Lib Dems say they should get credit for London's Cycle Hire Scheme

Assembly Member says her party thought of it first, while early success belies teething problems

by Simon_MacMichael   August 15, 2010  

Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme bikes on hire station © Simon MacMichael.jpg

One sure sign that a flagship scheme is working is when politicians across the spectrum start claiming credit for it, and while it’s often been pointed out in recent weeks that it was Boris Johnson’s predecessor as Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who got the ball rolling on the city’s cycle hire scheme, a Liberal Democrat Assembly Member asserts that it was her party that came up with the idea.

Caroline Pidgeon, who besides sitting on the Greater London Assembly, where she leads the Liberal Democrat Group and is Vice Chair of the Assembly’s Transport Committee, also represents Newington Ward on Southwark Council, acknowledges in a piece published on the independent blog Liberal Democrat Voice that “no one can deny that the scheme is proving incredibly popular,” despite well publicised teething problems.

However, she says that credit for it should not go to the Conservative mayor or the previous Labour incumbent, or even to the Green Party, whose Jenny Jones acted as deputy mayor to Livingstone, but instead to former Liberal Democrat London Assembly Transport Spokesperson Lynne Featherstone, who Pidgeon says came up with the idea in Summer 2001, the year after Livingstone had been elected as the city’s first mayor.

In a letter dated 28 September 2001 from Livingstone, written in response to what Pidgeon describes as “a detailed proposal” by Featherstone for a ‘Take-a-Bike’ scheme, the then mayor acknowledged that “a number of individuals and organisations” had suggested the idea of a bike hire scheme in the capital.

However, he said that before he could make a recommendation to Transport for London (TfL) to implement such a scheme, he would need to have “a better understanding of the market potential and the likely impact and the effectiveness of different proposals when introduced in London.” He added that “once the costs, benefits, implications and take-up are better understood, and wider support secured, introduction could be secured quite quickly.”

However, Pidgeon says that it wasn’t until August 2007, with the following year’s mayoral elections looming, that Livingstone asked TfL to conduct a feasibility study on a bike hire scheme in London, which led to him unveiling his proposals early in 2008. Johnson, who would beat Livingstone in the 2008 election, also took up the scheme as an electoral pledge, culminating, of course, in its going live a fortnight ago.

Whether or not you agree with his politics, it is under Johnson’s tenure as mayor that the dream has become reality, and while the phrase ‘Ken Bike’ perhaps conjures up the male equivalent of a ‘Barbie Bike,’ it’s the alliterative ‘Boris Bike’ that has quickly entered common parlance as shorthand for the Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme fleet of navy blue bicycles.

Now, there is even a website, www.borisbikes.co.uk, that acts as a forum for users of the scheme to highlight some of those teething problems that Pidgeon referred to, whether that be issues regarding the distribution of bicycles throughout the day – during the week, it appears that docking stations in the city centre tend to be full during working hours, with those on the periphery of the scheme area empty, while the situation is reversed overnight – or people who have been overcharged.

During the launch phase of the scheme, docking stations have deliberately not been located at mainline stations, since expected demand from commuters was anticipated to exceed supply, but that in itself has created another problem, highlighted by BBC London Transport Correspondent Tom Edwards, who has been blogging about his experience of using the scheme during its first fortnight.

Edwards, who had previously highlighted the difficulties of finding a free space in a docking station close to Kings Cross railway station, said on Saturday that a BBC cameraman had told him that “there was a huge pile of discarded hire bikes on Crestfield Street near King's Cross,” adding that “there were probably 20 or so discarded hire bikes.”

The cameraman added that there were two “bemused” TfL employees looking at the bikes, which Edwards suggests – in all likelihood correctly – had been left there by “people who dumped them because they couldn't find a docking station and had to get a train.”

While leaving a bike without returning it to a docking station could technically land the user with a fine of £300, Edwards doesn’t believe that will happen just yet, but it does suggest that TfL urgently needs to address the provision of docking stations at mainline railway stations, since even if people can’t pick up a bike there in the mornings, they are clearly riding there in the evening.

If nothing else, it suggests that TfL may have a logistical nightmare on their hands to ensure that docking stations near major transport hubs are freed up at evening rush hour – no small undertaking when you consider that there are more than a dozen mainline railway termini within the cycle hire zone, to say nothing of major tube stations such as Oxford Circus.

However, the general feeling that comes across is that people like the scheme – more than 50,000 of them have already signed up to it – and are understanding of the fact that there are bound to be problems in their early days.

For their part, Johnson and TfL are doubtless relieved that they decided to opt for a soft launch, making it available only to those who had signed up, rather than fully public in its soft launch phase, but if it is to play the central role in the “cycling revolution” that the mayor has promised his constituents, the quicker the problems highlighted to date are tackled, the better.