This visit, I decided to try cycling in London.
When I first went to London, many years ago, the traffic was scary. The streets were filled with cars tearing around corners at high speed, especially cabs. And, of course, for a Canadian visitor, these cars came rushing from behind as you peered carefully in the wrong direction. Tourists were picked off like flies.
As the decades passed, London became more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. Street crossing islands sprang up, with traffic lights, and “look left” or “look right” painted on the streets. Mayor Ken Livingstone (“Red Ken”, bête noire for Maggie Thatcher) instituted a hefty congestion charge for the core, which reduced traffic to manageable proportions. He also lowered fares on the buses and underground, which actually increased revenues, but after his term the prices went up again. The Millennium Walk transformed the south bank of the Thames.
And in 1910, the Barclay Bikes appeared, quickly dubbed ” Boris Bikes” after the Mayor, Boris Johnson, who (though Conservative) was an enthusiastic advocate of biking. Barclay’s Bank was the sponsor from 2010 to 2015, but now it’s Santander Bank, though most of the bikes still say “Barclays”.
Biking is big in downtown London now. There are hundreds of bikes whizzing along the roads, seemingly getting along pretty well with the autos, lorries and buses.
Bicycle lanes are quite frequent in the core. There are also two-lane “cycle superhighways” from the more outlying districts.
Generally speaking, the cyclists are well-behaved. London cyclists never ride on sidewalks, tempting as it often is. They usually signal and stay well to the left. And the motorists are generally patient, even when they have to go a little more slowly than they would like.
It’s easy to use the Boris Bikes, and no commitment is required. You can just stick you debit or credit card in a slot, and the machine spits out a 5-digit access code. You go to the bike of your choice (they’re all the same) and key in the code. Then you jerk the bike out and ride away. The bikes are solid, with a “step through” frame, and three gears. There’s a small luggage rack for parcels, secured with bungee cords. For two pounds, you have 24-hour use, but you can only keep out a particular bike for a half-hour, before returning it to some other docking station. You can keep it longer, but there’s an extra 2 pounds on your card. The idea is to keep all the bikes in use, rather than sitting somewhere while the rider is shopping or visiting the British Museum.
You can also register online for 24 hours, 7 days or a year. For 3 pounds you get a key, and you can pick up a bike anytime during the selected period. I’m sure that if I am there long enough, I would buy a key, but I think that it is wonderful that you can try the system out in such a casual way. The costs are the same.
I’m very intrigued by the new sobi bikes in Hamilton. I own a bike, but I will sign up just to try it out.
I think, though, that the comparison with the Boris Bikes is interesting. The sobi bikes cost $4.00 per hour; Boris Bikes $4.00 (2 pounds) for 24 hours. And you don’t have to sign up in advance. Just saying.