This is why south east London doesn't have "Boris bikes"

London mayor Boris Johnson does his famed impression of a man about to fall off a bike. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

Marseille and Paris are crawling with rats. But it’s your problem too

A Parisian rat. Image: Getty.

You can very easily have a fine time in Marseille, but it is likely to be interrupted by rats.

The bloated and brazen beasts are so utterly convinced they own the place that they barely register any human presence to distract from their hedonistic excesses – throwing wild street parties, burrowing holes in overflowing bins, and darting in and out of exclusive harbourfront restaurants. We only really intrude when the occasional, blissfully oblivious rat is splattered across the cobblestones by a scooter.

For many residents, the whiskery foes have gone some way beyond a nuisance to represent a genuine menace. Rats have infested schools and taken over canteens. Pest control services claim they have broken into cars and gnawed through cables, which may have contributed to accidents. It is also alleged that they have caused Internet outages by attacking fibre-optic cables – continuing the venerable horror movie tradition of cutting the power seen in Aliens and Jurassic Park. Rats are also infamous and prolific traffickers of disease and have raised the threat of Leptospirosis.

Rat populations are fiendishly difficult to quantify, given their nocturnal lifestyle and that many live off-grid in the sewers; but by some estimates they now outnumber Marseille’s human inhabitants. Distress calls from the public to the city’s sanitation department and pest control services have increased, and the unofficial fifth emergency service has expanded its operations in response, laying poison traps and sweeping the gutters.

Several factors have contributed to the rat supremacy. Marseille’s Mediterranean climate has always been hospitable to rats, and a series of unusually warm summers – often passing 30°C – have made it more so. (Rats tend to stop breeding when it’s cold.)

City officials also bemoan the wanton waste disposal habits of their citizens, which have allowed large and easily accessible piles of appetising trash to accumulate. Marseille’s councillor for hygiene Monique Daubet recently complained the city has become a “five-star restaurant for rats”.

Others have suggested a series of strikes by garbage collectors gave the rat population a turbo charge it barely needed. A single pair of brown rats can spawn more than a thousand descendants within a year.

That formidable birth rate is one indicator of what the city is up against: the urban rat is almost a perfect predator. Millennia of human ingenuity has failed to remove them from our midst or negate the threats they pose. Rats are supreme survivors – scientists marvel at their survival on nuclear test sites – and they thrive in the most inhospitable environments. They can eat practically anything, but are neophobic, meaning they shy away from all but the most devious poison traps. The rodents are intelligent, resilient, and their ability to colonise new habitats rivals our own.

Faced with this adversary, the local authority has assigned more resources to the fight, through both the city’s sanitation department and the private extermination service A3DS. Both are reluctant to discuss their tactics and whether they are having an impact. But officials are also taking a tough line on public responsibility, insisting that residents dispose of trash after 7pm in sealed bags or face fines. The city has also proposed measures such as mobile dumps and new model bins that rats should find harder to access.

The Marseillais are also keeping a close eye on events in the capital: Paris’ rat problem may be even more severe, driven by flooding from the River Seine that has forced the rodents to seek higher ground. In recent years, rats have overrun the Louvre and forced the closure of public parks, as well as starring in viral video nasties that do little for the city’s image as the capital of romance.


Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has sounded the alarm and invested millions of euros in a campaign against rats, which has seen thousands of raids in hundreds of parks and buildings, as well as the introduction of more secure bins, and fines levied against people accused of feeding the enemy. Her administration has also despatched an envoy to New York to study the city’s approach to its own notorious rodent community.

An international approach makes sense given that rats are on the march all around the world. Reported sightings have shot up in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington. One study estimated that rats inflict $19 billion of economic damage each year in the US alone. London has also seen an increase in reported sightings. Leading rodentologist Bobby Corrigan says the same patterns are playing out in the major cities of the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

And for much the same reasons. Contributing factors include “too few resources allocated an organised program for rat control,” says Corrigan. “Also, more people in our cities means more refuse, more overloading of the city’s sanitation budgets, less thorough removal of the kind of food shrapnel that escapes typical garbage collection. Each rat only needs about 30 grams of food per 24 hours to thrive and reproduce.” A warming climate also plays a part.

Poison traps and culls can only go so far, says the rodentologist, arguing that a holistic approach is required to head off the growing threat. “The best measure is a city organised in addressing the rats across all agencies,” says Corrigan. That means mobilising departments of sanitation, parks, housing, health, and sewers, as well as mayoral administrations themselves.

Society-wide civic participation is also essential. “Controlling rats takes everyone: every homeowner, shop owner, restaurant, grocery store, airport, and so on. Not to do so invites the risk of a “new and/or highly virulent virus” developing among our old enemies, he adds.

Research into sterilisation programmes offers some hope of a new weapon to repel and reduce the rodent hordes. But not enough for us to evade responsibility while rat populations grow and the threat increases. “If we don’t work together as the wise species we claim to be and present a scientific, multi-faceted organised effort against this very smart and organised smaller mammal, we can have no hope of defeating it,” says Corrigan. Time to man the barricades.