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Invasion of the Boris Bikes

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The invasion of the Boris bikes is complete. They stand on street corners, corralled like docile, futuristic horses in their blue harnesses. They’re good bikes – sturdy and solid – with a rather pleasing sit-up-and-beg riding position the better to survey the road around you. Undocking them is also quite fun, like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The name has become universal, which is only to be expected, launched as they were with all the pomp the bicycling mayor could muster. It’s not that we’ve forgotten that the bikes were originally Ken’s idea, but that Boris is a far more visible cyclist. The official name, ‘Barclays Cycle Hire’, was never going to take off, despite the lurid corporate livery.

Barclays have got a good deal from the £25 million they contributed to the £140 million scheme. As well as painting their company colours onto the streets, in the form of the pointless cyan-tarmac ‘cycle superhighways’ that run from the centre of London to various suburban hubs, they’ve also bedecked the machines with their logos.

How different from the first municipal bicycle scheme, conceived by the anarchist Provo movement in the Netherlands in the 1960s. The Provos proposed that central Amsterdam should be a car-free zone, and that the council should invest in 20,000 white bicycles that would be owned by the people and free for general use. The council rejected the plan but the Provos went ahead and bought 50 bikes which they released unlocked onto the streets, where they were promptly impounded by the police or stolen. (Some of their other schemes, like the one that urged drivers to ‘offset’ their carbon emissions by carrying small gardens around on the roofs of their cars, were delightfully Swiftian. Others were prescient: the Provos argued that prolific industrial polluters should be fined accordingly, and that the chimneys of the worst offenders should be painted white.)

Barclays’ flagrant appropriation of such a utopian idea was always going to cause tension, and the Boris bikes have become ripe targets for ‘subvertising’. ‘Situationist guerrilla teams’ have been doctoring the broadside ad space over the back wheel.

The Vélib’ scheme, the Parisian equivalent of the Boris Bikes, and the largest and longest running communal bicycle scheme around, has shown that regular investment is a necessary to maintain a fleet like this. A number of the French bikes are dredged from the Seine every month. Others are hung on trees like Christmas decorations, or ridden down stairs until they shake themselves to bits. One even turned up in Australia.

Barclays probably doesn’t give much of a shit about you, but if the bikes are going to continue to be useful then ongoing investment is a must. It’s unlikely that the money will be forthcoming from Boris.


  1. A.J.P. Crown says:

    First of all I’m glad you’re the bicycling correspondent of the LRB and not the Spectator, but do you yourself think that people ought not to stick anti-Barclays comments on London’s bikes? Back in the 70s everybody boycotted Barclays because of its relationship with the South African government; it’s always been a very nasty company.

  2. Geoff Roberts says:

    What goes around comes around. I remember those white bikes in Amsterdam, freely available on every bridge. That fell down on the upkeep. The German Bundesbahn have a scheme with powered bikes that you can set free by dialling a code on your cell phone. It’s fairly cheap – cheaper than public transport, but the weather is a deciding factor in using or not. It’s very rarely that I see one in action. They usually stand chained to a lamp post somewhere in the boondocks where nobody wants to unlock them.

  3. Joe Morison says:

    ‘London Cycle Hire’ may not be snappy but it’s inoffensive. A brilliant idea that’s been badly realized – it makes an interesting comparison between Boris and Ken who brought in the technically vastly more complicated congestion charge almost without a hitch.

    The problems have been:
    First, the shambles at the beginning. The website constantly crashing, the website giving false information, the phones constantly engaged, letters sent out giving false instructions as to how to activate one’s account, no proper instructions given about how to use the service.
    Second, and by far the most serious and the one that’s going to need big money to solve, is the lack of resources for keeping the docking stations suitably full and empty. It doesn’t much to realize that generally people come into central London from outer London throu’ most of the day and so if the scheme is going to work there is going to have to be a steady shift from the inner docking stations to the outer. But, go to most docking stations near the edge after about 11 and they are empty, and in central London the sight of people looking desperately for a space is common. For example, i’ve given up going to the docking station just south of St John’s Wood station on week days; and if i can’t be late, i leave my bike outside the West End and bus or walk the rest of the journey.
    Third, which well demonstrates the incompetence of the scheme’s organization, the map showing the docking stations is a farce. On the map, all the docking stations are shown as a red dot, but, er, they’ve also put in the docking stations yet to be built. So, with a few minutes remaining before charging starts, you arrive at where there’s meant to be a docking station but there isn’t. How difficult would it have been to make the map accurate and reprint as the new stations are built?
    Fourth, when a bike has been reported damaged and so is not available for hire, nothing shows this. One adjusts the saddle, ties on one’s luggage (things one does before one inserts one key and the clock starts ticking) then the light goes red and one has to start again. It wouldn’t be difficult for the red light to be on the whole time.
    Finally, and this is a small point but it shows a real meanness, it is free for use of under half an hour, the ‘under’ isn’t exactly in the small print but i think most people assumed that meant the first 30 minutes are free; not so, it’s the first 29.

    Despite the quibbles, and the fact that i’m advertising a bloody bank (sorry A.J.P., it’s probably childish of me but i’m all for the logo sabotage), it is a great boon for the capital and it’s gives me huge pleasure.

    • A.J.P. Crown says:

      No, no, I’m very childish, and I’m sure I’d be all for the logo sabotage too if I still lived in London. I was wondering if Jon was thinking it was a bad idea. Personally, I can’t see that upsetting Barclays could ever be a bad idea.

      • Jon Day says:

        No, I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all (and I think the sticker at the top is pretty funny) but I do wonder what the aim is. To have a less offensive bank sponsor the bikes? I suppose I pulled my punches but I agree with Joe Morison – that they’re there is a good thing. But you’re right, it certainly doesn’t absolve Barclays of anything.

        • “Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.” -Banksy

    • Jon Day says:

      At least central London is mainly flat. In Paris they all end up at the bottom of hills…

  4. Chris Larkin says:

    This logo sabotage malarkey has all the makings of a wonderful competition.

  5. writer says:

    I would like to buy some stickers. Where can I buy them?

  6. dewithiel says:

    Frankly, I’d prefer Bob Diamond’s head on a platter to be the prize. Aside from the utility (getting rid of a notoriously greedy banker), it would have a certain historical resonance, one in keeping with that christian faith we’ve been recently urged to identify with by a recent visitor.

  7. Olderbutnotwiser says:

    I’m sorry, but to me these comments are sad not clever. Here is a bold scheme, initiated by the mayor of one party, implemented by the mayor of another, and made possible by a significant financial contribution by a UK bank — all to the advantage of Londoners in general. Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate that accomplishment (especially given how difficult it is to get any major project done in the public space these days) than to celebrate the defacing of the bikes?

    • alex says:

      yeah, too right. let’s shut up about the £7300 million invested in bombs, it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of cycling free advertisements around the metropolis.

    • Hey. It’s a great scheme, everyone here seems to support it.

      That doesn’t preclude holding a view nuanced enough to acknowledge that there is some some dirt amongst the linen, nor having sense of humour enough to appreciate the harmless joke of the stickers. Just because one is worth celebrating doesn’t mean that the other isn’t also.

  8. smith.ws says:

    “Barclays’ flagrant appropriation of such a utopian idea was always going to cause tension”

    You can keep your nostalgia for failed 60s utopias. I’m going to enjoy the bikes!

    It’s possible to be critical of barclays while at the same time acknowledging that this program is a social good. Waiting until people with pure intentions enact projects like this is just another way of deferring action.

    • A.J.P. Crown says:

      w.h. Smith: It’s possible to be critical of barclays while at the same time acknowledging that this program is a social good.

      Duh. That’s the whole point of the stick-on comments. Or do you have another way to “be critical”?

      Waiting until people with pure intentions enact projects like this is just another way of deferring action.

      You can keep your nostalgia for Mrs Thatcher.

      • pinhut says:

        I wrote a fairly long analysis of corporate promotions of this type a while back.


        • A.J.P. Crown says:

          Thanks, Pin. You say (edited v. slightly):

          X is only helping Y to achieve the improved perception of X Corporation (and thereby make more money).

          One might still say, “So?” to this, as a recognition of ‘the reality of business’ or some such. This line of argument suggests that what motivates an action does not matter, so long as somebody who would not benefit receives a benefit. The “if it helps just one child…” approach to determining the worth of things.

          You don’t say what you think of this, but it’s a question of weighing up the “benefit” of the bikes against the “damage” of more business to bad old Barclays. Who besides Barclays themselves and their PR people knows what “damage” they caused? That’s important, and I bet most people who ride the bikes say “Very little damage was caused”, but how do we know that? On the other hand, some people would say “Barclays are going to cause damage whatever they do with their money, it’s better that they buy bikes with it than spend it on gold-plated fountains in the forecourt”.

          • A.J.P. Crown says:

            Forget the X & Y, I was never any good at algebra. That should say:

            “Bikes are only helping Barclays improve the public’s perception of them to make themselves more money”.

            • pinhut says:

              My basic point is that people tend to transfer their answer to the specific question – “Is X good?” and take that result and apply it to Y, the actor, in a universal manner.

              “Barclays is good because they are doing the bike project…”

              The above is a logical error, because it can be easily contradicted with a simple example of a bad thing Barclays are doing.

              Their car insurance business continues apace:


              What we see with Barclays is the common response of ‘addition’ – I have mentioned it before as a strategy. Instead of eliminating a bad from the debit side, simply add a credit and promote it disproportionally. This approach is not going to work for the environment, and is why I find phrases such as ‘ethical tourism’, ‘green motoring’ etc, contradictory. The most ethical tourism is not travelling, the most amazing ‘eco-car’ will be infinitely more damaging to the envioronment than not owning a car, etc.

              But we live in a world where things are supposed to be improved without requiring any sacrifices, and this practice is the preferred means of achieving that. In the 60s, academics did it by creating new departments to ‘encourage diversity’ – poco, gender studies, gay studies, etc, rather than vacating some of their own positions in the name of ‘progress’ and in the 90s New Labour did it with their new universities, achieving the contradictory objectives of increasing access to higher education without necessitating any sacrifices on the part of the middle classes (although it probably did squeeze graduate starting salaries for those graduating at the lower end).

              I would like to see some actual elimination of negative inputs. Perhaps Barclays could offer a bike + small cash incentive to those who come in and ask for a loan to buy a car, or when renewing their car insurance.

              • A.J.P. Crown says:

                That’s a great idea, giving bikes to people who don’t currently use them.

                • pinhut says:

                  I would also introduce not bike lanes, but bike roads. And slowly spread them out to make travelling by car in Central London less and less feasible. Deliveries at night, and for those not wanting to pedal, bicycle taxis of the kind popular in many other parts of the world (and there are already a few in London) and/or eco-tuktuks.

                  Cities are amazing places when there is no motor traffic. It would probably have a massive political effect too (which makes it unlikely therefore ever to happen, for all MPs opine over the ‘disconnect’ the public has with politics), as it would hugely expand the amount of usable public space and slow people down sufficiently again to the point where they can just stop when something catches their fancy and check it out. Good, because until people begin re-engaging one another, casually, and chip away at the mistrust in our society, we’re never going to tip the balance of power back sufficiently towards the citizenry.

                  It seems to me there is nothing in our society that turns people into the apotheosis of a selfish Nazi faster than putting them behind the wheel and setting them loose in a busy town/city.

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