We Rode And Ranked London's Cycle Hire Schemes

We Rode And Ranked London's Cycle Hire Schemes
Photo: Matt Brown

It seems like every other week a new cycle hire scheme launches in London. Like the head of a Hydra, as soon as one old scheme dies — usually thanks to lack of profitability and Londoners chucking the bikes into rivers — two more take its place. But which scheme is the best? We put each widely available hire bike to the test and reviewed them based on five key aspects: design, hiring, riding, docking and cost.

Before we get to that, here's a quick introduction on all six bikes we tested.

The contenders

A Jump bike. Photo: Shutterstock

We opted to use Santander Cycles  as a control bike for this highly scientific experiment. You might know them by another name, relating to a prominent Conservative politician, but we're afraid that like all the scariest bedtime story ghouls, he becomes more powerful each time you mention his name. The bikes have been around since 2010 and there are roughly 13,600 of them in London. across 839 docking stations.

Next up is Mobike. Actually there are two Mobikes — the original and Mobike Lite. We found the two different enough to warrant being reviewed separately for certain categories. Mobike first came to London in September 2017, around the same time as Ofo. Ofo left — too many people chucked its bikes into rivers — but Mobike has kept going, despite pulling out of other British cities.

Then there's Lime. After the failure of Ofo and another dockless scheme called Urbo, the industry seemed to be leaning towards electric assisted bikes instead — known as pedelecs. Lime is a company better known for electric scooters in other cities but these are currently illegal in London.

Then private hire giant Uber got into the game with Jump, a deep red alternative to Lime. Another pedelec, Uber seemed to be relying on its integrated app to provide a large user-base for the bikes.

Finally there's Freebike another pedelec, and the first bike sharing scheme that's been allowed to leave bikes in the City of London — although it also operates in a few other pockets of London.

And without further ado, let the games begin!

Design

A row of the dockless Freebike.
The garishly neon Freebike

Jump: Red. Very red. And rather thick. Apart from that, the attached cable lock at the rear of the bike is a possibly useful (find out why later) idea, rather than the auto lock the other bikes use on the back wheel. The pouch at the front for your phone doesn't feel at all secure — we refused to risk ours in there. 3/5

Lime: Green. Very green. Although fortunately not too thick, so that's a one up on Jump. Plus, the smartphone holder is super secure, if a bit fiddly and rough — it's a metal clamp. 4/5

Freebike: We're sure you've seen these blinding neon bikes dumped around the City in the last few months, its gone for a branding strategy of 'PLEASE NOTICE US'. We noticed alright. The bike also has what looks like a gas canister slipped into the back, presumably where the electricity is stored, and the whole vehicle is covered in slogans. Not a pretty sight. It's gone for an elastic contraption at the front instead of a basket and like all electric bikes its seriously weighty. 1/5

Mobike: The bike is unfathomably heavy, considering it isn't electric and doesn't have gears. What's producing all that weight? The colour scheme is remarkably inoffensive — the grey and orange combo doesn't scream in your face like some its competitors. However, the bike's frame is low and squat. It manages to look like a cross between a child's bike and a lowrider. 2/5

Mobike Lite: It has the same colour scheme as its big brother without the weight and squatness. In essence this looks and feels like a normal bike. Our only complaint is that the word Lite isn't nearly prominent enough, hidden away on the frame of the back wheel. 4/5

Santander: Santander Cycles are hefty, but then so is nearly every other bike on this list. Apart from that the design is fine. The navy frame with flashes of red for Santander's branding is less in your face than the majority of its dockless challengers. However, the basket with elastic doesn't feel as secure as the full metal options those competitors carry. And changing the height of the seat is far more strenuous than on a dockless bike. 3/5

Hiring

A Lime bike chilling out with some Santanders.

