On the face of it, the Barclays Cycle Hire for London initiative started last July (colloquially, “Boris Bikes”) makes a fine test of the viability of Cameron’s Big Society.
Although the equivalent public cycle scheme in Paris, the Vélib, has been dubbed a popular success, it’s been expensive. Oh, the rental cost for Parisian punters is low enough — far lower than the price of a London rental (and wouldn’t it be). But over two years, 9,000 Vélibs have been stolen, turning up as far afield as Romania and Morocco. Another 9,000 have been vandalised, since the sturdy rentals — free for the first half hour — have become a symbol to the alienated suburban poor of the spoilt bourgeoisie. In all, Paris has already replaced two-thirds of its Vélibs. Will Londoners prove more civic-minded?
Well, it’s not hard to prove more civic-minded than the French. Nevertheless, after two months in operation, London’s public cycle scheme had lost only five bikes to theft. A casual survey of docks in the capital doesn’t turn up a host of crumpled wrecks beaten into submission with the crowbar of class resentment — perhaps because Boris Bikes don’t symbolise anything yet but mayoral vanity.
The reason the mayor’s two-wheeled namesakes haven’t turned up in Budapest may be more mundane than civic pride. Renting a Boris Bike requires a credit or debit card, which will be dunned £300 if the bike disappears. Admittedly limiting the bikes’ utility, the London version doesn’t include a lock; Vélibs come with locks that Parisian bike thieves have easily fiddled. Wresting a bike from a London dock is more of a project.
Moreover, if one looks to London’s wider cycling “community” — though if London cyclists constitute a community, then so do lions, hyenas and wildebeest on the veldt — the spirit of the Big Society has been subsumed by Darwinian free-for-all. I’ve cycled in a range of countries, and nowhere have I encountered a rabble of cyclists so rude, rivalrous, hostile and cavalier about safety. Londoners appear to regard allowing another bike to ride in front of them as tantamount to taking it up the backside with a cricket bat. With so much dignity on the line, it’s a race to every traffic light, and even dodgy manoeuvres such as overtaking on the inside are par for the course. Increasingly, the biggest threat to cyclists in this city isn’t buses, taxis or lorries, but other cyclists.
Why are London cyclists so cutthroat? The number of bikes on the road here has tripled in the last decade, and that’s the official estimate; personally, I’d bet on quadrupled. That means a high proportion of new converts. Witness white folks who go Islamic, like John Walker Lindh: converts are fanatics. Converts don’t simply cycle; they are cyclists. With whole identities on the line, no wonder neophytes will churn to the point of stroke to overtake veterans like me — who just want to get where they’re going in one piece.
Otherwise, the problem is primitive competition for a scarce resource: space. Which is my leading complaint about Boris Bikes — a high-profile and seemingly green scheme for the mayor, but one that, well, doesn’t so much put the cart before the horse as put the buggy before the carriageway. Boris is adding 6,000 more bikes to roads that cannot handle the bikes already on them.
I am wholly sympathetic with London motorists who grow exasperated with massive packs of cyclists clumping at intersections and veering wide into second lanes in their frenzied determination to overtake one another. But the capital has yet to seriously commit to making life easier for cycling commuters, whose needs should have taken priority over those of the casual day-trippers and tourists likely to use Boris Bikes. (Their docks are deliberately located far from railway stations, lest they be overused. This is serious?) The addition of a small fleet of Barclays rental bikes will infinitesimally relieve pavements and mass transit, but the people who hop on city-centre rental bikes are not taxi riders or car owners. Commuters who cycle in droves from outer and southern London do significantly reduce motorised traffic and take pressure off public transport.
To be truly green, London has to be more radical, and I do not mean slapping around a little more blue paint, à la the new so-called cycling “superhighways” — since if that’s a superhighway, the Cumbrian Way is the M25. Rather, I’d commend the kind of wide, separated bikeway that now traverses the whole west side of Manhattan (perhaps along the Embankment) and protected bike paths for which occasionally — shockers — motorists have to sacrifice. Boris Bikes are a pleasant but merely decorative addition to London transport. A real cyclist already has a bike. What a cyclist doesn’t have in this town are safe routes on which to ride it.