Get On Your Bike!
Today, at 8 am, after just a few (many) set-backs and only slightly (very) behind schedule, the Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme finally kicked-off.
Now, I know that London isn’t exactly a city filled with bike lovers, hardly a day goes by without me hearing a comment from some angry motorist (mostly my mother) complaining about the reckless, accident inducing cyclists increasingly populating our city street but, personally, I can’t wait. Ever since I first saw the little bike ranks being put up at the end of my road, I’ve been jittery with excitement. You see, like many people who have been to Paris in the last three years, I have fallen completely in love with the Cycle Hire Scheme’s French counter part: The Vélib’.
Cycling along the Pont Des Arts: the idyllic image that won my heart
Launched on the 15th July 2007, it has since become a resounding success. In less than a year, 26 millions bikes were hired and almost 200 000 signed up! Tourists have leapt on them, but they have also been adopted by a vast amount of Parisians who now choose the affectionately nicknamed Vélibs as their commuter ride of choice over the crowded Metro, or being stuck in their Peugeots in the ceaseless city traffic. They have become such a part of Paris life, that I cannot imagine walking around without seeing one of the funny little grey bikes whizzing past me.
Enamoured Parisians celebrating the Vélib's first birthday
As I said, the excitement level has been pretty high and the anticipation has been fuelled since my first sighting by numerous conversations with friends over what to expect. These are friends who have all returned to London after having lived in Paris for the past couple of years, and with all of them being vélib’ enthusiasts, they are pretty well placed to compare the two schemes.
I can’t exactly describe their reaction on seeing the first photos released as positive: having spent a fair amount of time in the French capital, they have become quite the aesthetes so, inevitably, the first thing they criticised, was the look of the thing.
“Yuk” was one of the words used. Personally, I found it rather an extreme reaction, and slightly unfair (admittedly, the bike’s case wasn’t helped by the fact that most of the pictures had Mayor Boris sat on top looking rather idiotic with his lopsided helmet and grin).
Boris test-driving his stationary bike
Sure, it’s not the sleekest bike in the shed, but this thing’s not built for speed, it’s built for endurance: it’s meant to stand the test of time, bravely struggle against vandals, hooligans, reckless users… In this respect, it does its job. At over 20kg, with puncture proof tires, and protective gear and chain casing, it certainly won’t be a bike-thief’s first choice.
What I do take objection to, however, is the branding. Front of bike, back of bike, wheels of bike, side of bike: the thing is a bright blue Barclays advertising banner on wheels.
Who did you say sponsored the scheme?
Now, I realise that I should be grateful to the kind bankers for pumping all that money into our London bicycles, but really: bright blue and white? I know those are their colours (note to Barclays: change your design team), but couldn’t they have made an exception just this once? Why couldn’t they have gone for slightly smaller logos in neutral colours, or stuck to the rest of the transport system’s colour theme and gone for red? Or take a leafe out of JCDecaux book- the advertising corporation that runs the Vélib’ in return for a 10-year exclusive contract to use the city’s 1,500-odd digital display hoardings.
As it is, the look is decidedly brash, and I wonder whether it could possibly stand in the way of Londoners taking the bikes to their hearts in the same way as the Parisians have. After all, riding around on a bank-branded bike in the current climate is hardly going to gain you popularity votes (Leo Hickman got heckled as he test-drove his through Parliament Square). So far, based purely on looks, the simple, grey Vélib’ is my pick.
I was spurred on into my first go on a vélib’ after seeing a French woman cycle past on hers a bag of groceries and a baguette in her front basket. I couldn’t resist the cliché: with images of me whizzing around with baguettes and philosophy books, I quickly went to the nearest stand to take out my very own. Any of you hoping to reconstruct the
The magazine rack
same cheesy scene will be sorely disappointed seeing as the ridiculous people in charge of the design have decided that instead of a hugely practical, some may even say “essential”, basket, they have given us what can only be described as a magazine rack. I am not amused. Unless I somehow find a way of leaving the house with nothing more than an envelope, this bike is not going to be very easy to fit into my daily life.
Parisian woman making use of the ever-useful basket
The other thing it lacks is a lock. The designers have built this bike with the assumption that any trip made on it will be a no-stop, direct one from the first docking station to the target destination. This means that, were you to want to pop into a corner shop to buy your morning paper or some gum, you would be doing so at your own peril: any bike that is lost or stolen on your time will incur you a non-return £300 fee. In comparison, all vélibs come with a security device. Nothing hardcore, just a small chain, but enough to give you that little bit more freedom. It also doesn’t have mirrors, but I’ll count that as a minor - seeing as the ease with which they snap off wouldn’t be practical.
So what does it actually have? Well: an adjustable padded seat, smooth handling, a guard to protect your clothing from the oily chain, a bell and dynamo lights. But, as good as these things are, they really are the bare essentials, so I hardly think it gets brownie points for that. So, all things considered on the gizmos front, I’m afraid the vélib’ comes top again.
Strength in numbers:
The scheme has been launched with a starting number of 6,000 bicycles. This is less than the 10,000 at the start of the Paris scheme (a number which has since tripled in size), but they Transport For London insists that it is enough to ensure that there is a docking station in every 300 by 300 meter square of the area covered. In short, you won’t have to walk more than a few hundred meters to find one.
Unfortunately, the problems have already started: over 12,000 people have signed up so far. With only 5,000 bicycles available this morning, this does not spell out “smooth start”. Transport For London have brushed this off and are rolling with it saying that they had always expected there to be “teething problems”, and insist that although the members far outnumber the bikes, there will not be a shortage.
Really? Even with Paris being half the size of London, there are 24,000 bikes available at anyone time and I have rarely seen a full docking station.
You will rarely find a full Vélib' station
On the plus slide, unlike Paris, if you do rock up to a rack only to find it empty, there is a system in place that will direct you to the nearest available bike.
Even with this bonus, however, the numbers issue is still something that needs to be tended to sooner rather than later. Key to people adopting the system will be the knowledge that the bikes will actually be a reliable and easily accessible form of transport.
Picture this: you are strolling out of a restaurant after a late dinner and your friends ask you how you are going to get home. “Oh, don’t worry about me” you answer, “I’ll just hop on my Barclays Cycle Hire Bike”. Yes, quite.
So, I think it’s fair to say that the name is one of the biggest problems we have here. For the bike to be taken to Londoner’s hearts it needs to be a little cool, a little hip, a little trendy. Admittedly, as has been pointed out, Barclays is already a bit of a hurdle in this respect. But oh, what a difference a name makes! Just think about it: Reginald Dwight to Elton John, Robert Allen Zimmerman to Bob Dylan, Camille Javal to Brigitte Bardot, Cyclocity to Vélib’…
The Sexy "Vélib'"
Londoners, this calls for some group brain storming. The big guys are already coming up with embarrassing ones along the lines of “The London Wheel”, so this one’s up to us.
I’m thinking… “The Boris” (Bo for short). I did briefly consider the latter part of our lovely mayors name, but for some reason the phrase “I’m just popping round the corner to grab my Johnson” didn’t sound quite right.
So, on that note, I leave it to you: I’m just going to go and give my "Bo" its first test drive.
For all the information you need how to sign up and rack locations, just go to the Cycle scheme’s page
on the Transport For London Website.