Cycling in London and Seville are two different worlds (but not for long)
Transport for London has promised to bring in a community cycling program, following after many major European cities. In Seville, Spain, this makes cycling a joy, but the jury is out on whether it will work the same in London.
By Nick MacWilliam on Friday, January 23rd, 2009 - 1,338 words.
Until recently, I’d always thought that cycling in London was the preserve of the fearless and the foolhardy. The few times I’d cycled in the city, I’d found it a nerve-shredding experience. I’d be pedaling happily along, turn my head to check behind me as one should, only to have a bus shave the tip of my nose as it thundered past at seemingly far greater speeds than I thought buses could attain. That was enough for me. When braver, fitter, slimmer friends sought to encourage me to follow their lead by jumping onto the two wheels again I always trotted out the same old lines: the weather was too unreliable; that, as a teacher, I had too many books and other teachery things to carry to work; and that weaving in amongst the 73s and 38s along Essex Road was akin to smearing myself in fish guts and jumping into a tank full of great white sharks and piranhas. People would laugh at my worries but nothing would dissuade me from the certainty of my inevitable doom by a London bendy bus should I ever make the switch to pedal power.
But all that has changed. For the first time since my teens I can call myself a cyclist. I recently moved to the wonderful Spanish city of Seville where I have become an enthusiastic and daily user of Sevici – the community bicycle program which has been a feature of Sevillano life for two years. When you join Sevici, you immediately gain access to over 2,500 bicycles which you can collect from, or leave at, almost 250 points all over the city. Bearing in mind Seville is a relatively small city of around 700,000 inhabitants, it is unusual to have to walk more than a couple of hundred meters to find the closest parking station. The service is highly popular and Seville is just one of a growing number of European cities to implement a community bicycle program. Others include Barcelona, Paris (whose Velib system is the world’s largest with over 20,000 bicycles), Lyon, Berlin, Helsinki, Vienna, Milan, and, as of 2010, London.
Next year will see the fruition of plans initiated by ex-London Mayor Ken Livingstone and taken up by his successor, Boris Johnson, to introduce some 6000 bicycles and 400 parking points into Central London and the inner-city (during his triumphant election campaign against Livingstone, Johnson criticized this number of bikes, asking, “Why do Londoners deserve a bike-hire scheme which is a third the size of Paris?” and pledged to “deliver a much more ambitious scheme”, although he has yet to do so). The main premise is to encourage people to use bicycles for shorter journeys, reducing congestion and the pressure put on the public transport system. Designed primarily for Londoners, it will also be available to tourists and other visitors to the city. If the scheme proves successful, it is likely to be extended throughout further parts of the capital. But whilst the environmental and health benefits of a large community cycle program are clear and numerous, is London a suitable city in which to implement one?
One major advantage of the Seville system is that the city has one of the warmest climates in Europe and, and as a result, rarely gets the kind of weather that can deter less dedicated cyclists – the very people whom these programs are designed to entice. This may not be the case with London but, despite the popular image, the winters are mild in comparison with cities such as Vienna and Helsinki, both of which boast all-year-round schemes. In addition, the average annual rainfall is less than is often claimed, and at 23 inches, it is on a par with that of Barcelona.
Sevici is also aided by the fact that most of the main roads throughout the city possess cycle lanes which increase the safety and, as a result, the confidence of users. These are generally located on sections of what was previously pavement unlike many existing lanes in London which form part of the actual road, leaving the cyclist in very close proximity to passing traffic. Creating the necessary routes to protect both cyclist and pedestrian is an essential part of the planning process. Transport for London is looking into introducing a number of cycling “access-corridors” into the center of the city and several 20mph zones for cars on Central London streets. It is hoped that improving cycling thoroughfares will go a long way towards persuading people to leave their cars at home.
But how will all this be paid for? The system will only be accessible through becoming a member, and registering a credit card number against which a deposit will be taken out. In Paris and Seville, weekly or annual membership is available. For Sevici, this is a mere 10 euros per year, and the first 30 minutes of use on a bike is free, rising to one euro for every subsequent half-hour. However, there is no limit to how many journeys can be made each day, meaning that users are able to take a bicycle for up to 29 minutes without facing extra charge before returning it and taking another. In effect, it is perfectly viable to become a member of Sevici and never pay more than the initial 10 euros. The Velib system costs 29 euros annually and has similar charges for using the same bike for over 30 minutes. Both systems require a 150 euro deposit to join. Not only does this vastly reduce the risk of theft, it also ensures users return the bicycles to the parking points regularly.
It is clearly possible to implement a program at low cost to the user. However, if other areas of London public transport are used as an indication, with some of the highest fares in the world, the costs could be high. Transport for London has yet to announce any prospective costs of usage, but if it really is serious about encouraging as many users as possible, it will need to offer attractive fees. In a city where the population is often charged far more for products and services than in other countries, will the cycle hire program be able to provide a service which is not only reliable and practical, but also inexpensive?
One final factor that makes cycling in Seville so pleasurable is one that may be the hardest of all to replicate in London. Other road users have a far greater respect for cyclists in the Andalucian capital, and it is rare for drivers to beep at cyclists when they are stuck behind them on one of the city’s numerous narrow streets. It is also more socially acceptable to cycle on pavements. Pedestrians will happily stand aside to allow cyclists to pass and may even apologize for blocking the way. There is a mutual respect between all users of public space, and while the sound of car horns is omnipresent, displays of anger are rare. Compared with London, where cyclist, pedestrian and driver seem to be locked in perpetual warfare, it is far less stressful and the awareness of receiving patience and respect from others enhances the confidence of the cyclist, who then returns these virtues. Developing this kind of mentality in London could prove the biggest challenge of all.
As a relatively flat city and possessing a moderate climate, I have little doubt that London has the potential to operate a thriving community bicycle program, yet a great deal rests on the shoulders of Transport for London to realize the scheme and ensure that the pricing will make it accessible to all. Johnson says that he hopes the scheme “will inspire Londoners as a whole to get on their bikes and give cycling a go”. We will see how true that rings when the membership and usage fees are announced. In the meantime I’ll be enjoying cycling in the swimming pool of Seville before next year’s jump into the London ocean – hopefully the Sharks and Piranhas won’t be so hungry by then.
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