First Ride: The Cycle Hire Scheme (UPDATED)

The first thing to note is: the cycle hire scheme works. We rocked up to a station in Shoreditch at a little after 6am this morning, inserted the key into the docking station, waited for the green light on the machine to flash, and seconds later (after fighting through a minor crowd of gawping early-morning drunks) we were riding a bike. After a fifteen-minute cycle around E2, we dropped the bike off at another docking station (found using one of the handy mobile apps), which was equally simple. If it’s as easy for everybody else, then the launch should go smoothly.

The three-speed bikes, of which 5,000 were installed overnight, are sturdy beasts. Actually, sturdy doesn’t really do it justice: these are designed to withstand a beating from both careless cyclists and drunken vandals alike. They’re heavy and slow to turn, which might catch out anyone familiar with a nimble Brompton. There’s a dynamo which powers a strip of flashing lights on the front and a red light at the back; enough to make a driver aware of you in the dusk, but perhaps not bright enough for regular riding after dark.

In a token gesture towards safety, there’s a sign planted in the middle of the handlebars warning cyclists to beware large vehicles turning left. Well, we can’t say they didn’t warn us! There’s also a functional bag holder and strap on the front, which didn’t look like the kind of place you’d want to store something valuable like your laptop.

Overall it was a pleasant, indeed fun, experience, and at least one Londonista will be riding to work today to see how the bikes perform on a proper trip. If you’re trying them out today, drop us a note in the Comments section and let us know how it goes. And remember — activate your key before you go by logging into the Cycle Hire website.

10am update

Having just rode one of the bikes from home to the office, here are a few more thoughts….

Riding around through the City on the first day was a strange experience, and the act of simply being on one of these oddly-shaped new bikes seemed to break the spell of apathy that bewitches most morning commuters. People would stop and stare at traffic lights, or ask questions about the cycle’s comfort, or, in the case of one cabbie, glower sourly at the prospect of countless more bikes for him to tangle with. Seeing other Bike Hire “pioneer members” (that’s TfL’s word, not ours) evoked nods of recognition.

The 20-minute ride (Shoreditch to Lambeth North) was pleasant enough, the only damage to rider and bike being a blister on the thumb, caused by gripping the handlebar too tight during some nervy early skirmishes whilst riding through a traffic-clogged Bishopsgate. The most exhilarating moment was the cruise over the river, watching the crowd flow over London Bridge under a sky that was more seasonally clear than brown fog. The only real down side was this rider’s lack of fitness.

One thing we noticed that could be a small problem: to get the bike out of the docking station you need to leave your membership key in whilst you remove it (seems that you don’t in fact need to leave your key, you can take it out once you see the green light). There doesn’t seem to be an alarm to remind you that your key is still in the machine, so it’s quite easy to accidentally leave it behind.

That aside, our early impression is is a positive one, and we’ll be using the bikes regularly. However, other users are reporting problems with accessing the bikes, so it would seem the launch day hasn’t begun as smoothly as hoped for.

Photos by Ruth Lang

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  • http://undefined Christian

    Tried it this morning and agree totally with your review. If I needed proof of my lack of fitness then that was it, but otherwise a brillian experience. A lot of fun. And, as you say, it just works. A rarity in this world.

  • http://undefined Martin

    I’ve not seen the bikes in the flesh yet, but from the pictures, my favourite little bit of design on them is the rear reflector. Take a look when you see one…

  • http://undefined blueboxthief

    Is the iphone app an official app? If not, I hope the developer doesn’t get sued, like the developer of the Dublin Bikes app did:

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2009/0923/1224255060614.html

    I will be trying them out soon.

    • http://undefined jguk

      Blueboxthief – the app is NOT official – indeed there are several unofficial apps already out there. But TfL is encouraging their development and making the data stream of info about the number of bikes at docking stations freely available for just such a purpose.

    • http://undefined Rishi

      TfL & Boris Johnson himself personally requested app developers to create an app for the cycle hire scheme, so don’t think we will suffer the same fate as Dublin bikes.

      http://www.londoncycleapp.com

    • http://undefined blueboxthief

      That sounds alot better then. No-one here understood the logic behind the ad-agencies decision to sue the developer – surely it may add more users to the scheme.

      The bikes look the exact same as we have here – slow to turn, built like a tank.

      I’ll have to go on a cycling trip next weekend in London.

  • http://undefined Nate

    Tried two bikes at Waterloo. None worked. Others too standing scratching their heads. Yes I have registered.

