Instead of straightforwardly presenting data which shows the true extent of the usage of these bikes and puts it in a context which helps the reader to understand what the numbers mean, London has used a style of writing which often is used for projects like this. i.e. Trying to impress the reader by quoting what sound like huge numbers, and doing so without any context so that the meaning of it remains clouded. In this blog post, I explain what the numbers really mean.
What they say
In London's press release, you'll read of:
- Cycling to the moon and back 13 times in the first six months
- Covering more than 10,000,000 km
- Building on the massive 117% growth
- Making a huge contribution to the cycle revolution
However, let's look at those figures. Six months, 2.5 million journeys. The numbers sound great, but actually if you look closely at them you quickly see that this is not actually very impressive at all. This equates to 2.28 journeys per bicycle per day or less than a quarter of the estimated ten uses per bicycle per day that promoters used when selling this system.
London has a population of 8 M people. Between them, they make around 20 million journeys per day. If all the six months worth of shared bike journeys had been made on just one day (requiring each bike to be used an impossible 416 times), then even that would make up only 12% of total journeys in the city. However, actually it took half a year, 182 days, for this many journeys to be made. The total usage equates to only around 0.07% of the total journeys in the city. On average, Londoners are using these bikes not once per day, not once per week or once per month, but about once every 18 months. In fact, as each individual trip is being counted here, you could also say that this is the equivalent of the average Londoner going out and returning home again about once every three years by using these bikes.
So far, the scheme has cost 140 million pounds. The cost to Transport for London for each of the 2.5 million journeys made so far is £56 pounds. The hypothetical Londoner making their once per three year trip to the pub and back is subsidized to the tune of £112. Does that sound remotely like a reasonable or sustainable cost ?
Is this really deserving of the amount of hype which it receives ? It is deserving of comments from the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, such as 'The zest in which people have taken to two wheels and joined the cycling revolution we are engendering in the Capital has gladdened my heart.'. I'd love to see a genuine cycling revolution in London, and in Britain as a whole. However, let's please be realistic: this isn't the revolution you were looking for.
Back in March 2009 when I first wrote about the potential of the bike share scheme in London, I calculated that based on the promoters estimates of future use, it still had a maximum potential capacity of only 0.3% of the total journeys made in the city. Some people criticised me for pointing this out. However, actual usage has been under a quarter of what I wrote about.
Is this mass cycling ?
By way of contrast, a few days ago I ran a story about the amount of cycling in the Netherlands. The Netherlands has only twice the population of London, but there are over a million bike journeys an hour for the daytime hours of working days. That's more than 14 million journeys per day by bike, or 2.5 billion per six months. Let's state that in another way: The Dutch population is twice as large as London's population, but they're making a thousand times as many cycle journeys as the "Boris Bikes" are used for.
In fact, no shared bike scheme can ever possibly scale to cope with mass cycling. It would simply take too many bikes. What's more, as shown above, it can never introduce cycling as part of a regular habit to anything like the whole population of a city because the total capacity is so small for any affordable system (even a very expensive system)
Large bike share schemes are what cities install if they want to give off the appearance of being interested in cycling without investing in the infrastructural change which is necessary to make a real difference. There were already over a million bikes in London before the bike share was installed. People need safe and attractive conditions for cycling, not more bikes.
Of course, Londoners do actually ride other bikes as well. It's estimated that half a million cycle journeys are made every day in London on bikes other than bike-share bikes. These are far more significant numbers than the bike share bikes provide, in fact 36 times as large. What's more, this number has a far greater potential for growth than bike share does, as no-one wants to put 36 times as many of what are already the most expensive bikes in the world onto the streets of London.
You may also remember that a while back it was revealed that 84% of users already have their own bike and that almost half of users would otherwise ride their own bike. So, only half of the 2.5 million journeys over the last six months are actually new cycle journeys. To a large extent, the system is being used as a cheap to the user, but expensive to the tax payer, method of keeping existing cyclists bikes safe from vandalism and theft. Perhaps if London had spent some money on improving its inadequate cycle parking then this wouldn't be the case.
To bring about a genuine "cycling revolution in London, the environment must be made more conducive to cycling. People want to do it, but they need their local government to stop wasting vast amounts of money on silly things like bike share and invest properly in those things which have a proven history of success in promoting cycling.