Lot of anticipation surrounded the Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme a.k.a. the Boris bikes. It’s been up and running for almost two weeks now, so we set out the see how the scheme works, how the bikes ride and how easy or complicated it is to actually use the scheme.

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

My flatmate had ordered a couple of keys, and he was kind enough to lend me a keycard, so last morning I cycled to the closest docking station to start the trial, which happened to be at Vauxhall. I deliberetaly hadn’t read anything about what I was supposed to do, how to unlock a bike etc., I was curious how obvious it was for a new user.

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

First, you have to enter your keycard into a little hole. The yellow light indicates that it’s acknowledged the card and then in a couple of seconds the system makes up its mind whether you can take the bike (showing a green light) or there is some sort of a problem and denies you access by flashing the red light. When I first inserted the card it gave me a red light, so I tried to call the number on the back. After listening to the automated voice response system’s “We are very busy, etc.” message, I ended the call and gave it another go. This time all went well and the green light lit up. It was time to remove the bike from the docking bay.

It’s not intuitive: just pulling won’t work, you need to lift the back of the bike up to remove it from the docking bay. Though it’s only confusing for the very first time you use the service, a hint for new users would be nice on the docking bays or on the bike.

I set up the saddle height and peddled away. I’m 6’4″, so I hadn’t really hoped that I could set the bike up comfortablly, but by pulling the saddle post to its upmost position, the bike fitted almost perfectly. It’s a nice touch that there is a scale on the seatpost, so once you’ve found the right height, it is easy to find the right saddle height next time.

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

The next docking station I bumped into was right under the train tracks at Vauxhall station. It was almost completely empty, apart from one bike, and as it later turned out, docking stations near busy junctions were almost unanimously empty.

I didn’t have to cycle too far from this spot to find the next station, just a couple of yards away from the MI6 building and probably 300 yards from the previous station. This one, however, was full, there wasn’t a single free slot. This was also quite characteristic across the board: in the backstreets, away from busy spots, one could find plenty of bikes, so it might make sense to familiarize yourself with other stations as well in a specific area.

My next stop was at Victoria – the 30 minute free period was about to expire so I was keen on dropping off the bike. It was one of the busier sites, so there were only one or two bikes available and while I stood there, making a phone call, three or four bikes were dropped off and picked up almost immediately. This was where I run into Mark, who also used the scheme for the very first time and I asked about his thoughts on the scheme. He works in Central London and it seemed like a good idea to sign up to cover shorter journeys. He really liked the bikes and the only he missed was a bit more help with road safety for less experienced riders.

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

Mark

I saw quite a few docking stations so far during my journey, so when I left Victoria, I was quite sure I wouldn’t run into problems finding another one. Since I’m a Blackberry user, I didn’t have the opportunity to find nearby docking stations with this iPhone app, so I was just hoping to be lucky. And lucky I wasn’t. I arrived at the first location, where I ran into Dan, another first-time user of the bike hire scheme.

Dan

Balint: How long have you been using the Cycle Hire Scheme?
Dan: First time today.

Do you like it?
It’s good! It’s very heavy but it’s definitely very stable. I’ve been commuting in London for 20 years now, this is handy for little trips where my bike is locked away. I love the fact that I can take out four bikes with one key if I they haven’t got bikes. They can come along and do little trips.

Is there anything you would change about the Scheme?
I hope they’re planning more and more docking stations, so they are closer and closer together, because anyone who cycles in London is lazy. We don’t like walking, we like cycling, so there should be enough docking stations so we don’t have to walk.

I had the funniest encounter later in the afternoon. I had to go to visit our Westend store on Mortimer street, so I wanted to drop the bike off somewhere in the area. I knew that there was a docking station on Great Marlborough Street, but it was full when I arrived. The online screen, that was supposed to tell us where the closest location with a free spot was, wasn’t working, but a friendly guy arrived soon after me and he pulled out his iPhone and the hunt for a drop-off point started! He spotted another location not too far away, on Little Argyll Street, so we cycled there together. It turned out to be full too, and the information screen wasn’t working there either. It was getting a bit frustrating as my free 30 minutes was about to expire and I was quite keen on getting rid of the bike.

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

The three of us trying to find another drop-off location.

It was there when the whole thing turned out to be a community game as a women arrived at the location to drop her bike off, too. So there were the three of us, no free docking bays and no working information screens to find the closest docking station with free bays. All three of us cycled together to St George Street in the hope of finally being able to drop the bikes off and we were all lucky – there were exactly three free bays. I asked Lynn about her experiences with the scheme.

