any stands anywhere else in south-east London, let’s take the Greenwich Tories’ scheme at its word.
They wanted four or five cycle stands in Greenwich town centre. Lambeth paid £200,000 for 11 around Stockwell a couple of years back, so let’s say Greenwich would have to pay £100,000 for five, plus an annual £20,000 (a mayor’s booze-up) towards running costs. Good value? You decide.
See also Will Cycle Hire ever come to Greenwich? at Londonist.
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.
So I had a ride on the Boris bikes yesterday. And on Saturday. And on Friday. – I’m completely won over by them. Friday was the first time I’d actually taken to the saddle in well over 20 years, but – ooh, steady there, where’s the brakes again? – I was on the move after a chat with the TfL helper, a few wobbles and uncertain moments, and five minutes later I was actually enjoying myself.
I chose Hyde Park for my inaugural ride – big, easy to get to, no traffic. But emerging at Lancaster Gate, I ended up getting the bus to Queensway to find the cycle station at Kensington Gardens. Co-ordination between the bikes and other forms of transport could be better. It’s early days, though, and at the moment there’s be no better way of getting yourself noticed than pedalling one of these blue bikes through central London.
You’ve probably heard all about the actual bikes already – they’re chunky, heavy things, but absolutely perfect for complete novices like me who barely know how to work the gears. I rode down to the south side of Kensington Gardens, but found going back uphill a bit of a struggle (those gears again – I worked it out later) so popped the bike into the station, had a chat with another TfL helper, and walked off. Five minutes later I spied another docking station in Queen’s Gate, by the Royal Albert Hall, and was off again; really getting the hang of it this time.
I ended up cycling almost all the way back to Charing Cross station, through Green Park and along The Mall; although I ended up cursing the lack of docking station at Admiralty Arch – the nearest are on Pall Mall or across Trafalgar Square at Craven Street.
I enjoyed myself so much I was back in the saddle on Saturday, but discovered Regent’s Park isn’t anywhere near as cycle-friendly as its neighbour. But at least a circuit of the Inner Circle and a part-circuit of the Outer got me used to riding alongside traffic. That practice came in handy – I couldn’t find a docking station near Westminster once I’d finished a ride down Horse Guards Parade, and ended up pedalling to Victoria Station, a delay which just took me over the half-hour limit for free riding.
And on yesterday, a ride around Hyde Park seemed a great hangover cure – resulting in my first ever Sunday trip to Speakers’ Corner, where the crowds spill over into the cycle path. Now it’s Monday, I’ve got a case of Boris Bike Bum, but since I’ll be in town later I’ll probably have another spin.
I imagine it’s people like me who will be test of whether the cycle hire scheme is successful – non-cyclists tempted to have a go rather than get the Tube or bus. I’m not a confident enough cyclist to even think about using anything but the quietest side street, but safe routes through the royal parks are a good place to start. It’s actually amazing how many paths in the parks are barred to cyclists – I wonder if this will change if Boris gets his hands on them?
Over three days, I lost count of the number of people who have come up and asked about the bikes, and us cycle hire riders have been swapping conspiratorial smiles as we ease our way through the capital. The cycle hire scheme’s first weekend reminded me that despite the crap spouted by professional northerners about Londoners being unfriendly, the fact is we love shared experiences and we love new toys.
An encouraging sign for the scheme is the number of tourists who seem fascinated by them – Barcelona’s Bicing and Paris’s Velib’ are squarely aimed at city residents, along with Montreal’s Bixi, which London’s service is based on. In fact, Barcelona’s scheme is only open to Catalonia residents. But on Sunday came across countless people trying to hire bikes with their credit cards, despite the service currently only being open to members. Once card payments go live, expect use of the cycles to rocket.
The biggest winner out of all this? Assuming all goes well – expect teething problems (I encountered a couple over the weekend with the stands) and accidents to be magnified – it’ll be Boris Johnson, even though he merely inherited the idea from Ken Livingstone, who presumably spent the weekend seething. The term “Boris bikes” will stick in the collective memory long after he’s been booted out or become prime minister, and is infinitely preferable to the their clumsy sponsored title, and Pantone Process Cyan isn’t just Barclays blue, it’s good honest Tory blue too.
The mayor deserves the credit for carrying forward the idea – it could easily have been binned like other transport improvements – because it is so bloody good, and it works like a dream. The other aspect I really like about the scheme is the help given to walkers as well as cyclists – little maps on the stands fit in nicely with the Legible London scheme for pedestrian signs which started under the previous mayor and continues under Boris. Hundreds of these signs across central London will help lost wanderers – and offer a reminder that the mayor has actually done something. They could well transform the way he is seen.
When it comes to 2012’s election, these bikes could save Boris’s chances of being relected – unlike the rest of his party, who are taking things away, he’s giving us stuff. Like Ken before him, he’ll be seen as a representative of the capital, not of his party.
But this feels like only a start – the scheme has to expand beyond zone 1, and as Dawn points out in At War With The Motorist, London still isn’t a particularly cycle-friendly city. The cycle superhighways feel a bit of a token gesture, although it may not seem that way by 2015, when (if?) the network is due to be completed (with routes from Lewisham opening in 2012, and Woolwich in 2015). When I was in Paris last summer, it looked like a greater effort had been put in to make the city easier for cyclists to negotiate, including little cycle-only roads like the one below.
The feeling that this is only the start is what makes the cycle hire scheme so exciting. I think 30 July 2010 will be the day London started its journey into becoming a cycling city. The fact that the mayor doesn’t quite seem to know what he’s let himself in for adds a thrill to all this.
So what next? It’s reported that Boris is looking at an electric car hire scheme – based on Paris’s Autolib’ – but I’m going to read something into what he said on Friday at the scheme’s launch, and something I spotted at Hyde Park Corner…: “In 1904, 20 per cent of journeys were made by bicycle in London. I want to see a figure like that again. If you can’t turn the clock back to 1904, what’s the point of being a Conservative?”
Going back to 1904? Saddle up!