In defence of Boris bikes – a reply to David Hembrow

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.

Oliver O'Brien's ingenious visualization of the Bloris bike scheme

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.

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4 thoughts on “In defence of Boris bikes – a reply to David Hembrow

  1. Olaf: You make a mixture of good and not so good points.

    It’s reasonable to say that the scheme currently only covers (roughly) “zone 1” of London at present. However, what has happened is that they’ve covered just the easy bit. This is the most dense part of the city, where the scheme has the greatest chance of working. I doubt it will ever be expanded to cover the entire city, because what is already the most expensive single cycling project in the history of Britain would be enormously more expensive if it were expanded to cover the whole of the capital.

    I don’t think it reasonable to argue that usage is higher than Transport for London currently claims, based on another “huge number” throw away comment from earlier last year. If they had reached 2.5 million journeys earlier, I’m sure their over-active marketing department would have told us about it. They’re clearly not shy.

    I’m not against the idea of shared bikes as such. However, this is actually an astonishingly ineffective way of spending a huge amount of money. It is easily the most expensive cycling project in British history, but the results are far from impressive given the expenditure. You do realise, don’t you, that dividing the 140 million pound expense so far by the 2.5 million journeys so far, that each journey has cost TfL 56 pounds. A trip to the pub and back costs TfL 112 pounds. It would take many more years usage with no further expenditure at all (how likely is that?) before these figures would start to look reasonable.

    This is why I don’t believe it’s a sensible way to go. It’s gobbled up a huge amount of money and not actually done very much at all for the cycling level. Also bear in mind that TfL’s own numbers show that around half of all usage is by people who already cycled in London but presumably don’t want to take the risk of leaving their own bike parked there.

  2. Dear David,
    thanks a lot for your quick reply.

    Here are my thoughts on your points.

    “It’s reasonable to say that the scheme currently only covers (roughly) “zone 1″ of London at present. However, what has happened is that they’ve covered just the easy bit. This is the most dense part of the city, where the scheme has the greatest chance of working. I doubt it will ever be expanded to cover the entire city, because what is already the most expensive single cycling project in the history of Britain would be enormously more expensive if it were expanded to cover the whole of the capital.”

    I’m not sure if population density in itself really is key for a succes and in fact the scheme does not really focus on the areas with the highest population density of London. A lot of docking stations are concentrated in the City where the actual population density is relatively low compared to other borrows (for details: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/downloads/theme_population/regional_snapshot/RS_Lon.pdf)

    From my point of view the current sope of the scheme is way to small. For example, I’m living in Highbury which is probably has a much higher population density than the City and even Clerkenwell. It’s a residential area 6 km north of the City and perfect for cycling. However, the closest docking stations are 2.5 km away at Angel. This renders the scheme more or less useless for people living here. (When we had guests we took the Bus to get to the docking station…)

    Under current plans the scheme is supposed to be expanded to the east for the Olympic games in 2012. (http://www.borisbikes.co.uk/topic.php?id=606#post-6015)

    The main issue currently are the massive waves of commuters here in London. In the morning the demand at the big train stations is almost infinite. Thousands of people are using the bikes instead of the Tube or Busses for their last leg of their commute. During the day those bikes are clogging the docking stations in the City and make it hard to find free docking stations. In the evening this pattern reverses. Oliver O’Briens animation of the usage shows this very clearly: http://www.oobrien.com/vis/bikes/timeline.php

    “I don’t think it reasonable to argue that usage is higher than Transport for London currently claims, based on another “huge number” throw away comment from earlier last year. If they had reached 2.5 million journeys earlier, I’m sure their over-active marketing department would have told us about it. They’re clearly not shy.”

    Well, I’m not saying that the usage “is higher than TfL claims”. All I’m saying is that the historic daily average (around 14000 journey) is significantly lower than the current daily average (20000) thanks to those issues at the start. The latter figure comes from TfL as well. Additionally TfL has been celebrating itself in an amazing number of ealier press releases. Here are just two examples:
    http://www.tfl.gov.uk/corporate/media/newscentre/archive/16538.aspx
    http://www.tfl.gov.uk/corporate/media/newscentre/archive/16418.aspx

    “You do realise, don’t you, that dividing the 140 million pound expense so far by the 2.5 million journeys so far, that each journey has cost TfL 56 pounds. A trip to the pub and back costs TfL 112 pounds. It would take many more years usage with no further expenditure at all (how likely is that?) before these figures would start to look reasonable.”

    Honestly, this calculation does not make too much sense. It’s like saying: “I’ve paid 1600 Pounds for my Brompton and cyled 2000 miles in the first year. That 80p per mile. isnt’t this annoyingly expensive? An annual ticket for Zone 1-3 only costs 1100 pounds.”
    The scheme is here to stay and the 140 Million Pounds are the estimated costs for 6 years. Barclays sponsors the scheme with 25 Million pounds over four years. Let`s assume that TfL finds a sponsor for the remaining two years as well that would mean that 37.5 million pounds would be founded by private sponsors. This leaves 102.5 Million pounds for the taxpayer over six years which equals 17 Million pound per year. Revenues in the first three months have been 320000 Pounds (3370 per day) http://www.cityryde.com/blog/londons-barclays-cycle-hire-struggles-to-meet-financial-projections/

    Let’s assume usage and revenue will stagate on the current level (20000 daily journeys, a rather pessimistic point of view) We then have 7.3 Million journey per year and a yearly revenue of 1,2 Million pounds. This leaves 15.8 million pounds to the taxpayer each year. The public subsidies each journey with 2.16 pounds. (Just as a comparision: The net income of the congestion charge is 89 Million pounds.) If you keep in mind that a significant proportion of the 140 million pounds invested in the scheme are fixed costs the numbers even get better.

    My bottom line is: The scheme is much cheaper than you’re suggesting.

    1. Olaf I agree with your analysis. In fact, I would imagine that the income will increase as more people use bikes. In particular that £3370 per day doesn’t cover casual use and was partly during the winter when it can be assumed less people would use bikes. Plus, as you quite rightly say, it was affected greatly by the first few days after launch. I wouldn’t be surprised if even now income is nearer £10000 per day if not much higher. If this is the case the subsidy will drop below £2 per user. Out of interest, I wonder what the subsidy per user is for other forms of transport such as the buses, underground, overground, river etc. I would estimate that in some cases it approaches £2.

      1. Thanks for joining the discussion. I’m really looking forward TfL announcing new figures about the scheme some day or another and will write about them here.

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