Cast your minds back to 30 July and the launch of the Mayor’s £140m (at the last count) cycle hire scheme:

Mr Johnson said: “I think this is a fantastic day for cycling and a fantastic day for London. It will be a wonderful way of getting people out of their cars and breathing the fresh air”

A last-minute crisis of confidence, shortly before the launch (which had already been delayed from May) ensured that only guinea pigs Pioneers were able to use the scheme; potential users had to sign up in advance and purchase a key rather than being able  to turn up at a docking station, swipe a credit card and go. Casual users would be able to use the scheme four weeks later, according to TfL.

Well, four weeks later and there’s still no sign of casual users having access to the cycle hire scheme. Why might that be? Two weeks after the launch, casual use had been put back to:

mid-September at the earliest…

Kulveer Ranger, the Mayor’s transport adviser, said: “Probably the first couple of weeks of September is what we are looking at. We always knew there would be a few teething problems and that is what we are working through.”

The London Cyclist website has collated “a ton” of problems, including docking stations not releasing bikes and freeing space for others to be returned, shortages of bikes at main stations, an overloaded call centre and cyclists having their accounts frozen, so they cannot hire a bike.

Indeed, Tfl Commissioner Peter Hendy was himself a victim of the continuing operational problems. An IT professional made the following observation:

And now the point, if you are going to invest so heavily in projects and PR, by launch date ensure that you have the simple stuff organised. A website that can handle and accept customer details is easy these days and there is no excuse for it not working. The fact it doesn’t means all money spent on the schemes PR is lost, I now think it’s a badly organised mess, and I’m writing about it on my blog… bad PR. How many others are too?

Still, the Mayor’s own website was trumpeting that the cycle hire scheme was a roaring success due to the numbers who had signed up, despite comments such as these from dissatisfied customers:

FOR Goodness sake – DONT JOIN – not worth the money.What a complete shambles – keys that don’t work, helpdesk that say they cant help and just there to listen, no bikes where you want them, no docking stations available when u want them, a map sent out with your keys that shows docking stations – where none exist – so far I have found 5 just in my area that aren’t there, the shambles has cost me in excess of £18 for tube fares because of no bikes, has made me miss trains and be late for meetings due to no docking stations.Keys that wont let you take a bike if one is there, docking stations that wont let you dock – no green light – call centres that take AGES to answer – and are absolutely helpless to help …. I really wanted this system to be succesful but the management should be fired – if I set up such a system and provided such customer service in my industry I would be. Trip to Montreal ???? Obviously didn’t learn anything – it works there ….. London totally, totally let down …… I am fed up hearing about ‘teething’ troubles – if as was said they only to be expected why wasnt a contingency plan put in ??? Now I remember why I don’t bank with Barclays …. !!

and…

I am trying to use the Boris/Barclays Cycle Hire but feeling I must soon give up; there is a MASSIVE lack of bikes everyday around Waterloo station. Most days I walk all the way to Blackfriars, having checked 5 docking stations, before finding a bike or end up getting a bus.

There really needs to be trailer loads of bikes waiting at Waterloo otherwise this isn’t going to work. Returning to Waterloo in the evenings I have missed trains due to lack of docking stations. Again there need to be trailers constantly removing bikes.

All the information must be available at ‘bike control’ so they can see where the problems are & should act on them!

A real shame as I was hoping to use these bikes everyday. Please pass this to Barclays Bike Hire people as they have made sure not to supply an email address!

The main problems, which are not isolated cases but widespread:

  • Online accounts in chaos – credit cards being charged incorrectly, journeys not showing up or phantom journeys appearing
  • Docking stations full meaning users are wasting their time and money cycling around, trying to find an empty dock to get rid of the bikes
  • Keys that don’t work, docks that refuse to release bikes, docks that refuse to allow bikes to be docked
  • Hire terminal screens  are down – this seems to occur frequently
  • Docking stations that don’t exist are shown on the maps issued before the scheme was operational – what was the point of issuing the maps if they were inaccurate and how much money was wasted on printing them?
  • Abysmal customer service – users can’t get through to the call centre, sometimes being “bumped” to the overflow call centre which can’t actually help, takes a message and promises to ring you back but never does
  • Extra keys on the same account – the access fee is charged for every key on the same account when one is used, regardless of how many keys are actually used
  • Rail commuters finding that the hire docks around their central London termini are empty when they want to hire a bike and full when they want to dock one
  • A complete absence of signage to the cycle docks from other public transport stops or stations meaning the cycle hire system is not integrated with buses, Tubes, etc

Hmm. What was the purpose of the cycle hire scheme, again? Let’s go back to launch day, when the mayor said:

It will be a wonderful way of getting people out of their cars and breathing the fresh air

Ah yes, modal shift, one of Boris’s favourite buzz-phrases. How many “pioneers”, then, are using the hire bikes instead of driving? I’d make a guess at none.

