In October 2022 the existing and very popular Santander London bike hire scheme was augmented by 500 e-bikes. They look very similar to non-electric ones but with a chunky mid-drive visible around the pedal area and green decals on the frame telling you they are electric. There's also a very helpful digital display showing remaining battery capacity. They come courtesy of Canada's Devinci who also supplied the original cycle hire scheme bikes and docking stations in 2010.
A key difference to Santander's non-electric bikes is that the electric versions need you to register for an account via a smartphone and use the smartphone app to obtain a number code that lets you unlock an e- bike. It's not possible to simply stroll up and use a bank card at the docking stations' distinctive small, square terminals as you can with regular Santander bikes.
As I found out during a couple of days riding hire e-bikes around London recently, this app-based method is one of the major sticking points.
Trying out Santander e-bikes
My journey began at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London. Dockless e-bike parking is not permitted within the Olympic Park so it's a prime opportunity to get the Santander e-bikes noticed.
I had already registered for a Santander account and had the app on my phone. Unfortunately, the two e-bikes I found in a fairly well-stocked dock near West Ham's London Stadium were out of action (as shown by the lack of a green light on the dock display unit, added to which the digital display on one showed it had an empty battery).
Lack of availability turned out to be a big issue with the Santander e-bike system.
Needing to quickly get across London but also wanting to try out a public hire e-bike for article purposes, I attempted to find a couple of Lime bikes as I have had good experiences with them in the past.
As we were in the heart of a Lime-prohibited area and on the outskirts of the 'Lime-zone' this entailed a long walk through a construction site no-man's land towards Victoria Park where we finally located a couple and the quick-scanning Lime app did its usual efficient unlocking job.
We then enjoyed a lovely ride across north London using a route planned on Komoot which took in some surprisingly quiet backstreets, including some great sections of cycle route 27 which proved fast and reasonably quiet.
Pleasingly, while the rubber phone holder on the Lime bike looked flimsy, it did a decent enough job and proved vital for quick and easy navigation on a route we didn't know.
Next day I had a choice of two Santander e-bikes at the docking station near Great Portland Tube station. There were actually two e-bikes on offer, but only one of us had a smartphone and Santander don't allow group rides from a single phone as Lime do.
Frustratingly, the Santander app got jammed after the payment authorisation stage, but a call on a less than perfectly audible phone line (not helped by background street noise) eventually got me a four digit code which released the bike. Still, it's definitely a point in Santander's favour they have a help line that's easy to access and manned by real live human beings.
The spin over to Hyde Park proved a revelation. The Santander e-bike was smooth and quiet and the three hub gears make stopping and starting a doddle. It's a comfortable and upright ride with plenty of smooth and proportional pedelec power, so ideal for busy London where you might want a quick but steady take-off from traffic lights.
The only real downside of the ride experience is the lack of a smartphone holder. I used the Komoot auto-routing feature for the rides on this test and it proved excellent, but you need a secure mounting system for it to work in harmony with the bike so as not be slowed up by having to take the phone out of your pocket all the time.
Later in the day we tried a Forest e-bike and found them to have the most reassuring and best built phone mounts of all the dockless e-bikes we've tried.
After easily returning the bike to a docking station on South Carriage Drive and a lunch break, I tried to take out another e-bike from the same station and luckily there was still one there with a decent amount of battery shown on the display.
The app let me reserve the bike and delivered a four digit code, but the bike itself failed to unlock from its docking post. There ensued a long walk to the next available e-bike on the app at Cadogan Place in Chelsea, but sadly the app threw another tantrum here and wouldn't give me an unlocking key but instead wanted to take me back to register a method of payment, which I had already done.
This was the point at which I am afraid I gave up on Santander e-bikes.
Later in the day, we hired Lime and a Forest dockless e-bikes for a ride up to Regents Park and all went pretty seamlessly. I was particularly impressed with the Forest as the ride is as good as, if not better than the Lime (it has two automatic gears in the rear hub along with the motor, compared to Lime’s admittedly powerful single speed hub motor). As mentioned earlier, the phone holder is also great, you can easily carry a bag on the front and the overall bike coverage and recommended parking seems much expanded since my last ride on one earlier in the year.
I had one issue parking a Lime bike in Camden borough. Stern app warnings came up when I tried leaving it out of the way on a wide pavement - as you are allowed to in some other boroughs. It turns out Camden now require you to park in alloted spots, which aren't specifically identified on the Lime app.
