I’m a heavy user of London’s Cycle Hire service (commonly referred to as “Boris Bikes”). Nothing beats cycling past traffic and crammed-to-the-gills buses. Subscription prices for the service recently doubled, but cycle hire is still a great financial deal. I used to spend about £30-50/month on my oyster card, now I spend that over 6 months. I love it.

Cycle hire does however have two problems: sometimes docking stands are totally empty, and conversely sometimes it can be impossible to find a docking point. There have been days I’ve ridden to work only to then circle for 20 minutes looking for a docking spot. Everyone I know who uses cycle hire has had similar experiences. It is by far the most frustrating part of the service, so much so that I know of some people who as a result refuse to consider using a boris bike.

To be fair, TfL tries to balance things out by having trucks that move bikes from full racks to empty ones over the course of the day. They recognize the problem, their solution just doesn’t seem to be very effective.

I wonder if there might not be a better way that involves motivating consumers to get more involved.

My proposal is this:

  1. if you dock your bike at a rack with fewer than 5 bikes, your ride is free.

  2. If a rack is full and you are one of the first five people to take a bike, your ride is free.

For customers that buy a yearly subscription instead of a “free” ride they would receive some small amount of credit (say £0.50) to be applied to their next subscription. In this way consumers have an incentive to flow against the tide.

You’d have to think hard in terms of how to make the new rules simple to understand and communicate, and there would have to be some software to work everything out. I’m not sure it would be enough to solve the problem, but the dials could be adjusted over time. I obviously also don’t have data to know the financial implications on the running of the system, but it seems to me the goal of the service is not profit, but rather to get more people riding (and thus reduce traffic, improve air quality, etc).

Cycle hire is a great service that has helped me enjoy London a lot more. I think by adding a few more tweaks like this to the experience more people would get the same benefit.

One final note - If you’re into biking or maps and you haven’t yet seen Ollie O’Brien’s Bike share map site you should check it out immediately, it is a feast for the eyes, and does a good job showing the distribution problems.