Follow that bike

Waterloo railway station is the busiest in Britain. Last year, according to the Office of Rail Regulation, 86.4m passengers passed through it – almost one-and-a-half times the population. Many, of course, were the same half-conscious souls, multiplied over and over, obeying the muscle reflex of their daily commute.

Until last summer, they had to face the old, knotted permutations of London’s public transport network each time they came. But then, on July 30, in a flutter of photo opportunities involving Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, waving from a sturdy blue-and-grey bike – the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme came into the world.

The numbers vary but, coming up to one year later, it is now common for London’s 5,500 shared bicycles to make more than 24,000 journeys a day. They criss-cross the centre of the city, annoy taxi drivers and map as they go a kind of Brownian motion of our obligations and pleasures. Spatial analysts at the University of London have posted animations on Vimeo, based on data from these movements, in which the city appears like a brain, wriggling with thoughts.

Even those of us who do not use the bikes now include them in our imagination of the way that London works. Heavy, at 23kg, three-geared and unconfusable with any bicycle you might actually like to own, they zip across our line of sight, or wait in packs at one of the 396 docking stations that have sprouted on street corners. Of these, the largest is at Waterloo, with 126 machines, and at 7.40am on a recent Tuesday I went and stood next to it. In 15 minutes, it went from full to empty, like a mouth of specially loosened teeth.

The sudden flight was a demonstration of both the bikes’ popularity, and their vulnerability as a system. Unlike other modes of transport, communal bicycles suffer from the paradox that without a measure of unpredictability – short unnecessary spins, and lost tourists taking the bikes from one stand to another – they cannot be efficient. The more uniformly they are ridden, along a few routes, in the morning and evening rush hours, the more they mass in a few places and the less manageable they become.

Nick Aldworth, who manages the bikes for Transport for London, explained to me that running London’s scheme is about coping with all the people who want to get from A to B, while encouraging as many as possible to go from B to A, and C to D. “We need people to understand there is a limit to what we can achieve in one direction,” he said. “We need that balance.”

To see how the bikes move, I had decided to follow one throughout its hiring day. That was why I was at the rank at Waterloo, watching the commuters pour out, a few already in their fluorescent jackets and helmets, looking for a ride. Members of the scheme – there are 117,000 – pay £45 per year for a plastic key that they swipe on a bicycle’s stand before freeing it by lifting the seat. I watched while they performed brief, pre-flight rituals: putting on sunglasses or attaching a bag via the bicycle’s elasticated cord.

Each docking station contains a computer, which updates every three minutes with information about bikes in nearby ranks, and the one at Waterloo suggested I might have more luck on the South Bank. Down the hill, just a few hundred metres away (docking stations are supposed to be no more than 400 yards apart), yellow-bibbed employees of Serco, the giant British service company that operates the scheme, were handing out bicycles to the still-oncoming crowd.

In fact, Waterloo is so busy on weekday mornings that Serco drives hundreds of extra bikes there from elsewhere in the system, hiding them in a steel-wrapped enclosure at the north end of the station. An impatient hover of commuters circled a Serco man handing out machines, but I managed to get a bike this time before unscientifically choosing my target: the bicycle nearest to me, number 15966. A man in a suit with silver hair and a pink shirt was getting into the saddle, and I asked if he would mind if I could follow him. Tom Stafford, an independent financial adviser fresh in from Guildford, said that was fine. He was going to his office near Baker Street. The journey would take about 20 minutes.

Stafford, who said he uses the bikes every day unless it is actually raining – even on wet days, the bikes are used 12,000 times – rode fast. Cutting round the back of Covent Garden, he went smartly over a zebra crossing just as a woman with brown hair was stepping out. “It’s a pedestrian crossing, you idiot,” she said. Stafford plunged on. Neither of us mentioned it until a few minutes later, when Stafford confided that people on foot are the biggest danger to cyclists in London. “They’ve got their iPods in and they’re not looking,” he said. “If she decides she wants to step out ... Well. I don’t want to stop when I’ve got some momentum.” Stafford then pulled over to buy a croissant, leaving me with his bike for a few seconds – a calculated risk he takes every day: fewer than 10 bikes have been stolen since the scheme began. At 9am, he parked 15966 on Chiltern Street, and disappeared.

Within a minute or two, as I rested against a wall, a man with a short, salt-and-pepper beard arrived at the rank, freed 15966 from its stand, and began to make off on it. This time, I was not fast enough with my credit card (£1 gives you 24 hours of access to the bikes, for rides of up to half an hour, but you have to put your card in each time) and he started to ride away. “I’ve got to go,” the man called out. He said he would leave the bike for me near Farringdon. “Take the Tube.”

