Reflections on hiring bikes in West London; there are over 1,500 words in this piece.
These days the streets and pavements of London are awash with hire bikes. It began at some point earlier this century with the arrival of docking stations placed throughout the centre of town, home to extremely robust (and surprisingly heavy) bikes featuring the mostly blue logo of Barclays Bank.
Many years passed before I tried out one of these centrally-located bicycles. By the time I did, they were sponsored by another banking group, Santander, with their mainly red logo. As far as I know, in the early days of the scheme you had to register to use a bike, which was enough to put me off. Also, there were no journeys that I needed to make from one docking station to another. When I did make my first experimental journey, in 2016, having driven to Hyde Park on a Saturday afternoon with my daughter (then aged 10), the process of hiring a bike no longer required you to register, but it did involve the following: inserting a credit card and then following 32 (yes, thirty-two, count them) screens of text to confirm all sorts of information.
To my daughter’s disappointment, while scrolling through those 32 screens I had to confirm that all riders were 14 or over. She had hoped to try out the bike as well, but she is as unwilling to break rules as I usually am. So much for each of us having a go. She ran alongside me while I marvelled at how heavy the bike was. At least we achieved our main objective: to work out what the steps were for hiring and returning the things, before we kicked a football around for an hour within view of the Serpentine. Even though the trip was short, just to the nearest docking station, I still felt a little anxious about whether there’d be any spaces there when I’d finished. How far would it be to the nearest alternative location, or would I just go back to where we had started? The costs (which as far as I know are still the same) were a £2 daily charge, just for unlocking a bike, and then £1 for each 30-minute hire period. If you docked the bike within the first 30 minutes the ride was free, but the £2 daily charge still applied.
Later, I would use the scheme to save a few minutes travelling between locations around Victoria, St James’s Park and Westminster, and again I was always concerned that there would be no available spaces at the docking station I was heading for. If so, cycling around central London while looking for a less convenient location would cancel out any time saved. It never worked out that way. There were always spaces at the docking station I was heading for, but the journeys were always tinged with that little bit of anxiety.
The last few times I began the process of hiring one of the Santander bikes, back in 2017, it was as an alternative to waiting for a bus in central London. Each time, before I had worked through all 32 screens of instructions, the required bus appeared, so I cancelled the process and opted for a safer, more comfortable ride instead. It seemed that the best way to ensure the prompt arrival of a bus was to pretend that you wanted to hire a bike. An alternative option, offered by some people I know, is to light up a cigarette. Apparently that calls up public transport just as quickly, but I don’t plan to take up smoking to see if it’s true.
The Santander bikes were no use for me on my journeys home. The nearest docking stations are at least a 30-minute walk away, around Shepherds Bush Green and near Hammersmith Bridge, but in the last few years other hire schemes have arrived. In our corner of West London this began with Mobike, whose orange bicycles are smaller and a bit lighter than the Santander models, and they do not need to be returned to docking stations. From the start there were usually a couple of them at the end of our road, and these days there are typically a dozen within 100 yards of where we live. In the early days I was, literally, unable to use them. Bikes are hired through an App downloaded onto your Android or Apple phone, and I was still one of that tiny minority of people who used a Windows phone. The App was not available to me. Since acquiring my Android phone last year, I have been able to download it and, in the last month, have finally done so. Over the last two weeks I have become a Mobike user.
The motivation to do all of this came after a late-night walk home from an event in early October. As mentioned previously here, most months I attend (and play at) a friend’s Open Mic night in a pub in Hammersmith. It’s a 7-minute drive away, 15-20 minutes on public transport or, as I discovered in October, 30-35 minutes on foot. Usually, when the last song has been played, a crowd of us help to carry the equipment round the corner to our friends’ house and stay for a cup of tea or something stronger. In October, having left the car at home, I had something stronger (my first ever whisky old-fashioned), and my exit, sometime after 1am, was badly timed. I had just missed the 94 bus home from nearby Goldhawk Road, and the next one was 25 minutes away. Waiting for it would save me walking, but wouldn’t save me any time, as I live an 8-minute walk from the nearest stop. On my walk home, I passed dozens of orange Mobikes and green Lime bikes, any one of which could have transported me all the way to my front door, and taken 20 minutes off my journey time. Lime, another recent arrival in the bike-hire business, provide electrically-assisted models.
At the start of this month I made sure that I could use a Mobike to cycle to and from the venue if I decided not to drive. I asked around, but nobody I spoke to had ever tried the App. One of my friends said what a nuisance these hire-bikes are in general, blocking up pavements all over West London and making life even more difficult for blind people. I downloaded the App, loaded £10 credit onto my account, and had a practice run one afternoon, resolving always to leave a bike where it could cause least obstruction.
Here’s how it works. The App displays a map showing you where the nearest bikes are. When you have found the one you want, point your phone at the QR code on the handlebar and follow the onscreen instructions to scan it and unlock the simple locking device on the back wheel. Each ride costs £1 for anything up to 20 minutes, and then a further £1 for each part-used 20-minute chunk. Locking the bike is straightforward enough, by manually clicking the device over the back wheel. Three short beeps tell you that it’s locked, and your journey is over.
On the most recent Open Mic night I cycled to the pub (15 minutes), locked the bike directly opposite (at a bike station) and marvelled at how simple it all was. There were none of those concerns you have when locking your own bike at night, removing your lights and hoping it will still be there on your return. When I entered the pub, I was still wearing my hi-visibility vest (a must when cycling at night) and a group of fellow musicians at the bar noted my unfamiliar clothing. I gave my usual response (“Those roads aren’t going to dig themselves, you know”) and then explained my choice of transport. None of them had used any of the local hire schemes, but during the evening I met one other person who had. He had used Mobike and Lime. “It’s like flying,” he said, “Especially up hills,” but he had a couple of cautionary tales about cycle zones. Each scheme is restricted to a specific zone, indicated on the map on your phone. If you park outside it you will incur a fine, £20 in the case of Mobike. He had incurred one of those by parking somewhere near Notting Hill Gate. Another time, not wanting to be caught out the same way on a Lime bike heading from Highbury to Hackney, he had to retrace half of his journey, leaving him to complete it by public transport.
The eastern end of the Mobike zone is just beyond Shepherds Bush station, so even Holland Park is off limits. As a result of this there are hundreds of Mobikes parked up on every available bit of space around Shepherds Bush Green, very handy if you want to cycle west after a trip to Westfield, but not much good if you want to head towards central London.
My journey home from the most recent Open Mic, on a Mobike, was a whole lot quicker than the previous one, but there were two further lessons after cycling in the rain. First, carry something to cover the seat when it’s wet (I had a plastic carrier bag in my pocket, as usual) and secondly, the QR code doesn’t scan easily when it’s covered with rain drops, so you’ll need to dry it off and scan it from above, before any more water gets on it. I anticipate that this will be my preferred mode of transport for the foreseeable future, once a month at least.