published at 3:04pm on 04/22/12
Enjoy London by bike share, even as an American. Even with one of your silly swipe credit cards.
I love exploring a city by bike. Any city worth its grid will have a public transit system, but in order to really get a sense of the street life, the pace of the city, and the scale, a bike is the only way to get from place to place. The magic of an underground system is great, but you miss out on everything you can see when you go from point A to Z. And walking just takes too damn long.
The last time I was in London, I was pleased to learn that the bike share program had finally implemented a “Casual Use” plan, which allows you to use the bikes on a day-to-day basis without purchasing a membership (which requires UK residency). I was even more excited to see that the machines support American-style swipe credit cards as well as the chip and pin cards that are common in Europe.
Despite the cold January day, I decided to embark on this adventure to see how hard it was going to be for an American to actually use the Boris Bikes in a casual hire capacity. As it turns out, it’s pretty straight forward, with a couple of caveats.
The onscreen instructions walk you through every step of the hire process, but here are the things to note, both about the hiring process and the bikes themselves:
- The machine may not read your card the first time you try. In the cases where it didn’t read the card, I ended up trying again. And again. And again until it finally worked. The first machine I tried didn’t read the card at all, so I walked to the next bike share station, but I’m not sure whether persistence would have paid off.
- The first time you use the system, you have to swipe your card twice: once to register your card with the system, and once to actual hire the bicycle. On subsequent hires in the rental period (I always did it for £1 for one day, but you can register for longer) you will only need to swipe the card once to check the bike out again.
- You will receive two pieces of paper: the receipt for your rental, and the unlock code, a 5 digit number that you punch into the lock next to the bike you wish to borrow. You need that number to unlock your bike, so remember it before you cram the paper into your pocket.
- The first 30 minutes of the bicycle hire is free. As long as you check your bike back into a station before that 30 minutes is up, you won’t have to pay more than the initial fee for the day. You can’t however, just check out another bike when you park your first one – you will have to wait 15 minutes or so.
- Carry a handkerchief with you – someone had squeezed toothpaste on the seats of all of the bikes at the station I went to one morning. Because people are assholes.
- Watch out for bum bicycles. Before unlocking, I always make sure that the seat adjusts properly and that the tires aren’t flat. The Boris Bikes are incredibly heavy as it is, and a flat tire will make the ride even more painful.
- On a related note, allow at least 50% more time than you’d expect for a bike ride of any given distance – the bikes are heavy and are not geared for going fast.
- After you unlock your bike, getting it out of the stand is actually kind of tricky. You end up having to kind of lift up the seat and lift/pull it out of the stand. If you can’t get the bike out immediately, the lock will reengage itself. Don’t worry – you can just punch in the same code and it will unlock again.
- There are a number of mobile apps that will tell you where the nearest station is. These were indispensable. If you need a mobile data plan, read my tips on getting a mobile data plan while abroad.
- RIDE ON THE LEFT SIDE OF THE ROAD.
That’s it. Especially as the weather starts warming up, I highly recommend that anyone visiting London take full advantage of the bike share system. It really is a wonderful way to get around town.
Filed under: Observations