Road Test: London’s new cycle hire bikes

On 30 July, 6,000 bicycles will be available for hire on the streets of London. Registration costs £1 a day, £5 a week or £45 a year and the bicycles are free for the first 30 minutes, then a rising scale of £1 for the first hour, £4 for the first 90 minutes, £15 up to three hours. The bicycles will be distributed across 400 docking stations. So what are the bikes like?

The basics

The frame is sturdy aluminium, with a low step-through and an integrated hybrid front rack/basket. Shimano 3-speed internal hub gear, drum brakes and internal hub dynamo powering LED front and twin rear lights. 26 inch wheels fitted with Kenda balloon tyres.

The good

The frame is strong and has a low step-through which will be easy to mount and dismount for most riders. The components are designed to be tamper-proof. This has been done by adding housing units to cover all the electrical and mechanical cabling, a sturdy metal chain case and all fittings secured with hex bolts requiring a special recessed key. The chain is zinc-coated and lube-free so it shouldn’t mark your clothes. Wheel valve caps are locked and can only be operated by the maintenance team. The tyres are filled with nitrogen gas, which means natural deflation will be slower than with air. The handlebar features basic instructions on brake function and a nice diagram warning against going up the inside of lorries and other large vehicles. The LED lights have stand lights to ensure they stay on when stopped at traffic lights, or when waiting to turn right. The seat pillar is long and caters for riders from 5 feet tall to 6 feet 5 inches. It has a height scale so riders can set it quickly to the correct level. No lock is provided – on balance a good thing since the locks on the Brussels and Paris bikes are flimsy and easily broken.

The bad

Setting aside the weight of the bike, which is what you’d expect on a bike built primarily for durability, I found that the gearing is too low. A 39 tooth chain ring and a 23 tooth rear sprocket on a Shimano 3-speed hub gear gives gearing with 32, 44 and 60 gear inches. This means that at 90 pedal revolutions per minute, your top gear will give you a speed of just under 16 miles per hour. If you can spin at a Rollapaluza-level 120 revolutions per minute, you’ll be able to get to 21 mph. I found myself spinning out on the descent of Waterloo Bridge. By contrast, the Vill’o cycle hire bikes in Brussels feature a 7-speed hub and a wider range of gears. The rear lights are quite low, right at the bottom of the seat stays. This lower than lights on most other bikes. This might make the hire bicycles harder to see, when moving through traffic. It would have been nice to have a light on the back of the rear mudguard as well. The pedals are weak, plastic models and won’t last long. Some people found the phat saddle quite uncomfortable. The saddle angle is not adjustable. The tyres are made by Kenda and are cheaper than the industry standard, puncture-proof Schwalbes. From an environmental perspective, steel would have been a better choice than aluminium, which is notoriously energy intensive to manufacture.

The verdict

TfL have put a lot of thought into making a solid bike that will resist all but the most determined vandals. This is good, since broken bikes plague the Paris Velib’ system. It’ll not win any prizes for looks, nor for speed, but it’s functional and will suit most riders. My only major gripe is the low gearing. You probably won’t want to ride them for more than the free first half hour and this, after all, is exactly the point.

19 thoughts on “Road Test: London’s new cycle hire bikes

  1. Why can’t we have a free cyclescheme in London, which simply showcases the city’s commitment to environmentally-sound transportation, without the tawdriness of a headline sponsor? It works for other major European city cycleschemes.

    I’ll bet that BP is next on Boris’ waiting list of eager sponsors.

    • The Paris and Lyon schemes are effectively sponsored by JC Decaux, the advertising company, who is given free use of the cities’ billboards in exchange for paying for the cycle hire scheme. I think sponsorship can keep the price of the hire down, and help save scarce tax money for other things that are not so attractive to corporate sponsors.

  2. This has to be one of the most vulgar creations I have ever had the displeasure to witness. Why on earth would someone want to ride around on a bicycle with a ruddy great Barclays bank ad on it? The argument for this kind of scheme is that it gets people on bikes. That’s not a bike, it’s an abomination. It’s foul. I’d sooner crawl on hot broken glass.

  3. All that tamper-proofing, low gearing to discourage racing, no basket because they would fill up with trash, the need for corporate sponsorship, etc, etc, etc. No criticism of TfL, I’m sure these things are necessary. It is just depressing. We really can’t have nice things, can we?

  4. Well, I don’t care if it looks like a rubber chicken. I’ll definitely use it. Even though I cycle every day on my own bike, I can think of dozens of situations where one of these would be useful. I think it’ll be a mahoosive success.

