26 June 2011

Boris Bikes... Ltd.

Having turned into a London salary-man, I had to try a Boris bike.  I mean, you arrive to Euston and the options are to join the medieval melee of peak-time tube travel, negotiate the bus network hoping you don’t end up in Watford, walk – which is fine but time consuming and, at certain points, just as competitive as boarding the tube – and cycling.  Many have their own cycle – indeed some carry it in the train, and Euston has notably increased the number and sophistication of its cycle parking points.  For those who don’t  or won’t, the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme (to give it its proper name) offers a great alternative… some of the time.

The theory of it is great : within the area served the stands are indeed ubiquitous.  The prices are very reasonable – first 30’ free, a quid for 24h, a fiver for a week:  how good is that!?  The bikes look well designed – why, they even have gears (3-speed hub gears – I believe they are Sturmey-Archer: a true British classic). 
The reality is more mixed.  The booking process is reasonably straightforward, but nobody tells you that the first time you ever hire a bike you need to go through it twice – once to register your card, the next to actually obtain the release code and take a bike.  I stood there for 10’, waiting for something to happing at first, then poking alternatively the machine and various bikes, then rang the helpline where, unsurprisingly, the first thing you heard was a recorded message related to this problem – so, alone I am not. 

Then there’s the vagaries of usage patterns.  Yesterday, for instance, the whole thing worked a treat – I took a bike from near work, made it to Euston in twenty reasonably pleasant minutes, parked easily in one of several empty bays, and away I went.  

Today, by contrast, I arrived to Euston to find a lone bike left in its stand.  I obtained a release code and, alas, a red light in the stand showed me this last remaining bike was in fact a dud.  I rushed to another cycle point to find none left.  Then another where there were many – but when I put my card in, after a long delay the machine displayed an error message.  This happened a second and then a third time as I tried successive cycle hire points, so I gave up and walked the rest of the way, having squandered a precious half-hour trying to get a Boris-bike.

Boris, by the way, didn’t actually father the creature, so to speak – not this one, at any rate.  Not only were other European cities (like Paris and Barcelona) quicker off the mark, I am reliably informed the ball for this scheme got rolling on Red Ken’s watch, even if the bikes (unlike Barcelona’s) are blue – or rather, the livery on them is, for the bikes have the sort of grey-brown finish of 1970s office furniture.

My £30 fold-up

They do say you get what you pay for.  Fork out hundreds of pounds and you can fetch the queen of fold-ups, that jewel of the dying breed of British engineering excellence, a magnificent Brompton.   Spend a couple of hundred quid and you can get one of the cheaper imports, reasonably decent items that may well take a few more seconds to put together or pack away, with gears that perhaps don’t purr along quite as smoothly as those I am told a Brompton offers.

Spend £30 on ebay and you get a cross between a circus prop and a sophisticated instrument of torture, bound in equal measure to amuse passers-by and set you up, on an early morning, to be grumpy and on a short fuse all day, dwelling on the prospect of having to ride it up hill back home when the train finally makes it to whatever God-forsaken sleeper town you happen to have your lodgings in.

That is exactly what I am contending with.  The bike, pictured, is something I bought for completely different purposes – mainly, the idea was that if we wanted to take the kids to the park to ride their bikes, we could only fit three bikes on the bike rack, and two small bikes in the boot: this meant we could only have one adult bike – so I got a fold up for the other adult.  The seller was the Brazilian wife of some bloke who lived on the Cheshire plain, West of the M6 somewhere between Chester, Wrexham and the civilised world.  The chap, the Brazilian assured me, had an identical one he used every morning to cycle to a train station from which he then carried on to Liverpool.  That, the cynics may say, explains a lot.  The fact that is a single-speed is not in my view its main shortcoming – it may not be great up the hill but it would be bearable.  Nor is so badly made – it may be heavier than the better bikes, being made of steel, but the joints lock well enough and have only a little play in them.  The main problem is that the wheels are smaller than those of the more expensive folding bikes, and the frame is proportionally shorter.  This results in an awful ride, really unstable.  Stopping becomes an act of defiance, as is steering too much, and since it has no racks and all the load has to go in my rucksack, I am forced to ride leaning forwards a lot, because with the seat-post fully extended to suit even my modest height, the saddle actually hangs almost further back than the rear whell – lean back and you’ll land the back of your head on the tarmac. 

