Get thee unto a bike!

Posted 28 March, 2011 Anthony Tan (staring at yet another render. But still loving it for some reason..)

(at oldest) | next »

tags: cycling

Tired of that awful tube-crush sensation? Well, may I humbly suggest a boris bike as being one of the easiest ways to get around the city, along with a license to wear a stupidly happy grin?

What with the weather getting nicer and me developing a much better feel for the general London area I've been tweaking my transport habits so I get less underground time, and more fresh air. It's been a bit of a revelation as to exactly how close together things are and so I've found that I'm often better off aboveground - and aboveground, one can ride a boris bike...

A boris bike?

They're lovable three-speed tanks (no really, they weigh 23 kg and are designed to be pretty bombproof) that are the cycles TFL will hire out to you throughout London. They probably had some kind of neat internal codename like I dunno 'Project Ocelot' but they've come to be called boris bikes after our bike-riding mayor Boris Johnson. If you've been around London, I'm pretty sure you've seen the bikes, and docking stations around the place. If no:

Why not tube it or bus it or just walk?

Just like a scooter, set of blades, or personal jet pack, a bike acts like a range extender and lets you get to very specific places where busses or the tube doesn't easily service. It's often quicker (for a certain class of distances). It's cheaper. It's convenient. It's a helluva lot of fun. And did I mention it's cheap? And fun?

Bikes are dotted around the Zone 1 region of London, so an equivalent tube or bus fare in that area would cost you about £1.40. There's the hassle of station interchange, and the cheek-to-jowl nature of public transport at times. There's also that weird smell on the northern line.

Compare: 24 hours worth of access costs a mere £1 (and can be as low as 12p/day if you buy yearly access) for as many 30 min trips as you can stomach, you can pick your own route to avoid traffic-clogged arterials, you get a good dose of air in your lungs which has different (but possibly equally weird) smells, and you can grin like a loon without worrying about scaring that dour looking fellow on your left eating the lamb and mint pastie.

But.. traffic? danger? death?

After having played with them a little bit and weaving my way through London traffic, I can report that it's not really as scary as it seems. Sure, there's a lot of road use but it's pretty slow a lot of the time so you're not being constantly buzzed by a car doing 10x your speed. It also helps if you act like all the other road users - in the main (during the weekdays) - they're all using the roads to get places. If you act in the same way, ride predictably, then it all seems pretty friendly out there. If you're meandering around and sightseeing and suddenly jinking lanes (on a bike or in a car) you're bound to be treated as a hazard.

A special note on big red buses: they can be a bit intimidating but bear in mind that these guys are professionals. They drive for a living, and it's not in their contract to pancake cyclists. Be predictable, ride defensively, act like road traffic (don't overtake in blind spots!) and you'll be fine - they're actually the least of your worries.

There were initial detractors warning about the chaos and destruction that a horde of untrained cyclists would cause on the roads, and the carnage that the city was inviting... well, it hasn't happened. Google for injury rates and you'll find pretty much naught (a link at the end). Because the boris bikes make a lot of sense they're quite heavily used which has in turn led to an increase in the baseline amount of cycle traffic which has had the knock on effect of making cars a lot more aware of us, and so you can argue that it's actually made things better.

Lastly, just as a general feeling I get, on a boris bike you're not regarded as part of that particular hyper-aggressive cyclist subgroup, and that really makes a difference.

Keys to the city

Okay, a tad corny, I admit, but also rather apt. Boris bikes won't win you any records for speed or points for style. Heck, if you offered me one at sub-cost price I don't think I'd buy it! But as a part of my transport strategy (the other bit being national rail to get in to the city) they've opened up massive swathes of space that I would've not been able to get to. As a side benefit as well, it's reminded me that the best bike is simply the bike you're riding and odds on, if you're in the city, you'll find naught better than a boris bike.

Go on, try one today, and I promise, you'll never look back (except as a shoulder check when changing lanes which I strongly recommend)


Boris bikes: a scheme overview

This particular bike hire scheme operates as a membership programme with a nominal usage/penalty charge to encourage people to keep the bikes in circulation - they're intended for short hops and intra-city transit round the city center, not as replacements for long-distance travel. It's open to everyone, and about the only thing you'll need is a credit or debit card (any country it appears)


Costs are the same for everyone: Access fees are £1 for 24 hours, £5 for 7 days, or £45 for a year.

Once you take a bike out, the clock starts ticking. As long as you redock the bike within 30 mins, you won't pay a penny more. If you go over 30 mins, you start getting charged usage (overtime) fees. Up to an hour, it's £1. Then it starts getting steeper to the point where you might as well buy a bike.

Casual use via card...

Opened in 2011 to the general public, you can rock up to any boris bike terminal and purchase casual access that's linked to your credit or debit card. You need this card to act as a token, and also you're granting them authority to debit your account.

For me, it's worked happily with my AU issued credit card, and my UK issued debit card. Haven't tried an AU issued EFTPOS card however, so I can't tell you if that works. The system can be temperamental though, I've had numerous occasions where the terminals are borked or my card hasn't been recognized and I've been told to call TFL. I just used a different card and paid the extra £1, but it's mighty frustrating. Still, cheaper than a coffee.

...and members get a key

You can instead, jump on the website and join up. What you're doing in this case is providing a standing authority on your debit/credit card (you will need a UK issued card for this) and linking this to an RFID token.

This little black thing costs £3 and allows you to bypass the card reader, you simply slot this into the little receiver next to the bike you want to hire, wait for der blinkenlights to go green and ride away. Very handy.

Tips & tricks

Decided to give the bike a go? Here's a few tips & tricks I've picked up, based on my own use and helping out people with common queries:

  • Bikes can be a bit hard to get out. One way that doesn't require too much hassle is lift the back bit up and drop it. The shock usually pops it out.
  • Did you know the scheme offers discounts on safety gear like high viz, and helmets?
  • Secure your goodies with the elastic occy strap in the front basket. Thieves have been known to snaffle things from the front if you don't.
  • Casual user and using one card for multiple bikes? You need to insert the card once and press the 'hire' button for *each* bike you want. You'll get four codes. These codes also only work once, so you can bin them once you're released your bike
  • If you dock the bike, please don't wait like a vulture and prevent someone else from taking it. If you need to keep going, just ride on. It's only a pound. One. Measly. Pound.
  • Need an extra 15 mins? If you spot a full docking station, zip in and get an extra 15 at the terminal.
  • Want free maps delivered to your door? We got free cycling maps and online scheme maps right here.
  • Always, and I mean ALWAYS check for the green light when you redock. The penalties for leaving a bike out are simply bleh. Do it once, and you'll curse forever more.
  • Use it casually once or twice, but if you see any potential to use it in the future, I'd say get a membership. It's quicker, less painful, and I've spent more than 3 pounds the key cost in screwed up hire charges (card not-read errors which required me to use an alternative debit card)
  • Often the seaposts are a bit stuck, check before you undock because while docked you can use all your leverage to twist and unjam them (and if you can't you can move to a new bike)
  • They've actually got kickstands!
(at oldest)
Anthony: stop tweaking, start publishing.
tags: cycling

Further info and Reading

  1. Here's the official scheme homepage
  2. Evans Cycles did an initial review of the scheme back in August 2010 when it launched.
  3. The Evening Standard did an FOI to get some stats on the injury rate, and wrote them up in a piece. (It is interesting to note that they consider it a boris bike issue that a car ran into a docking station)