These days, urban bike sharing programmes are seemingly ubiquitous – estimates say they can be found in upwards of 900 cities around the world, ranging from New York to Buenos Aires. London’s first large-scale bike sharing programme—officially known as Santander Cycles, but more colloquially referred to as Boris Bikes (after former mayor Boris Johnson, who inaugurated the programme)—was launched in the summer of 2010 with 300 docking stations and 5,000 bikes. Since then, the programme has expanded to encompass almost 800 docking stations and 20,000 bikes. Yet Boris Bike usage remains a fraction of both cycling commutes and public transport more generally. To explore the roots of this phenomenon and its implications for the future of bike sharing, this article examines data published by Transport for London on Boris Bike usage from 2012 to 2017.
Click for interactive chart. Hover over stations to see the year they were installed and the number of available docks.
I: ANALYZING BORIS BIKE USAGE
While usage has grown steadily since 2012, Boris Bike journeys remain a fraction of tube ridership – in 2017, an average of nearly 30,000 bikes journeys were made each day, compared with 5 million rides on the tube.
Though Boris Bike usage is growing, the increase in the number of rides seems only loosely correlated with the increase in the number of bikes and stations. Curious about the bikes’ potential for continued expansion, I investigated the extent to which the (comparably) low ridership numbers correspond to capacity constraints. In other words, if TfL were to build more stations, would the riders come? To that end, the figure below illustrates, on average, the percentage of total bikes that are in use at any given hour of the day . As seen, even in 2012 when the fleet was somewhat smaller, bike usage never exceeds 25%, not even at rush hour. Such excess capacity implies that, at any given time, three quarters or more of available bikes are not in use. But while this could reflect limited latent demand for bike shares, it could also be a function of poor strategy—it’s possible that existing Boris Bike stations are located in the wrong areas, or that bikes are misallocated between stations.
While it’s difficult to provide a definitive answer with existing data, evidence points towards the latter two scenarios. A recent census found that more than 155,000 Londoners were commuting to work by bicycle in 2015, suggesting that over 80% of cyclist-commuters continue to favour their own bicycles over Boris Bikes. The reasons for this could be myriad, but most certainly include the programme’s limited coverage (of London’s 32 boroughs, only 10 are currently served by Boris Bike stations), the locations of existing docking stations, and the admittedly unwieldy nature of the bikes.
The recent launch of dockless bike sharing programmes in boroughs such as Hackney and Islington provide even more reason to suspect that TfL has overlooked demand in some areas. Dockless bike sharing programmes made their debut in London in the fall of 2017, with companies such as Mobike (a Chinese company with a presence in 160 Chinese cities and five international ones) and Ofo (also a Chinese company, currently operating in 250 cities across 20 countries worldwide) renouncing the traditional docking system in favor of a dockless one. Both companies’ bikes are equipped with GPS trackers, enabling users to locate a bike via a smartphone app, unlock it using the same app, and then leave the bike wherever he or she pleases.
Despite reports of vandalism and careless parking, dockless bike sharing programmes have been hailed as having the potential to democratise bike-sharing, both through lower prices (Mobike and Ofo cost 50 pence per half hour, while hiring a Boris Bike for the day will set you back at least £2, with rides longer than 30 minutes costing another £2 per half hour) as well as the ability to serve residents of neighbourhoods long neglected by established programmes. True to form, Mobike and Ofo have largely targeted underserved boroughs to date, shying away from areas in which Boris Bikes are well-established. But both companies have announced intentions to expand: Ofo, for one, has ambitious plans to put 150,000 bikes on London streets within the next several years, while Mobike has partnered with British Cycling in an attempt to get two million more Brits on bikes by 2020. Such plans are a clear indicator that both companies perceive a large unfulfilled demand for bike shares in the city, one that the current Boris Bike scheme has presumably failed to meet.
Yet the data thus far suggest that dockless competition has not significantly impacted Boris Bike ridership. Boris Bike stations currently overlap with dockless coverage in just two boroughs—Ofo rolled out bikes in Hackney last September, and both Mobike and Ofo launched in Islington a few months later. Since then, usage of Boris Bikes in these boroughs has remained stable, even after adjusting for seasonality. Nevertheless, given the current paucity of data  and the relatively small scale of the dockless programmes, it would doubtless be premature to claim that Boris Bikes are immune to competition (though there are reasons to suspect that these effects might be delayed, including the fact that memberships are year-long.)
