Pedal power revolution

The bike is about to score some rare victories over the car. Today thousands of people are expected to take part in a cycling event in west London called Sky Ride.

More than 11 miles of roads in Ealing will be closed to motor vehicles in an attempt to flush out would-be cyclists. Last year a similar event in central London attracted 65,000 cyclists and won an award as Europe’s sports participation event of the year.

Tomorrow Boris Johnson will launch the first two of 12 planned cycling “superhighways” — bike-only tracks connecting the outskirts of the capital to its centre. And at the end of the month the mayor, long a fan of two-wheeled transport and tucking his trousers into his socks, will present his tour de force: a scheme that will hire out 6,000 bikes from 400 “docking stations” across the centre of the capital.

In truth, the scheme has been copied from abroad and was formulated under his predecessor, Ken Livingstone — but that doesn’t stop Johnson from proclaiming its advent with revolutionary fervour.

“What we are creating is not just a cycle hire scheme but a new form of public transport,” he declared. “I am determined to transform London into a city that cycles, where hundreds of thousands enjoy the elixir of using two wheels to get around.”

That elixir is already spreading beyond London. In 2008, £140m was given to 11 towns and cities — including Blackpool, Bristol, Cambridge and York — to improve facilities for cyclists. Leeds is building its own network of cycle superhighways, with one almost complete and a further 16 envisaged in a network that will cover 72 miles.

Liverpool aims to begin its own city cycle hire scheme early next year. The scale will be modest at first — hundreds, not thousands of bikes — but the council hopes it will expand if the demand is there.

If cycling is to become more popular, one of the key hurdles to overcome is the perception of dangerIn Brighton, Britain’s first Green MP, Caroline Lucas, says she would like to see a quarter of all journeys in the city being made by bike. “Brighton has a lot of potential to be transformed by the civilising effect of becoming a cycle-friendly place,” she said.

Public reaction in London was broadly positive when one of the hire bikes went on show last week. Vicky Richardson, 41, director of architecture, design and fashion at the British Council, said: “I’m sceptical about whether the bikes are going to be maintained, but if my bike got stolen, then I would seriously consider signing up. In London, that’s such a big issue because I have had my bike stolen before. I may well sign up for a week to trial the scheme.”

Gerson Magoga, 41, an architect who has lived in London for 18 years, said: “I love to cycle and I think I’ll definitely use one of the bikes. It’s a great way to get people into cycling.”

Not everyone is convinced. Cab drivers, motorists and even some cyclists fear there is not enough room on London’s narrow streets for large numbers of cyclists to ride alongside vehicles. However, the signs from similar schemes abroad are encouraging.

Three years ago in Paris a scheme known as “Vélib’” — short for “vélo libre”, or “free bicycle” — was launched. For a week’s subscription of £4, or £24 for a year, you get a Vélib’ card that will release a bike from numerous docking stations spread around Paris’s streets. You can use the bike free for up to half an hour, and beyond that small charges apply.

Despite some problems with vandalism and theft, about 24,000 Vélib’ bicycles are now circulating in Paris, with each used on average 20 times a day. The city authorities estimate that the Vélib’ has contributed to at least a 2% reduction in car traffic in the past three years.

On the third anniversary of the scheme last week, the newspaper Le Parisien enthused: “The Vélib’ has become, in record time, a Parisian institution on a level with the metro, the Eiffel tower or traffic jams on the ring road.”

The scheme is not without problems. Docking stations are sometimes empty — particularly those situated at the top of hills where few riders want to return their bikes. However, overall the Vélib’ is regarded as a remarkable success.

A similar cycle hire scheme in Montreal has also proved highly popular — last year bikes were hired by casual users more than 1m times. There the bikes are known as Bixis, a cross between bikes and taxis. The idea has also caught on in Mexico City, which earlier this year started a similar project with 1,200 “Ecobici” cycles for hire. Thousands of people have signed up and have used the bikes more than 200,000 times.

