What is it with Conservatives and bikes?

Evening rush-hour in Soho Square

Fresh from fulminating about the cost of petrol, Boris Johnson has taken a sudden turning without signalling (again) and been moaning in the Telegraph about why Londoners don’t make more effort to get on their bikes.

Unlike Lord Tebbit, who built a career on cycling advice, BoJo’s main concern is air quality rather than job-seeking. But in having a whinge, he needs to look first at his own backyard – that is, the City of which he is Mayor.

Despite great advances in the last thirty years, London remains one of the least bike-friendly cities in the world. Not many of the less well-off are going to use a bike for transport and exercise, because bikes are horrendously expensive, and buses (now having whole lanes entirely to themselves) are much safer, drier and cheaper. (Early research bears this out)

The return of the adult push-bike per se has been very much a designer, upmarket trend since it began in the 1980s. I watched non-Bo-Bike users carefully over two days in London recently, and they are almost all delivery oiks (mad and lawless, every one of them), fluffy greens, or supremely kitted out business professionals. Many bike lanes share with buses, whose drivers are not what one could call knights of the road: I used to cycle twelve miles to work every day, but I stopped when a valued colleague was killed doing it….by a bus that pulled out without warning. The same thing had happened to me many times.

In doing the deal with Barclays to sponsor State-supplied rental bikes, Mayor Johnson has made the same mistake that GLC leader Ken Livingstone made many years ago with bus lanes: pushing cars out of the way before the infrastructure was there to make this a sensible thing to do. To alleviate the congestion that Ken caused, he solved his self-made problem by introducing the congestion charge. When this simply moved the jams to the north and south circular roads, he extended the charging scheme. Bicycle lanes were not a priority during this venture.

None of this was good for suburban cyclists, a fact that seems to have eluded Boris. As a result – following an initial novelty period – his pale blue bikes do not seem to be in demand:

West End lunchtime rush-hour

Both the shots in this piece were taken at midday and evening peak hours in places where you’d expect high demand if it existed. Last June, BoJo was warned by ‘experts’ that the scheme would be swamped – and would need seven times more bikes than those being supplied. But by 25th July, Boris’s ‘Cycle Friday’ promotion was scrapped when just five riders took part.

A fortnight ago, Mayor Johnson told a Green Party member at City Hall:

“A cycle hire scheme in Outer London would be a wonderful thing to do. The difficulty is you can’t just have a new, self-contained cycle hire scheme a long way away from the current one without necessitating quite a big set of journeys by the Barclays guys moving the bikes around. It is logistically difficult, for instance, to set one up immediately in Croydon or anywhere else much as I would like to. But we are looking at it….”

The alignment of this answer isn’t awfully close to the truth: the verite is in fact that most of the demand is in the centre….and comes from people, ah, just like Boris.

The scheme cost £140 million to set up and launch, and Tranport for London (TfL) will spend a further £114m over five years on the project. That’s a quarter of a billion quid – and journeys have never been above 6,000 a day.

Basically, the bikes are in the wrong place, and subsidising people who earn over £50,000 a year – while the scheme has inherent problems when expanded to the suburbs. Boris says it’s all about “looking at it”, but it could well be that the blond bombshell is ignoring the white elephant in the room.

To judge, we need to see some up-to-date numbers on this. I think we should be told what they are.

7 thoughts on “What is it with Conservatives and bikes?

  1. Evidence based? Bollocks, certainly!

    There have been more than 2 million journeys on the hire bikes. Average weekday usage is over 20,000 so I have no idea where you got your “evidence” from. Best day until mid November was 27,000 odd (and that was in November, hardly the best cycling weather).

    The £140 million is for 6 years so half a billion is utter rubbish. I have no idea where you got the other figures from. Further, £25m of that £140m comes from the Barclay’s sponsorship. TFL expects it to be either revenue-neutral or slightly profitable (in terms of running costs) after 3 years of operation (would be the only transport system to achieve that if it happens).

    The scheme is not perfect but criticisms based on complete fabrications and untruths are not part of a reasonable debate.


  2. ahh I see where you got your figures (the linked article).

    Please read it again and try to spot all your errors in comprehension.


  3. ”What is it with the Conservatives and bikes..”
    Good question given all the talk from the government about balancing the economy by supporting British manufacturing. So Serco were awarded the contract to supply…SERCO??…and guess what….a Canadian cycle maker was awarded the manufacturing accolade.
    Marvellous isn’t it, if not pathetic..!!


  4. Taking both your comments, a half billion would be rubbish, but I said a quarter of a billion.. The £140 million was what it cost to organise, pay for hardware and launch the scheme. The over six years figure of £114M is ON TOP of that and involves both running costs and expansion. That £254Million. Check it out.
    The 5 riders of Friday cycle-in is Johnson’s own figure…you think he scrapped it for being a success? I used a one-off snapshot figure of 6000 a day at one point in time: you have rubbished that with figures over a much longer period of time, and then with a different snapshot.
    Several commentators using the same evidence as mine (none of which is fabricated) have shown conclusively with feasibility studies that the distances involved in rolling this out to the suburbs make the whole idea a logistical nonsense. Johnson conveniently skirted round this with his ‘we’re looking at it’ drivel.
    The social profile data is irrefutable and precisely as I laid it out, complete with link.
    I stand by my view as a privious biker of London as a bike-unfriendly city, and that BoJo (like all fluffy politicians) has done the flash thing without doing the groundwork.
    Finally, the shots I took personally speak for themselves and overwhelm a thousand data sets: at peak times on three days last week, not one bike was in use at either of those sites.
    Thanks for your input. Please read the piece again and try to spot all the things you doubled, mis-compared, and generally got wrong.


  5. I think once the weather gets a bit warmer people will start using the bikes. It hasn’t actually been properly available yet when it hasn’t been winter.


  6. Hi,

    I am a regular reader of your site, but found this article to be rather harsh. I am a fan of the Boris Bikes and also own my own bicycle and find the Boris Bikes are great for short jaunts around the centre without the danger of having my own bike knicked!

    I don’t think that the pictures you took of full docking stations show “at peak times on three days last week, not one bike was in use at either of those sites”. During the day the full docks are emptied by the roving staff. A full bike dock therefore means that enough bikes were used to fill up the docking station, I don’t see that as being a bad thing!

    I find London is much safer for bikes than most cities as the smaller, congested roads keep road traffic to minimal speeds and therefore less dangerous to bicycles (at least in the centre). Suburban cycling is a whole different kettle of fish however.



  7. ” What is it with Conservatives and bikes?”

    I know. It’s never ending. From Edwina Currie to Nadine Dorries. They just can’t keep their knickers on.
    Especially if their quarry is married.


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