LONDON – Ugly, gray and cumbersome, London’s latest transport innovation has as much street cred as a wheelbarrow – and barely goes much faster. So when a cycle courier pulls alongside me and declares: “Hey, is that one of the new bikes? Cool!” I nearly steer into a double-decker bus.
The use of the c-word by a courier — the self-appointed arbiters of two-wheeled taste in the English capital — in connection with the one of the sturdy new hire bikes being deployed across the city this week is the second surprise of my debut ride on the machine.
The first is how much fun I’m having.
From July 30, Transport for London is rolling out 6,000 rental cycles in locations around the city. In exchange for a few dollars, anyone with a credit card will soon be able to spontaneously ride one; getting from A to B by one of the eco-friendliest, if not necessarily safest, means possible.
The aim is to replicate the success of a similar scheme in France: the iconic Velib rental bikes that have become almost as recognizable an icon in Paris as women dressed in Chanel or men smoking those awful cigarettes, transforming the city from a motorist’s nightmare into a cyclist’s paradise.
On the eve of the scheme’s launch, Transport for London — the government body in charge of the capital’s tangled network of underground and overland railways, buses, trams and now bicycles — has agreed to lend GlobalPost one of the new machines for a test run.
Before I go there’s paperwork. In exchange for allowing me use of bike number 100366, the program’s Tony Snow wants me to sign a stern waiver absolving his employers of all blame in case of accident, but invoking terrible retribution should I fail to return the bike in anything other than pristine condition.
Under these strict rules, I’m only allowed out on the bike for an hour. It’s a fair allotment since most bike hire journeys are likely to be for around 60 minutes, after which prices rise. There’s a $1.50-a-day membership fee. The first 30 minutes are free, then $1.50 for an hour, $6 for two, $20 for three.
Conscious of the minutes leaking away, I leap aboard 100366 and careen straight into the busy traffic outside the program’s central London headquarters. The good news is we’re well-placed to tick off a few tourist landmarks, so I’ve optimistically mapped a 10-mile circuit taking in as many as possible.
The bad news is unlike Paris, which has wide sweeping boulevards with separate bike lanes safely sequestered from the traffic, London’s narrow, congested streets could only be less suitable for cycles if they were paved with broken glass (which, on close inspection, many of them are).
I may not look it, but I’m quite a fit cyclist. I ride most days and recently completed a 120-mile epic in less than eight hours. Nevertheless, attempting to encourage the London hire bike to do anything more than meander lazily through the traffic is a struggle.
The machine is built (out of pure lead, judging by the weight of the thing) for durability rather than speed. There are three gears, all aimed at the slower-end of the spectrum, so any attempts at acceleration are futile, which I realize is just as well when applying the somewhat relaxed brakes.
As it transpires, it’s not the speed of the bike that will prevent me from completing my circuit, it’s the popularity. From the get-go 100366 is turning heads. When I stop to take a picture outside my first destination, the 18th century facade of Westminster Abbey, several tourists ask to pose with the cycle.
I press on, past the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, out along the River Thames to Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, drawing smiles and approving comments all the way.
At one point we pass by one of the docking stations where some of 100366’s fellow machines are already installed waiting for action, giving them a friendly ting from the bell which, alongside LED lights and a front basket resembling a magazine rack, are the utilitarian bike’s only accessories.
There’s no time to stop as we putter gently through the city’s financial district, even though a brief restroom break would have been welcome. The bikes don’t come with locks, so leaving them en route risks theft — and whatever horrendous retribution I’d agreed to at Transport for London headquarters.
This isn’t the only complaint.
Cycling groups say the scheme doesn’t cover enough of the city and there are warnings of logistical issues when riders can’t find free docking stations to return their machines. They also warn of the many dangers — from potholes to trucks — facing casual cyclists.
None of this is on my mind as I reach the distinctive dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. I’ve discovered the off-road capabilities of 100366’s fat tires, bouncing them playfully up the curb and — hoping that Transport for London will forgive me — down a small flight of stairs, which they handle with great aplomb.
Shortly after this enjoyable detour I have my pleasant encounter with the cycle courier. It’s enough to give me a final burst of energy to reach my final photo calls at Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace.
Implausibly, my cellphone’s SatNav system tells me that, although I averaged 9 m.p.h. over the distance, my top speed was a lawbreaking 33 m.p.h. It doesn’t stop me from being more than 15 minutes late though. Tony Snow doesn’t mind, he’s just happy to get 100366 back — as unhappy as I am to part with it.