Saturday, July 31, 2010

Barclays Cycle Scheme needs a bit of puff - Some Hints and Tips

R and I went to try out the Barclays Cycle Scheme that started yesterday in London. As you can see in this lop-sided Anti-bullying video my victim-come-able assistant had trouble getting started. The brakes had been over-tightened (we were told) making them incredibly stiff. Not all were as stiff and there is a simple way to check them that you'll find in the tips below. We soon got going.

The bikes - they look very clunky and heavy. I found them a very comfortable ride after a brief spell of adjustment. Shortly after starting I turned into the packed thoroughfare of Borough Market and was able to crawl along very slowly without having to use my feet at all for balance. They are incredibly stable. You feel enthroned on them. The gears are smooth and on the flat you can get a bit of speed on.

Docking stations - it would have helped me as a rider (but not as a resident) if they were bright orange and had thirty foot totem poles beside them and blared out air raid signals all day. It would make them easier to find. The map I had been sent showed a docking station on the North East side of Tower Bridge which is simply not there. I was close up to my thirty minutes and went hunting without a happy ending. I found one in Vaughan Way but arrived there just over the 30 minutes you get "for free".

Docking station assistants - they are just there for an introductory period. When R had trouble with the first bike a friendly and well informed assistant 'fessed up that he had never actually "been on one". This seemed to be the general rule with the assistants and that has got to be a bit daft in anyone's book. After the missing dock fiasco I caught up with R at another dock and explained the issue to the two assistants there. One of the assistants looked like I had accused her of being Raoul Moat's spirit guide. Way too defensive - the sort of defensiveness you get when you haven't been properly trained. The other assistant was pleasantly surprised when I gave positive feedback about the ride-ability of the bike so I guess other riders had been negative. Those stiff wheels one can assume.

Connecting and disconnecting-A lot of people have had trouble taking them out. Lift the saddle so the rear wheel is clearly off the ground before pulling the bike away from the dock. You'll want to do this for the stiff wheel check anyway (see below).

We didn't encounter the "full docking station" scenario. This is where you arrive at your destination and find you have nowhere to dock. As well as the non-existent dock mentioned above we did find a totally out of order dock (Panton Street) when we were going to collect a bike for a new journey. This didn't allow anything to happen and wasn't able to tell you where the next nearest docking station was - you wouldn't have been able to credit yourself the extra fifteen minutes either so a bum deal if you were running close to your thirty minutes.

Check the lights on the dock - I encountered two non-functioning docks (within an otherwise functioning docking station). You have to see green. R got pounced on by curious onlookers (see "Meet the People" below) just at the critical moment so was unsure if she had docked - so concentrate for a few seconds just to make sure. It can take a few seconds for the bike to be recognised and docked. We went to double-check that it had docked correctly online when we got home but the system was down (and continues to be down at the time of writing).

Meet the people - if you crave attention get on one of these before the novelty wears off. This is why people spend loads on clothes and speedy cars, I guess, except that instead of shying away in envy people were really open and communicative. A bit too communicative. Entering into a FAQ session whilst you're waiting for the lights to change on the Tottenham Court Road is a bit distracting. People in vehicles asked questions as we cycled along. It got a bit too much at times. I had a lengthy encounter with some woman who kept pulling incredibly long faces whenever any kind of charge was mentioned. "If you use it a lot it costs less than one pound a week" cue LONG FACE "if you are a professional thief and nick them you get £300 deducted from your credit card" Cue INCREDIBLY LONG FACE OF GOBSMACKED DISBELIEF. After each long face there was an immediate re-birth of enthusiasm which would go fine until any money was mentioned. And she didn't look poor. Meanwhile to my right a very gentle (probably medicated) young man in an anorak slipped in supplementary questions during the woman's dramatic pauses. Then some Angry of Woking type in a suite strode over and demanded "some maps please". I told him I didn't work for the scheme and that I was just a cyclist but he obviously didn't believe me and he walked off muttering about jobsworths.

Earlier in the day a nice, better-informed guy tried me to help me find a docking station as he could see I was lost. "My girlfiend says there's definitely one down there by a small park" - I thanked him and cycled off and soon realised the kindness was greater than the utility of his advice. He might as well have said "there are docking stations in London somewhere".

The weirdest one was the woman sternly shouting at me as I whizzed past "Where is the Swedish Embassy!" - quite who or what she thought I was I will never know - some sort of free-ranging tourist guide on wheels? Maybe they have them in Stockholm.

Hints and Tips

1. Check that the bike's rear wheel spins smoothy. raise the bike by lifting the seat and spin the back wheel. If it looks sticky try the next one until you get one that runs smoothly.
2. Carry a stop watch. You'll need to check how much time you've used yourself there is nothing on the bike that tells you. Adjust your seat height (very easy to do) and load your bags into the basket before you undock to stop wasting any of your thirty minutes.
3. Get a members key even if you're going to be an infrequent user - for the extra three quid you get a lot of convenience . Doing Tip #1 (above) may not be possible without a key (I'll need to check this). I am still not sure if the £3 fee is per key or per order. You can order up to four keys per account (for your non credit card carrying teenage family and friends). I found registration very easy but you do need a credit or debit card.
4. On your first journey put in some planning - though I am an ok cyclist and know Central London quite well combining the two was harder than I thought. I got completely befuddled at Berwick Street when on my way to Wardour Street. My theory is that when you are walking you have more mental route planning time. On a bike you're always ahead of yourself - and its not just routes to "where-you-are-going" but routes to "the-nearest-docking-stations-to-where-you are-going" that you need to calculate. Look at a variety of route planners if you can. The route I had down Cleveland Street from a Tfl cycling map had changed due to one way systems.
5. If you have the opportunity to take some spare maps or literature do so - it will save you chat-time with interested strangers. Explaining the pricing scheme is complicated I can assure you.
6. Look at the Highway code section for cyclists if you're not a motorist already to better understand the road signage - the maze of streets in the centre of town are quite confusing with their various restrictions. As you are riding on public property you're expected to obey the rules of the road.
7. Don't think "Bike Hire" think "Public Transport Journey". This came home to me when R was speculating about the ability to take Scheme Bikes on the Thames Clipper service. There's no point - she was thinking in terms of hiring a bike for a period of time. Her sequence was "Collect bike -cycle to pier- embark with bike on Clipper-travel to desired pier-disembark with bike continue and cycle on to final destination where bike is returned". The proper sequence is "collect bike - dock bike near pier- FORGET ABOUT BIKES ENTIRELY AND GET ON WITH NORMAL LIFE-get off boat and start another completely different journey on a new bike." It is not a bicycle hire scheme. Its "a flexible self-propelled element of the public transport system based on a bicycling model".
8. FIVE MINUTES - that's the time you have to wait between docking your bike and setting off on a new journey. The longer the bike remains unreturned the steeper the hourly rate but there's nothing to stop you breaking your journeys into smaller bits apart from this five minute wait time. The scheme organisers emphasis time and again that this is all about short journeys.

Although I loved riding the things after four and a half journeys and glass of Rosé in Davey's Wine Vaults in Greenwich and a further (own) bike ride home I was totally knackered. R and I found the whole thing totally addictive. I just hope it can keep ahead of the low-level crims and ahead of demand from the many people who are going to use and hopefully love and respect this new transport system.


graham.benbow said...

A very entertaining and useful commentary on the Cycle Scheme - I guess to much gyrating the night before did not help with fatigue

Boris Bikes said...

Great post. Especially the Hint's and Tips. Would be great if you could republish them as a new top on my forum -

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