I was in London last week for work, and I took to opportunity to try commuting by Barclay Bike. The idea is pretty much the same as the Paris scheme: You grab a bike from one of hundreds of kiosks throughout the city, pedal where you want to go, then return it at another kiosk when you arrive.
Here’s a few initial observations:
- Unlike Paris, London isn’t a city of long, straight boulevards and imperial roundabouts. The streets are barely wider than the taxis careening through them , and drivers aren’t eager to share the space.
- Pedestrians and fellow bicyclists seem similarly irritated to have you, yet another projectile, to compete with.
- Beyond the challenges of the baseline infrastructure and its constituents, London basically has no bike lanes.
- You sometimes see a bicycle graphic painted on the road, but without grade separation or paint indicating space reserved for bikes, these graphics just direct you where to huddle for comfort.
- Every once in awhile a proper bike lane will appear. Sometimes it shows up on the other side of the road (I’m looking at you, Gower Street), forcing you to cross two lanes of traffic to get to it. Then after 100 meters it disappears, and you cross back over.
- So biking in London requires a a lot more concentration than biking in other cities. The combination of aggressive fellow travelers and ambiguous reserved space requires you to make up the rules as you go along. It’s not unusual to see one biker on the left side of the line of cars and another to the right of them.
- The bike scheme itself has problems too. Of my 14 attempts to rent a bike, only nine of were successful. Sometimes the bike stations said ‘terminal disconnected’. Sometimes the release codes didn’t work on the bikes parked at the kiosks. One time the kiosk was out of paper to print my release code.
- It’s really this lack of reliability that’s the closest thing to a fatal blow to the scheme. When you’re on your way somewhere, you need to be able to estimate your arrival time. Suddenly having to walk 10 minutes to the next bike-kiosk because the nearest one doesn’t work is enough to drive you back to the Tube. Sure, it’s the temperature of Venus down there, but at least you know how long you have to endure it before you arrive.
- All my bitching aside, it was nice to discover that biking through central London is slightly less life-threatening than I expected. The traffic looks intimidating from the sidewalk, but from the street you just feel like part of a school of incredibly aggressive fish. As long as you don’t do anything unexpected, you’ll probably make it.