Freebike: You need to download the Freebike app and set up an account, before riding. This is true of all the dockless bikes, but the whole experience seems clunkier on Freebike. Another gripe is that you need to top-up your credit before riding. In the year 2019, this system is anachronistic — your details are linked up to your account, why can't you just be charged per journey? As you'll see below, Freebike isn't the only app to go down this route. Apart from that, the hiring process is simple a quick QR code scan and we're good to go. 3/5

Mobike and Mobike Lite: Another app, another outdated top-up system. Hiring a Mobike is simple but it's not quite clear which Mobike you're hiring. There are orange and white icons on the map. Nowhere are you told that one is a Mobike lite and the other is your normal Mobike. You have to figure that out for yourself. Once you get over those issues, it's one QR scan and you're aboard. 2/5

Lime: The third in a trilogy of app downloads and top-up systems, you can at least turn auto-top-up on, which will remove some faff each time you want to use Lime. The QR code scan failed to unlock the bike on our first attempt, but managed it on the second go. 3/5

Jump: Firstly, most Londoners already have Uber downloaded on their phone, which is surely an advantage for Jump. There's no new app to download, instead you just need to switch from 'Trip' to 'Bike' at the top. Not using a top-up system is wonderful and speeds things along. Again it's a scan of QR code, but you then need to unlock the bike manually by pulling the cable lock at the back (all the other bikes do this bit for you). You can also reserve a nearby bike on the app, which means only you can hire it in the next 30 minutes. A handy feature no other app has. 4/5

Santander: If you're not a regular user and don't have a key, you have to go up to one of the touchscreen stations to buy a code for a bike. The screens aren't particularly responsive, and it's all a bit time consuming, especially if there's a queue in front of you. Then you head back to a bike to unlock it. It's longwinded, and we saw some tourists completely flummoxed by the system in Hyde Park. There is also an app you can use, although this isn't particularly obvious to the average user. 2/5

Riding

The category's clear loser, the original Mobike

Mobike Lite: The only option that felt like riding a normal bike. The Lite in the name doesn't lie, the dainty frame is far more nimble when riding London's streets. There aren't any gears, but we didn't particularly miss them. 5/5

Mobike: We lasted seven minutes before panicking and getting off the bike. It's not road worthy. The bike weighs plenty, but doesn't have any sturdiness thanks to the weight, nor are there gears. We spent our hellish seven minutes afraid of careering into other road users, so difficult was the bike to control. Avoid. 0/5

Lime: At the end of our journey the app informed us that we'd burnt 21 calories. We're surprised it was that high — you do the slightest pedal and the bike does the rest of the work. The bike's biggest issues is its engine, which whooshes you forwards when you start from a standstill. The boost is reminiscent of using a mushroom in Mario Kart. That sounds fun, but on public roads it could easily go wrong if you're unaware of what's about to happen. 3/5

Freebike: Clearly a lot of thought has gone into designing a Freebike, although that isn't necessarily a good thing. The bikes try so hard to avoid the zooming off when starting from a standstill, that they've gone too far in the other direction, and sometimes you really have to put some welly in. We think this is to do with the brakes interfering with the electric engine — a great idea in theory, but in practice they get in the way too much. Sometimes when we're just trying to temper our speed, we cut the engine and the bikes starts to grumble, which could be quite dangerous on the open road. A shame because these are the most responsive brakes on any of the hire bikes, but they're too strong. 2/5

Santander: The one thing that Santander Cycles have over every other bike lacks is gears. These help replicate the sensation of riding a normal bike to an extent, but three gears isn't plentiful. The bikes are hefty, but this adds a sense of security. 3/5

Jump: Jump's bikes manage to hit that sweet spot of electricity assisted bikes. Moving from a standstill isn't unnaturally fast nor slow, it comes in and helps you along just at the right time. It's also slightly faster than Lime, and you can really tell. Ok, you're still going to get overtaken by the hardcore Lycra cyclists on a flat, but you won't get completely left in their wake. 4/5

Docking

Someone doesn't know how to dock a Santander Cycle

Santander: Docking a Santander Cycle is simple, just head to a docking station and find an empty spot to park up in. Wait for the green light to acknowledge you're parked, and then head on your way. The fact that you have to be aware of the location of your nearest docking station is the only inconvenience. 4/5