The London scheme, which is backed by £25m from Barclays, will work in much the same way as the Vélib’ in Paris. The initial membership fee will be £1 a day, £5 a week or £45 a year; you can either sign up in advance or use a bank card at a machine at a docking station.

The first half-hour is free, after which the price rises quite steeply the longer you keep the bike. The aim is to keep bikes in circulation by deterring people from hanging on to them unnecessarily.

If you find a docking station full when you try to return a bike, the terminal will direct you to another station nearby. If you fail to return a bike, you will pay a penalty of £300.

The bikes, which are imported from Canada, have a double layer of rubber on the tyres to prevent punctures. All cabling is encased in the alloy frame to deter vandals and the saddle has been modified so it cannot be stolen. The design, which encloses the chain, means the bikes can be ridden in an overcoat, a suit or a dress.

In short, they are a bit clunky compared with any decent lightweight road or mountain bike. Kulveer Ranger, who is Johnson’s transport adviser, conceded: “The bikes are not the sexiest in the world. But they’re sturdy, solid pieces of public transport with a certain elegance.

“They’ll last for 60,000 miles, and could have a 15-year life. There are three gears, and a dynamo for the light. And the saddle is very comfortable, which Boris is pleased about.”

Last week some potential users were disappointed that the bikes will come with no helmets or high-visibility gear. Ranger said: “Helmets are not a legal requirement, and we couldn’t see how to distribute them.

“There are issues about hygiene and size. We think that regular users will probably keep their own helmet and high-vis jacket.”

Some who tried the bikes found the ride too sedate. Ranger argues that is an advantage because it may establish a milder norm for cycling behaviour and in turn improve traffic behaviour towards all cyclists.

Choosing his words carefully, he said: “Some cyclists — and it’s a small percentage — have a holier-than-thou attitude and don’t stop at lights or they ride on pavements.

“Boris is extremely passionate about this, and says that everyone must respect each other and the rules of the road. We are cracking down. Cyclists are being fined for riding on pavements. If they don’t want to pay, they can go on a training course.”

If cycling is to become more popular, one of the key hurdles to overcome is the perception of danger. Lord Berkeley, who runs the all-party parliamentary cycling group and admits to riding his Brompton through red lights “very occasionally, at night, if there’s nobody around”, fears those hiring bikes may be in for a shock.

“People who aren’t used to cycling in London will be scared,” he warned. The proximity of traffic, especially lorries, can be unnerving at first.

The reality, however, is that the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured on London’s roads has fallen 21% in the past decade. At the same time the number of cycle journeys made on London’s main roads has risen substantially. Estimates vary because firm statistics are hard to come by, but the rise is put at somewhere between 50% and 120% since 2000.

A study by Dutch scientists indicates that the more people cycle the safer it becomes, because both drivers and cyclists grow better at recognising each others’ needs. Researchers, who assessed data on 500,000 riders who swapped cars for bikes, found that “on average, the estimated health benefits of cycling were substantially larger than the risks relative to car driving”.

Across the UK, ownership of bikes has increased in recent years, though the number of regular cyclists using roads remains relatively small. However, cyclists also travel about 300m miles a year on the National Cycle Network, a series of bike routes and paths set up by the charity Sustrans.

More than 500,000 trips are made every day on the network, a third of which is free from traffic and accounts for 85% of the bike journeys. The success of the network suggests that if cyclists are provided with dedicated routes — such as superhighways in cities — more people will take to their bikes.

As traffic congestion and costs rise, cycling seems to be gaining ground. In London last week, Teresita Perez, a Californian studying at King’s College, said of Boris’s bikes: “They have a scheme like this in Washington DC, where I’ve studied, and it’s been very well received. I’d definitely take up the opportunity. It’s healthy and good for the environment as well.”

Additional reporting: Matthew Campbell, Paris, and Chris Gourlay

1615 words. First published 18 July 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.