The appeal of the London cycling scheme

Published: 05 August 2010

The lady from BBC Radio rang to see if I’d take part in a ‘vigorous’ debate on city cycling schemes. They had already lined up a cycling proponent. Could I please put forward the ‘motoring view’ and ‘if there was some disagreement it would be helpful’.

Amazing how we car writers get stereotyped. Car journo must be anti-bike, right? I have also been asked to appear in pro- and con-arguments about the electric car. Anyone who loves the internal combustion engine must hate the electric vehicle (EV), right?

I love Boris Johnson’s new London bike scheme, launched this week.

The more people who cycle in London – and I do, almost every day – the better. Cycling is the fastest, most efficient and most enjoyable way of covering short distances. It’s the smart alternative to taking the bus. Or to walking. Or to short-distance driving. Unless you live on a mountain, or it’s snowing, go by bike. Who cares if Boris’ bikes weigh 23 kg – the same incidentally as road bikes built in 1905? Who cares if they are designed for matrons not the maillot jaune?

London is a surprisingly cycle friendly city. Not too many hills. Temperate climate. Lots of cycle lanes, never mind that vans park across them. Boris’ bike scheme already seems to be a big success. I have cycled by the racks in Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and Waterloo in the past few days and most were empty (which either means the bikes were being used or have been nicked – I am reliably informed it is the former).

Why we should love the EV

Which brings us to EVs. Established car journalists are often anti-EV because EVs, before the Tesla, were mostly rubbish. If the G-Wiz is the best selling example of your craft, no wonder people are suspicious. But I have driven the electric Smart and the electric Mini and the new electric Nissan Leaf and they are all excellent. Brisk, fun and superbly suited to city driving with their instant max-torque acceleration. No tailpipe pollution. No noise. What’s not to like?

Yes, they may ‘only’ do 50-100 miles a day between overnight recharges of their new-gen lithium ion batteries, but statistically that’s fine for 80 percent of people who drive in town. Of course they won’t replace the petrol/diesel car – because they’re no good for driving to Birmingham or for visiting granny in Galashiels. The EV has neither the all-round practicality nor the versatility of a petrol car. But that’s fine. They’re city cars. And most of us live in cities.

Nonetheless I do detect a reluctance, from some people, to buy EVs. How long will the battery last? What’s the resale value? I don’t have a garage! Etc etc. Fair enough. Reticence to try ‘new’ technology is human, after all.

Private transport is always more convenient – and could be more efficient – than public transport

So here is a solution. After the Boris bike scheme, the Boris car scheme. Small EVs (probably the electric Smart would be best) parked in compounds around London, access by swipe cards (similar to vehicles used by Streetcar and other car clubs). Faster and more efficient than the bus. The problem with the bus, of course, is that the more thorough the network, the less energy efficient it becomes (because you’re running more near-empty buses at off-peak times).

UK buses have an average occupancy of just nine passengers, while London bus occupancy is around 15. So they’re neither very agreeable – nor very efficient. Personal point-to-point transport will always be more convenient. And now, thanks to the bicycle and the EV, they can be more environmentally friendly too.

And for those without a driving licence or lacking the chutzpah to ride a bike? There’s the Tube or the train, of course. And maybe a new breed of smaller, more efficient bus. EV-powered of course. To be known as the Boris Bus.

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By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience