How to hire a bike in London

I live in London, and I have a meeting across town. I’d originally planned to walk there, but I’m running slightly late and I know that Transport for London has a cycle hire scheme, so I decide to cycle and shave a few minutes off the journey.

There are plenty of cycle docking stations around the city, and it doesn’t take me long to reach the nearest one on foot. There’s a row of bikes locked into docking points, and a single blue pillar.

On the pillar are some basic instructions and pricing.

Okay: I can Hire a bike, then Ride it, and finally Return it. Makes sense! I just want a quick ride, and it looks like that’s going to cost me £2. Fine — I’m happy to pay that to get to my meeting on time.

The pillar has a touchscreen too. It says “Touch screen to begin”. Alright. My first attempt doesn’t work, because the rugged resistive screen isn’t very sensitive, but by jabbing it hard with my thumb I get it to respond.

I’m presented with several options, most of which I’m not interested in, but there’s a big “Hire a cycle” button. That’s what I want to do! I press that.

I wait while the pillar processes my request.

I’m shown the first page of a privacy notice. I wasn’t expecting to see this — it feels a bit irrelevant since I’m not planning to provide any personal information — but the policy itself sounds broadly sensible even though I don’t understand exactly how it applies to me. I press “Next” to read the second page.

Fine, whatever. I want to get to my meeting. I press “OK”.

Now I’m prompted to insert my payment card. Is this so that I can pay £2? Apparently not — it says “This is so we can check whether you have already purchased bike access”. That’s a bit weird, but okay, I understand that this could be the second time I’ve hired a bike today. They’re not going to be able to charge my card unless I type my PIN anyway.

I put my card in.

Now the screen is showing instructions on “How to Use the Scheme”. I want the bike for less than 30 minutes, I’m at least 14 years old and I don’t intend to hire a bike in a group, so most of this isn’t relevant to me. I go to the next page.

Alright: if I can’t park the bike at the other end, I get an extra 15 minutes to find another docking station. Great. Let’s do it. I press “OK”.

Okay, this is what I expected! I actually just want the bike for about 20 minutes, but apparently 24 hours is the shortest period I can pay for, so I press that.

I just want one bike. I press “1”.

I’m asked to confirm that I want one bike for 24 hours, at a cost of £2. I do. I’m starting to feel a little nervous about the time this transaction is taking — I could’ve walked part of the way there by now — but it feels like I’m almost finished, so it should be alright. I press “OK”.

What? There are 34 pages of terms and conditions. Do I accept these terms and conditions? I don’t know what they say yet. I press the “Next” button 33 times and read them.

Ugh. My thumb hurts. I don’t properly understand the terms and conditions, or even why they’re being shown to me. Am I seriously supposed to read them? Am I seriously supposed to not read them? It doesn’t matter — I really want a bike and am starting not to care about the details, so I throw caution to the wind and press “I accept the terms and conditions”.

The screen directs me to follow the instructions on the card reader.

The card reader tells me to enter my PIN, so I do that.

The screen says to remove my card, so I do that.

The screen says “Successful purchase”. Hooray! LET’S GO. It asks whether I would like to print my “bike access receipt”. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds like something I might need to access a bike, so I press “Yes”. (Why would I say “No”?)

I wait while the receipt is printed.

The receipt appears behind a transparent plastic flap.

I take my bike access receipt.

This is a long piece of paper and I don’t understand what it’s for.

It says “ACCESS DETAILS”, but there’s no indication of how I actually get a bike. I look back at the screen to see if it can help.

Incredibly, it asks “Would you like to hire a cycle?”. YES! THAT IS WHAT I’M TRYING TO DO. I press “Yes”, feeling like I’m losing my grip on reality.

The screen says that my “cycle release code(s)” are being printed. Will this be what I need?

Another piece of paper appears.

I take it.

This is smaller than the bike access receipt, but it looks more useful.

It begins with instructions for “HOW TO RELEASE THE BICYCLE”.

Most importantly, it contains a five-digit number that I can use to release a bike. Hooray!

I go to one of the docking points and enter the number.

When I’ve finished, a yellow light comes on.

After a couple of seconds, a green light comes on and I hear the docking point unlock the bike.

I pull the bike out of the docking point.

I’M ON A BIKE! I cycle to my meeting and arrive late.

The experience of hiring a bike in London is terrible. The whole process is long, difficult and confusing, even if you ignore the (admittedly skippable) 34 pages of terms and conditions. It’s especially unsuitable for a casual user who’s in a hurry and wants to hop on a bike to save time, which must be a pretty common use case for urban cycle hire.

The people responsible for the software deserve some of the blame, but their bad user interface is symptomatic of the bad design of the scheme as a whole. The separation of bike hire into “access periods” and “ride charges” is cumbersome and unnecessarily complex; although it might work to the advantage of heavy users, it’s counterintuitive and places a heavy burden of understanding on anyone who just wants to borrow a bike.

When the system itself is bad, it’s difficult for anyone to deliver a good service within that system unless they have the power to change the rules. The London cycle hire scheme would benefit from a simpler charging model that acknowledges the needs of a large class of casual users who aren’t interested in engaging with it as a recurring service. It should be simple to press a button, pay some money and get a bike, even if that convenience comes at a financial premium; it’s right that people who rely on the scheme for their daily travel should be able to save some money in exchange for the burden of being treated like a subscriber, but it’s unreasonable to extend that inconvenience to every occasional user.

It might be hard work to make the service so simple that people can use it to get to meetings on time, but it would be worth it.