Fixing the London cycle hire scheme

Making the most of existing technology

Everyone knows why Boris Bikes are good (if you don’t, please see the bottom of the blog post).

But there are some large, much-discussed problems. The alternating tides of commuters leave many stations either completely full or completely empty at critical parts of the day.

I live in fear of arriving at work with my free half hour almost used up, to find the docking station full. I’d have to check my smartphone for the nearest station with empty slots, and hope that by the time I got there the slots were still empty. Then I’d arrive at work half an hour or so late, and have the pleasure of attempting to reclaim the fee for going over my time limit through no fault of my own.

Unlike others, I’m lucky that that fear hasn’t yet become a reality.

With my service design hat on under my helmet, I’m tempted to feel that a better customer experience can be squeezed out of the existing physical and electronic infrastructure.

Here’s the key to my suggestion: people need to log their destinations as they take out a bike.

Here’s how this could work to help both the people on bikes, and the people waiting for them:

  • When grabbing a bike, people select their destination on their smartphone (or on the terminal).
  • Based on average cycle times, anyone waiting for a bike at an empty docking station can check their smartphone (or the terminal) to see when the next arrival is expected. No more ‘should I wait here or not‘ dilemmas.
  • If the bays at the destination are all full, an alarm goes off on the cyclist’s London Cycle Hire app as they ride past the last docking station with available bays. This gives the cyclist the option of jettisoning the bike gracefully and on time, rather than getting stuck with an expensive and time-consuming problem.

The destination-logging behaviour need not be mandatory, but could be encouraged through discounts. (The more people that do it, the more effective it is.)

Even without destination-logging, other information derived from existing data could improve the experience. If docking stations displayed the average (or longest expected) length of time between people grabbing or returning bikes ‘at this station, at this time of day‘, people facing empty or full docking stations would be greatly assisted in their decision-making.

The hardware is already hooked up to the software; we just need some more thoughtful programming to help push the scheme from good to great. Boris, developers, get on it!

The bottom of the blog post
The bikes’ gearing is so low you can pop a wheely in first, without pulling up on the handlebars. Pedalling frantically in third (the top gear), the most asthmatic-looking commuters on their own bikes will still breeze effortlessly past. The bikes are too heavy to lift and so solid that pulling them apart just doesn’t look like an alcohol-fuelled mischief’s idea of fun.

But when people ask me what ‘Boris Bikes’ are like, I try to refrain from giving the answers above. They’re answering the wrong question. Car enthusiasts don’t go around discussing the performance qualities of taxis. The london cycle hire scheme is a different way of travelling to private bikes, with its own clear advantages and disadvantages.

I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who uses them twice daily. After a 25-minute walk with my daughter to school, I stick the plastic jobbie into the docking station, grab a Boris Bike, and ride to work. After work, I take one home. My relatively pleasant three-point, multi-modal transport ritual is made possible by Boris Bikes.

Not to mention the incredible cheapness of it all –

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3 Responses to Fixing the London cycle hire scheme

  1. I’ve always wondered whether an individual bike can be tracked around London – I mean, I know that they all have unique IDs on the frames, but I don’t know whether it logs them in and out individually at each dock?

    We can use data to see patterns like when particular docks are busy ( but it’d be interesting to see the relationship each dock has to another.


    • Thanks for your comments JP, that’s a great site. More slicing and dicing of the data would make it even more useful (e.g. average time to wait for a bike at Kings Cross at 6:00).

      Bikes must get logged out and in individually, so that the system knows how much time each user has taken, and that their bikes have been returned.

  2. I should point out that when I said ‘we can use’ I meant folk who are interested in this sort of data in general! No idea who did that visualisation.

    Clearly you’re right about the logging thing, thinking about it, so that data must be there to be exploited – if it’s stripped of the customer ID, then I’m sure it’s something the could release. Maybe they have?

    Some interesting bits and pieces about the data that’s out there for use on this forum –

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