London has been a hotbed for e-bike rental schemes over the past couple of years so, as I happened to have a warm spring day to spend in London recently, I took the opportunity to try a few of them out. With London being awash with transport options, would the latest generation of public hire e-bikes prove a viable and economic transport option?
During my visit, I took a look at the e-bikes and hire experience of four operators: Dott, Lime, Tier and Human Forest. Santander were excluded as they are docked and will be the subject of a future article
Fresh out of Kings Cross rail station I can't really miss the distinctive turquoise of a Tier e-bike right in front of the main exit. Unfortunately it has a wonky seat and trying to fix it I discover it uses unusual asymmetrical anti-tamper seatclamp nuts, so I cross over Euston Road for a quick inspection of a couple of Dott hire bikes. Their bright blue and red livery is highly visible at a distance (good from a safety point of view too) and they look very solidly made, with mag style wheels, enclosed hub brakes, integrated lights, effective looking mudguards and a really beefy looking, double-legged centre kickstand. Apparently the tyres also have anti-puncture foam inserts.
Registration is surprisingly painless. I need to give a few basic personal details and create an account linked to PayPal and then a map pops up that invites me to 'Scan to ride'. One of the two bikes advises me there is no battery capacity left when I try and scan it but the other springs to life when I scan the QR code underneath the handlebars.
Riding itself is pretty good. You get a single gear e-bike that feels solid and safe and, like all the hire bikes I tried, it was easy to adjust the saddle height - in this case by means of an underseat cam style lever. My only real gripe was that you need a fair bit of leg power to get the bike to start rolling as the hub motor only springs to life after a couple of seconds.
I head down Cycle Superhighway 6 through Farringdon but the motor cuts out abruptly. An on-screen message tells me to get out of a 'no-ride' area and I discover I have strayed into a huge area of north-east London where Dott e-bikes don't appear to be allowed. Closer inspection of the map only confuses me as the colour coding of the map key doesn't really match up with the live mapping. Usefully though, the mapping screen does show battery level and an estimated range.
I park up at the cycle racks in Bernie Spain Gardens south of the river for a lunch stop. Whilst the app advises where the 'official' Dott parking areas are, there doesn't appear to be any prohibition on parking here.
For a dawdling, sightseeing kind of a ride of a few miles and taking 67 minutes, I pay £15.19 that includes a £1 unlocking fee, which works out at 22.6p per minute.
You can also find Dott hire e-bikes in Paris, Brussels, Rome and Warsaw.
Lime seem ubiquitous in London and I easily pick up one of their brightly coloured e-bikes around the South Bank area. If anything, unlocking and registering to pay via PayPal is even quicker than Dott and the scan and map navigation features work straight away.
It's the sprightliest ride of all the e-bikes I try, the motor kicking in straight away and giving plenty of assistance. Of all the e-bikes it has the most capacious front basket too - very welcome to me as a visitor passing through with plenty of hand luggage. Even with a couple of bags on the front it doesn't feel overloaded. I assume it was a 'Gen 4' Lime model, part of the result of some $50m Lime invested last year to standardise as many components as possible across their e-bikes and e-scooters. Having said that, I couldn't detect automatic two-speed gearing which I'd read Gen 4 e-bikes have.
The most eyecatching feature on the handlebars is a ‘digital lime’ with green segments that disappear. I've still to work out what this actually did... More useful was the red 'crossed-out P' logo which automatically popped up on the display when you entered areas such as parks, where the bike was not to be left. This appeared to work well, allowing me to leave the e-bike on Birdcage Walk right on the edge of the no parking zone of St James Park. I was prompted to take a photo to show I had parked it responsibly (ie not in the middle of the pavement) and also reminded that in certain boroughs you are required to park in prescribed parking bays (not here in Westminster - or at least not yet).
The bill for my total riding time on Lime e-bikes works out at about 24p per minute. However a reader subsequently wrote in to say 'Instead of paying 23p or so a minute, so an hour's use costs c.£12.18, you can pre-buy an hour in advance for £4.99. You then have three days to use it. Or £9.99 for two hours with expiry in five days.'
Of all the e-bikes I try, I have the most unsatisfactory experiences with Tier - but this may just be down to bad luck, as the bike works well when I finally manage to hire one. There are quite a number scattered about the glorious architecture of Queen Annes Gate but they either won't show up on the app map at all, or won't allow themselves to be unlocked. I end up opting for a nearby Lime e-bike again to get me across town to Waterloo. (Lime correctly tells me I can't park by the station but I find a spot outside of the station’s geo-fenced no-go zone nearby.) Here I finally manage to hire a Tier machine.
Again, once the phone finally manages to scan and pair with a bike, all is pretty straightforward in the app. Tier has a novel physical locking system and once the bike is digitally unlocked I am allowed to remove the rear wheel cable-style parking lock.
