Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Checking In on London's Bike Share Program

London Hire Bikes animation from Sociable Physics on Vimeo.

London's Boris Bikes have been around for a year, and the Guardian had a post about how the program is working out. (The program is officially called Barclay's Cycle Hire and is run by Transport for London. Boris Bikes is a nickname because Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, pushed for the project.) Like most transport initiatives, the results are mixed. The bikes are well used and there is little thievery of the cycles, but the benefits are not widespread. However, also just like most transportation problems, the limits of bike share are related to parking. Here are some explanations of the problems:

Not everyone has retained their affection for the scheme. "It is a very good idea but in practice it is unusable," says Stephen Bayley, who was jury chair of the 2011 Brit Insurance Design awards, which actually gave Barclays Cycle Hire the transport prize. "I used it from nearly day one, but I gave up about three months ago when I had to go to nine different docking stations before I could park my bike, which took over an hour. It's not a reliable transit system for working people, it's an amusing curiosity for tourists."

This is a recurring complaint. The bikes make 20,000 journeys a day, but in a relentlessly predictable pattern, with huge spikes during the morning rush hour at the major rail stations and then again, in reverse, as commuters dash back to catch their evening trains. The largest terminal, at Waterloo station, can house 126 bikes, but TFL admits it could have five times as many and still not satisfy demand. More frustrating, as Bayley discovered, is when you successfully hire a bike but cannot find a place to return it at your destination.

On a tour of the nerve centre for Barclays Cycle Hire, near King's Cross, I raise the issue with Kulveer Ranger, Boris Johnson's director of environment and digital London. "It's true," he says. "We can't guarantee that you will be able to find a bike or be able to dock it. The bus network can carry 6.5 million people a day, the tube 4.5 million, but there are only a few thousand bikes, so not all Londoners are going to get them when they want them. If you have to make an urgent meeting, you've got to think, 'This scheme does not do it for me.' But it does work when I'm relaxed and I want to make a journey."

What is happening is locals are using the bikes as a complement to the transit system. This is good, but look at the types of people taking advantage of the program:
But a residual concern remains who is using the scheme: overwhelmingly white men aged between 25 and 44, many of whom earn more than £50,000 a year. For a scheme that has already cost £79m, with a further £45m for the extension to cover the Olympic Park next year, can we really justify this "posh-boy toy"? "If you look at the normal demographic for cycling, it's exactly the same," says Ranger. "But that will change as we move into year two or three and we see people getting comfortable with it."

This gets to one of my major concerns with bike share, car share and many other sustainable transport initiatives. These projects increase the transport choices for relatively wealthy people. I don't have anything against helping "posh-boys", but there are opportunity costs associated with these programs, and I worry that programs that help the well off come at the political and capital expenses of those who really don't have many good choices.
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