The popularity of the bikes is a source of huge, if contested, satisfaction for Boris Johnson’s team at City Hall. (Johnson’s predecessor, Ken Livingstone, claims to have come up with the scheme in 2007, while the Liberal Democrats say they first suggested it in 2001). My conversation with Kulveer Ranger, the mayor’s young transport adviser, who went to personally inspect the building of the bikes at the Devinci bicycle factory, in Quebec, Canada, attained a kind of blissed-out drivel. “We’ve actually wanted to deliver a 360-degree change in terms of how London does cycling,” Ranger said. “The scheme is one of the jewels in the crown of that revolution, shall we say.”

But even Johnson would not claim to have invented the idea from scratch. The concept of urban cycle-sharing has been around since the 1960s, when a group of hippies, led by a Dutch industrial designer called Luud Schimmelpennik, put 10 white bikes on to the streets of Amsterdam for people to go where they would. The police confiscated them the same day.

From the 1970s to the mid-1990s, formal systems were introduced in towns and cities such as La Rochelle, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Portsmouth and Cambridge. All contended with, and mostly failed under, the pressures of vandalism and the logistical headache of trying to stop the bikes all gathering in one or two places. In recent years, though, so-called “third-generation” schemes – with sophisticated docking stations, ungainly bikes and computers to trace where everything goes – have had much more success: in Paris, which has had more than 20,000 machines for hire since 2007, Barcelona and Montreal, on which the London system is based.

It remains a continuing science, though, and London is a complex test case. The city’s narrow and medieval street plan, its unusual array of five commuter stations and speed bumps (not good for trailers ferrying the bikes around) make life difficult. But London’s creakiness somehow adds to the sense of possibility as well. Although the new bikes only make a fraction of the total cycling trips in the capital each day (5 per cent of the 500,000 estimated by the mayor’s office), they are the visible symbol of Johnson’s desire to return the London bicycle to the prominence it enjoyed in 1904, when one in five journeys in the city were made on two wheels (“If you can’t turn the clock back to 1904,” asked Johnson, on the morning of the scheme’s launch, “what is the point of being a Conservative?”). As such, the scheme is being used to justify the furnishing of 12 bicycle “superhighways”, of which two have been completed so far. These dozen stretches of road, painted blue and equipped with extra mirrors, signals and parking spaces, will cost £166m.

The scheme itself has its headquarters on Penton Street, near King’s Cross railway station, in an old taxi depot, where I met Nick Leigh, the gap-toothed and optimistic Serco manager in charge. In the corner of his office was a whiteboard covered in equations and hand-drawn graphs attacking the logistical quandaries of the machines. “The scribblings of a madman,” he said. On paper, Leigh explained, London’s cycle system was only going to need a fleet of 14, non-polluting electrical buggies called “Alkis” to supplement the random movement of bikes across the city, chiefly by dealing with the inevitable daily tide of bikes washing in from the edge of zone one and back out again. But it has not worked out like that.

“I think we believed there would be more natural redistribution than maybe there is,” said Leigh. The Alkis are currently off the roads, unable to take the workload, and have been replaced by 18 less green cars and vans. The main force that Serco has to contend with are the commuters, who tend to ride the bikes in straight lines from the stations to the City and back again. As a result, Serco has recently had to rent storage space at King’s Cross, Waterloo and Holborn to avoid the dreaded sin of “double-handling” – ferrying the same bikes twice in the same day. When I asked Leigh whether he thought the bikes would be ever able to flow without any intervention at all, he looked wistful. “I have dreamed of lots of things,” he said, “but not self-regulated schemes.”

How the bikes continue to bed in will go some way to settling the question of their cost. The building of the first phase of the scheme – the bikes, the docking stations and all the associated hardware – came to £79m (an extension for the Olympics next year will cost a further £45m) and £18.7m to operate. In running costs alone, that comes to just over £5 for every bicycle journey made so far. Even allowing for a momentous rise in popularity, it is hard to see the scheme generating enough revenue to cover that any time soon. About 95 per cent of trips made on the bikes are for less than half an hour, and bring in no income, while the Barclays sponsorship deal is worth just under £5m per year. So far, Transport for London has only disclosed income from the public for first four months of the scheme: £1.9m.