A kind local directed us to Argyll Square parking area, but the app GPS thought we were in the square where parking is forbidden and wouldn't recognised an attempt at proper parking just next to it.
I finally found an authorised parking spot nearer Kings Cross station, but it certainly made using Lime bikes more of a faff on this particular ride, whereas other Lime rides have been pretty straightforward. By contrast, Forest mark parking bays clearly on the app, they are fairly numerous and the parking procedure seems straightforward.
Docked or dockless?
In summary, my experience with Santander docked e-bikes was that they provided a great ride but a woeful app which resulted in real issues obtaining an e-bike.
A second major fault is the simple lack of e-bikes. There are more than 500 Santander Cycles at around 800 docking stations across London. Whilst those figures might suggest that just over half the docking stations should have an e-bike, in reality I found that 30-40% of stations appeared to have one (or more) e-bikes and not all of those were in service. Areas rich in docking stations may have none, whilst other areas may show a cluster of them. Compared to the 12,000 regular Santander e-bikes available, it's a paltry amount.
It seems obvious that TfL/Santander need to provide far more e-bikes to make the system viable for someone who wants to travel everywhere by Santander e-bike. For a £20 monthly e-bike membership plus surcharges per ride, I would expect them to be able to do this (see more on costs below).
While 500 might sound like a good quantity of e-bikes, spread over around 800 docks, the reality is it's fairly likely the dock nearest you will not have an e-bike waiting for you. Of course, if you are happy to ride non-electrics most of the time with an e-bike as a treat when one turns up, then it's superb, but that's unlikely to be the typical e-bike user profile.
I may have been unlucky with the app glitches. A couple of other users of the Santander e-bikes I spoke to said they had had no problems using it. But surely the ideal system would be to give users the option of bypassing the app altogether and allow e-bikes to be booked using the electronic terminals found by the docking stations.
The spread of docking stations is impressive and covers much of central London. It simply needs a lot more e-bikes to be at them and easily bookable.
The dockless schemes don't hold all the aces though. Parking could be a big issue for Lime et al - especially if there remains a multiplicity of different borough rules. Indeed this confusing state of affairs of different operators with different rules has already forced Dott to give up on the London dockless e-bike scene.
Lime have clearly recognised this and have started lobbying for more alloted spaces to make parking easier where restrictions are in place. We've also tried dockless Tier e-bikes in the past, but as we noted in our previous article on dockless e-bikes in London, it was just too hard to unlock any we located.
Santander e-bikes are certainly competitive on cost at £3.30 per half hour to the casual user (monthly and yearly memberships are also available) and certainly they are cheaper than one-off Lime use which costs £1 to unlock then 27p per minute.
Lime say there are ride passes and memberships avaialble to make riding cheaper, but I struggled to find these on my app (though I noted they were offering the first ten minutes of a ride for free).
Forest look to be a tad cheaper than Lime with the first 10 minutes of your ride for free then the clock ticks over at 23p per minute. There are discounts available, but as with Lime it's not always immediately apparent how much you might benefit from them. Forest have a nice summary but even then there are myriad rules around parking and offers and how long offered benefits actually last etc. It will be interesting to see if their recently lauched Forest Plus subscription service (£45/month for 60 minutes daily riding and no parking fees) is a success.
Santander pricing is simply more straightforward and I found you should more easily be able to calculate what you might pay.
Whilst my own rides around London suggest that Lime are in the ascendency with Forest coming up on the inside to give them a run for their money, this is based purely on my own observations. Sightings of riders on Santander e-bikes were relatively rare, although the non-electric scheme certainly appeared to be flourishing.
A lot seems to boil down to whether a unified approach to dockless parking will evolve and indeed if all boroughs will allow the various dockless schemes at all. If you are using Lime, Forest and Tier, then clearly that widens the choice of e-bikes to you hugely, but they are not all available in every borough. If there is a drip-drip of bad press on parking issues it could also turn into a big problem (whether this bad press is merited or not is another debate - I didn't actually observe parked e-bikes causing any real issues and most were parked reasonably considerately).
If parking is further restricted by more boroughs without widening available parking spots then it's certainly an opportunity for Santander to reinvest in their e-bikes and put many more on the street and promote them widely. Despite my fairly negative experience, I feel it has the potential to be a superb system. You get the sense that, whilst dockless e-bikes are much in the ascendency just at the minute, it's still early in the contest and there are many more rounds to come.