City Bike Hire

Aberdeen City Council has announced an options appraisal for a city bike hire scheme and having been in Edinburgh last week, I took the opportunity to try out their new ‘Just Eat’ Cycle Hire scheme.  I had 4 appointments in 24 hrs in different parts of the city and as I arrived by train, it seemed the idea time to give this a try.

First issue for me, having got off the train at Haymarket, was that there isn’t a bike hire station at the transport interchange. Hadn’t bothered researching that bit …just assumed!  Walked into the city centre knowing I had time to spare so just looked out for a bike station. Found one in Castle Street – quite the spot for promotional photo!

I looked up the website. “First off “, it said, Download the App. Having time in hand, I found a nearby cafe with wi-fi to sit and have a sandwich while I did the on-line bit. Time in hand was the crucial detail!

To download and use the app, I needed to be sent a unlock code which was texted to me. I found the text had a 10-15 min delay, during which time, I got impatient (has been known!) and started again, thinking ‘that didn’t work’.  It ended up out on sync and taking me just over 30 mins to get a code that was a match to my registration form (6 attempts).  Took a bit of time, but good to go! The sandwich shop were losing patience with the table hogging, so I was back to the bikes ready to cycle!

Entered all of the registration details and completed the payment, but then it moved into what seemed market research questions and it stuck at one page – requesting my postcode. I tried again, it stuck again. Tried again and it stuck again. I was determined that it could not defeat me …I’d already tweeted about my planned ride. No surrender …I’m sorting this out! I seemed to have paid my £3 for 24 hour access, but didn’t have a way to get a bike.

Back to the website.  I found a number – an 0131 number so maybe I could speak to a local office, but somehow I thought I’d get a call centre somewhere. Got through straight away to the very helpful Ann, who was in a local Edinburgh office. We talked through the process and I was asked if I registered on the website, I said I’d registered using the app – which didn’t seem to be conventional …but re-checked the website and I think I followed what it said. I was asked about the make and model of the phone I’d used to register (not sure if that was significant …must’ve asked for a reason).

It seemed there had been issues with the app.  Ann took my number and had to consult colleagues and phone me back.  I was duly phoned back 3 mins later and gave my email address where I was sent a code. When I rang off the phone, I was to enter the code into the app.  I didn’t quite follow this bit, but it was the moment when it all got easier than expected as I didn’t enter any code, the app just buzzed and told me to take bike number 12. The bike released! Done!  It took 1 hour and 5 mins.

Now followed a downhill time trial to Leith for my meeting. I had 25 mins and probably some navigation ahead.  Add to this, I’d been told that there was a rumour that all the hire bikes were ending up in Leith – it’s all downhill to get there and a long way back up on the cobbled descent I took down towards Stockbridge and the Water of Leith.

I didn’t have time to check maps, I just had to guess there would be docking stations in Leith – and had to hope they had a space, otherwise I suppose I was taking the bike to the meeting. Reached the Scottish Government at Victoria Quay -it had a bike station, with two spaces …bullseye! Docked the bike and legged it!  Made the meeting with a minute to spare.  I was a bit nervous of the return journey, not just for the epic climb, but more that I might have to go through some of this again. I didn’t, once up and running (with a 24 hour ticket anyway) it was really easy to remove a bike again.

The bike itself was pretty good – it’s heavy with 3 gears. I think it was better than the city bikes I’d hired elsewhere. It was a bit easier on the next journey and stopped for a picture and to consult the app. The app helpfully tells you where to find the nearest bike when you don’t have one, but when you do have one it didn’t seem to tell me where the nearest docking station was …just ‘You have a Bike’  – which i knew!  You have one hour to dock it again from the start of a hire which was a relief, as somehow I thought it was 30 mins, which would have been a push to get back up the hill from Victoria Quay along the Water of Leith (with wrong turns and questionable signposts)!

I used 4 bikes in 24 hours and all were in great order, smooth running, pumped tyres and no unexpected clunks. Bikes like this I’d used elsewhere had always been clunky or had seatposts that sank. All in all, I really enjoyed it.  Much better than a bus. Rather obviously it wasn’t a smooth process to get started, but it is quite new and maybe there are teething problems.  I will do it again next visit …but then again I’ve got the app, which was more challenging than the 9% climb on ‘Cassies’ (cobbles/sets whatever you wish to call them)!

So what about this concept for Aberdeen? I am pretty conflicted on this.  I put a Facebook post asking for opinions (mostly among Aberdonians). The majority of opinions (unsurprisingly I think) were about lack of cycling infrastructure, poor road surfaces and the dangers. In all honesty, all that applies in Edinburgh too, there are better traffic-free options in the capital, but I doubt that the average Edinburgh visitor will cycle on many of them.  There are less cars in the very heart of Edinburgh than in the heart of Aberdeen.  They’ve taken measures that we’ve not. Then again there are more buses, trams and tram-lines to negotiate.

My interest was also whether we’d really have demand for this in Aberdeen?  Underused cycling investment can be used to beat down future cycling development plans, so I’d want to be clear this had a good prospect of success.  Aberdeen so needs a bit of momentum to get moving as a city of active travel rather than car culture. What ingredients does a city need for this to work? That might be determined as part of a research exercise, but here’s my best guess:

  • High level of tourism – Aberdeen’s leisure tourism market is not remotely like Edinburgh’s. We have tourism, we make good efforts, but we are not a leisure tourism centre.
  • City Centre Business users – A lot of our business is located outside the city centre and relatively few working in city centre offices arrive without their own transport. We certainly get business visitors who would arrive here from all over without bringing a car. Are they going to rent a hire bike, like I did in Edinburgh?
  • Great Cycling infrastructure – One day I hope! Unfortunately that day has not arrived yet. I hired in Seville a few years ago, as the wonderful bike lanes just invite you in. Few are going to look at Union Street’s shared bus/taxi/bike lanes and think the same!
  • A Cycling Culture – I also hired a city bike in Utrecht in the Netherlands 3 years ago, where it seems everyone is cycling – you feel naked without a bike!  I sincerely hope it will grow, but in Aberdeen we are a long way short of Edinburgh on this front, never mind the Dutch.
  • Favourable climate/Flat – There are plenty of cycling cities that defy this test, but that’s about local cycling and a city hire scheme is recreational. It would be more inviting on warmer, calm, dry days – which we don’t really specialise in! Seville in October, now that worked nicely for me!
  • Large Population – Schemes in London or Paris seem a perfect fit. It needs a significant number of people travelling to clusters of visitor attractions, universities or business centres. There can only be a station (using Edinburgh’s model) if there is enough bike hire traffic. It needs a network not just 3 or 4 drop points.
  • Spread of Attractions – If a city is small and walkable, presumably people would be more likely to walk more? We have Old Aberdeen, Beach, Duthie Park, Greyhope (Torry) for Dolphins etc. that might all be more reachable from the city with a bike, but there is plenty of cause for concern about safety of the roads to get to these places (especially around the harbour).

Does Aberdeen have characteristics to make this work? In my heart, I don’t think there is a strong case for that. If we implement a bike hire scheme without first undergoing the kind of revolution that Edinburgh has outlined just this week   I find it hard to see this would be sustainable. If it was the catalyst for serious investment in segregated cycle lanes and pedestrianisation, I’d take out a rolling annual subscription (£90 a year in Edinburgh). Let’s face it, of the variables I’ve suggested, we cannot make the weather or the hills any different, but we can chose to invest and to foster a cycling culture.  Chicken? Egg? Or just cart before the horse?

My Edinburgh experience did reinforce that investment in bike hire is not just a capital cost, there is an ongoing management and maintenance commitment, so this needs an annual budget and several staff (?) to run it.  I’ll watch with great interest what research the consultants appointed come up with to inform the decision. If they were looking for a Dragons Den style investment of capital for a share of future profit – with current conditions for cycling in Aberdeen city centre, I doubt there would be a big scramble. I don’t actually ever remember a commercial bike hire service in Aberdeen City Centre – to date that reflects market forces rather than market failure.