London cycle hire scheme – the lowdown

An accident of geography means that, official speaking, I’m a Lambeth Cyclist but I’m a Southwark Cyclist at heart, not least because of the dynamic Barry Mason, the quirky Rob Ainsley, the luminous Rebecca Lack and the feisty Ann Warren. I can even see the Southwark-Lambeth ‘county line’ from my doorstep. So I was delighted to be invited to attend their monthly meeting last night at which Transport for London’s project manager for London’s ‘Velib style’ cycle hire scheme gave a talk and answered questions.

The scheme will be in operation by May 2010, working to a hard deadline set by the new Mayor Boris Johnson. It was unclear why this date had been chosen. Perhaps something to do with having it launch at the beginning of summer, perhaps there’s a link to the likelihood of a May 2010 General Election and a desire to show that a Tory administration can get things done. Who knows?

So how is it going to work? The scheme will cover an area approximating the ‘Fare Zone 1’ area of around 44 square kilometres, roughtly from Tower Hill in the east to Kensington in the west and from Elephant and Castle in the south to King’s Cross in the north (see map below).


It will launch with 6,000 bicyles initially. This is less than the 10,000 at the start of the Paris scheme (now 20,000 and rising to 40,000 by 2010) but enough to ensure that there will be a bicycle hire stand (or ‘docking station’) in every 300 by 300 metre square of the area covered. In short, you won’t have to walk more than a few hundred metres to find one. Whether there will be a bike available and whether it will be in working order, is a different matter. A further phase of expansion (moving beyond Zone 1) and intensification (increasing the density of docking stations) could see the number rise to what TfL considers to be an ‘ideal’ number of 15,000 bikes.

The biggest challenge in making the project a reality is getting agreement from the nine boroughs involved in the initial phase to hand over land for locating the bicycle docking stations. This is not because the boroughs oppose the idea, on the contrary, they are all supportive. Even Westminster City Council, which has earned a reputation for being anti-cyclist, held consultations at which the same residents who had opposed new bicycle parking for privately owned bicycles said they rather liked the idea of the hire scheme.

The fact is that there is a lot of process, bureaucracy and, yes, get ready for it, ‘multi-agency working’ involved in reaching approval for the precise location of the docking station sites and there are all kinds of people who have an interest and a say – from local residents and businesses to the utility companies that have pipes and cables running underground. A typical docking station with 28 berths (and around 17 bicycles) requires the equivalent of 4 or 5 car parking spaces.TfL will welcome any efforts of London cyclists to actively support proposals for the location of the 400 docking stations that the scheme requires. That means getting involved now. Lambeth Council has already published its list of proposed sites, other boroughs will follow soon.


TfL has done some survey work to assess demand for the scheme and found that by far the greatest demand was among ‘after-rail commuters’. This is TfL jargon for people who have come in to London on the train but still need to continue their journey to their final destination, by foot, tube, bus or taxi. TfL predicts that demand for the hire cycles around the mainline rail stations would be enormous and is therefore not propsing to locate docking stations within station concourses or the immediate vicinity. I suppose they are worried about the prospect of rowdy Le Mans style rush from the platforms to the docking stations as commuters vie to be first to the precious bikes (see below).


TfL’s main aim for the project is to relieve pressure from the overstrained buses and tubes. The market research estimates that 39 per cent of the users of of hire bikes will be people who had previously walked their journey, 30 per cent will be former tube passengers and 24 per cent will be former bus passengers. A secondary, but important, aim is to make London more of a cycling city. TfL’s projections are that the scheme will result in a 10 per cent increase cycle traffic in London, with each hire bike being used an average of 8 times a day.

TfL acknowledges that London is far from being a perfect city for cycling and accepts the need for accompanying measures to run alongside the hire scheme. These include subsidised cycle training, safety campaigns, incentives to purchase safety equipment like helmets and improvements to the physical infrastructure of the roads. Unlike other schemes in cities like Barcelona, Paris and Berlin, the London scheme will involve TfL taking full responsibility and thereby elevating hire cycles to be a fourth ‘mode’ in the transport network, alongside tube, bus and rail. In other words, TfL will play a hands on role, not contracting out the scheme to a separate service provider. The scheme will have TfL branding in shades of navy blue and eggshell – very Oxford and Cambridge! At the moment the project has the very catchy name of “London Cycle Hire Scheme” but it’s possible that there will be a new name, particularly if there is a major advertising sponsor involved. I’m sure Stelios is already dreaming of 6,000 bright orange easyBikes.

Now, to the finances. The initial capital costs are estimated at £50 million for phase one and these will be met by TfL (i.e. by London taxpayers). Running costs will be met from the tariff for using the bikes, although TfL is still a long way from knowing how the tariff will be structured. There will be an annual subscription charge (in Paris this is €29) and it will be possible to have day and weekly membership, at a lower charge. One of the most attractive aspects of the Paris scheme is that the first half hour is free. It’s not guaranteed that this will be the case in London. With much of the focus of the scheme on getting people off buses, TfL think that as long as the charge is less than the cost of a bus ride (currently 90p on the Oyster card) there will still be a financial incentive to use a hire bike. So a charge of somewhat less than 90p for the first half hour is possible, even if it’s just 20p.

After the first hour it is likely that the hourly charge will ramp up steeply, as it does in Paris. This is to discourage people from hiring the bikes for more than the duration of a single journey in order to keep them in circulation and maximise availabilty and use. TfL also want to avoid undercutting exising privately-owned bike hire companies that mostly cater for tourists hiring a bike for a day or half-day. The scheme will be integrated with the Oyster Card system so once registered, you won’t need to carry a separate card to check out a hire cycle.

There is clearly a trade-off between using a steeply escalating tariff to discourage people from taking the bikes for longer than an hour and seeking to maximise revenue to cover running costs. Running costs proving higher than expected in Paris (the need to repair damaged and broken cycles and move cycles around the city) and so we can expect that there may well be no free half hour in London.

I hope this is a useful overview of what I heard last night. Leave a comment if you’ve got something to add, a query or a suggestion. And if you want to come on The Bike Show to talk about the project, let me know. We will definitely be paying this subject some attention over the coming months.

My own take on it is that while this is not something that most regular London cyclists will use as we already ride our own bikes, it’s not possible to underestimate the effect a successful scheme will have on the bikeability of the city. It’s great that TfL are enthusiastic about the idea and that the Mayor sees it as among of his most visible commitments to voters. The scheme will also help legitimise cycling as a mode of transport on an equal footing to bus, rail, tube and car – and this is something a lot of us have been working for for years. I also think it’s going to be a fantastic way to open up cycling to people who have never considered riding a bike in London. To that end, it must be accessible, creatively marketed with an emphasis on the grace, speed and sheer thrill of riding a bike around the centre of London. Velib’ had a dramatic impact on street leve life in Paris: overnight it became a festive city where people flirted at the traffic lights and took bicycle picnics by the Seine. Cycling lifts the spirits and brings joy to the soul. Roll on May 2010!

19 thoughts on “London cycle hire scheme – the lowdown

  1. Roll on May 2010 indeed! I can’t wait to this scheme in action and increase cycling in this city. Without a doubt cycling is the best way to get around London, but i can’t blame people who are put off by the perceived risk off cycling. Hopefully this scheme will go a long way to combating this perceived risk.

    I’d like to see TFL encourage this scheme as much as possible and as I can see it replacing many short trips made around the city on other modes of transport especially in the centre of London.

    On this note, I wonder (and yes this will be controversial i know) if TFL will open up bus lanes in this zone (ie the central zone) just buses and cyclists, ie no taxis (the controversial bit). By no means is this a war against taxi drivers but I can see this working two fold, firstly it will encourage people who use taxis as a short trip across town to use a the new bike hire scheme and secondly it would also free up space for people to cycle across town and make the scheme a truly viable alternative, and therefore encourage cycling even more!

    Bring on 2010!

  2. Jack
    I can see myself using this scheme – and have done from the when it was first proposed. At the present, when a bike needs a service/repairs you are left bikeless for the day as very few cycle shops also run a hire business or sell secondhand bikes so they don’t have a bike to lend you while they work on yours. Plus, if you don’t have a place of work/college or some other place you are based all day, being bikeless massively limits what you can do that day. Having a Bike Hire Scheme will mean you can choose your bike shop because it is good not because it is near your home/place of work, etc, and you will still be able to get to where you want to go.
    Following the presentation at the Southwark Cyclists’ meeting, I wonder whether I will be able to dispense with a commuting bike and all associated costs and inconvenience relying instead on the hire bikes for getting round town. With the money thus saved and the space in my bike shed thereby created, I could get a really good touring bike.

  3. You might be depressed by this:

    I think a helmet rule would be utterly ridiculous but what you’d expect from the hi-viz brigade within TfL.

    I gather a key reason why the after-rail market is not being catered for is that it would lead to locational imbalance at the docking stations. In other words this would reduce the number of trips per day as the bikes would be in the wrong place, or there simply wouldn’t be enough space for all the bikes ridden from stations in key central places like West End & City. Could be quite fun seeing the race from the 8:15 to Cannon Street or something though.

    While the Velon (as I call it) will mean a 10% increase in trips (though a smaller increase in km cycled as these will be short trips) almost all will be in zone 1, meaning a massive increase in flows. Camden Cycling Campaign have just rejected their local council’s plan to fiddle with the cycle track through Bloomsbury on the basis that it ignored this increase and that much bigger measures are needed if there is not to be a cycle jam…

  4. Glad to know I’m the King of Quirk!

    I’m very excited about the scheme. As I say in my blog today – – a subculture of esoteric knowledge about the docking station network will grow – the most photogenic, the quirkiest, the hiddenest, the ones with the best pubs and restaurants and cafes. There’ll be a whole new set of routes to explore London, based on the network.

  5. @Ralph – Erm, has the article been changed?

    I can’t see anything about cumpolsory helmets. Just that the cycle lights come on automatically (as they do everywhere else a scheme is run).

  6. As someone who used to cycle in London but who has escaped, I’ll definitely be using this when I visit – much better than suffering the tube. I knew I hung on to my oyster card for a reason

    ps @Ralph – I followed the link but didn’t see anything about helmets (which would be a deal-breaker for a visitor like me) – just someting surprisingly sensible about having automatic lights – did I miss something?

  7. @Nick & @Ralph: It looks like the Standard article was changed. When Ralph posted it there was definitely a reference to helmets being compulsory. This was something that the TfL guy who gave Wednesday night’s talk specifically ruled out.

  8. Being an optimist, I expect the introduction of Vel-on to reverse the trend of ever greater helmet use in London.

    P.S. Rebecca, if you bring your bike for a service at Velorution, you are welcome to use one of our hire bikes.

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  13. I hear that an Australian gentleman named Paul Coffa is playing a big part in the construction of the new London cycle hire scheme. No doubt Boris will love it!

  14. Legendary weightlifting guru Paul Coffa is working on the new London cycle hire scheme? I thought he was helping Pacific Islanders cook massive amounts of pig in umu’s, imu’s, hangi’s or hima’a’s in an effort to slim down for competition

  15. I can’t believe they would launch a scheme that eliminates tourists!! As you say in your original review, most London bike riders will have their own bike, so why would you aim it at Londoners exclusively?
    I am working here so I have a London address, but a billing address in Australia. I rang the help line to explain so that I could become a member, but their answer was ” it’s only for London people who have a UK billing address”, so that was that. I (and many tourists) now have to wait until they have casual usage facility – great scheme!

  16. Another example of the government competing with small business. Bike hire businesses now are out of business. The government are too hard to compete against..They now are also cashing in on hire cars for london city, competing with hire car companies using the congestion charge inclusive as an incentive – how can you compete with that. Next they will be opening coffee shops!!

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