Can Serco run the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme succesfully?

Yesterday morning I was walking to work (Yes dear reader, sometimes I like to remind myself just how bad travel by Tube can be by leaving the bike at home) when I practically tripped across a shiny new Barclays Cycle Hire bike, propped up on Berkeley Square.  "That's odd", I thought, "shouldn't that be docked in a docking station, rather than just left in the road?"  I looked at the bike for a while, thinking about what might have happened.  Perhaps it had been stolen, perhaps someone riding for the first time had decided that London traffic was so scary that they'd literally given up the ride half way to their destination.  It was nearly 9AM; perhaps a hire rider couldn't find any available docking stations and, circling around and around in an ever increasing fit of frustration had simply given up trying and abandoned the bike to the elements and left the bike in the road and hoped for the best.  I have to admit, neither being ridden nor locked into a docking station, the bike looked strangely out of place, even forlorn.

As a member of the scheme I have a vested interest in seeing the scheme succeed and every bike stolen or missing is going to be ammunition for those who might argue against expanding it.  So, with the Mayor of London's plea to Londoners ringing in my ears (“I want everybody to realise that these bikes belong to every body — this is a partially Communist experiment") I pulled out my mobile and rang the bike hire scheme call centre.  It rang, and rang, and rang. Eventually I got through to a helpful young man who suggested I should ride the bike to the nearest docking station and dock the bike securely.  He asked for the bike's unique ID number so he could try and trace the account of whoever had owned it, and I set off on my merry way...  Sadly, the first bike hire station I tried at South Audley Street was full.  So was Conduit Street. And St George's Lane, Curzon Street, and New Bond Street.  It seemed increasingly likely that whoever had abandoned the bike in the first place had done it in desperation looking for a docking spot.

9AM had been and gone by this point so I took it to my office for safe keeping ('cos lets face it, an unlocked bike on the not so mean streets of Mayfair will last all of about 5 minutes before it is nicked) and rang the call centre to let them know what I'd done and would they mind awfully sending round their bike distribution truck to pick it up? "Of course we can, Sir!" they replied (after taking what seemed like an age to pick up the phone) "Someone will be with you in an hour!"

Two hours later I was still in possession of my ill-fated hire bike and was growing quite attached to it. Attempts to ring the call centre again (ring ring, ring ring) got me through to what was described with apologies as 'the secondary call centre'.  They explained that no, they couldn't put me through to the primary call centre, or the bike distribution team, but that they could take my name and number and get someone to ring me later...

8 hours and 6 phone calls lapsed between me finding the bike and a nice young man from the bike distribution team coming to my office (with Barclays branded fleuro vest and helmet!) to pick the bike up.  Lucky for Barclays Cycle Hire I'm a patient kind of guy; other people might have been tempted to, you know, dump the bike in the street.  At an estimated £300 a pop I'm sure that TfL are keen for this not to happen.

So where is the scheme going wrong?

The installation of the docking stations seemed to go reasonably well (NIMBY idiots in Mayfair doing their worse not withstanding), and the bikes themselves (designed and built in Canada) seem robust enough.  But there have been horror stories aplenty about people's keys not arriving (apparently it helps when you remember to pay the postage), people's keys not working, spurious charges appearing on accounts before accounts are cancelled all together and of course the fact that the scheme is yet to be opened fully to non-members.  Every morning at Waterloo on the South Bank there are teams handing out bikes to meet demand as quickly as they can - during the day central London bike racks are full - come home time the teams are back at the stations ready to receive back all the bikes they handed out in the morning.

A glut of bikes near Waterloo last night, photographed by Twitterer @Fundamentals with thanks.

Of course, we are all aware that the scheme is new and those of us who have joined are supposed to be 'pioneer members' (what, all 45,000 of us?). But Serco, the company who were awarded the £140 million scheme to run the scheme, have to demonstrate value for money and shake out the problems they are having with their call centres and supply and demand issues if it is going to be deemed a success.  I think my day with the abandoned bike demonstrates perfectly where they could begin to improve.  No one would ever take the Tube or bus if this was the kind of service they received; these are the standards that Serco should be aiming to exceed.  According to Ross Lydall on his Evening Standard blog, Transport for London top bod Peter Hendy has had similar issues with the scheme and will be giving Serco an ear-bashing as a consequence.  If our pleas aren't heard, maybe his will?
 Do you have confidence in the BorisBike scheme? What do you think needs to be done to improve the present customer experience?  As always, I'm happy to pass on your thoughts to the relevant authorities.


ibikelondon said...

No sooner had I posted this blog when I received some more stats about the Boris Bike scheme from Ross Lydall at the ES via his Twitter Feed:

#Borisbike journeys hit 250,000 - and 59,500 registered members. Now around 15,000 #Borisbike journeys a day

59,500 registered members? I think we're going to need more bikes!

james said...