But while it is difficult to determine the impact of dockless bike sharing programmes to date, increased competition seems likely to be a boon for riders, especially because despite its general popularity and growing user base, the Boris Bike programme has faced a number of difficulties. In 2013, it was revealed that then-programme sponsor Barclays had only agreed to cover one sixth of the programme’s operating costs, leaving taxpayers with an annual bill of £11 million (translating to approximately £1,400 per bike per year). Moreover, regular users also cannot help but notice other faults, including the age and poor condition of many bikes and the oft-cited complaint that popular stations either run out of bikes too quickly or never have any free docking spaces.
An analysis of bike rentals and returns by time of day indicates that the latter claim, at the very least, is indisputable —certain stations suffer from exceptionally imbalanced usage (with many more bikes being rented or returned than vice versa). For example, from 8am to 9am at the King’s Cross Belgrove Street station, an average of 100 bikes are rented, but only 8 are returned. Such patterns of usage have implications beyond mere user inconvenience—they suggest that TfL must constantly redistribute bikes between stations, which burdens the system and reduces the traffic and environmental impacts that the programme could otherwise have.
Click for interactive chart. Hover to see the average number of rentals and returns at each hour (red=rentals and blue=returns).
The low average capacity numbers and somewhat stagnant growth in ridership of the Boris Bike programme belies the fact that there continues to be substantial room for the growth of bike sharing services in London. A failure to address these symptoms could be part of the reason why Boris Bikes have been unable to capture a large share of the cyclist-commuter market. In light of the entrance of new competitors, TfL—and, more broadly, the City of London— must reconsider the future of bike sharing in London to ensure the success of not just Boris Bikes, but cycling as a means of urban transportation.
II: THE FUTURE OF BIKE SHARING IN LONDON
In a city like London where bike theft is rampant (approximately 100,000 bikes are stolen each year), bike sharing services undoubtedly have their advantages. Security and convenience aside, the environmental and health benefits can also be significant. Recent research has found that commuters who cycle to work are 46% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, as compared to those who drive or take public transport, even after controlling for factors like diet and levels of physical activity. The case for adopting bike sharing services more widely is certainly a strong one, and recent growth in bike sharing programmes globally have led some to hail it as the future of urban transportation. But how realistic is such a proposition?
London has made striding steps towards integrating cycling as a key mode of urban transportation. The introduction of Boris Bikes and cycling superhighways are just two examples. But if bikes are truly to become the urban transportation of the future, the city will need to do even more. A review of recent research found, rather intuitively, that environmental factors positively associated with increased cycling include the presence of dedicated cycle paths and the separation of cycling from vehicular traffic, while factors negatively associated with cycling include traffic danger (both perceived and objective) and long distances from cycle paths. These findings are corroborated by a study undertaken by London’s walking and cycling commissioner, which noted that “it’s not the English weather that’s stopping people cycling, but the traffic-dominated nature of most of London’s roads.”
The challenges facing London now are threefold: it must not only grapple with the advent of dockless bike sharing providers (which will involve at the least determining how to integrate the newcomers with Boris Bikes in a way that will avoid the problems of user irresponsibility and public clutter that have plagued other cities) and commit to the creation of more protected cycle paths, but also work towards expanding the concept of bike sharing to include accessible alternatives. As they stand, bike sharing programmes are mainly targeted at the young and able-bodied, as well as those who need not worry about transporting children. A potential solution to this comes in the form of electric bike sharing schemes, which if adopted will enable larger shares of the population, including the elderly and the less-physically-able, to join the ranks of cyclist-commuters. For inspiration in this regard, London should look north to cities like Copenhagen, which introduced an electric bike sharing programme in 2014, and where 41% of all commutes are made by bike.
While it seems inconceivable now to believe that bicycles might eventually overtake buses and trains as the predominant mode of urban transportation, consider that two centuries ago, the idea of an underground railway system likely also sounded far-fetched. Cycling, and in particular the expansion of bike sharing programs, could help pave the way towards more sustainable cities, especially in a metropolis such as London, whose population is expected to surpass 10 million within the next decade. Under the direction of Mayor Sadiq Khan, London has been making commendable efforts—including setting ambitious goals (to reach zero waste and zero emissions by 2050) and investing in clean energy—to shed its Big Smoke moniker. Supporting a thoughtful expansion of bike sharing services just might help it do so once and for all. Either way, it can’t afford not to try.
 The denominator is an average of the number of bikes installed over the course of a given year. These calculations assume that any bike taken out in a given hour is unavailable for that entire hour, and thus are likely overstated.  A mere month in the case of Hackney and two months in the case of Islington, since TfL has only published data up until early December 2017.
Samantha Fu is a Master of Public Administration candidate at the London School of Economics. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, she worked on the analytics team for the 2016 Clinton campaign, as an economic consultant in New York, and earned a Bachelor’s degree from McGill University in Montreal.