Digging through London cycle hire data

Transport for London has released detailed usage data on the first five months of London’s new Cycle Hire Scheme, known as ‘Borisbikes’ after the London Mayor Boris Johnson who has presided over a glitch-plagued launch that began last July opening to pre-registered users. In December the system was opened to ‘walk up’ users.

There are 352 docking stations recorded in the data (not the 400 that was TfL’s original aim and was implied in much of the PR). The data covers the period 30 July to 3 November. 1,425,884 journeys were made.

Duration of journeys

The average hire duration was 16 minutes. While the longest hire lasted an epic 33 days, only 5 % of journeys lasted longer than the free first 30 minutes (i.e. no charge on top of the membership fee). The prize for the thriftiest cyclists goes to those using the docking stations at Lollard Street, Vauxhall and Lisson Grove, St John’s Wood: only 1.3 pre cent of journeys starting here incurred a charge. At the other end of the scale, 53 per cent of journeys beginning at the N1 Centre at the Angel, Islington lasted longer than the free half hour.

On average, journeys that began in the western part of central London lasted longer than journeys beginning further east. Docking stations in places like Kensington, Bayswater, Knightsbridge, Notting Hill had journeys averaging above 20 minutes while journeys beginning in the City and the South Bank averaged 12-14 minutes. This may reflect the fact that docking stations are fewer and further between in the west than in the centre and east and that journeys originating in the west are more likely to have to cross a large park to get to their destination. Are the 48 docking stations that are missing from the planned 400 predominantly in the west? Could it be that the culprit is notoriously cycle-unfriendly Westminster Council, refusing planning permission for docking stations? Or is it that bike hire is dominated by weekday commuters going to, from, and around the City, as Oliver O’Brien has observed.

The railway connection

The scheme has been most heavily used by people arriving or leaving central London by overground train at one of the main rail terminals. This had been predicted by TfL but – bizarrely – a decision was made to keep docking stations away from railway stations. Perhaps the Mayor feared a stampede of commuters? The data shows that this was a bad decision as the docking stations near to stations turned out to be most popular anyway – users were just made to walk for a while to collect their hire bike.

Top twenty stations (by total number of hire starts)

Concert Hall Approach 2, South Bank (20,856) – Waterloo Station
Belgrove Street , King’s Cross (17,470) – Kings Cross / St Pancras Stations
Hop Exchange, The Borough (14,125) – London Bridge Station
Finsbury Circus, Liverpool Street (12,970) – Liverpool Street Station
Wardour Street, Soho (10,263)
William IV Street, Strand (10,751) – Charing Cross Station
Queen Street, Bank (13,111) - Cannon Street Station
Wormwood Street, Liverpool Street (10,742) – Liverpool Street Station
Hyde Park Corner, Hyde Park (7,980)
Black Lion Gate, Kensington Gardens (7,678)
Hinde Street, Marylebone (7,965)
Whitehall Place, Strand (7843)
Royal Mews, Victoria (7653) – Victoria Station
Brushfield Street, Liverpool Street (9278) – Liverpool Street Station
Drury Lane, Covent Garden (9550)
Wellington Street , Strand (7036) – Charing Cross Station
Bayswater Road, Hyde Park (6759)
Malet Street, Bloomsbury (8271)
Baylis Road, Waterloo (9143) – Waterloo Station
Soho Square , Soho (8112)
Holborn Circus, Holborn (9542)

Top twenty stations (by total number of hire ends)

Concert Hall Approach 2, South Bank (23,583) – Waterloo Station
Belgrove Street , King’s Cross (19,271) - King’s Cross Station
Hop Exchange, The Borough (15,361) – London Bridge Station
Holborn Circus, Holborn (13,570)
Queen Street, Bank (12,788) - Cannon Street Station
Finsbury Circus, Liverpool Street (12,532) – Liverpool Street Station
William IV Street, Strand (11,177) – Charing Cross Station
Wardour Street, Soho (10,792)
Wormwood Street, Liverpool Street (10,596) - Liverpool Street Station
Soho Square , Soho (10,371)
Drury Lane, Covent Garden (9,730)
Newgate Street , St. Paul’s (9,333) – City Thameslink Station
Bankside Mix, Bankside (9,199)
Brushfield Street, Liverpool Street (9,088) – Liverpool Street Station
Baylis Road, Waterloo (9,017) – Waterloo Station
Moorfields, Moorgate (8,979) – Moorgate Station
Sun Street, Liverpool Street (8,893) – Liverpool Street Station
Aldersgate Street, Barbican (8,879)
Whitehall Place, Strand (8,391)
Tooley Street, Bermondsey (8,314) – London Bridge Station

Once the scheme was up and running, TfL appears to have accepted the ‘facts on the ground’ and executed a swift and commendable U-turn. December saw a 126-cycle ‘mega’ docking station open at Waterloo Station. Mobile temporary docking stations appeared at peak hours at Kings Cross & St Pancras stations.

