A local row over whether Boris bikes should expand into Greenwich has thrown a spotlight on one of the questions London’s next mayor will have to face — what to do with London’s cycle hire scheme.
Greenwich’s eight Conservative councillors are still fuming after seeing the borough’s Labour-run council reject their call to ask Transport for London (TfL) for modest expansion of the scheme.
To them, it was perfectly sensible. They weren’t looking for a borough-wide expansion; just a few hire stations in Greenwich town centre to accommodate tourists coming across from the Isle of Dogs, where the scheme is fully in place.
It’s long been a big niggle that Santander Cycles almost completely ignores south east London. Head west towards Shepherd’s Bush, or east towards Bow, and the red cycle stands are a familiar sight. But go beyond Bermondsey and they peter out abruptly — despite the fact that inner south east London has some of the worst public transport in the capital.
So the Greenwich Tories’ scheme was a way of getting around this relatively cheaply. Indeed, earlier this year, mayor Boris Johnson gave his own backing for bringing the bikes to Greenwich.
“The answer is yes and we are working on it. It will be expensive and it will take time,” he told Assembly Member Andrew Boff in June.
But there are a number of practical challenges, not least getting bikes to and from Greenwich. The Tories suggested using Greenwich Foot Tunnel would be enough for a limited scheme. And for those who’d fancy using the bikes for a pootle around south east London, the lack of docking stations across the rest of the area would be a handicap.
Indeed, what the Greenwich Tories didn’t say is that the mayor himself said such a limited expansion wouldn’t work. “You cannot just do it with five docking stations. You would have to have a proper scheme of 45 docking stations and that is what we are going to be going for.”
As for the ruling Labour group in Greenwich, it’s not that they don’t want the scheme — they simply don’t want to end up paying for it.
When asked, the council said an expansion into Greenwich would cost £5m-£6m to install and £1.3m to run. These are actually figures quoted by the mayor for an expansion of 45 docking stations, not the five or six the local Tories asked for.
But there’s still a cost to the scheme — and it doesn’t look like TfL wants to pay for it either.
Recent expansions of the scheme have been subsidised by local councils. This included £2m each from Hammersmith and Fulham and Wandsworth for 2014’s expansion into south west London. Lambeth paid £200,000 towards 11 hire stands around Stockwell and the Wandsworth Road, which may be a good indicator of what Greenwich would be expected to pay.
“If there is a deal we can do, then obviously we’d be very interested in doing it,” Johnson said of Greenwich back in June.
So far, it’s a stalemate in Greenwich. Labour gutted the Tories’ motion (PDF) and amended it (PDF) to one that said it expected TfL to cough up for the bikes, while the Tories are waiting for more answers on costs.
Greenwich isn’t the only area that lacks cycle hire coverage. Petitions have been set up in Peckham, Islington and Maida Vale to see the bikes come to those areas too.
But the cycle hire scheme is loss-making. Last year TfL said each trip cost it £1.36 (PDF), although it aims to roughly halve that cost by 2017. Compare that with London Buses’ subsidy of 16p per journey (PDF).
While the expansion into south west London means more than a million trips per month are taken on the bikes each summer, usage doesn’t appear to be rising (in fact, this year’s hires have been down compared with 2014’s for each month since June).
Even this year’s simplification of hire fees doesn’t seem to have to have encouraged riders to take longer, more expensive journeys. Last month’s average hire time was 19 minutes, the same as last year.
With local councils — and TfL itself — facing big cuts in funding, can London afford to keep expanding a scheme that is still losing money? Wannabe Boris bike riders in Greenwich, Peckham, Islington and Maida Vale will be watching the next mayor’s moves closely.