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!