So, what next?  I have to choose from a number of options.  To be fair, the little bike has done the job, reducing the time it would take me to reach the train station from 45’ (on foot) to 20’.  I could therefore grin and bear it.  I could buy a Dawes fold up for as little as £165 at a shop I know.  I could look for a good second hand fold-up on ebay.  I could transport my proper bike to my commuting base and enjoy the experience.  My host – my ever generous and helpful Father-in-Law – has offered to dust off his long-forgotten bike – in which he used to cover pretty much the same distance – for me.  This would be the most efficient option in terms of cost and effort.  It would also catapult me into the world of 1970s cycling, as the machine in question has the features we all regarded then as innovative – a smaller frame with longer, V-shaped handlebars, looking almost like a bigger fold-up bike except that it doesn’t fold.  To be honest, I don’t mind that – it will be better than my £30 eBay bargain, and for the time being that is enough for me.

23 June 2011

Ze biggh zmok

003 by cocosolis
003, a photo by cocosolis on Flickr.

So, my new life has started - at the moment, it includes catching a very early train to work in London. So early, I can do with cycling to and from the local train station, as it's only 20' as opposed to 45'. I had no better idea than to recommission a cheap fold-up bike I got on ebay 4 years ago for £30.

It is a crude contraption indeed, but one that does that the job - poorly, but it gets me there. It also amuses people. What could possibly go wrong?

16 June 2011

Transport chiefs in bid to get more people cycling to work | Manchester Evening News - menmedia.co.uk

Transport chiefs in bid to get more people cycling to work | Manchester Evening News - menmedia.co.uk

Laudable, but I fear it's got "misguided" written all over it. According to the Evening News, this is "a radical bid by transport chiefs for government cash". Right. So, it's not about cycling or indeed transport - but to get some cash. It may be misreporting by the M.E.N., but that's not the only problem I see.

The fundamental error appears to be an emphasis on doing the things that are easy rather than the things that are necessary. Yes, it will be jolly nice to have 'secure storage' for my bike and wet clothes, and access to showers - but lack of those things are not the main deterrent for people to cycle into Manchester city centre. It is safety on the roads that stops most people I talk to: safety from the actions of other road users - chiefly motorists. Safety from those who will act carelessly or incompetently and from those who - very occasionally - harass you, angry as what they wrongly perceive as your 'intrusion' on 'their' road, the one they think they pay with their 'road tax'.

If Greater Manchester really want to be pioneering, they need to invest in, among other things:
- Real, segregated, cycle lanes
- Information campaign aimed at drivers ("There's no road tax"; "Cyclists are good for you" etc)
- Better law enforcement - and how about some coppers on bikes, on main routes?
- Legal support for cyclists involved in accidents - not to thwart justice, but to even the odds (hey, they could partner up with the CTC)
- Better (less car-centred) road/junction design so that cycling routes actually lead into the city centre, not circle around it or force you to go counterflow
- Bikes on trams!  or at least, good, easy bike parking at tram and rail stations

And lead by example - I know Lord Smith may be past his cycling years, but I'm sure there are plenty of councillors and town hall mandarins who are not - some may already cycle to work, so why not make it visible?

15 June 2011

23,000 cars clocked breaking 30mph limit on Hyde country lane - in just 10 days | Manchester Evening News - menmedia.co.uk

23,000 cars clocked breaking 30mph limit on Hyde country lane - in just 10 days | Manchester Evening News - menmedia.co.uk

This highlights how, while media and politicians are always happy to brand cyclists as rogue road users, the truth is that associating behaviour on the road with mode of transport is just plain silly: driver are no less likely to disregard the rules - and when it comes to speed limits, nobody can cast the first stone, since we all do it. Yes, there are shades of grey, some drivers break the limit more carefully than others, some drivers compound speeding with recklessness, but let's stop portraying cyclists as 'rebels' and motorists as 'law-abiding'. You cannot cut it like that.

