Boris Bikes are made of epic win

This week I had my yearly trip to the UK to attend the dConstruct conference in Brighton. Usually I add some time to visit London too and explore the things that need exploring.

This year (like last) I stayed at Cristiano1 and Melinda’s place near Canada Water but contrary to last year, Cristiano equipped me with all the material necessary for a roving networked urbanist. I got to borrow his MiFi and his Barclays Cycle Hire key and it made a ridiculous amount of difference. So much so that I don’t know if I’ll want to travel any other way.

Boris Bikes!

Barclays Bikes or as they are commonly known, Boris Bikes, are a brand new cycle hire scheme similar to the Vélib’ system in Paris and not so similar to the Dutch OV-fiets (which I wrote on before). The rates are ridiculously cheap, cheaper even than the OV-fiets here though the model is different. A Boris Bike does not have a lock and needs to be returned to a station when you are not riding it. For a fee of 45/year you can get up to four hire keys and any trip shorter than 30 minutes is free.

Getting around in London becomes much easier using a bike despite the heavy traffic2. Trips that would take an hour using the tube take less than half of that time using a bike. London roads are congested, and it takes some adjustment to the traffic direction for a person from the continent but it is more than doable. Boris Bikes also seem to be contributing to the increase in critical mass that had already started.

The first time I rode the bike was nice (though intimidating) but when I then returned it to its station, drove it into the rack and felt it fit and the lock snap shut accompanied with the light turning green, I had a massive victory grin on my face. Anybody witnessing that must have concluded that I was deranged (or extraordinarily happy).

The trips I did on the bike that day:

  • Old Street to Old Broad Street (for Taylor St. Baristas)
  • Old Broad Street to Shoreditch High Street
  • British Library to Serpentine Gallery3
  • Serpentine Gallery to Mornington Crescent4

You can see an increase in the distance I covered with each subsequent ride. The MiFi was essential in making these trips. I needed to figure out quickly where to return the bike within the 30 minute window and for that the Cycle Hire iPhone app (there seem to be a bunch5 ) proved to be indispensable. Quickly pinpointing a station with empty spots6.

The Cycle Hire App is really nicely designed, uses a custom mapping layer which looks very good and lists the cycle hire locations nearest to you which you can also click to see if there are any bikes (or free spots!) available. This way it becomes easier to navigate the city and be able to also plan your drop off point.

The fact that all the cycle hire locations are fully networked and provide live updates as to their status not only enables properly designed applications for various platforms but also has sparked a lively visualization and analysis. Frankly, I’m fucking jealous especially compared to the shabby web and service experiences provided by our Dutch OV-fiets system (just check out this map).

Some conclusions:

If you build a service it has to be at once useful and user friendly and don’t forget the service touch points as well as the network connections are an essential part of that service. Of course we already knew this, but having real life examples where both the design and implementation have amounted to a clear success will only help tell this story and convince decision makers. Boris Bikes were a pleasure to use and I hope they remain so. Viewed in a broader perspective it is also an example of public services that can work and are a pleasure to use. It is what we should aspire to.

I noticed this already on my trip to New York but it became only more salient on this trip to London. Having a permanent connection to the internet along with an Oyster card and a Cycle Hire key expanded my latitude immensely. I crammed the stuff you would normally do over a 2-3 day span into a single day which had other consequences7, but for the kind of travelling I like to do it is a pretty nice fit.
Flat rate internet along with access to the network of local services using that connection is the future of any travel experience. The time saved looking at maps, trying to decipher transportation schedules and waiting for vehicles is time much better spent doing other things both home and abroad. The high octane type of tourism this enables may not be to everybody’s liking8 but adding choice and removing friction should always be a positive thing —except in the most philosophical of cases.
Furthermore, adding cloud based network services such as these both of the informational variety as of the tangible one (objects becoming services) supported by a smartphone and a credit card has the potential to obliterate the difference between being a local and a tourist. Walk around a city supported by seamless payment and transportation, as well as real-time translation of all foreign language inputs, a global recommender system trained on you for the parts of the city —the very shops to visit and avoid, and a permanent connection to your social network to keep in touch and share experiences with; walking around a foreign city could be as familiar and pleasurable as walking around your hometown, probably even more so.

Lastly wandering around a city without aim or direction is a lot easier using a GPS assisted map (such as Google’s) than it is using a paper one. If you’ve ever walked around a foreign city using a map or guidebook, you’ll have experienced the cognitive load of keeping track on the map where you are. Not so with a GPS device. You can wander around as much as you’re comfortable with and as soon as you’re done with that you can open the digital map, pin-point where you are and look for the nearest bus/tube/exit to go somewhere else. GPS empowers and enables a much clearer choice of knowing where you are and getting lost. The true traveller’s way is of course getting lost on purpose and then asking a local the way back9, but seriously who ever does that?

  1. Cristiano’s project Minutebox won an award while I was staying there. Check it out!
  2. As a Dutch person, I was born on a bike and had little trouble navigating London streets.
  3. Normally you have to walk some fifteen minutes through Kensington Gardens to get there. Currently there are two cycle hire stations next to the gallery.
  4. Did that run in some twenty minutes, which I hear is pretty good time…
  5. Just imagine that! Having several apps to choose between for a public service instead of one app that barely works.
  6. Hard sometimes even though the stations are being rebalanced continuously.
  7. Already completely knackered after the day’s exploring, getting 8+ hours of sleep becomes more important. Hardly any energy left for extended socializing at night time. You probably could push through, but I wouldn’t want to know how 5-7 days going at this pace feels.
  8. Some people seem to go on holiday to relax.
  9. I tried that in Salé. Not the best experience ever.

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