So London's insanely overcrowded and unpleasant rush hour trains are full of lots of cyclists who, for various ever reasons, don't cycle commute, but are confident enough on bikes to use a free one to complete their journey rather than cram in to a tube train. Granted, some people do carry Bromptons with them, However, many trains get so full even getting a folded on of those on a rush hour train is not easy. Seems kind of strange that no one foresaw this particular situation. Surely it ain't rocket science? EVERYONE I know who's got a key is what one might call a regular/frequent/keen cyclist.

There are a few other points which must surely have indicated usage would be heavy.

Financial - for 50 of our fine British Pounds per year you get a bike when ever you want it. Far cheaper than owning.

Storage - no need to worry about finding a place in an office or flat to store the thing.

Theft - no need to carry heavy locks, find a safe place to lock it etc.

Surely these points should have been taken into account when planning the scheme? I really hope the scheme is a success but it seems some more far sighted thinking is needed to make sure it doesn't become overwhelmed by it's popularity.

ibikelondon said...

James, I think you've nailed it on the head on two fronts here;

Firstly "more far sighted thinking is needed to make sure it doesn't become overwhelmed by it's popularity." which I think is exactly what's happening, and secondly with your strong reference to train commuters./ The original lay out of the scheme was *not* intended to be used by train commuters (thus why there are no docking points actually in the stations) because they were worried the scheme would be over run by commuters. Also, without casual use there is no day time movement of the bikes to encourage natural re-distribution.

I'm not convinced however that all Boris Bike users are already cyclists; I've seen plenty of online testimonies by people who wouldn't usually dream of cycling to work who have enthusiastically signed up the scheme; for that reason it is a great thing and of course deserves to succeed. We just need to iron out the many creases first!

Pete Cruze said...

None of my bikes fold, so I use the Borisbikes every day for the central London part of my commute. Luckily for me the station I go to always has space, and while they're manning the railway station sites in the morning and evening I'll probably get away with it.

But we're all kidding ourselves if we think this is the answer for commuters. Just do the sums - however many docking points and bikes they throw at it would never ever be enough. Put more lanes on a motorway and more cars just fill it up straight away, it's the same equation.

Helen said...

You're correct that the scheme was not intended to be used by train commuters - Boris Johnson tried to sell it as "getting people out of their cars" which clearly is not the case. A scheme which was promised in the current Mayor's election manifesto as costing Londoners *nothing* is now costing £140m+, with costs that have at least doubled since the first figures were made public. Value for money?

Jez said...

I've used the scheme a couple of times to get around SE1 but yesterday was the first time I rode into W1. I found the final available docking point on the 4th station I tried, which was a long walk away from where I wanted to be.

Maybe the opening up of the scheme for causal use will attract a different profile of user who will create more churn in the system and clear the bottle necks. To be honest I wouldn't use the scheme to commute from Waterloo to West one again until I see big improvements, to me it just looks like it's got a LONG way to go.

Anonymous said...

I've just had my first ever Boris Bike experience. Travelling from Borough to Old Bailey for a meeting. It didn't start well, the first station wouldn't release a bike. Really enjoyed the pootle over the river, but then had to visit 7 docks before finding one that had a space. I ended up half a mile from where I needed to be with 10 mins to get there. I was a sweaty mess by the time I made the meeting, despite having allowed 50 minutes to travel 1.8 miles. Getting back was hassle free. It has the potential to be a great scheme, but if bikes are not redistributed properly during the day then the whole thing falls down. It should be perfect for hopping from meeting to meeting, but I can't risk being late for clients so will be very wary about using a bike for that purpose again.


Anonymous said...

Serco cannot run our work computer system (I am posting this from my phone for serco related reasons). If they are as good with bike maintainence I would never ride one.

Anonymous said...

Public bike hire schemes can not work in large cities. As others point out, this one cannot cope with the flows - more than a million people in the rush hour, and back out in the evening. So the scheme has to be designed to deter usage, e.g. no bikes at stations.

If the deterrent works, the scheme is underused and pointless. If deterrence fails, then many users face either an empty dock when they want a bike, or a full dock when they want to return one. That is also a deterrent.

15,000 journeys sounds like a lot, but the peak flows into central London generate over 2 million trips every day, again not counting off-peak flows and trips within central London. So you are probably talking about a half percentage point on the modal split, and of course even less over London as a whole.

So the scheme seems to have worked, in the sense that it was intended to be a failure, and it is. But logically, what is the point of any transport system which must de designed to fail? So there is little point in blaming the operator for the inherent defects. Of course Serco dishonestly misrepresented the scheme's merits, but then the mayor encouraged them to do so.

The scheme should be abandoned, and the money used for policies that work. That would include cycle parking at stations, but given the scale of the flows, that alone might cost more than £140 million.


