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.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.