    #FAIL

  • zefrog

    I tried to use the bikes this morning too and couldn’t get one (tried two). The light just went orange and nothing else happened. The station had its full complement of bikes. I did activate my key, btw.

    And guess what? Even though I couldn’t use the bloody thing, The system thinks I have and has started the count down the end of my access period! Will have ring them… again…

    not impressed!

    • http://undefined DeanN

      Wow, that’s a pretty significant problem, particularly as many people would simply assume the system isn’t working and walk away, not realising that they’re being charged for a bike that they couldn’t use. Hopefully these are just early problems.

      Both of the bike stations I used this morning had staff there to help people out if they were having difficulties.

  • http://undefined JF

    Anyone know of a blackberry app?

    @Nate have you activated your key?

  • http://undefined Matt

    It beggars belief that this hasn’t been hooked into the Oyster system.

    Why do we need another key? The cost of setting up a brand new infrastructure, database, website. Why not just add it on to the Oyster system?

    It would work well too – it could be restricted to Oyster Cards that are registered to an address, or that have had a Cycle Hire ‘Bolt On’ added (via the existing website) – asking for debit or credit card details.

    The 24 hour access fee and any usage charge could come out of your Pay As You Go balance. Those with a weekly/monthly/annual travelcard could have the 24 hour access fee waived?

    A quick wave of your card would release the bike (if the funds are available) and a quick wave on the return will determine the usage fee (if applicable) – deducting the amount from your PAYG balance or, if necessary, from your registered debit or credit card.

    It would promote the use of the service by those just wanting to ‘try it out’, and an ease of being able to access another form of London Transport from your Oyster Card.

    Why was the money wasted to create a whole new system that is completely separate to what all Londoners have been forced to adopt already. It seems like a huge backwards step.

  • http://undefined DeanN

    According to TfL, of the more than 12,000 membership keys sent out over the last week, only 6,000 have been activated. This might explain some (though not all) of the problems people are having.

  • http://undefined DeanN

    Oh, and another TfL figure: just over 1,000 journeys were made by 9am this morning.

  • http://undefined SophiaDB

    They are not unlike this milkman’s bike from the 1930s. Hope the cycle hire ones are little less clunky! http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/server.php?show=conObject.7544

  • http://www.teelc.com Derec

    The Bicing (sic) scheme in Barcelona has been operating with great success for many years. Glad to see it has finally made it to our shores. Lets hope they can iron out the teething problems!

  • http://undefined Ian

    I notice that the TfL website map of the docking stations gives (apparently) up to the minute info on bikes and spaces available at each one – is this info available to the 3rd party apps yet and if so which one is going to be the first to show it?

    As this is the true value of the apps I think, a quick check that there are likely to be bikes available at the dock I’m planning to use.

    • http://undefined DeanN

      TfL need to first make the live feed available for developers. Once this is available the developers can add it to their apps.

      As per comment #20 on our cycle hire app post, the Android-only Cycle Hire Widget now has realtime data on bike and space availability.

      • http://undefined Kenton

        They really do need to release this as soon as possible, because we don’t expect legacy iPhone owners to switch to Android just so they can get our Cycle Hire Widget’s realtime feed ;) I used the scheme four times today. At 8.20am, before I had the feed on my phone, I discovered to my cost that two of the three nearest docking stations to my workplace were full or out of order. In the evening, I rode from the West End where I live (where my closest FOUR locations don’t exist yet – again, luckily I could see this on CHW) out to Brick Lane – I found a location with two empty slots, the next nearest location had none – I would have been so frustrated if I’d had an iPhone without this info. Riding back home to the West End, I was pleased to see the Wardour Street location now had slots, whereas earlier it had been rammed. Of course everyone’s gonna get this feed eventually – we’re lucky that with Android we can innovate and ship without any needless delays – but we should all start a campaign to get TfL to release this as soon as possible. Although in the meantime we’re happy to TOTALLY CLEAN UP with our live feed exclusive ;)

  • http://undefined zefrog

    reports of faulty breaks too

    • http://undefined Cookly

      Yes, many of the bikes seem to have a problem with the brakes. After successfully riding a bike to Hyde PRk on Sunday morning, my health seemed to have deteriorated rapidly after lunch as it was very hard work pushing the next bike out of the park. The bike wouldn’t even freewheel.

      Later in the afternoon we checked again for bikes, make sure that the back wheel will spin freely before setting out!