After searching three stands near Farringdon station, I found bike 15966 on Hatton Garden, the old diamond-dealing street in Holborn. Five minutes later, it had been hired by Tom Avison, who described himself as an unemployed film marketer and said he was riding home to Borough, south of the river, after walking his wife to work. Avison, 33, had the practised swoop of an experienced cyclist. “I really believe that bikes are not meant to be stuck in traffic. They are meant to be cutting through,” he said, as we headed over Blackfriars Bridge.

In Borough, the bike sat for half an hour before it was picked up by Ed Birth (another white man, for those counting, in the first shades of middle age), an advertising executive, who was happy for me to accompany him on a 15-minute ride to Soho. He said he was going to a screening for a new advertisement for a computer game about Michael Jackson. As he parked on Frith Street, Birth said the scheme “has Totally. Changed. My. Commute”, in a slow and distinct way, to make sure I understood the power of those words.

It was here that bicycle 15966 experienced its first significant longueur of the day. I waited for 90 minutes before Charlie King, who runs a local minicab company, came out with two laptops that he needed to get repaired on Tottenham Court Road. The shop was just a few minutes away. “Do you break the law?” asked King, when I asked to follow him. “Because I do. Red lights, one-way streets, that sort of thing.”

As we headed north, King said that the rank on Frith Street now meant there was nowhere for his employees to park. He had lost 50 of his 270 drivers as a result. “They’re slaughtering my business,” he continued, as we rode under Centre Point. “But I love them. What could be nicer?”

King pulled over on Charlotte Street, where I waited until 4pm, when I realised that 15966 had been locked in its docking station (“Terminal connection lost”, said the stand’s computer screen). So I followed Rodrigo Pujol, an Argentinian student who was looking for a job in a restaurant on the South Bank. Half an hour later, I was back near Waterloo and my new target bike, 17075, was parked behind the National Theatre. I was tired, and grateful, when Mark Bonnar, a Scottish actor, appeared from a rehearsal of The Cherry Orchard, in which he will play Trofimov, the perennial student, and started pedalling towards Euston station.

Bonnar, in his early forties and wearing a brand new cycling helmet, talked about the play as we headed through Bloomsbury. “It’s funny when you get a new role, you suddenly see it everywhere,” said Bonnar. “Trofimov is this idealist. He believes in the bright new future, and this is idealistic, too.” Bonnar turned his bike right on to High Holborn. “It’s like revolution. It’s in the air at the moment.” Then he went to overtake a bus.

AN Wilson: ‘Nothing to lose but their bicycle chains’

When I was 30, and working as a literary editor at the Spectator magazine, a clever smiling man appeared to take my photograph. He was Mark Gerson, whose best-known subject is Evelyn Waugh – standing between two stone sphinxes, ratting tweed suit slightly crumpled, a mixture of infinite sorrow and mischief in the eyes.

I assumed Gerson would photograph me at my desk, where writers should be seen. Instead, he asked me to come outside and mount my bike. Walking past the pegs, Gerson spotted an old trilby hat, a cast-off of my father’s, and put it on my head. I had not known, until I saw his picture, that I was a “Young Fogey”. I thought I was just impoverished and, therefore, wore my father’s clothes and rode a bike.

My bike, especially with a basket on the handlebars, was a hangover from student days; at the same time, it was a statement of sorts. It said: I don’t want to buy into Thatcher’s Britain (as it was then) with its cult of Concorde, motorways and America.

The bicycle might have been invented by the Germans, but the bike as we now know it is essentially English. Pioneered, yes, by a Danish engineer called Mikael-Pedersen, but in the Gloucestershire village of Dursley. It was on a Dursley-Pederson that Elgar cycled over the Malvern Hills, his head full of the “Enigma Variations”.

Bicycling was, from the first, a way of being modern without polluting the environment. Even Tolstoy, fiercely hostile to industrialisation, became a keen cyclist. Bicycling was a liberator. The HG Wells class rode out of the suburbs into sexual and political freedom beyond the Croydon hedgerows: they had nothing to lose but their bicycle chains.

Throughout the period when the bicycle was being pioneered so, too, was the internal combustion engine, with its greed for oil. Ninety per cent of the world’s sorrows, including most modern wars, came from this fatal hunger. And in the war between bike and car, it seemed as if the greedy road-hog would always win.

But History has given Toad of Toad Hall his comeuppance. Boris Bikes are only a small symptom of the victory won by this quiet, efficient mode of transport. Oh the joy, in London, of whizzing past the traffic jams on my Pashley! And if I can foresee it is a perilous business to ride a bike these days, then, I’d rather die with my Pashley than live behind the fat wheel of a four-wheel drive, belching filth into the atmosphere.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.