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Boris bikes - John C. Kirk

Jun. 29th, 2011

12:22 am - Boris bikes

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On Sunday, I tried out a "Boris bike" for the first time. On the whole, it worked well, and I'd like to see the scheme expand; however, there are a few issues to be aware of.

If you live or work in central London then you've probably seen these bikes. The official name is Barclays Cycle Hire. Some people object to Barclays getting publicity for this scheme (and the cycle superhighways), but if they're willing to invest the money then I don't have a problem with it.

These bikes are intended for short journeys, so it's worth reading through the pricing scheme before you hire one: there's an access fee and a usage fee. If you want to use a bike for a day, the access fee is £1. If you make several journeys, each less than 30 minutes, then those are all free, i.e. the usage fee is £0. That could quite easily fit in with a daily commute, or going from a railway station to the West End for a theatre trip. However, if you want to keep the bike for several hours then it gets a lot more expensive. I've seen people using these bikes at events like the London SkyRide and the World Naked Bike Ride, and they may get a shock when they're charged a £35 access fee (3-6 hours).

There are two ways to hire a bike: you either buy a fob or use your debit card directly. The fob costs £3, and you have to order it online then wait for delivery, so the debit card option sounds more appealing. However, there are a couple of advantages to fobs.

If you get a fob, you pay online for an access period: daily (£1), weekly (£5), or annual (£45). This will then get "activated" the next time you use your fob at a docking point. Meanwhile, the website stores your debit card details to charge you any applicable usage fee. If you use your debit card at a terminal, you can only get daily or weekly access (not annual). So, if you use these bikes a lot, you would save more with annual access than you would spend on the fob.

The other advantage of fobs is that they should be a lot simpler to use. You just choose a bike, put the fob in the slot and take the bike away, rather than fiddling around with the touchscreen. Also, when you have a line of bikes, each docking point has its own slot for a key fob. By contrast, there is just one touchscreen for the whole lot, so you may have to queue up.

I bought a fob in March, and paid for 1 day's access, on the theory that it might come in useful sometime. However, my debit card expired at the end of March, so I wasn't sure whether the fob was still valid. I went to the docking point and put the fob in, but the light went red. I assumed that this was a fob problem, so I used my debit card instead, which turned out to be a 2-step process.

I used the touchscreen to request access, put in my card, and was charged £1. I then asked to take out a bike, so I had to put my card in the machine again; it didn't charge me any money, it just verified that this card was linked to a valid access period. It then printed out a piece of paper with a 5-digit release code, and I had to type this into the docking point next to the bike. There are buttons labelled "1", "2", and "3", so you press them in the appropriate sequence. However, there's no feedback for this: it doesn't beep, and the buttons don't seem to press in at all (a bit like typing on a ZX Spectrum keyboard), so it's hard to know whether you've done it correctly. It would be much better to model this on a burglar alarm control panel.

When I typed in the code, the light went red, just as it did before. I tried again, with the same result. I tried a different bike, and that light also went red. I tried a third bike, and that light went green, so I was able to release the bike. Be aware that you have to yank the bikes quite hard to undock them, so it took me a couple of attempts. Anyway, based on that I suspect that my key fob was actually ok, and it was just a problem with the particular bike/docking point that I tried.

When I reached my destination, I simply docked the bike in a free slot and made sure that the light went green. As I mentioned last year, this cycle hire scheme is similar to OYBike. When I used that in 2008, the docking process was a lot more complicated: I had to read a code on the docking point, then phone OYBike and speak to a human to read out that code (service only available 08:00-18:00). So, I'm much more impressed with the new London scheme. Apparently OYBike have improved their return process, although it's still more complicated than just shoving the bike into the stand.

At the end of the day, I reversed my journey, so I hired another bike. I used my debit card again, so that I could use the same access fee. I only had to put it into the machine once this time, since I was just requesting a release code and not purchasing an access period. However, I had to queue for the touchscreen terminal, and the guy in front of me was a bit confused by the whole process. (His son and I gave him some advice.) This was at about 20:00 (Sunday evening), and I assume that the terminals would be busier during peak times. So, using a fob seems like a much better option, then I can pay for access online (at my own PC).

I wanted to "pre-load" my fob with several daily access tokens, but I can't do that. However, there is apparently an "auto-renew" option (new since March?), which should be a cheaper way to achieve the same goal, and it will save me going back to the website every time I hire a bike.

You can't pay for "casual access" using a debit card that's linked to a fob, but hopefully I'm allowed to do it the opposite way around, i.e. link a debit card to a fob that's previously been used for casual access. I tried to update my details on their website but that didn't work. The error message wasn't very informative, but they were trying to charge me £1 (presumably for a day's access), and I already have an unactivated access period. That's potentially a problem for them (since they can't charge me a usage fee), but never mind. I'll try using my fob again at some point, then try to update my card details again.

As for the bike itself, it's ok. There are 3 gears, controlled by twisting a dial next to the right handgrip. They're all pretty easy, so even a novice cyclist should be able to get up hills ok. The trade-off is that you won't be able to travel at high speeds on one of these bikes: even in top gear, there's a maximum cadence for your legs, i.e. you can only pedal so fast. That's fair enough, since these bikes are designed for gentle pootling around rather than racing.

The bike also felt a bit different to other ones I've ridden (in terms of handling), although I can't put my finger on exactly what the difference is. The design is similar to a ladies bike, i.e. there's no top tube so you can step through it rather than swinging your leg over the top. Bromptons have a similar design, but this bike is a bit heavier (and has bigger wheels). Also, I rode with a rucksack rather than using panniers; I haven't tried out the luggage straps on the front of Boris bikes yet. So, I think I was just aware of my centre of gravity being in a different place.

Ultimately, I think this scheme is encouraging more people to cycle, and that's a good thing. If you cycle regularly then it probably makes sense to buy a bike, but this is an easy way to try it out, and I think I'll get a few more of my colleagues cycling if the scheme is extended further to the west.

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