13 June 2011

One good thing to say about cycling in Britain...

... is that, by and large, nobody here would bother you to stick slavishly to cycle lanes, as happened to this chap in New York.  But before we uncork the Buck's Fizz, let me say that in fact that maybe just reflects how little people care about provision for cycling on the roads - cycle lanes get invaded and obstructed all the time, but even when they are not they can be so poorly designed as to make them useless.

This morning for instance I cycled from Whitefield to Bury town centre.  Along a section of the A56 there is a cycle lane approaching a traffic light.  It is so narrow that, although it was clear of cars as the light changed to red, I still could not get through to the front, so had to wait in line with other cars and lorries.  This is actually worse than useless - when traffic there is moving, cars can sometimes assume I will fit in the cycle lane, and in effect push me into the kerb.  Bonkers!

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06 June 2011

"Accidental" ...

A case of "someone cocked it up" which means nobody is held accountable for the death of a cyclist:

"An inquest into the death of a cyclist who was hit by a lorry in Old Trafford has recorded a verdict of accidental death"

I shudder at the velvety, cushioned language in which the Police try to obfuscate what they reluctantly admit: that CCTV footage which would have been needed for a successful prosecution, was lost due to their actions (or lack of).

One should ask Andrea Leadsom whether she thinks her tinkering with the law in recent months will help address injustices like this.

A lesson in bravery: Teacher recovers from horrific bike crash and bids for place in top triathlon | Manchester Evening News - menmedia.co.uk

The M.E.N. has given this an 'inspirational recovery' slant - focusing on the person concerned's bravery and determination - and that is fair enough. I however would like to highlight this paragraph:

"Sarah had been cycling as part of a training regime in a bid to qualify for the 2010 Euro and World triathlon championships when a car pulled out in front of her last June on Wilmslow Road, Didsbury.
She slammed on her brakes and was thrown in the air, landing on her head.
Despite wearing a helmet, Sarah suffered multiple facial fractures, a broken cheekbone, nose and jaw and her lip was badly torn.
She also broke several bones at the top of her spine.
The driver of the car involved was later convicted of driving without due care and attention."

In other words:

- This was an accident caused by a careless driver
- The helmet made little difference

Dangerous, careless road use, and car-centric design, are the things to tackle if road safety is to be addressed.   

A lesson in bravery: Teacher recovers from horrific bike crash and bids for place in top triathlon | Manchester Evening News - menmedia.co.uk

6ft hole appears in residential Bury road used as short cut by HGV drivers | Manchester Evening News - menmedia.co.uk

Today, 6 June, at 10am, the road is still closed - against what the article seems to say...

6ft hole appears in residential Bury road used as short cut by HGV drivers | Manchester Evening News - menmedia.co.uk

04 June 2011

Fold ups

Well, in a few weeks this blog will no longer be about cycling in Manchester - not strictly.  I will be working in London, commuting on weekdays.  Yes, it's complicated - but the simplicity of unemployment somehow didn't appeal to me.

So, I plan to join the growing hosts of London cyclists - the scourge of the Earth, according to some.  In preparing for that day, I have re-discovered a folding bike I 'won' on ebay years ago: I paid £30 and collected it from somewhere in Cheshire.  It's a crude single-speed contraption, and the only time I ever used it in anger (to reach a garage and collect my car before they closed for the day) I was ridiculed by school children all along the route.

I have, however, re-commissioned it - and found it is not as bad as all that.  I'm not sure I will stick to it, but it will do for starters.  I have no intention of forking out hundreds to purchase a Brompton - I'm sure one of those would be beautiful and ride like a dream, but I can't afford to splash out in that way.  Also, how I arrange my accommodation will bear heavily in the choice of bicycle.  If far away from the centre, I could have two cheap old bikes, one for each end of the journey.  If I can manage to rent a room relatively centrally, I may want a reasonable hybrid or town bike I can do most things in - in fact, I already have such a thing, my beloved Tourismo 24.