Cycling in the UK is on a very small scale. Under 2% of journeys in the country as a whole are made by bike. In the capital, London, the figure is also around 2% of journeys by bike.
London's new cycle hire scheme has provided 6000 bikes across sites in Central London. It's been widely reported as something which will transform cycling in London.
But is this really likely ? Can these bikes ever become the "tipping point" needed to kickstart London cycling ?
And what's more, is it good value for money ?
Rather prematurely, the scheme has been reported in some places as an instant success based on each bike being used about once per day. Initially, the promoters of the scheme in London claimed that the bikes would each be used ten times per day, though this has never happened on any other public bike share scheme. If every one of the bikes was used ten times per day, between them they would have adequate capacity for just 0.3% of journeys in the city. If each is ridden just once per day per bike you're talking about 0.03% of journeys by bike share bike. And these numbers only really count if everyone who rides the bike share bikes wouldn't otherwise cycle. If existing cyclists use the bikes then that has a neutral effect on the modal share. Does this look like a transformation ?
A shortage of bikes was never the reason for the low cycling rate of London. In fact, it's estimated that there are over a million bicycle owners in London. The Bike Hire bikes have increased the number of bikes in London by less than 1%. The problem is not a lack of bikes, but that Londoners in the main don't cycle because conditions for cycling in London, as with the rest of the UK, are terrible when you compare them with Dutch cities. Londoners are scared to cycle, and it's quite obvious why. This problem cannot be resolved by making fractionally more bikes available. It can only be addressed by making conditions for cyclists better. Spending a bit more on London's "superhighways" for bikes might have helped, as unfortunately those have been rather underfunded (around 20 million pounds / €24M / $31M) and they have been built to a very low standard.
We've touched on money, in that the Superhighways didn't get enough of it, so how much has London spent on the bike hire scheme ? Well, it's surprising. So far, the scheme has cost 140 million pounds (€170M / $220M) to put in place. That's over 23000 pounds (€28000 / $37000) per bike. A huge figure ! Given the specification, and the quantities bought, it's quite generous to say that the bikes themselves have cost around 500 pounds. That leaves around 22500 pounds worth of "overhead" per bike (46 times the value of the bikes themselves). Some of this will be due to such things as the docking stations and IT required to make the scheme work. However, there no doubt also a lot spent on such things as publicity, consultants to advise about the scheme and people to write lots of press-releases about how wonderful it all is (the considerable press that the scheme has attracted is a result of these). If the scheme is to expand outside the currently limited area that it covers, the costs will grow considerably, and the overheads will continue along with them. Even Transport For London can't provide an estimate of the cost of future expansion.
Later figures show that the operating costs for the scheme amount to an astonishing 2500 pounds per bike per year.
I might feel differently if bike share schemes had a proven track record of success in altering the modal share - but they do not have a track record of success. As a result, I find it hard to see how this can be regarded as good value for money - especially as it has consumed such a lot of funds which could have been used to build decent infrastructure for cycling.
There are other problems yet to be addressed. In Paris, almost every bike was either stolen or vandalized within two years and had to be replaced. Is this more or less likely to be a concern in London ?
Why did London look the long distance across the Atlantic to a nation where very few journeys are made by bike (the bike hire system comes from Canada, where 2% of journeys are by bike, just like in London) for inspiration about how to improve the cycling rate ? Why not instead look the short distance across the North Sea to the most successful example of a cycling nation here in the Netherlands ?
How much money is that?
Somehow people don't seem to realise how ludicrous the amount spent on these bikes is. Let's work it out as a number of other bikes that could have been bought and simply given away for the same money:
At retail prices, not asking for any discount at all, London could have bought and given away 250 Pashleys every day, for a year, plus an additional 160 Bromptons every day for a year plus an additional 100 Bakfietsen every day for a whole year.
In total that would make another 190000 bikes on London's streets over the year of the giveaway. Nice ones, too, from good manufacturers. We're not skimping on quality with our hypothetical give-away.
That might sound like an impressive number, but it's less than a fifth of the number which people in London already own and don't use because they are scared to cycle on the streets. That's why it's the roads which need to be changed.
Central London is an ill-defined area with a population of around 1.5 million people, which rises considerably in daytime due to incoming workers. The total population for the city is around 8 million. If you're feeling charitable you can multiple the 0.3% maximum effect of London's bikes by 4 to get a little over 1% in just a part of the city. But this really is extremely optimistic. You have to believe that all the bikes work, that all are used ten times per day even though that's not happened yet in any bike share scheme, and that all the users are people who wouldn't otherwise ride their own bikes.