  5. @Jack “sponsorship can keep the price… down, and help save scarce tax money” – by that reasoning, we could have a sponsored royal family and save the £7.9m civil list expense! The value of the cycle scheme is not just about being able to offer cheap bikes, but a broader objective of supporting and increasing the numbers of cyclists, while attempting to ‘normalise’ the activity of cycling. So, it’s not just about the cost, it’s about creating an environment where ordinary people can experience and become comfortable about cycling in the city.

    I’m not against the idea of sponsorship; JC Decaux’s low-key branding of their bikes (you can also add the excellent Seville cycle scheme to that list) is unobstrusive and dignified. It wouldn’t have been difficult to have struck a similar contra deal with Barclays (eg. in exchange for advertising on the tube, where they could quite rightly cross-promote their support of the scheme with acres of warm, fuzzy copy).

    We don’t have sponsored traffic lights (just imagine all that undivided attention!) or sponsored pedestrian crossings (all that lovely white space!) even though it would save money, because it would signal the wrong message about public commitment to road safety. This ‘free’ cycle hire scheme sends the message that it considers its prospective users to be no better than cheap human pedal power for valuable mobile advertising space.

  6. @WMY: I think a Barclays Royal Family would be fantastic.

    Perhaps you haven’t quite grasped the fact that in the Paris sponsorship deal the city *gave* JC Decaux the use of thousands of city poster sites for free – see

    So it was a different kind of a deal. Perhaps you’d prefer that more indirect form of corporate subsidy, for instance if TfL had given Barclays all the tube advertising space for free.

  7. Yup, I grasped it first time round, thanks 🙂

    Actually, Paris didn’t give the space away for free, they *sold* the ad concession for 1500+ sites (plus discreet branding on the bikes) to JCDecaux in return for funding the startup costs.

    The JCDecaux deal is qualitatively different since they are in the business of selling advertising space (and can more easily value such a deal in terms of their core revenue-generating activities), while the Barclays deal is a simply a marketing expense.

    My question is, did we Londoners sell ourselves cheap? Without knowing the contractual details, it’s impossible to be sure. But, let’s look at the publicly available numbers, shall we?

    According to reports [], Barclays will pay £25m over 5 years.

    That’s a £5m-per-year ad deal for the privilege of having 6000 bikes and 400 central London docking stations at 300m intervals, branded with their logo (six per bike, actually, in case you missed it the first five times).

    TfL estimates the scheme will generate 40,000 extra trips (over the current 0.5m) a day x 365 = 14.6m trips a year. In other words, Barclays pays circa 35p per trip for blanket mobile advertising across central London. And that includes trips made during Olympic Summer 2012.

    By paying 35p per trip, even if the average journey time were only 10 mins, that would equate to paying £2.10 an hour to recruit the twenty-first century equivalent of a sandwich-board man. Sounds like a great deal… for Barclays.

    And yes, in my previous reply, I did suggest that providing Barclays with equivalent value on existing ad sites, would have been preferable to the garish branding we’ll have to endure (as onlookers), and parade (as cyclists) for the next half decade.

    PS. Great show – keep up the good work!

  8. @WMY: I don’t know if the Mayor of London owns advertising hoardings that could have been sold/traded/bartered/given away to a company sponsoring the cycle hire scheme. One would hope that the Assembly would scrutinise the Barclays sponsorship deal to ensure it provided best value for money. That’s their job.

    I don’t think it’s the end of the world and I’m sure we’ll all learn subliminally to blank out the branding.

    In some ways you could argue that sponsorship from a big, well-known ‘respectable’ company (note the inverted commas) is a way of bringing cycling ever further into the mainstream of our society. In this country we do seem still to be stuck with a common perception of people who ride bikes as poor, mad or otherwise ‘other’. Or am I looking too hard for a silver lining?

  9. @Jezza: Agree completely. They must have had Barclays lined up for ages before announcing the deal, because those lanes have been that shade of blue in the plans for a long time. I think we should be told when the deal was done, and why it took so long for it to be announced. FoI time…

  10. I think this is a great investment in public access to cycling. The pricing is attractive and sensible, the bikes look sturdy and practical, and I’d be happy to ride one. They’ve borrowed basically everything from the Paris Vélib, pricing, design etc. I only wish they’d done it five years ago.

    Now, when are they going to get separate cycle lanes (with kerbs) like in Paris and Amsterdam? That would be a better. Secondly, when are they going to roll this out in the provinces (dibs on Manchester first!)?

  11. I thought it would be just us Germans who are complaining about everything.
    Why not ignoring the whole thing, walking or having an own bike for driving on plain roads without any markings? Nobody has to use the Barclays coloured cycle highways or the ugly bikes. Those who use them know that it’s a good thing they have waited for.

  12. 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!! And this from a city who bans cycling in all london city parks.

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