I take a quick ride over Waterloo bridge to The Strand area. The bike feels smooth and powerful and the no-go areas are clearly marked. Most of central London allows Tier e-bikes according to the map. I am prompted to park the bike responsibly, which I do at the rear of Covent Garden where the app instructs me to take a picture of the bike - a good idea if any dispute should arise as some firms, like Lime, will fine poor parking in some council areas (though I can't find any info on Tier's policy on fining).
Cost for an admittedly brief ride is around 27p a minute (including a £1 unlock fee).
Hiring a Human Forest bike on Long Acre, it takes a long time to negotiate the app stage. If I weren't committed to trying one for the sake of completing this article I would have given up long before I finally managed to unlock it.
The riding itself is a joy though as I take a quick spin around the Covent Garden area. Human Forest e-bikes are plush feeling and comfortable to ride with reasonably powerful motors and an automatic two-speed gearing system.
This would be a lovely and classy system to use if the sign-up gremlins can be sorted and the permitted riding area enlarged. Human Forest is currently one of the most geo-restricted of all the London e-bike hire firms, as all of east London and a large chunk of south west London are off limits.
Parking rules are the strictest of all the e-bikes used as there are alloted bays. I am not sufficiently motivated to travel several more minutes out of my way to find a special parking area. (There appear to be perfectly good ones nearby used by Lime et al, but red tape appears not to allow Human Forest to use these.) Woe betide you if you park outside 'The Forest' - in other words the area where Human Forest have agreements with local boroughs - as you will be subject to a penalty fine of an unspecified amount.
This is all a big pity as Human Forest have a very attractive pricing structure which gives you the first 10 minutes of your ride for free (not including parking fees) and if you know where you are going you can get a long way in ten minutes on an e-bike. Their 'base rate' is 19p per minute and I ended up paying 19.7p per minute for a short ride - taking into account the free first ten minutes and the £2 parking fee.
What's the future for hire e-bikes in the UK?
I've been writing about e-bikes for a quarter of a century. If you had told me 25 years ago that in 2023 you would be able to stroll off a London train and hire an e-bike left trustingly on the pavement for others to use and then spend a whole day using such a system, I would have thought it wishful thinking (and that's expressing it politely). Stories about 'future tech' in the media seem to come and go but reality usually progresses at a slower pace. However it's to the great credit of the companies themselves - not to mention the boroughs that have worked with them and Transport for London who have provided some pretty safe and attractive routes - that dockless e-bike hire in London is patently so popular. It's really nothing short of a transport revolution.
How wrong I would have been, all that time ago, to think that e-bike hire would end quickly and sadly in vandalism and technical failure. My day trying out the various e-bikes has really whetted my appetite to try them out more - not least as a handy way to familiarise myself with London's growing cycle network, which seems to improve incrementally every time I head to the capital.
Whilst there were clearly teething troubles, I managed to get a ride on all the main e-bike hire brands in the space of a day. Now all the apps are on my phone and linked to PayPal, matters should be much more straightforward in future.
The system is clearly not perfect. My test rides prompted me to think that if dockless e-bike hire is to thrive in London the following areas could be improved:
1. Where can you ride and park? Whilst this was reasonably easy to figure out from each of the apps, clear advance info would have been more helpful as you only really learn how the system works as you ride along. At a more fundamental level, large off-bounds areas where you simply are not allowed to park (as is the case with Human Forest) severely limit the usability of any given system. Parking rules vary from operator to operator and borough to borough - common and reasonably liberal rules would help. One approach might be for lots more approved parking bays.
2. Smartphone tech. I have a brand new smartphone with a speedy processor that handled multiple apps and live mapping displays pretty easily. Much older phones might struggle (my previous one certainly would have). A system that doesn't rely on the latest smartphones (perhaps using contactless payment as a form of ID) would surely add to the usability and appeal of the system. Even if you have a poweful smartphone you may not want a large corporate entity tracking your movements.
3. Finance. Is dockless e-bike hire viable financially? This is perhaps the most fundamental question of all. My admittedly anecdotal and limited evidence based on a day's riding suggests Lime are by far the most popular and they have clearly sunk huge investment into their systems - but their prices (and no doubt many others) have risen steadily over the past few years, from around 15p per mile to the current 23p a mile. Whilst it's beyond the scope of this article to compare the comparative costs of all forms of transort in London, steeply rising costs are clearly going to make dockless e-bike less competitive against the myriad alternatives - despite what I found to be the great convenience of the system. If investors tire and new funds dry up, shared e-bikes will simply have been a boom and bust industry. However, it's notable that Lime recently claimed to be 'the first shared electric vehicle company to achieve a full profitable year'.
4. Public image. Bad press from bicycles and e-scooters cluttering pavements seems to have been everywhere recently and it's clear the public reaction can be extreme (witness the recent Paris vote on hire e-scooters). I can honestly say I didn't see it causing any huge problems - at least no more than all the other pavement clutter of railings, street signs and the like. But a good image and responsible company and rider behaviour is clearly a key component for more widespread tolerance of such systems.
I'm certainly hoping all the above can continue to be addressed as I'm looking forward to my next ride already.