I’ve just stumbled upon an interesting blog post by David Hembrow on the Boris Bike scheme in London. He’s rather critical with regard to the PR by Transport for London:
They’re continuing with the same style of writing that they established a while back. This can be summed up as trying to baffle the reader by quoting what sounds like huge numbers.
TfL recently announced that 2.5 million journey’s have been made since the launch of the scheme in August 2010. David writes:
The numbers sound great, but actually if you look closely at them you quickly see that this is not actually very impressive at all. London has a population of 8 M people. Between them, they make around 20 million journeys per day. If these journeys had all been made on just one day (requiring each bike to be used an impossible 416 times), then even that would make up only 12% of total journeys in the city. However, actually it took half a year, 182 days, for this many journeys to be made. The total usage equates to only around 0.07% of the total journeys in the city. On average, Londoners are using these bikes not once per day, not once per week or once per month, but about once every 18 months.
David has a point, of course. There is a lot of sales patter in the communication of TfL and, no doubt, they are trying to baffle people with big numbers.
However, I think his calculations are partly misleading because he is comparing apples to oranges.
1) The area we’re talking about is smaller than David assumes
He argues that London has a population of 8 million people. That’s perfectly true but he ignores that the Boris Bike scheme (unfortunately) currently only covers central London where roughly 3 million people are living. Its outer boundaries are currently more or less in line with TfL’s Zone 1.
I don’t have any numbers about the total daily journeys in that area but let’s assume they are linear to the number of people living in the area. Then we are roughly talking about 7.5 million journeys a day instead of 20 million in greater London.
2) The daily average for the first 6 months is downwardly distorted
David divides the 2.5 million journey by the 182 days the scheme is running. Mathematically that’s perfectly ok but this number (a daily average of 13736 journeys) is too low. According to a TfL press release from December 2010 every week day around 20000 journeys are being made on Boris bikes.
The figures for the first six months are downwardly distorted because TfL (and Serco, the company actually running the scheme) had tremendous problems at the launch of the scheme (and unfortunately still did not sort them out, completely). The scheme had a very slow start and wasn’t open for casual users until December. Serco is still struggling to bring supply and demand in line. A lot of initially planned docking stations have not been built because of local resistance and a lack of building permits.
If my own calculations add up, the total usage resembles 0,27 percent of the total journeys in central London. This still is incredibly low but the share is 3.8 times higher than Davids calculations suggest. Amazingly the total share of 0,27 percent is very close to the 0,3 percent number David has labeled as the maximum share possible for the cycle hire scheme. Given the fact that the scheme still is in its early stages and we had a rather hard winter which discouraged a lot of occasional bikers I think these numbers suggest that the actual usage in the medium term will be much higher than David has projected.
I also think the indirect benefits of the cycle hire scheme are at least as important as the direct usage figures:
- The scheme massively increases the visibility of cyclists on the road. Even now, in the rush hour in central London I’m time and again surprised how many Boris bikers are on the road. Thanks to the safety in numbers effect this increases the safety for all cyclists.
- It allows an easy entry into cycling for people who don’t have a bike and can give it a try without great costs. On the Boris Bike forum several people have described that they actually learned to cycle on a Boris bike.
- Boris bikers are a different type of cyclists and they are changing the cycling culture in the City. Currently the cycling culture is being dominated by aggressive guys in Lycra on singlespeeds or road bikes who are riding like mad. Most Boris bikers are bringing a more relaxed European style of riding to London.
All in all I don’t think it’s pure chance that London’s Cycling Campaign gave the LCC Award for Best Cycle Facility to the scheme in 2010.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Boris Johnson’s cycling “policy” is good. Unfortunately his cycling PR is much better than his actual cycling policy . The Boris bike scheme does have many flaws (I’ll write more about them later) which need to be fixed urgently. Nonetheless I think the cycle hire scheme is quite successful at the moment and will change the way of getting around in London to the better.
Update: A fascinating visualization of the cycling hire scheme and its acutal usage is available on Oliver O’Brien’s website.