  • http://undefined Mark

    I’m a big fan on the seat post. It has a line on the front of it so that when you alter it (as you’ll do whenever you get a new bike) you can see when it’s pointing forward. GENIUS. Had no problems with my ride, and also found that I could take my key fob out, as long as I waited till it turned green.

  • http://undefined Radii8

    They need some more docking stations near Bouverie Street, off Fleet Street. In a hurry!

  • http://undefined Ian

    Don’t have to leave the key in the dock at all, you can take it out as soon as you see the green light, then you get about 10 seconds after green light to take the bike out, if you take too long the green light goes off and you have to put your key back in again for another go.

    Only technical problem I had was I tried to return one bike to the Kensington High St/Warwick Road dock without noticing that the main terminal was off and nearly walked away. Although the bike felt and sounded like it was locked in when I gave it a thorough tug it came out again. So I took it to another place instead. Someone else had docked a bike there too and I expect they are going to get a big bill. Looks like it is very important to check for the green light on docking!!!

    You can get a little receipt of your journey for peace of mind if you want when you dock the bike, although I couldn’t do that on one of my journeys because the key reader on the big terminal at the end of the row was out of service. Web site shows the bike being docked back in OK despite that though.

    Only problem I had was all the people in the street staring at me on the Boris Bike, people at traffic lights asking about it, and a taxi driver laughing at me!

    • DeanN

      Don’t have to leave the key in the dock at all, you can take it out as soon as you see the green light, then you get about 10 seconds after green light to take the bike out, if you take too long the green light goes off and you have to put your key back in again for another go.

      Yeah, you’re right on that, thanks. I was a little surprised by the weight of the front part of the bike and hence thought that you needed to leave the key in to release it.

  • http://undefined Nikhil

    Used it twice today. Mostly positive, but a couple of observations. Firstly, my second journey lasted exactly half an hour (1536 to 1606) and I was charged a pound for that. The website says “Up to 30 mins” is free. It’s petty, but then so is their decision to go with 30 rather than 31 as the cutoff point. Second, I felt as though a few cabbies were overtaking a lot closer to me than usual, and cutting in particularly violently afterward. Nothing to faze an experienced cyclist, but perhaps a (sub)conscious attempt to scare people away from the scheme? Most were well behaved, but I’m sure a few felt that way.

  • http://undefined Martin

    I had a wee go on one yesterday – and very much enjoyed it. A bit heavy, yes, but very handy, and quite a lot of reaction from people I passed by – including a bike courier outside the Bank of England giving me an evil glare, a man in a Royal Mail van shouting ‘your thirty minutes is up!’, and a pavement full of people outside a pub in Spitalfields giving me a cheer.

    I liked it.

    The only problem I encountered was when docking it – I put the bike back, and it made a bit of a growling noise at me, and the red and orange lights flashed a bit. The helper at the docking station looked a bit confused, and couldn’t find anything about growling noises in his manual, so suggested I checked on the terminal whether my bike had registered as being back. It hadn’t, so I tried docking it in another station, and got a green light.

    Oh, and later on I saw someone cycling down Brick Lane on one, giving a girl a backie.

  • http://www.vippivinkki.com pikalainaa

    Gave em a test run yesterday with my fiancee and tell you the truth, the whole system seemed a bit too complicated.

  • DeanN

    Had a first (very minor) snag this morning — the docking station I went to was out of bikes. Not a problem really, but I’d checked two mobile apps which both said bikes were available there (I even re-checked at the empty station and they both still erroneously claimed that eight bikes were present). Luckily it was only a five minute walk to the next station which had plenty of bikes.

  • Jonn

    Key arrived yesterday, which took all of a day. Used bikes for two short hops this morning (Islington to Moorgate, then Moorgate to Piccadilly).

    It’s all worked perfectly, so far – far better than my heart, to be honest, which feels like it might pack in any second.

    Still not that keen on going round with a Barclays logo. But that aside, I think it’s all rather good.

  • Jonn

    Spoke too soon. Key stopped working. Wow, that was fast.

    • http://undefined AndrewS

      I think there was a bit of a glitch this evening. Putting my key in around 17:40 gave the red light instead of green on several attempts. I faffed around for 5 minutes, printing off my route details from ther terminal, and then managed to release a bike.

  • Jonn

    Yeah, works again this morning, and no dodgy charges have appeared on my account. Gawd knows.