David X. O'Neil

The system is losing riders, and now its major sponsor has backed out. Can it be saved?

Something is going badly wrong with London's bike-share scheme. Launched in summer 2010 to great enthusiasm, London's 4,000 "Boris Bikes" (so called after Mayor Boris Johnson) were supposed to usher a new age of car-free, cycle friendly streets to the city. This year, however, their popularity has fallen by almost a third. While the system recorded 726,893 journeys in November 2012, last month there were only 514,146. To cap these poor user figures, today Transport for London announced that the scheme's major sponsor, Barclays Bank, will pull out of its sponsorship deal in 2015. Given the bad publicity the system has received recently, it may be hard to find a replacement sponsor without some major changes.

So why has London's bike-share scheme gone awry?

In order of gravity, the answers seem to be cost, danger, and patchy maintenance. This January, bike-share prices doubled, from an hourly rate of £1 to £2. While the older rate was a clear bargain, the new rate edged close enough to the cost of public transit to make many wonder if the price was worth the hassle of finding a bike and getting sweaty riding it.

Then there’s the matter of London roads' increasing deadliness for cyclists. Five cyclists were killed on city roads in just 9 days last month, a death toll that recently sparked a die-in over poor safety protection. These deaths are not the fault of London's bike-share scheme, of course. The arguable culprit there is London’s cycle lane network, which provides the illusion of safety with its conspicuous blue markings, but offers no real, segregated protection from motor vehicles. Searching for solutions, there may be some sense in Mayor Boris Johnson’s demand that cyclists pay better attention to the law, but it’s hardly the sort of message that gives people the confidence to get back on their bikes.

Those who still feel safe enough to use the bikes may still not locate or re-dock one easily, as docking stations often empty or fill entirely. The daily shift of bikes from outer stations to the center is inevitable, and supposed to be corrected by regular redistribution. Yet it seems Boris Bikes have developed a lackluster reputation over the years in this regard.

None of this would matter much if London’s scheme was entirely self-sustaining. But while Paris's bike-share scheme actually makes money for the city, London's 4,000 bikes cost local taxpayers an average of £1,400 per bike per year. As the Daily Mail points out, this would be enough to buy each of the scheme's 38,000 registered users a £290 bike. Barclays has thus found its sponsorship deal a mixed publicity blessing – though the bank itself may be part of the problem. The £50 million it promised was never going to be enough, and the amount it has actually handed over so far suggests their ultimate contribution could be at little as half that.

Still, there's life in London's bike-share scheme yet. In fact, the scheme plans to expand its scope next spring, introducing 2,000 more bikes and expanding docking stations into Southwest London. And though it was actually his predecessor's idea, bike-share is too tied to Mayor Johnson's legacy for him to let it fail without a fight.

London bike-share's difficult adolescence shows how creating a system isn’t enough. If you want to change a city's transit habits, you need an extensive, safe cycle network to encourage people to keep using it once the novelty has worn off.

Top image courtesy of Flickr user David X. O'Neil.

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