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May 25th, 2016
Health • Infrastructure • Cities • Energy

London's Cycle Hire Scheme

In 2007, London was suffering from major traffic congestion and its consequences, such as high levels of pollution and slow journey times. In 2010 it followed Paris and Brussels in introducing a cycle hire scheme, which enabled cyclists to hire a bike from one of London’s hundreds of docking stations (761 as of January 2016). The take-up was immediate and encouraging, with a million journeys in the first 10 weeks.

The initiative

In 2007, the then mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, announced that he was going to implement a cycle hire scheme modelled on the Velib network in Paris. The Parisian scheme was carefully studied and, in 2008, a similar scheme was outlined for London. Its broad aim was to introduce a cycle share scheme in central London, taking advantage of a cheap, healthy and environmentally friendly form of transport. Transport for London (TfL) aimed to achieve a five percent share for cycling by 2025, requiring a four-fold increase in cycling levels from the year 2000.

The cycle hire scheme was originally sponsored by Barclays Bank and the current sponsors are Santander. It is operated by Serco for Transport for London. Users can rent one of 11,500 bikes at any time of the day or night from one of more than 700 docking stations. Docking stations are typically about 400 metres apart, located off main roads, near tourist attractions, in parks, and at underground and overground railway stations.

The scheme started in central London in 2010 and has since extended to all areas of the capital. From December 2010, the scheme was extended to include casual users who did not have to be registered but have a major payment card.

The challenge

Congestion in central London is a major issue, and it has been reported as “the most congested city in Europe”, with an average driver spending 96 hours stuck in traffic in 2015. [1]

In 2012 congestion was predicted to cost the UK economy over GBP4.3 billion per year. The city's authorities are constantly trying to reduce traffic in London and get people moving: "efficient movement of people and commerce across our road networks is essential to fostering a healthy, vibrant economy". [2] There are also significant health issues, with unacceptably high levels of pollution in the West End, the City and elsewhere in the capital.

It was estimated that two-thirds of the journeys that could be made by bicycle were made by car.

The public impact

Within the first 10 weeks of operation, 90,000 users registered and one million cycle rides were taken. The impact was encouraging:

  • 95 percent of journeys were previously made by another mode or not at all.
  • Seven out of ten users said the scheme had prompted them to start cycling in the city or to cycle more often.
  • One out of eight said using the scheme had encouraged them to use their own bike more.
  • Scheme users said they were benefiting from it and agreed the scheme provided a quick and convenient mode of travel.
  • The majority of users were enjoying the cycle hire experience and seeing benefits to their health and fitness.

Stakeholder engagement

The scheme requires the interaction of many stakeholders:

  • Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority.
  • Local councils and the City of London authority.
  • TfL, which is responsible for all public transport in the capital and was involved in funding and oversight of the scheme from the commissioning of the feasibility study onwards.
  • Serco, which is responsible for the running of the scheme, e.g. the regular movement of bikes between docking stations.
  • The major sponsor, Santander.
  • The cyclists who use the scheme.

Political commitment

The scheme was initiated by Ken Livingstone, when mayor of London. It has been supported by his successors, Boris Johnson - who provided continuing political leadership and supported the development of infrastructure, such as cycle superhighways - and Sadiq Khan.

Furthermore, to be successful across many London boroughs and the city of London, the scheme required their political buy-in and that of the Royal Parks. Successive mayors have been able to secure this support.

Public confidence

The public confidence and attitude towards the scheme has been mixed.

When it was initially introduced, glitches, delays in delivery and a negative view of the sponsorship by Barclays Bank made the public reaction somewhat mixed.

However, even as early as seven weeks later, the high uptake and the low level of thefts had resulted in a much more positive reaction.

There was also a suggestion that the pollution levels in London and the risk to injury might outweigh any health benefit of the scheme. However, a more recent study published in the British Medical Journal has refuted this, arguing that “on the contrary, our findings suggest that the scheme has benefited the health of Londoners and that cycle hire users are certainly not at higher risk than other cyclists”. [3]

Clarity of objectives

There was a clear objective set out in 2001, which has been maintained throughout:  “for cycling journeys in London to increase from 2% of all journeys in 2001 to 5% by 2026”. [4]

Strength of evidence

The scheme was based on those that already existed in other European cities, such as Paris and Brussels, providing evidence that used and reduce motor traffic.

Furthermore, TfL commissioned a feasibility report, which was published in 2008. It analysed all the systems in place and made suggestions for the best strategy to implement the scheme. The report included market research, demand analysis and impact on other methods of transports such as taxis. It also investigated the benefits and risks of the scheme.


TfL commissioned a thorough feasibility study that investigated all aspects of the scheme (see Strength of evidence above), prior to the scheme being implemented in 2010. The study investigated cost, logistics, health and safety, and performed demand detailed analysis and market research. It concluded that “from a technical perspective, a cycle hire scheme in London is feasible and a bespoke system for London could be implemented”. [5] The funding was provided in by TfL with additional by the scheme sponsors.


The cycle hire scheme is managed by TfL, who invested a large amount of resources in the scheme as part of a wider initiative to improve cycling in London. They commissioned a feasibility study to aspects all areas of the scheme and learnt as much as possible from other successful bike hire schemes in cities such as Paris and Brussels. Many logistical aspects of the scheme, such as the maintenance of the bicycles, are outsourced to Serco.


A huge amount of data is collected about cycle journeys and usage, which is all evaluated and used to try and improve the service.

TfL also evaluates metrics, such as population segments, which provide the best opportunity for increasing cycling. An increased understanding of why people choose to cycle and why they do not feed into and influence policy decisions about the scheme.

These metrics fit within the wider 'Cycling Revolution' initiative that aims to have five percent of all journeys by bike by 2026.


The installation, maintenance and logistics of a huge number of bicycles, coupled with the education of the public and marketing initiatives is a huge task. There is strong alignment between all the required stakeholders to make the initiative happen: TfL, the Mayor of London's office, London's local authorities, the contractor (Serco), the sponsor (Santander), and the major card providers that support the rapid payment systems.

To be successful initially, the scheme required all the councils in the TfL Zone 1 (the central zone) and the Royal Parks to buy into the scheme. “The cycle hire scheme will be based in the London boroughs of Camden, Hackney, Lambeth, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Westminster, as well as the City of London. People will also be able to rent bicycles from several royal parks in central London.” [7] This was a difficult process of persuasion, which the mayor of London was able to carry out successfully.

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