London has been taken over by hire-bikes! I first spotted a bank of shiny new bikes sitting along Southwark Street behind the Tate a few weeks ago, and was so entranced by the spectacle that I stopped to take a closer look.
It turns out that this is another of Boris' initiatives to get Londoners on their bikes: 6,000 brand new hire-bikes located at 400 stations throughout the capital. You sign up to the scheme online, pay an access fee (which starts at £1 for 24 hours) plus a usage charge - which is nada for the first half hour and pretty reasonable thereafter - and off you go! You can return the bike to any docking station, and if the one nearest to you happens to be full, you can request an extra 15 minutes to find another one close by. They are dotted all over London - I have noticed at least 5 on my way to work - so it shouldn't be too arduous to pick up or return a bike no matter where you are.
The bikes themselves look to be built for comfort and practicality rather than speed. The low bar, enclosed chain, fat tires, wide seat and wire basket on the front make them quite girl-friendly, but their no-nonsense sturdiness and dark blue colour makes them look more like a unisex work bike.
To some this scheme may seem wildly optimistic - I was a little wary myself, thinking that most of the people who want to cycle in London probably already do so; knowing that a similar scheme in Paris has been marred by thefts and vandalism; not to mention how the bikes will cope with being left outdoors through the London Winter - but in fact, I've seen lots of people using them out and about (a mix of men and women, usually in business attire) and it is very cheering to see these smart new bikes being used as they were intended. I haven't seen any cases of vandalism yet (apart from - shock horror! - a box of fried chicken left in the basket of a parked bike), but it's inevitable that some will fall victim to the rougher elements of London. I sincerely hope those tyres are slash-proof, especially the ones stationed just off the Elephant & Castle roundabout.
Despite my concern for the innocence of these lovely and thus-far pristine bikes, I truly hope that they become an iconic symbol of London, similar to the red buses or black cabs. There is something very British about cycling; it implies a free spirit and somewhat eccentric outlook to sail along on a contraption that has changed very little since it's invention in the 19th Century amidst the roar of trucks, cars, cabs and buses. And anything that introduces more people to the many pleasures of getting in the saddle is a very fine thing indeed.