Sitting outside come rain or shine, have you ever wondered where the Cycle Hire bikes go for a bit of TLC? What happens when you press that red button saying “fix me”? How they try to get bikes shifted around London to keep the docking stations balanced?

Well, as it turns out, there’s a depot near King’s Cross that handles all of those issues, and along with its newly opened counterpart in Clapham tends to the blue velocipedes in need of a loving hand.

Officially the Barclays Cycle Hire, or BCH, at least until the middle of next year, they are inevitably more commonly known as Boris Bikes.

It’s obvious when said, but maybe not thought about, but every bike does get regularly serviced, with major overhauls every 6 and 12 months. The former taxi centre is ideally designed for the bike servicing, and a large maintenance workshop replete with the smell of oil and machinery is where bikes are gutted and rebuilt.

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In between services, it’s the press of the red spanner button at the docking station that summons cycling first-aid in the form of mobile technicians who will take a look at the bike and see if it can be repaired at the docking station. If not, then a tap on a mobile computer, and the bike is sent for surgery at King’s Cross.

The mobile technicians also cut down on van collections where someone pressed the spanner by mistake, or mischievously.

On a typical day, a depot based technician can manage 8 repairs, or 3 services — as the repairs to simple things such as a puncture or resetting brakes is a fairly simple task. A quick peddle around the warehouse to check all is in order, then back outside into the yard and a short wait before being sent out to work again.

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Based on an idea from one of the staff, they’ve recently set up a recycling hub where components that might have been scrapped can be broken down and the viable parts reused again. Saves money, but is also a more interesting way of doing things.

A big pile of luggage racks led me to verify a suspicion. I was going to tape measure it one day, but suspicions confirmed, the newer bikes do have slightly smaller racks on the front of the bike. My camera bag was a snug fit but no longer, alas.

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The location of the maintenance depot was also fortuitous for the locals, as most of the staff working here have come from the area. Some 35 were hires on 2-year apprentices, and others from a mixture of backgrounds including some long-term unemployed.

Serco, who manage the service also has a call-centre, which is based in Enfield. They are obligated to keep the call centre in London to ensure the scheme generates local jobs — and doubtless avoid a front page newspaper splash about 60 jobs being sent to India or whatnot.

In the long term, the new depot in Clapham will focus on repairs, which are easier, and the Islington depot will focus on services, which needs the more experienced staff.

The rest of the office at the Islington site is given over to managing the service, and a dedicated traffic control room with big screens and maps tries to juggle the bikes around London.

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While the sight of the Barclays branded vans zipping around London redistributing the bikes are a common sight, you might be less well aware that at three of the main cycle hubs, in Holborn, Waterloo and King’s Cross, they have additional storage yards.

In the morning, the docking stations at the mainline stations are filled up, and around 200 more bikes sit in the sheds waiting to be deployed as soon as the docking stations empty. At Holborn, the shed and docking stations lay empty for the commuters dropping them off.

In the evening the whole situation is reversed — but not exactly.

It seems that the morning rush, which lasts a surprisingly long time, from 6-11am sees bikes coming into the centre of town from all locations. However. in the evenings, there is a marked change as most of the outbound traffic is to the mainline stations. And the rush hour is more concentrated at just 2 hours.

One of the other oddities is that while most bikes seem to pulse in and out of the centre of town, most of the bikes in Kensington and Chelsea stay roughly in that area. A mini town of its own.

Another mini zone is the Waterloo Village, as they refer to the cluster of docking stations in the area.  Depending on how far you count them, there’s 7-12 docking stations within about 100 yards of the station entrance.

Commuters are certainly the main contributors to the bulk movements of bikes, but the casual users are more difficult to plan for, as they are just so random. Bikes can end up all over the place, and goodness if a group of tourists turn up at Hyde Park and empty an entire docking station in one go.

Regular users are also wiser to the 30 minute cut-off for free usage, with average use being 18 minutes, compared to 33 minutes for the average casual user.

Add in the vagaries of the weather, which has a huge impact on usage, and it is these disparities, and others, that can make managing the system seem at times problematic, and they are in a constant state of tweaking the system to try and improve distribution.

Despite the complaints, no city with a large cycle-hire scheme has ever managed to work that one out perfectly and have a system that doesn’t end up needing a lot of vans shifting bikes around.

Here in London the original small electric vans were swiftly replaced with 3.5 ton lorries with customised backs to handle the bikes. Each of the 28 lorries can carry 18 bikes at a time.

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Another tweak that might be deployed next year is SMS alerts for users who appear to have hired a bike for an extended period of time just in case they either are unaware of the bill they are racking up, or have handed a bike back and it hasn’t registered properly.

During the 2012 Olympic Games, a record of 47,105 cycle hires were made in a single day, but hires can drop to at little as 20,000 on a rainy day. The real challenge  is hiring a bike after it has stopped raining — a handful of tissues to wipe the seat dry being an essential accessory.

For some reason, a wet bum is so much more annoying when the rest of you is dry!

Last Christmas day, 28,000 bikes were hired, of which 26,000 were casual users. Certainly anyone who can should try to get into the centre of London on Christmas morning and go for a cycle around. It’s a magical experience.

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When they launched, the bikes were a sight of excitement, and as an early user I would often see people stop and stare a bit, or approach me to ask how they are to ride and how to use them.

And while we might be used to them now, there is still something oddly enjoyable about the hire scheme itself. I personally think its the docking stations. None of the faffing about with chains and keys, or having to remember where the bike is in order to come back to it later. Just drop off and wander off.

I’ve also noted elsewhere how the bikes seem to have changed how cycling looks in London. Far less dominated by lycra and far more by suits and normal clothing. Apparently a couple arrived at Waterloo recently in a ballgown and blacktie, by hire bike. And it wasn’t a publicity stunt.

But, there is a curious thing about the bikes, and the staff who manage them commented on this. People really like the cycle hire scheme. I mean, really like it. So much so that the distribution staff go back to the office and not that infrequently mention how users have chatted to them and thanked them for dropping off bikes or similar.

No one really knows why the bikes generate this. You just cant quite imagine a commuter thanking a bus or train driver. Yet, there is something about the bikes than brings out the smiles in people.

If they achieve nothing else in life other than encouraging curmudgeonly Londoners to smile and say thank you, then they will have been worth every penny invested in them.


Thanks to TfL, Serco and the staff at the depot for the chance to see behind the bike shed.

Yes, they are still trying to work out how that bike got to Gambia.

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10 Comments

  1. Andrew

    Er, the link for “small electric vans” goes here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alkè – which does not exist.

    • IanVisits

      Link fixed — WordPress really doesn’t like url’s containing foreign letters in them.

  2. rw

    I often see people thanking bus drivers when they get on/off the bus

    • @RobHofficial

      I always thank the driver, it’s courtesy in my opinion.

    • M@

      Agreed…seems to be more common than not to thank the driver on the routes I use. Might be a blog post in that – which bus routes prompt the most pleasantries.

    • Daniel Tonks

      Indeed, not sure how common this is in London, but outside of that M25 Force Field it’s pretty standard.

    • martin

      If I’m exiting by the front door, I’ll always thank a bus driver – but it’s a lot harder to do that when convention dictates leaving by the central doors.

  3. *rain

  4. Are those average usage times means or medians? I only ask because the distribution is going to be skewed (since you can’t hire a bike for less than zero minutes) so it’s possible for the mean to be 33 minutes and yet most casual users still be hiring bikes for less than 30 minutes.

    Coming from outside London, where buses don’t have dedicated exit doors, I reflexively thank the driver when I’m on buses with doors only at the front.

  5. Greg Tingey

    These (“Boris”) bikes are undergeared & HEAVY.
    Not much in London, but Abellio/Greater Agnglia have a similar scheme, with better (I think) bikes.
    London points @ Enfield Town, Harold Wood & Romford
    Their website:
    http://www.bikeandgo.co.uk/

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