Thursday, 8 March 2012
Boris Bikes are a Corporate Bonanza
Some love him, others mistrust him but few dispute London mayor Boris Johnson's gift for making his mark. No policy of the celebrity Conservative politician has demonstrated this more conspicuously than the 6,000 bulky, blue, Barclays-sponsored bicycles for hire he has brought to the centre of the capital.
Johnson, himself a highly recognisable cyclist, has made the scheme – Barclays Cycle Hire (BCH) – a flagship policy for what he calls his cycling revolution in the capital, proclaiming it a "glorious new form of public transport".
The bikes and the more than 400 docking stations from which users collect and return them have become familiar sights in central London since their introduction in July 2010. On Thursday the scheme will be extended eastwards to within a 15-minute walk of the Olympic Park, with a further 160 docking stations across the East End hosting a further 2,300 bikes.
Yet as his campaign to retain the mayoralty at the 3 May election intensifies, critics are questioning the success of "Boris Bikes".
Transport for London (TfL), the public body responsible for running the scheme, says 137,000 people have active membership accounts, though these include people who might not have used their membership key to hire a bike for many months.
Numbers of casual users, who hire by swiping a credit card at a docking station terminal point, varied last year between 48,379 in January and 240,000 in July. About 20,000 hires altogether are made each weekday and 13,000-15,000 at weekends.
Johnson's election campaign website boasts of "nearly 10m hires" since launch. However, a customer satisfaction survey conducted for TfL by Ipsos Mori last summer found the scheme's novelty had worn off for many of its members with cyclists becoming "more critical of the BCH offer". There was growing dissatisfaction over bike maintenance and finding docking stations full when attempting to return the cycles.
Early teething problems with the system, run for TfL by Serco, had meant that casual users could not access it until December 2010 and nearly 2,800 people were incorrectly charged during its first five months, though TfL says such problems are now long solved.
The survey also found that more than half of members are men aged 35-54, that only 71% live in London and that nearly half used the bikes for commuting, primarily instead of walking or taking the tube. It also found 93% of all Boris Bikes trips lasted less than half an hour, which is a free period after casuals and members have paid an access fee.
Jenny Jones, the Green party's London mayoral candidate and a regular cyclist, said: "Cycle hire is a brilliant idea but the London scheme has been hijacked by corporate interests."
She also said it was unambitious compared with Paris's much larger Vélib scheme. She cites TfL figures to claim it has generated only 3% of the extra 1m daily cycle trips the mayor is committed to seeing by 2026, compared with 2000.
At the first mayoral election hustings both the Labour candidate Ken Livingstone and Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick attacked the cost of the scheme, which Johnson pledged in his 2008 transport manifesto would be delivered at no cost to the taxpayer through "a deal with a private company."
Yet Barclays' contribution has offset only an undisclosed fraction of TfL's outlay. When the deal was announced in May 2010 it was described by TfL as being worth "up to" £25m over five years with the sum also contributing to the "Barclays cycle superhighways" Johnson has begun introducing on some main commuter routes. The cost of installing the first phase of the scheme was £79.5m. Only £3.4m had been received from Barclays by the end of 2010.
Last July Johnson applauded Barclays' agreeing to "provide another £25m sponsorship," extending its support to 2018 and planned further expansion into west and south London next year.
But in November he said the "anticipated total operational and project cost" over the following five years for the first two phases of the scheme was £140.5m, and that over the life of the contract with Barclays there was "a potential" of £50m in sponsorship.
Johnson added: "The profiling and detail of the payment of the sponsorship is commercially sensitive." A report by the London Assembly transport committee last month criticised the process by which Barclays was selected as a sponsor as "almost totally opaque".
Johnson has enjoyed a close relationship with Barclays throughout his mayoralty, appointing the bank's now global chief executive Bob Diamond the first chair of his charitable Mayor's Fund for London in 2008. Diamond has since stepped down but Barclays Capital is a "strategic partner" of the fund.
BBC London last year reported that he had made "a personal approach" to Barclays chairman Marcus Agius about sponsoring the scheme and that other high street banks were not sounded out.
Three advertising consultants put the publicity value of the deal to Barclays, whose name and Barclays blue corporate colour adorns the bikes and docking points, at £9m-£15m a year. But Johnson and TfL have always insisted the deal is good value for money in tough economic times.
The original colour of the signage and roundels for the scheme was mint green, but was changed to Barclays blue as part of the deal. TfL has always denied that the blue paint used to mark the cycle superhighway lanes was chosen because of its similarity to the Barclays hue, saying it was settled on at least three months before Barclays came on board.
London's boroughs are now being asked to help fund the scheme's growth. Citizen journalists at MayorWatch and the Shepherd's Bush blog have disclosed that Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth and Hammersmith & Fulham are each required to provide £2m.
TfL puts annual operating costs at £15m a year, rising to £20m with phase 2. Johnson wants these to break even by 2015, but TfL is forecasting only £7m income from users by the end of this financial year. Come 3 May Londoners' votes may be swayed by whether they consider Boris Bikes to be the triumph Johnson says they are – or a taxpayer-subsidised advertising vehicle for Barclays and the Tory mayor.
Written by Dave Hill
First published at The Guardian