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

Lynne

Balint: How long have you been using the Cycle Scheme?
Lynne: This is my first time, today!

How do you find it?
Well, I didn’t know how to take out the bike, so I phoned their 0845 number, which I was a bit frustrated about, because it was from a mobile, and it did work, it’s just the bike is heavy so you have to really lift it out and that’s how you take it out and I was just pulling it, that was my only problem.

Do you like the bike?
The bike’s fine. I ride a Brompton, so this feels really safe and easy to ride, in comparison to my bike, so I like, I like it a lot!

Why did you sign up for the sceme?
Because I work freelance, I’m an interpreter and I work in different places around the city, so I thought, just like now, it makes sense to make short journeys instead of the tube. Quicker.

Is there anything you would change about the Scheme?
I forgot to carry a map with me and the map doesn’t have cycle routes anywhere, so you end up going on the road, so I had to make notes on a notepad which roads I needed to take. That’s something that might be improved.

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

I spent the rest of the afternoon in similar fashion. In general, we can say that the distribution of bikes/free spots is very uneven and you can often run into the problem of not finding a place to drop your bike off. It is a bit similar if you drive to a place with very few parking places and you keep driving around a couple of blocks in the hope of finding a spot and the whole thing takes almost as long as the entire journey. Of course, with careful planning and an iPhone app, the experience could be improved vastly.

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

There is only one thing is left to talk about – what were the bikes like? In their class, they are really good bikes. Of course, they are quite heavy, but to endure to continuous abuse, they need to be build sturdily.

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

They have a simple but reliable 3-speed  internal hub gear, which offers a comfortable gear ratio in most situations you can come across in Central London. The brakes were quite impressive on most of the bikes, they were sometimes surprisingly good, but there were the odd front brake that merely slowed the bike down but didn’t contribute much to bringing the bike to a halt.

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

The only thing I didn’t like about the cockpit of the bike was the angle of the brake levers – it should follow the angle, your hand closes with the handlebar, but in case of these bikes, they are almost horizontal, so the angle feels weird and not very efficient.

A nice feature on the is the basket on the front – in theory. It’s not very big and it lacks sidewalls, so in case you want your stuff to remain in it, you need to use the supplied bungee cord. However, if your bag’s dimensions exceeds the basket’s, the cord will squish it – if you don’t use the cord, you risk loosing the bag.

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

I’m also not a huge fan of the wide saddle, but this is personal preference, and during the typical sub-30 minute journey, it probably wouldn’t matter at all.

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

Nigel

Balint: How long have you been using the Cycle Hire Scheme?
Nigel: It’s been a week now.

How do you find it?
I think it’s absolutely brilliant. I live around here [near Southwark station], I used it for all my local journeys. I’ve been to the center and there seem to be less parking stations once you get north of the river, the more parking stations the better. It’s brilliant for the short ride, the beauty is that, after the ride, you can just plug it in and walk away, you don’t have to carry the bag, padlock, anything, it’s brilliant.

What do you think of the bikes?
Well, I’m nearly 6’4″ and I have trouble finding a bike that works for me these days. I don’t like the leaning forward, it gives me a stiff shoulder. Oddly enough, I find these bikes very comfortable, they are really good, I put it up to a high saddle  and they are really good.

Is there anything you would change about the Scheme?
To tell you the truth, I can’t think of anything negative, I think it’s brilliant. Just more, we should have more.

After an entire day of riding the bikes, I returned the lastly rented to the docking bay at Vauxhall and switched back to my good old Trek Soho and cycled home. I had had high expectations and the scheme managed to fulfill almost all of them. It is fun to ride the bikes, the docking locations are frequent enough and most of the time, there are enough bikes/empty bays. Even though I have run into the problem of not finding a spot for a bike drop-off, once one gets more familiar with the locations of the docking stations, the whole experiences gets smoother.

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It is ideal if you want to run errands in Central London, if your commute takes you through zone 1 or you just want to test the waters to see whether commuting in London is for you – without first investing into equipment. Though managing capacities seems to be the Achilleus-heel of the scheme, they make a lot effort to even things out – trucks rearrange bikes during the night to balance the bikes out between more and less frequented locations. The pricing is also sensible: you have to pay £3 for a membership key, there is an access fee of £1 per day and you have to pay a usage fee, but the first 30 mins are free. To be honest, I can hardly imagine a trip within the boundaries of the Scheme that could last longer than 30 minutes, but even if that happens, just drop the bike off en-route, wait 5 minutes and continue your journey with the same bike. You can find  the detailed costs of Cycle Hire Scheme here.

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme review

Have you tried the Cycle Hire Scheme? Let us know what YOU think!