Freebike: The whole point of a dockless bike is that they can be left anywhere — within reason. Not so with Freebike. As we finished our ride, we made sure we were within the general parking zone, and tried to lock the bike on the app. At which point we were informed that it wasn't at docking spot. So we had to get back on the app, and try to find an invisible (to the naked eye) docking station, otherwise we'd have to pay an additional £3.50. This added a few extra minutes to our journey and wasn't intuitive at all. 2/5

Mobike and Mobike Lite: Reasonably simple, you just have to slide the lock across on the bike and wait for the app to acknowledge that you've finished your journey. This took about a minute on our second Mobike trip possibly because we were in an area with limited internet, but got there eventually. 4/5

Lime: No trouble whatsoever, found a place to park the bike that wasn't in anyone's way, told the app we were done, and that was that. Easy peasy. 5/5

Jump: Each app has a zone you're allowed to park your bike in, and Jump is no different. As we went to park our bike on the Embankment, we were informed that we would be charged a whopping £10 as we were outside the zone. That we were outside the zone was not at all obvious on the app — it uses a shading system to tell you where you can't park but doesn't make clear what the different shades mean and where zones start and stop (there's some confusing overlapping). We zoomed out to try and figure where we could park nearby, but that led to the zones disappearing for a bit. It took us a full two minutes (which costs 24p) to figure out a nearby place we could park.

Then when we got there we were advised to lock the bike to something, using the cable lock attached to the rear of the bike. Except it also said we weren't allowed to lock the bike to any cycling infrastructure. Completely befuddling. 1/5

Pricing

A Lime bike
Lime is the priciest of all the hire bikes

Jump: We don't understand Jump's pricing. Its website says it costs £1 for five minutes and 12p for each additional minute after that. So for our 25 minutes we should have been charged £3.40. Instead we received a bill of £1.12. That's the best deal of all bikes we've tested but we think it's a glitch, or perhaps it was a first time rider's deal. We're rating it on what we think the price should have been. 3/5

Lime: On first glance we mistook the E on the bike for a £ sign, although in retrospect perhaps this was just a prophetic sign of how much more expensive this bike is than its competitors. The bike charges £1 to unlock it and then 15p per minute. That meant our 13 minute ride cost us £3.10, by far the worst rate going. 1/5

Freebike: The name Freebike is rather suggestive. It makes you think that the service is free. WRONG. Well mostly wrong — the electric assisted bikes that the brand has dumped across the City and beyond all cost money to use — but you can get 10 minutes free if you want to cycle in non-electric pedal mode. As a pedelec, at £1 per 10 mins, they aren't even that cheap, perhaps Averagelypricedbike would have been a better name (we can't think why they didn't go with that). 3/5

Santander Cycles: It's £2 to hire the bike and then another £2 for every additional 30 minutes you ride. If you're a regular user you can get a membership key for £90 a year (or 25p a day), which is a solid deal, and if you're a student you can get 25% off that. 4/5

Mobike and Mobike lite: Mobike has shifted its pricing policy a fair bit since its arrival in the UK — partially as a response to people damaging the bikes. However, as best we can tell it's a simple £1 per 20 minutes for both Mobike and Mobike lite. There's also a Mobike Pass, which includes an unlimited number of rides under 120 minutes. There are three options: 30 days (£12), 90 days (£35), 360 days (£90). 4/5

Final results

Our victor: the Mobike Lite

6. Freebike: 11/25

5. Mobike: 12/25

4. Jump: 15/25

=2. Santander Cycles: 16/25

=2. Lime: 16/25

1. Mobike Lite: 19/25

So there you have it. We've crowned the Mobike Lite our London hire bike champion. Will it be able to defend its title when Beryl launches in London? Or will we seen the scene totally shaken up by the introduction of electric scooters (if Usain Bolt gets his way)? That's right. This isn't going to stop anytime soon.

Do you have any views on London's new dockless bikes craze. Let us hear about them down in the comments.

Last Updated 28 June 2019