Arts & Giving | Diary of a Somebody

Stephen Bayley

The design guru on Boris’ bedeviled bike scheme

Stephen Bayley

Image: Brijesh Patel

September 30 2010
Stephen Bayley

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I don’t much care for public transport, especially buses. Everybody knows that most of them spend most of their time going around empty, causing congestion rather than alleviating it. And has there ever been a better way to incubate airborne contagious diseases? Apart from the very young, the very old, the disabled or the unwell, people should walk. Or use ambulances. Or ride bikes.

So I did not need much convincing about London’s cycle hire scheme: on every recent trip to Paris or Milan I have used and enjoyed the Velibs or the Mi-Bikes. So when bipedal Boris’ scheme came on-stream, I signed up promptly. My daily Vauxhall-Soho-Vauxhall hike was to be translated into an efficient, friction-less 21st-century dynamic.

At least, that was the prospect. Bikes, they say, are the only technology with no downside. Except that’s not quite true: bikes are difficult to store and to park. Unless you like to keep them in the hall, which I must confess I do not.

Now, the Boris Bike scheme that started so promisingly has collapsed into a fit of pure Johnsonian chaos for the same storage-related reason. But unlike Boris in a tizz, which is very funny, the collapsing cycle hire project is maddening and disturbingly counter-productive. On any morning around here, the “docks” (as we must call them) are full; clusters of cross pedallers stab at mobiles making their excuses for being late. It took me an hour to find an empty dock this morning so I missed my first appointment: instead of arriving at my studio relieved and freshened by my carbon-zero commute, I arrived very cross and sweaty indeed.

Two weeks ago I asked the genial Guto Harri, Boris’ man-of-business (who I met through his interest in the pre-Facebook social network called Single, Sexy and Welsh; I qualified on only two counts) to nag Kulveer Ranger, Boris’ man-of-transport. My point was that it is not reasonable to expect people with work to do to circle the capital in demented Dante-like orbits, seeking refuge. And the other point was that when people lose confidence in the ability to park their bike, they will abandon the scheme altogether, leaving this expensive folly to clueless tourists. And, while I was at it, I also asked if anyone had actually worked out an intelligent distributive model (a question to which I already knew the answer).

Kulveer replied that the Boris Bikes were “still subject to huge pattern-changing events”. These events include the return of students to the autumn term – apparently beyond official powers of prediction. Ranger confessed that more work needed to be done on how the “redistribution units” operate. The Orwellian redistribution units are nowhere to be seen, at least not when they are most needed.

It’s a shame to write this. It’s an additional shame that Brompton, London’s own manufacturer of world-class folding bikes, already had its own cycle-hire-and-storage project. Brompton’s boss, Will Butler-Adams, told me he could have provided a similar service for about £6m. The stalled London cycle hire scheme cost perhaps 20 times more. And the bikes? Made in Canada.

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