London's hire bikes have been a bit of a success story. Okay, they're massively subsidised, and used disproportionately by the sort of travellers who don't really need that subsidy. But they're well used, and they’ve just found a new sponsor in the form of Spanish bank Santander, and since they launched in 2010 they've expanded several times to cover a growing slice of the capital.
Not all of the capital, of course; nor all of the inner city, nor even a particularly rational or sensible selection of it.
Here's a map of the docking stations. See if you can spot the rather glaring omission:
What this shows is that you can hire bikes in such far flung districts as Walham Green and Cubitt Town. But head south east, and the docking stations stop frustratingly quickly.
This has been annoying people. So the Peckham Peculiar, a free local newspaper for an increasingly hipsterfied part of south London, is rallying the troops. Earlier this week it launched a petition on Change.org, calling on mayor Boris Johnson to, in not so many words, sort it out.
It's a noble cause – why shouldn’t an area of town surrounded by hire bikes on three sides be included in the scheme? Nonetheless, there are several reasons to think it unlikely it’ll have much of an impact.
One is that Johnson is not a man known for his responsiveness to public pressure. Another is that the petition has only just crept into triple figures, meaning it’s frankly not exerting all that much pressure in the first place.
Some of the comments left below the petition.
The big one, though, is that the scheme's expansion has so far been done on a pay-to-play basis. As the Evening Standard reported in February 2013:
Transport for London expects to start erecting new docking stations in April but is charging boroughs up to £2m each to join the bike hire scheme.
[Lambeth] is paying £200,000, while Kensington & Chelsea — which was included in the original scheme — is expected to pay £400,000. Hammersmith and Fulham is paying £2m. Last year Tower Hamlets paid £1.9m for the eastern extension.
On one level, expanding transport infrastructure based on third parties' willingness to pay makes some sort of sense. Money is in short supply; demand for infrastructure isn't. So to make sure you get the best bang for your buck, you should prioritise those areas where someone else will stick their hand in their pocket. (See also Northern Line extension, cable car, et al.)
On another level, though, this is a very silly way of doing things, and the gap in the hire bike system shows you why: it means we get transport infrastructure that has very little to do with actual patterns of demand. It results in absurdities like the bikes being available half a dozen miles from town in Putney, long before they make it 500m east of Tower Bridge.
The current gap may not persist forever. Peter John, the leader of Southwark council, whose domain contains much of the excluded area, said in January last year the borough was looking into finding cash to plug the hole. Since then, though, Johnson has tried to downplay expectations of a further expansion, talking instead of the need to intensify coverage in the area already included.
So while a south eastern extension of the bike zone isn't impossible, it'll almost certainly require more than petition to make it happen.
If you do want to show your support for the cyclists of south east London, you can do so here.