Images by B. Alter
It's here and it's exciting: the new London Barclays Cycle Hire is open for business. Everywhere there are stands of shiny new bicycles just waiting to be ridden. And there are perplexed looking tourists and Londoners wondering how on earth they can get one.
It's easy if you live here: for now only people with a registered address can become a member (membership has its privileges) the rest of the world will have to wait until later in the season. The only drawback is that when all is said and done, you are still riding on the streets of London and that is scary!
First the system: after you register for membership you get an electronic key. You put the key in the slot, a light shines red if the bicycle is not available, amber while your details are being checked and green when they are recognized. Then you hoist the bike out. And they are heavy: each one weighs 50 lb. That's probably for good reason: you would have to be very committed to trash it. And they are designed to last for 40,000 miles of use.
The seats can be adjusted to any height.
There is absolutely no room for handbags or bulky packages. Apparently this was done on purpose, to discourage joy riders, but it is a nuisance.
As for the ride: it is slow but steady. Cyclists on speedy bikes whiz by and give you the thumbs up. Fellow Cycle Hire riders moan: one woman passed wailing that she hadn't thought it would be so hard. Agreed.
Finding the docking stations is easy. There is an app available for the iPhone. There are good maps at each station which show where you are and where you can go. There is also a computer terminal which helps.
The price: the first half hour is free. After that it is £1 for the first next 30 minutes and so on.
There are some wrinkles to be worked out, of course. The key doesn't work in every slot, people don't put the bikes back properly and get charged for longer periods, the app isn't the most precise about nearest locations.
The verdict: terrifying to drive on the streets. Car drivers ignore pedestrians at the best of times and do the same for cyclists. Pedestrians dart out everywhere without looking. Left turns really are a nightmare, despite the warning on the handle bars. And they've got to do something about the name (some are calling them Boris bikes, after the mayor, Boris Johnson).
But for short trips, it's faster than the bus, great exercise and a thrilling addition to the greening of London's streets.