Peddling myths over London’s bike hire scheme

In London one of the most exciting developments this year has been the long awaited launch of the bike hire scheme.

Despite its launch being associated with quite a number of problems – including a highly complex registration process, and a number of cyclists being overcharged – no one can deny that the scheme is proving incredibly popular.  And let’s be realistic, no major scheme ever starts without at least some minor teething problems. Of course I will be chasing hard until these glitches are resolved, and they certainly must be, but the bottom line is that the bike hire scheme is a tremendous idea.  Especially if the scheme is expanded it has the potential to help reduce congestion and pollution as well as making it easier for Londoners, visitors and tourists to get around the capital at very little cost.  Most significantly it could play a vital role in transforming the status of cycling.

The scheme has quite rightly attracted a huge amount of media coverage.  Unfortunately this coverage has also involved a long list of people queuing up to take credit for having proposed the scheme.

How Boris Johnson got his sums wrong

At the top of the queue is of course Boris Johnson. Although he can be surprisingly camera shy when it comes to defending fare rises or the fiasco of the delays over the tube upgrade programme, on this issue he simply can’t wait to get in front of a television camera.  Some might think this is a bit surprising as his transport manifesto actually claimed the bike hire scheme would involve no public expenditure, when in reality the long standing contract will cost as much as £140 million.

Yet for Boris Johnson this is a minor detail and the only thing that really matters is that he takes sole credit for the scheme. Indeed speaking on Channel 4 News he used the opportunity to demolish the idea that his predecessor at City Hall should be associated with the scheme.

Of course Ken Livingstone also shows no signs of shyness and would like everyone to think that the bike hire scheme was actually his initiative. His campaign website claims that on 7 August 2007 he directed Transport for London to examine the feasibility of a cycle hire scheme – some nine months before the 2008 Mayor elections. He then had a media launch for his proposals in early 2008, just weeks before the 2008 Mayor elections.

Not far behind both Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone is the Green Party.  As they were joined at the hip with Ken Livingstone before 2008 they like to take equal credit for everything that the last Mayor claims he initiated.

Lynne Featherstone got there first with bike hire proposals

Yet, if any politician should really take the credit for the scheme it must be Lynne Featherstone, my predecessor as the Liberal Democrat London Assembly transport spokesperson.

Way back in the Summer of 2001, just a year after Ken Livingstone had been elected as an independent Mayor of London, a detailed proposal for a bike hire scheme in London was put to the then Mayor by Lynne.

Ken Livingstone responded to Lynne, with the full details of his reply set out in a letter dated the 29 September 2001. Although he responded positively, he said the issue needed to be investigated further. Regrettably, in practice nothing happened for many years.

Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone should be honest with Londoners whenever they speak about the bike hire scheme.

As Ken Livingstone admitted way back in 2001 he was being lobbied to consider a scheme in London in his very first year of office. In practice it took more than six years for him to simply decide that he would finally give his full backing to a scheme. To now attack his successor over “delays and set-backs in delivering the scheme” shows a degree of cheek of the highest order.

As for Boris Johnson I suggest he spends far less time peddling the claim that he invented the idea of London’s bike hire scheme and instead sorts out the initial problems with the scheme. Having allocated £140 million to the scheme he must ensure that the 6000 bikes are constantly put to good use and that any expansion of the scheme targets areas that aren’t covered by the tube.

Surely, that is not too much to ask?

Caroline Pidgeon is leader of the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group in City Hall and Vice Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee.

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This entry was posted in Local government and London.


  • “got there first” not “got their first”.

  • Tim

    You are right there have certailnly been plenty of bike hire schemes, some going for many years. In fact there has already been at least one small scheme in London as well in the Shepherd Bush area, see:

    Other UK towns and cities have had, or do have bike hire schemes as do many European cities – reading much of the UK media coverage in the last two weeks you would think that only Paris had a scheme and London was now following its example. Yes the London bike hire scheme launched on the 30th July is significant because of its size – 5000 bikes in operation, with a 1000 more ready to be used – but it most certainly is not a first.

    Howevver, the article doesn’t in fact say that. It merely points out that both Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are wrong to claim that they were the politicians that initiated the idea of a central London bike hire scheme. It also seems incredible that despite having the propsosal put to him in 2001 it took Ken Livingstone a full six years to actually do anything.

  • I’d just like to say that I live and work in central London and it has transformed how I get about. It is a fantastic scheme, and everyone involved deserves a slap on the back. I am seeing the bikes everywhere and it’s bringing new people (including me) out onto the roads, getting us cycling, getting us fitter.

  • All good points Caroline,

    It is incredible for Ken Livingsstone to be making claims that the scheme has been delayed since he stopped being Mayor, stating

    “Despite the delays and set-backs in delivering the scheme” on his website:

    When he was responsible for totally dithering over 8 years. He could have ensured that a scheme was up and running 4 or 5 years ago.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Aug '10 - 9:27pm

    It is reported that the system has suffered from a serious “software glitch”. What exactly is the nature of this “glitch”? Such things are generally reported as if they just happen, but they don’t – they mean mistakes were made in the programming and were not discovered in the testing before the system was released. I am sure there are plenty of people who have enough technical knowledge to be able to understand a more deatiled explanation, so come on – Caroline? – someone tell us in more detail than “software glitch”.

    I have no confidence that this will be fixed, because the Oyster card sofwate is still in a seriously bug-ridden state, I have reported numerous problems my wife has experienced since getting one when Oyster pay-as-you go was introduced to south-east London, but the whole system – user interface design as well as operational action – still gives the impression it was put together by people who have no common sense, little logic, and are clueless about how how ordinary people work.

  • Hmmm…..all sounds rather petty. I’m not sure anyone should be claiming ownership for the idea of a bike-hire scheme.

    I wouldn’t argue that Boris is correct is saying he (at least in terms of providing the political capital) got it done.

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