City share bikes are Trojan horses, leading to more cycling in cities that embrace them

Boris bikes mean business

Boris Johnson gets a lot of stick from London’s cyclists. The Cycle Superhighways aren’t super, they say – they’re just blue paint – and the Mayor is accused of being obsessed with "smoothing traffic flow", a euphemism for designing roads to make them friendly to motorists, and unfriendly to cyclists and pedestrians.

But one major fillip for cycling did come on Boris’ watch, and the blue vehicles have even been named for him, despite their introduction being the idea of his predecessor. (Ken Bikes just doesn’t have the same alliterative effect).

I’m an out of towner. I love Boris bikes. I bought a key before the ink dried on the scheme’s announcement. I hook up with a Boris bike at Kings Cross and use the Bike Hub iPhone app to navigate me through the back streets of London. I’m the archetypal user: white, male, middle-aged, middle class.

But I’ve also seen pre-teens on the bikes accompanied by their parents (perhaps foregoing the Chelsea tractor for the short trip to school?) Tourists – of all shapes, sizes, sexes and cultural backgrounds – are also highly visible users of the scheme. They wobble. This is a good thing. Drivers (apart from Addison Lee minicab drivers, it seems) are wary of wobbly cyclists. Drivers who are wary are the best kind. 

Higher use of Boris bikes – we need more bikes and more docking stations – is helping to civilise London, slowing down motorists. In time this could persuade the authorities – through sheer dint of numbers – to increase safe cycling facilities for *all* cyclists.

Bike shop owners – even those who offer cycle hire of their own – tell me they love Boris bikes. New-to-cycling locals get on them, realise gridlock is only for those with motors, and upgrade to their own bikes. (If you think different, by all means let me know).

Boris bikes are here to stay (car-centric Los Angeles just announced it is to instal its own city cycle hire scheme) and offer cheap, fast mobility for a city with a rapidly growing population. The underground is creaking; cars and trucks in cities are dinosaurs-in-waiting; the future is blue and pedal-powered.

In my hometown the city cycle hire scheme bikes are green. Scratch Bikes started as a service to students and was later rolled out to all users. It’s a harder to use service than Boris bikes, but it’s getting easier as new tech is slotted in place.

Other cities around Britain – and perhaps some towns – will no doubt get such city hire bike schemes. If some cities don’t get more folks on bikes their central business districts are likely to calcify with gridlock. Increasing urbanisation means British cities are set to grow in size: not in road space, that will stay the same, but in population size. Cities which wish to function in 20 years time had better start designing cars out of the picture.

Not all city bike schemes have been a success, The OYBike hire scheme – which started in London long before Boris bikes and which spread as far away as Cardiff – hasn’t been able to operate commercially. The Cardiff scheme was subsidized by the local authority but once it withdrew its sponsorship the scheme collapsed. Use of the scheme was low.

But get it right and city bike share schemes can be highly successful, as seen in Paris and London.

Boris bikes are horses: Trojan horses. They can popularise cycling by stealth. If your city starts toying with a scheme, don’t think of it as a threat to your business, it could be the very opposite.

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