I’d really like to know who made the original decision to keep cycle hire away from rail stations.

Unbalanced docking stations

One of the biggest frustrations with the scheme is finding a docking station with no bikes, or trying to return a bike to a docking station that’s full. I had a look at the balance between hire starts and hire ends for each docking station to get an idea of which are the most problematic in terms of always being empty or always being full. The calculation is simple. For each docking station subtract the total number of hire returns from the total number of hire starts.

Holborn Circus appears to be the biggest problem station, with 4,028 more hire starts than hire ends (this means that TfL/Serco had to deliver this number of bikes to the station in the fleet of vehicles it runs to redistribute bikes around the system. That’s an average of 44 bikes every day that TfL/Serco have had to drive in vans to refill the Holborn Circus docking station.

Top ten docking stations where hire starts outstrip bike returns

Holborn Circus, Holborn (4,028 more bikes hired than returned)
Concert Hall Approach 2, South Bank (2,727)
Soho Square , Soho (2,259)
Belgrove Street , King’s Cross (1,801)
Stonecutter Street, Holborn (1,270)
Hop Exchange, The Borough (1,236)
Bruton Street, Mayfair (1,045)
Howick Place, Westminster (7,29)
Embankment (Savoy), Strand (7,20)
Bouverie Street, Temple (631)

At the other end of the scale are the docking stations where more bikes are returned than hired – i.e. stations that are most likely to be full when you attempt to return a bike and where TfL/Serco are likely to have to remove bikes to free up space.

Top ten docking stations where hire returns outstrip starts

Hampstead Road, Euston (1,250 more bikes returned than hired)
Hardwick Street, Clerkenwell (1,098)
Milroy Walk, South Bank (1,060)
Claremont Square, Angel (938)
Rodney Street, Angel (867)
Risinghill Street, Angel (740)
Russell Square Station, Bloomsbury (687)
Cartwright Gardens , Bloomsbury (648)
Warren Street Station, Euston (637)
River Street , Clerkenwell (634)

These figures should be treated with some caution as their is a pronounced rhythm to the day and its possible that these global averages are masking the fact that at certain times of day (i.e. during the rush hours) when demand is particularly unbalanced in terms of starts and returns. Oliver O’Brien and Martin Austwick have produced a lovely animation showing the daily flow (best viewed on full screen HD mode with a decent broadband connection):

London Hire Bikes animation from Sociable Physics on Vimeo.

And another showing how docking station’s empty and fill during the day. (click Live Version and Start Animation)

I’m still ploughing through the dataset, which is available for download from TfL. But here’s a Google Spreadsheet with some basic stats I’ve calculated for each docking station. For those who like map visualisations (and who doesn’t?) there’s a nice one here and some more at The Guardian newspaper’s data blog.

  • Adam

    Do they say which is the least popular station… ie. the one where you’re most likely to be be able to find a bike?

  • http://jonsmalldon.wordpress.com Jon

    Nice article – I’d suggest though that Hinde Street is not a local docking station to Marylebone station however it’s described. Hinde Street is just off Manchester Square & pretty much on Oxford Street. You’ll walk past half a dozen docking stations to get there.

  • Jack

    @Jon – Quite right. I betray my relatively poor knowledge of that part of town! Now corrected.

    @Adam – I don’t think my analysis will give you a definitive answer though the section on unbalanced docking stations might offer some clues.

  • http://jonsmalldon.wordpress.com Jon

    @Jack One thing that walk does though (I do it nearly every morning now) is show how spot on you are with regard to the emptiness of that part of the West End docking-station wise and I’m sure part of it is Westminster’s planners blocking some sites. Marylebone station is particularly poorly served by docks – which is doubly disappointing both for commuters and for what is a significant residential area as well.

  • http://jonsmalldon.wordpress.com Jon

    @ Adam – try here:
    http://cyclehire.tomtaylor.co.uk/

  • Johng

    I had a day out in London to try the hire bikes. I had a great day seeing parts of London I never see. In general the docks work well. I did have problems getting a release codes at 3 docks in the Maida Vale area, as a result I ended up walking further than I wanted but stumbled upon the least used dock at Regents Park tennis courts.

  • Sarah

    Just come back from a couple of days in London and used cycle scheme for the first time. Bad start as system seemed down for our first hour, so we walked to where we were staying. Next journey – used bikes happily. On several occasions later in the day one or other of our cards could not get a release code which made for a frustrating time trying to keep as a group of four. Hope we just hit a bad day as the system is so nearly brilliant!