I’m a huge fan of folding bikes. I have a Brompton; at a trade show yonks ago I bought the first ever Birdy in the UK; and I’m looking forward to trialling a Tern. But when I travel – by train – to London, I don’t always schlepp one of my folding bikes. I often jump on a Boris Bike instead (of course Boris Bike should be a Ken Bike, as it was Mr Livingstone who first floated the idea). It’s convenient, cost just pennies per year and – touch wood – it’s reliable.
I’m white, fit, and know how to ride in traffic. I’m therefore the typical customer for a Boris Bike. Or perhaps not. At a recent bash I was talking to a guy whose doctor wife is doing a postgraduate research project on who is using London’s cycle hire bikes, and whether it could be having a public health benefit for people who may not normally exercise.
The first raft of Transport for London data she was given access to was from the period when the scheme was sign-up only, not the current walk-up-anybody-can-hire system. Results will therefore be skewed to keenies – like me – who signed up on a whim and prayer, and who, in all likelihood, were existing cyclists.
Looking around at the people using Boris Bikes now and the demographic has changed – but not radically. I don’t have access to raw data but, anecdotally, I still see the system being used mostly by white blokes who are slimmer than the average fat Brit.
Boris Bikes are being used by people like, well, Boris. Maybe not all in suits with messy blonde hair but certainly it’s mainly blokes. Only 25 per cent of the first 92,000 registered users were women. No doubt this is down to the ‘nanas and nippers’ problem of two issues ago: without dedicated, protective cycle infrastructure, newbies – especially newbie women – won’t take up cycling.
Young male professionals – who might have otherwise taken taxis – seem to love Boris Bikes and are not so worried about London’s traffic, especially as it’s so slow.
Lots of tourists are also now using the bikes (mainly male tourists) and if they’re from countries where cycling is held in more esteem they must get an awful shock at the conditions for cyclists in London.
Perhaps surprisingly, there hasn’t been an epidemic of Boris Bike deaths or injuries. Long may this continue.
Will the spread of Boris Bikes bring new people into cycling? It is happening. I did an unscientific survey on Twitter and talked to a number of people who said they wouldn’t have taken up cycling without having access to the ‘trial’ option first.
But the scheme’s biggest benefit to the bicycle trade is the visibility it gives to cycling as a whole. Just as happened in Paris, with the city’s Velib scheme, drivers are having to get used to more bikes on the streets. At 23kg, a Boris Bike is a tank. And when ridden erratically – as many are – these are tanks with attitude. And permanently on LED lights. Bit by bit, ride by ride, Boris Bikes are making cycling in London a little bit safer each day; for all cyclists not just those on tanks.