Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thoughts on a shared bike project in the UK: Part I

A newspaper article generally critical of the new bikeshare scheme in Bristol UK cites the city's abundant hills and a general absence of bikes and stations as obstacles to success. We decided to publish the original piece (fair use) here, and then invite the team responsible for the project to state their case. What is actually going on in Bristol?

A Paris-style bicycle scheme in Bristol? Now there's an uphill slog

* Click here for Guardian article by John Crace of Tuesday, 22 July 2009.

On a rainy morning, few takers for country's first citywide ride-and-go plan:

It's a miserable morning in the centre of Bristol. The rain is tipping down and only a halfwit would think of hiring a bike in this weather. So count me in.

Ride-and-go cycle schemes are a familiar part of the cityscape on mainland Europe. Barcelona, Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin all have well-established cycle networks, but somehow Britain has always rather lagged behind.

There are small local schemes in Southport, Cardiff, Hammersmith and Fulham, in London, and only yesterday Blackpool's opened for business. But the closest we have to a whole-city scheme is in Bristol – Britain's first designated Cycle City – where Hourbike operates with some support from the council.

The deal is straightforward. You register for a one-off fee of £10 and for that you get a code that lets you turn up to one of the cycle hubs and ride a bike. The first half-hour is free, any time over that works out at about £1 a hour (the idea is to undercut local car parking charges) and you can return the bike to any of the hubs dotted around the city.

Through the drizzle, I punch in the code, the electromagnetic lock is released and I have control of Daniel. The bikes all have names which are cuter than the cycles themselves because they are on the streets 24/7 and the idea is to make them solid and anonymous so that people don't nick them.

So Daniel and I are ready but where to go for a test cycle? There are three other hubs in the centre and a couple more on the edge of the city near the University of the West of England, but I've no idea exactly where as there isn't a map. Never mind. Andy, the street cleaner, should be able to help out. "There's one outside the Royal Infirmary," he says, "but I can't say I've seen anyone using the bikes at either place." Are you round this way often? "Every day".

So I head off to hospital and soon discover another reason – apart from the weather – why no else is on a hire bike: it's almost impossible to go anywhere in Bristol without going up a hill (I wonder if I'll see any locals with colossal Tour de France-style muscled thighs). At the infirmary there's a couple of bikes corralled at the hub, but still no sign of riders. Jim, a hospital technician, says he has never seen one.

There's a bus stop next to the hub and no sign of a bus. Jo has been waiting for at least 10 minutes. Would she fancy a go on a bike? "It sounds like a good idea," she says, "but I don't think so."

But it's all downhill from here. "Maybe another time."

I cycle round aimlessly for a while longer looking for another Hourbike but then reckon enough's enough and tie Danny up for the day and head home.

It's still early days. There are large parts of the city that still aren't covered, though the bigger problem is winning punters' hearts and minds. Tim Caswell, the managing director of Hourbike, which started the Bristol scheme earlier this year, refuses to be discouraged. "We've got about 300 people registered so far," he says. "And with the help of the council we're looking to increase the number of hubs and bikes so we've got most of the city covered. This is the way forward and we are committed to it."

Getting it right is easier said than done. You can't really pilot them by sticking a couple of bikes in the centre of town and hoping for the best, because people won't see the point. It's only when the full infrastructure is in place that it works. So you've got to be prepared to invest – and so far, especially with local government feeling the pinch, councils have tended to play safe by doing nothing.

"There's a tendency to think there's only one model," said Phillip Darnton, who chairs Cycling England, an independent body set up by the government to promote pedal power. "Not everything has to be on the scale of the Paris Velib or TfL's proposals for London. These are both large schemes aimed at significantly reducing commuter congestion: towns such as Southport, which has also just opened a cycle-hire scheme, are looking more to recreate the ambience of the seaside town, so they need something much less intensive."

Even so, Britain does not have the best track record when it comes to promoting cycling. A bike hire scheme in Cheltenham has just closed and the London mayor, Boris Johnson, has managed to get on the wrong side of several councils with his plan to tear up several of their car parking bays to install cycle hubs and rob them of some revenue – so there's still a lot of politicking to be done before London comes on stream.

So how come we're so rubbish at cycle schemes and mainland Europe has been so successful? "It's partly cultural," said Marie, a Paris resident. "Cycling is seen as normal in France, whereas in Britain it's often more about macho types in Lycra. But it's also because people are less afraid of cycling in Paris because our drivers are so much better than yours." Now there's a thought.

# # #

* Click here for reader comments to Guardian article. If you are interested in bike sharing or bikes in cities for that matter, these diverse voices make an interesting read.

* And here for the Hourbike promotional video

Next: We will now invite Tim Caswell, the managing director of Hourbike, the group responsible for this project, along with the city of course who are in fact the owner of this project, to hear what he has to say about the project and more generally his views of bikesharing in Britain, including perhaps why thus far the UK has lagged well behind the first tier countries.

Print this article

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment. You may wish to check back to the original entry from time to time to see if there are reactions to this. If you have questions, send an email to: