I have a Boris Bike key, it doesn’t work, and I want it to work. Should be easy to sort out – shouldn’t it?

The background:

I only use the Bike scheme occasionally – mainly to replace walking when in the West End, which I haven’t been doing recently. So, about two months ago, I went to get a bike, and was told my key was invalid.

Get home, check online.

Can’t log in, password rejected. Get new password, can’t change to my preferred (and perfectly valid) password, but struggle through the system anyway, and there is a £4 debit waiting on my account, and it looked like they had my old card details, which had expired. Ah ha!

Can’t update credit card details – there are problems, try later. So I did, several times. Eventually I fired off an email to customer care asking why I couldn’t update my details.

Two weeks later – a reply, please phone us.

I don’t actually like using phones as I struggle to hear through them, which is why I wrote an email in the first place.

A phone call, they’ll call me back. Miss me, can I call them, then they’ll call me back. This went on for a while, but eventually my credit card details are updated.

But the key still wont work.

I use my credit card as a “casual user” and it works fine.

I log on to the website and try to buy a credit for my key online – and again the same credit card problem message appears.

So I phone them.

Here I am given the most bizarre explanation ever conceived by a bureaucracy as to the problem.

If I don’t use the key for more than a month, then it is disabled and the way to re-enable it isn’t to select a simple option on the website or just use it again. No! I must insert the key into the bike reader and print out a copy of my last journey. That highly obvious solution will re-enable my key.

But only if there is enough paper in the machine to print a receipt.

And it didn’t work. But hang-on, I used my other credit card to buy a casual user allowance, and it printed out receipts.

Ahh, the lady tells me, the machine has different rolls of paper inside for different receipts.

Well, as there is only one slot for the paper slip to exit the machine by, there must be some mechanical system inside the blue bike tower that shuffles the rolls of till roll around based on the type of transaction being carried out.

Do you believe that – because I certainly don’t.

Nonetheless, I did go back to some bike stands this lunchtime and tried again – in three different locations.

I was as shocked as you will be to realise that none of the bike stands would authorise my key – each replying that it was invalid.

Add some more credit to my prepay phone, and another phone call – and got the same instructions again. No, it doesn’t work!

The lady has now decided my key is not invalid, but faulty and will send me another key in the post – next week.

Somehow, I am just not convinced that is the solution to the problem, but I shall wait and see.

My key issues:

Why is my password not a valid one?

It contains “upper and lower case letters and at least one number”, so should work fine. It would seem, based on some testing that I cannot reuse an old password that I once used. Which means they are keeping a log of all my old passwords, which is not a particularly good idea.

Would help if the error messages said that though.

Why does it take two weeks to reply to an email?

I shortened the sequence a bit, but in fact I sent three emails over a period of time, one was ignored and the other two took a fortnight to get a reply. Yes, I can phone them, but I struggle with phones, so prefer text.

To me, a customer query should be treated with equal importance regardless of the method of communication. In fact, it is arguable that treating written communication slower than verbal might be discriminatory against deaf people. Oh dear!

Why can’t I update my credit card details online?

OK, I accept a temporary glitch might cause it to wobble for an hour or so, but a whole month?

Why wasn’t I told about the expired credit card/key?

Here comes to the crux of the problem. Accepting all the difficulties above, why wasn’t I told there was a problem with my credit card expiring, or that my key was about to be disabled? They have my email address (tfl emails are whitelisted by my spam filter), and my phone number, and my address.

I am not hiding from them or ignoring dozens of letters, emails and phone calls.

For all the problems experienced trying to sort out this mess, the failure to warn me of a problem in advance and have a simple procedure to fix it is the real failing here.

Dear TfL/Serco,

Please let me give you my money so that I can use the bikes again.

I really need this sorted by next weekend though – which is why I am starting to get a bit stressed.

Thank you.

addendum: I tried opening a new account and buying a new key, but it wouldn’t let me. Rats!


In fairness, the new key works – admittedly, it also took two phone calls and a manual credit card transaction to get the new key activated though. I am still fairly sure it wasn’t a key fault, but an admin problem due to the debit on my account.


Also, emailed a letter of complaint on the 3rd August and got an auto-response promising a reply within 5 days. Got a reply on the 12th August saying they have escalated the issue to be investigated.

It’s something, even if the “please wait” message took 9 days to deliver.


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  1. nigel vogt says:

    I have worked for a large company that used Serco for cleaning and the like, why anyone would let them loose on something like this I honestly don’t know.

  2. Kit Green says:

    Serco (and similar companies) only exist to make money from government schemes. The real money comes to them from whichever government agency they are supplying.

    The pitiful funds from the user of the service will be seen as an annoyance and not worth the hassle.

    That may sound rather political…. I am not even a socialist and yet I despise these monoliths of privatisation.

  3. Danielle says:

    I have just had the same issues – my debit card expired so I tried to update the card number. Not so fast! It never worked so I sent an email and as of a week later they haven’t responded. I would love to actually cancel the card and just use a credit card every time I want to ride but I can’t figure out how to do that either. I must say, we just went to Paris a few weeks back and the velos are so easy to use it puts London to shame.

  4. JonF says:

    invalid Password is a problem I read about 2 months ago. I have a key, used twice last summer and again in May this year – no expiry issues. I tried to view my use online, when I found the password issue.

    Looks like this might help

    Serco have been fined for being rubbish – they are making up stories now as well.

    • IanVisits says:

      Thanks, but I am getting an actual error message telling me my password is invalid.

  5. Zhaph says:

    Give them the benefit of the doubt, it’s possible that they are storing the hash of your password (and ideally a salt), rather than the plain text – they can still compare the hash of your new password with previous ones to ensure they are different – whilst you may get a few false positives, it’s unlikely for most people’s password combinations 😉

    It’s equally possible that they are storing your password and credit card details in plain text, but we can hope they aren’t.

    It’s odd you didn’t get the email, I’ve just had one telling me my annual sub’s about to expire – note though that the emails come from “[email protected]” not TFL directly – not sure where the customer service emails come from however.

    • IanVisits says:

      Any database with a collection of old passwords can be copied and a more powerful machine used to hack the passwords – salted or not – fairly quickly. Even if they deem the risk to be small, it is a daft idea to keep copies of old passwords unless there is a overwhelmingly strong reason to need them.

      I am whitelisting everything from the tfl.gov.uk domain name.

    • Zhaph says:

      I agree that keeping info you don’t need just increases the risk surface, and I can’t really see the need to not let you re-use passwords here, but I guess they feel it gives someone a feeling of security around the credit card details they’re clearly storing.

  6. heike says:

    oh boy.
    perhaps they want you to stop cycling around town as this seem highly life threatening to me. 🙂
    are those bikes the blue ones that are so heavy you cannot move?

    • IanVisits says:

      are those bikes the blue ones that are so heavy you cannot move?

      Nope – I think you are getting confused between a popular cycling service and a piece of sculpture you might have seen somewhere.

  7. Beth says:

    Hear, hear. As of today, I’ve had to call the helpline eight days in a row. At least it’s been for a variety of different reasons, so that keeps it interesting and fresh.

    I’m told the reason the entire system is so deeply, deeply flawed is because the software has been lifted from the Montreal scheme, which is much smaller, and it can’t cope with the vast amount of data generated by our scheme.

  8. Robert Clark says:

    I’m having similar problems with this and not for the first time either. The password reset function is a complete nightmare, if it works at all.

    My credit card expired and I need to update it. The card update fails because the address on my bike account doesn’t match the registered card address. Try to update the address at tfl and it gives an error – “Sorry, we are having a problem with your request. Please try again, or call 0845 026 3630 for help.”. I don’t have the time or the inclination to phone and sit in a queue thanks very much. Emailed 3 days ago and no reply yet.

    Having read this, I’m now not hopeful my key will work even after I get the address and credit card updated!

  9. Eric says:

    I encountered the same issues when my credit card expired last year and am surprised that it is still a problem for them. I guess Serco are just paid to run the system and that it is only TFL that is loosing revenue from this hence it is low down on Serco’s priority to fix the bug.

    Personally I would have preferred it they linked the bike scheme to the oyster card in some way.

    Not being able to use past passwords is usually a feature activated for logins into networks and applications where you can do serious damage to the business or access highly confidential data, so it seems a bit OTT for a user logging in to see their cycle hire activity.

  10. Raluca says:

    How about other issues with the bikes..like:
    – all the bikes on a rack were broken
    – at the next rack the machine wasn’t working at all
    – at the next ones (a couple) we could find bikes..but..all keyboards were damaged..so no chance to get a bike..

    It does look a mess…

  11. Josh says:

    Same issue exactly. Tried to log in to the site after five months of not using my key and told the password was incorrect. Used the ‘forgot password’ link and then was stuck in a password loop for an hour as kept asking for a new password. A phone call to ‘Nat-lee’ and it was reset, updated details but after one use of a bike the key would not read.

    Have tried numerous times with credit/debit card as a casual user, but this doesn’t work either, each time it is refused. Apparently this is because I have a key and key holders aren’t allowed to use the bikes casually. Why?

    I also fired off email and although promised a response in five days, my email turned up after two weeks. Apparently my key as been reset, but it still doesn’t read so I have not used the service since.

    This is what happens when public sector tendering process is geared to awarding contracts to the lowest bidder rather than the quality of the service.

  12. bob says:

    they have these new things called bike shops!

    • IanVisits says:

      Bike shops come with requirements to buy a bike and have somewhere to store it.

  13. Whyperion says:

    There are some independent cycle hire shops around London , try an internet search to find one , dont think they are 24/7 though.
    All new residential and office properties should be made to have secure storage for bicycles as part of the planning permission,

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