Kirses said...

I haven't had any problems with the scheme. I've been hopping on a bike near Kings Cross and cycling to Soho Square. I do get up early though so I'm usually at Kings Cross by 8am. Suspect that the docking stations in the City may be harder to dock at than those in the West End. Yet another reason to work in the West End as opposed to the city.

Mark S said...

Having only used the Boris Bikes twice for meeting a mate for lunch last week I was quite surprised to find the dock next to Euston Station (Dorick Street) was almost empty come 1pm! I took one of the last 3 bikes.

Plenty of bikes and a few spaces by Mornington Crescent where I dropped it off and the rain whilst we ate ensured I had a selection to use on the way back!

FWIW I have found a nice little Cycle Hire widget/app for my android based smartphone which can fetch up the minute stats on nearby docks, along with free slots and bikes etc.

I do agree there appears to be a massive underestimation of the scheme but do feel pangs of excitement as I see yet another rider on them, hopefully over time more people will realize that the under/over-ground or a bus isn't necessarily the best way to get around our city :-)

Anonymous said...

why didn't the city of London just buy a whole lot of cheap bikes from China - say the cruisers cost £40 each (which is a high cost) - £100 million would pocket the city £2.5 million bikes - and the running costs would be low - ie you wouldn't have to lock them - sure you'd get vandalism but it would pretty soon turn London into a green city with 2.5 million bikes for commuters....

socialist dream eh?

ibikelondon said...

Socialist dream indeed! I believe this is exactly what Cambridge did back in the 1970s with their white bikes scheme; brought a load of cheap white bikes and left them around town for people to use as they wished. Someone came round with a van a little while later and nicked every single last one of them.

I like to think there's a village in China somewhere with a lovely collection of white bikes with 'City of Cambridge' stamped on them.

townmouse said...

As an ex-Londoner who comes down fairly frequently I'm definitely going to use this scheme when I'm down. I'll be using it off peak, so probably helping stir the bikes about a bit during the day (if I get bored between meetings I may even have fun riding bikes from full stations to empty ones just to be nice) - BUT that all depends on them opening the access to the casual user as I don't come down often enough to make it worth my while to sign up long term

Pete said...

After a few problems with registering I have had no problem finding bikes or spaces.

I think anything new is going to be getting as much interest as the scheme is getting. There was no way to know how many people were going to use the scheme so there was always going to be teething problems. It is partly the point to only open to registered users at the start.

While I think Serco could be a bit more proactive, they are probably working hard behind the scenes to fix things and learning from the their mistakes.

I wonder if the Oyster Card had issues in the start too? In fact it still does as there are always stories in the news about people getting overcharged.

In a couple of months when all the initial buzz of something new settles down everybody will have forgotten the issues the scheme had in the start

Adam said...

I've had problems with key not working, being over-charged, and not finding docking stations. But I've no sympathy with those who complain.

If you sign up for this in the first few months, you will always have to put up with teething problems. Given that people have travelled in and around London for the past however many years, then they should be able to cope with the underground/bus/walking for a few more months while the wrinkles are ironed out. Or they can trial a brand new system and be prepared to put up with some hassle. So no sympathy there.

On the demand point - it could have been a flop for all anyone knew so better to start small and build up rather than the other way around.

Android/iPhone apps reduce the frustration of having to visit multiple docks.

Anonymous's point on cycle hire schemes is as bizarre as it is proven innaccurate.

The problem is if this lasts for a longer period of time, as Serco appear to have a very expensive contract and need to perform better.

Anonymous said...

I think they've just been caught out about how successful this was going to be.

Us in the know (i.e. regular cyclists) could have predicted the immediate shift in commuter behaviour better perhaps. In a recessionary economic environement people will adapt quickly to a cheaper alternative form of transport.

I suspect that the bean counters thought that this would be taken up in lower numbers by commuters and Londoners and thought more tourists would use them. However, can tourists use them now? (I presume the pay-by-card thing is not on yet.)

I was going to join even though I only occasionally travel to London, just to save lugging my bike on the train. Given the niggles I might wait a while to see how things pan out.

Keep up the blogging!

Unknown said...

I think the price is very unfair for this very bulky heavy bikes! £6 for two hours? Just rubbish! I just wanted to go from Stamford hill to portobello road and unfortunately there is no port nearby I had to go to falkirk road n1. If i would buy a travel card for £6.30 i could go anywhere i shorter duration. They need to encourage people for the scheem and reduce to price!

Pete Cruze said...


If you're still reading this blog:

Members don't have to have annual access periods. The only extra you need to pay to be a registered member is the £3 for a key.

That makes the daily and weekly access periods available to you just like they are for casuals, and you don't need to queue at a terminal, just switch auto-renew on to start a new (presumably) daily by hiring a bike each time you come to town.

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