August 15, 2014
The Barclays public bike-hire scheme in London, popularly called 'Boris Bikes' after Mayor Boris Johnson and based on a similar Paris model, marks its fourth anniversary this month. As part of the fourth birthday celebrations, on the weekend of August 16-17 there was free cycle hire for 24 hours.
Yet has it been an unqualified success?
With the sponsorship of Barclays Bank ending next year, and Transport for London currently looking for a new partner, what does the future hold for the scheme?
Cycling in London - Statistics
Over the last four years membership of the scheme has grown to 196,000, with 11,200 bikes and 18,500 docking points across London. Since the launch there have been 30 million cycle hires, or well over 578,380,000 minutes of cycle rides, and these have mainly been for leisure use.
In the last decade cycling in London has almost trebled, and cyclists now account for almost a fifth of all road-based traffic within the capitals centre. Against this wider backdrop many users of the Boris Bike scheme are also full of praise and enthusiasm for it.
In a recent poll, more than three quarters of Londoners were found to be aware of the cycle hire programme, and almost a fifth said they'd used it in the last month, so it has undoubtedly achieved a very high profile.
Boris Bikes Criticism
Yet the scheme is not without its detractors, with critics citing that taxpayers contribute anything from £1,400 to £4,000 per bike per year towards the cost of running the scheme. This is in stark comparison to New York and Montreal, which are fully funded by their sponsorship, or the Paris scheme that actually makes nearly £13 million per year for the city council.
It has even been pointed out that the yearly taxpayer subsidy would actually buy every annual member of the programme their very own bike.
There are also the safety worries surrounding thousands of unfamiliar cyclists taking to the roads and getting themselves injured. However research published earlier this year in the British Medical Journal found that the medical benefits for those using scheme do outweigh any risks, and that cyclists riding with the scheme were at no greater risk from injury than cyclists not using it.
Dr Goodman from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine commented:
"When the cycle hire scheme was introduced, there were widespread concerns that increasing the number of inexperienced cyclists in central London would lead to higher injury rates. On the contrary, our findings suggest that the scheme has benefited the health of Londoners and that cycle hire users are certainly not at higher risk than other cyclists."
Wider Benefits of Cycling
The health benefits of biking are well-known, with regular cyclists on average having the fitness of someone 10 years younger. Cycling is therefore also worth some £128m to the economy annually, when calculated in terms of prevented absenteeism.
And despite the cycle schemes need for taxpayer support, there are still very real economic benefits. The Transport for London sponsorship proposal is targeting a 20% increase in current cycling levels by 2015, which could save the economy £207 million in terms of reduced traffic congestion and £71 million in terms of lower pollution levels.
London Cycle Hire Review
In my opinion the London cycle hire scheme has been an unmitigated success, and its birthday should be celebrated by cyclists around the country. While there is rightly criticism of the unforeseen taxpayer contribution, raising serious questions about how the scheme's original sponsorship was setup, compared to the cost of other methods of transport it's a drop in the ocean. This is even before we consider the potential £400+ million upside provided to the economy overall.
For me any investment in cycling infrastructure that allows a commuter, tourist or enthusiast to choose to make their journey on a bike, thereby receiving both the environmental and health benefits that go along with it, is well worth the cost.
Cycle hire has become part of London's transport landscape and, with nearly a third of Londoners saying they are likely to use the scheme in the future, there are plenty of reasons to feel cheerful about 'Boris bikes' as the scheme turns four.
Are you for or against the London cycling scheme? What changes would you make, or would you like to see a similar scheme in your town? Let me know in the comments.