Although I arrived in London on a Thursday, I soon decided not to try out the Santander Cycles until Sunday, in hopes that the traffic would then be somewhat less ferocious. Also I was a bit nervous about riding on the left side of the street, which I hadn’t done since my last visit to Edinburgh ten years before.
But on the Sunday I did spend a good part of the day riding around London on the Santander Cycles, which was fine especially on the quieter residential streets. I should explain that I often use the Vélib’ bikes in Paris, and have also used the on-street bike sharing systems in other French, German and Belgian cities, so I am well acquainted with the concept.
According to the London Transport website, there were (as of 2015) “more than 10,000 bikes at over 700 docking stations situated every 300 to 500 metres in London.” In other words, the London bike-sharing system was less than half the size of the Vélib’ system in Paris, even though London is much more populous.
The first thing that surprised me about the London system was that it is not possible to sign up online for a one-day or seven-day subscription, as it is in French cities. In London (unless you are a regular user with your own “cycle hire key”) you have to insert your bank card (debit or credit card) into the docking station terminal each time you want to hire a bike. The first time each day you will be registered and charged £2.00 for the day, and after that the bank card only serves to identify you, with no additional charge unless you keep a bike for more than half an hour. I used my German credit card, which worked fine though I was a bit uneasy about flashing it around so much (since I usually keep it safely out of sight most of the time). Also I was worried about wearing out the card, though I suppose that was rather silly because the modern chip-cards are much more robust than the old magnetic-strip cards used to be.
On the whole, I found the London bikes to be newer and in better repair than the Paris ones, which is no wonder because the whole system in London was newer. The Paris bikes had been in constant intensive use since the summer of 2007, whereas the London system got off to a slower start and had only been in operation since December 2010.
A peculiarity of the London bike-sharing scheme (‘scheme’ in the British sense of the word, of course) is that it has no commonly accepted name. Some people called it the “Boris Bikes” after Boris Johnson, who was the mayor of London at the time, though the scheme was in fact initiated by his predecessor Ken Livingstone. From 2010 to 2015 it was officially called “Barclays Cycle Hire” after the then-sponsor Barclays Bank. In March 2015 the sponsorship was taken over by another bank, Santander UK, so the whole fleet of bikes had to be re-done to display the new name. (Perhaps that’s why they were all in such good condition?)
This cycle station is the one at Kings Cross Belgrove Street just opposite the St Pancras and Kings Cross railway stations. This station was the closest one to my hotel, so this was where I started out on the Sunday morning to try out the cycles.
I was impressed when I saw that during the evening rush hour on weekdays three men were employed here, detaching bikes and wheeling them into an adjoining storage building, so as to free up docking points for the steady stream of commuters who rode up, docked their bikes and crossed over to the train stations. I assume that in the morning rush hour it worked the other way round, though I was never up early enough to actually observe that.
The cycle station Kings Cross St. Chad’s Street is another one I used because it was also quite close to my hotel.
After you identify yourself at the terminal by inserting your bank card, you receive a printed “release code”, like the two shown here. The code is a five-digit combination of the numbers 1, 2 and 3, since there are only three number keys on the docking point. So the release code might be something like “12323” or “33311”. As it says at the bottom of the slip, “the release code is valid for ten minutes and only at this station”.
At the end of your ride you can, if you wish, print out a “Journey Record” such as the one in the photo on the right-hand side. In this one, my journey lasted 27 minutes. My departure station was “Embankment (Savoy), Strand” and my arrival station was “Golden Square, Soho”.
My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2020.