To examine the reasoning behind the cycle hire scheme we need to return to TfL’s feasibility study from November 2008 [PDF]:

Transport for London (TfL) aims to achieve five per cent mode share for cycling by 2025, requiring a 400 per cent increase in cycling levels from the year 2000 daily cycle trips. London has already seen a significant rise in the number of people cycling with a 91 per cent increase on London’s major roads since 2000.

The huge increase in cycling, of course, occurred under the watch of former Mayor Ken Livingstone, whose 2008 transport manifesto [PDF] tells us:

Cycling levels up by 83% over the past five years; investment increased
five-fold with new cycle lanes and 40,000 new cycle parking spaces.

Tfl’s feasibility report for the cycle hire scheme:

It is recommended that a minimum of 10,200docking points with 6,000 bicycles would be required. They would be located at anything
between 300 and 400 docking stations. A minimum density of eight stations per km2 should be pursued

OK, that’s what they aimed for, but the next point is :

There is significant market from ‘after rail’ commuters.  However, sufficient space to cater for the full demand is unlikely to be available.
Hence, it is not recommended to cater for this market initially.

So, there’ll be demand from rail commuters coming into London but we won’t cater for them as we won’t be able to cope? Well, that’s been blindingly obvious. Did TfL/Serco  think that if they sited cycle docks some distance away from mainline rail stations then commuters wouldn’t use them?

The demand from rail commuters has been so great that Serco have had to transport large numbers of bikes across London by truck to empty docking stations which are overwhelmed with people who want to drop off bikes and fill docking stations which have no bikes available. Indeed, some dockless commuters have, like TfL Commissioner Peter Hendy, resorted to taking their hire bike into work with them and phoning Serco to come and collect the bike from them.Bearing in mind that one of the feasibility study’s recommendations was:

Minimum use of vehicles to re-distribute bicycles.

How can this possibly be cost-effective? An intrepid blogger has asked TfL for evidence of the business case for the cycle hire scheme but is still waiting for a reply from them.

The risks listed in the TfL feasibility study are:

1.Over/under estimation of demand
2. Theft and vandalism
3. Safety concerns and public liability issues
4. Space availability and planning permission
process for the implementation of docking
stations
5. Conflict with pedestrians
6. Conflict with other road users
7. Need for excessive re-distribution of bicycles,
potentially increasing congestion and air
pollution (albeit marginally)
8. Inefficient use of public infrastructure
9. Large investment required and inability to recoup
costs
10. Political, financial and PR fall-out caused by an
unsuccessful scheme
11. Inadequate complementary measures, wayfinding
and routing to support successful

To judge by the appalling inadequacy of the customer service, it’s obvious that point 1) is a major problem and points 7) to 11) are also failings. Amazingly, nowhere in the feasibility study is the operational software mentioned – it would seem to be full of glitches, causing everything from incorrect charges to  the status of docking stations being shown inaccurately when users phone the helpline.

Has our “more bang for your buck” Mayor provided us with value for money? Boris Johnson’s 2008 election manifesto promised to:

broker a deal with a private company to bring thousands of bikes to the capital at no cost to the taxpayer….As the scheme in Paris has demonstrated, commercial firms are happy to shoulder the costs of this type of scheme.

The cost of the current scheme is estimated at £140m – but don’t forget the £25m contribution from Barclays! Still, a scheme that was pledged as costing Londoners nothing is currently costing us £115m – ouch. The Mayor proposes that a further £81.7m be spent on expanding the scheme.

A mode of transport which, despite the Mayor’s claims, is doing nothing to get people out of their cars, is not accessible to those with impaired mobility, the very young, the very old or the poorest (a credit or debit card is needed to use the cycle hire system) and is taking away revenue from the bus and Tube.

 
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