Some issues, but even more fun – my experience as a casual Boris Biker

Boris Bikes - the Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme in London

Over the weekend, some friends from Germany were visiting us. On Saturday (March 26) we took them for a ride on Boris bikes. Since my wife and I only have two access keys (thanks to a design flaw in the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme, but that’s another story), we had to hire two more bikes with a credit card as casual users. We had a terrific day and our visitors absolutely loved cycling in London. We cycled more than 15 miles which was great fun (and quite cheap compared to using the tube)

However, unfortunately there are still a number of glitches and inconveniences which should be rectified by  Transport for London (TfL) and Serco, the company which is running  “Barclays Cycle Hire” on behalf of TfL. Hence, I want to share our experiences. Those are my insights:

Casual access finally works

This may sound like stating the obvious, but it isn’t. Officially, the  scheme has been open for casual users since December 2010. However, when I tried to hire bikes for some friends in early January, the system declined several German Visa cards. On the Boris bike forum there are quite a few horror stories (another one)  about casual usage. But believe it or not, on several occasions we really managed to hire two bikes using a German credit card last Saturday!

The hiring procedure is a little bit clumsy

Unfortunately hiring a bike as a casual user is more complicated than TfL suggests. When you’re buying your access period (1 Pound for 24 hours), you have to insert your credit card twice. On the first occasion, the system just checks if you’ve already bought an access period. Then you have to click through several pages of terms and conditions and answer several questions (how many bikes? and so on) on the touch screen. When you’re finished you have to insert your credit card again – now you’re finally charged. I found this a little bit confusing. Pointing this out more clearly at the terminal might be a good idea. Interestingly, we did not have to enter the pin number (we used a Visa debit card issued by a German bank).

Some confusion regarding the release codes

After you’ve bought the access period, the system asks if you want to hire a bike right now. Yes, indeed. The terminal then prints a five digit release code which you have to type in using the number pad at the docking point. (When you hire another bike in the same access period, you just have to enter your credit card and get a new access code.)

We’d bought two access periods with one Visa card. However, the system only printed one release code. At first I was assuming that this code was valid for both bikes but I wasn’t. For getting the second code, I had to start the „Hire a bike“ procedure all over again and had to insert the credit card a third time. The system then printed a second release code which was different from the first one.

This is clumsy and very confusing. Users who hired more than one bike should get an option to print all release codes at once or should see the option „print another release code“ after the first one has been printed.

On your Boris Bike!

The number pads at the docking points are rubbish

Entering the release code at the number pad next to the bike turned out to be very awkward. The keyboard is is just rubbish. The keys don’t have any pressure point and there is no other feedback (beep, flashing light) which shows you that the system is realizing that you’re trying to enter a release code. You don’t have any idea if your entrys are processed by the system until either the red or the green light flashes.

At the first docking point I thought the key pad was broken. I wrongly entered the code several times until it finally worked out and I was eventually able to release a bike.

I guess there won’t be a fast fix for that because it would be quite expensive to replace the the key pads at thousands of docking points. But in the long-term Serco/TfL should really consider to do that. In the meantime it might be a solution that the amber light flashes briefly after a key has been pressed.

Getting extra time is awkward

On one occasion, we wanted to add 15 minutes of riding time because the docking station we wanted to use was full. We had to enter the five digit serials number of bikes (maybe that’s only necessary when you’ve hired more than one bike with your card).

When you finally get the bike, it's great fun, after all!

I found it amazingly difficult to do that on the touch screen. You have to press the numbers using your entire fingertip (like you would do if the police was collecting your fingerprint) and have to do this very slowly. It took me quite a while until I figured out how to do deal with the touch screen.

Annoyingly, the system only offers the option to clear the entire entry. You cannot go back and correct a single digit. This means if a typo occurs at the fifth digit, you have to start all over again. Arghh!

Frequent technical glitches at the terminals

I was surprised how many docking stations had technical issues. One (N1 Liverpool Street) was completely disconnected.

At Prince Consort Road and Drury Lane the docking station was full but the option to get 15 minutes of extra riding time was not working. (It was only shown in a very bright colour on the touch screen and you could not activate it. On one occasion, this forced us to use the bike for more than 30 minutes.)

At the Natural History Museum the card reader at the terminal was broken so I was to print a receipt for the bikes I had hired using the membership keys.

Information on nearest docking stations could be improved

It’s great that the terminals tell you the status of other docking stations close to your location. However, they only show a table, not a digital map. I’d really appreciate if they would offer a map view as well. Without the iPhone it would have been difficult to find the docking stations in Soho.

Expand the scheme to the North, please

Since the scheme currently ends at Angel, we had to take the bus from Highbury to Angel to get to the bikes. That’s awful. Please expand the scheme further north, at least to Highbury Corner. I also found it awkward that there are no docking stations close to Camden Town / Camden Lock.

All in all it took some effort and determination to use the bikes. However, in spite of all those hurdles, it was really worth it! We and our visitors absolutely enjoyed using the Boris bikes. I strongly recommend using them to all tourists.

Update: There is an  interesting post on the scheme on “This Big City”.

4 thoughts on “Some issues, but even more fun – my experience as a casual Boris Biker

  1. Jonathon Arrowsmith

    Great report.

    Definitely agree the “nearest docking station” screen could be improved. Obviously an on-screen map would be ideal, but given the already sluggishness operating speed of the terminals I worry this could make the situation worse.

    I’ve recently noticed it’s actually very easy to cross-reference the screen’s list with the map on the other side of the terminals which shows nearby docks. Obvious once you think about it, but not so obvious at the time. Maybe they could at least put a simple notice on the screen “look at map on side of terminal”.

  2. Pete Cruze

    Balance it up a bit, Olaf!

    You write loads and loads of mainly minor complaints, and many people would be put off before they reach the bit at the end where you say:

    “However, in spite of all those hurdles, it was really worth it! We and our visitors absolutely enjoyed using the Boris bikes. I strongly recommend using them to all tourists.”

    I won’t comment on all of the points, but the card in twice thing is for your own security, to ensure that people don’t leave a card in the reader. You have to take it out to let the terminal go on to the next step. Good idea about “you wanted 2 bikes, do you want to print the next code now?” to prevent the third card entry, but only as long as your wife isn’t using her joint account same number card at the same time (you’d probably be able to get 3 bikes for the price of 2 then!)

    As for the German visa card not being asked for a PIN, is it a chip and pin card? I’ve been with people from much further flung places who had to enter a PIN.

    And Jonathon, it probably can all be a bit frightening at first, but things like “there’s a map, why not have a look at it?” all over all of the screens would clog it up even more. My vote would be to declutter the screens, not add even more to confuse!

  3. I used the bikes for the first time yesterday, great when you can actually get a bike out using the access code. Massively confusing to work out how to get the code in the first place!

    I ended up missing my train home because I tried and failed to get a bike for my return journey. Ended up paying £10 in a taxi to get to Euston, but too late :(

    My solution for my next trip will be to bring a good bike lock and simply dont bother putting it back into the docking station, that way I wont have to swear at the stupid key pad, which simply does not work consistently.

  4. Pingback: How the Velib compares to the Boris Bike – a personal account « Cycling Intelligence

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