Santander Cycles

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Santander Cycles
Owner Transport for London
Locale London, United Kingdom
Transit type Bicycle sharing system
Number of stations 742
Website Santander Cycles
Began operation 30 July 2010
Operator(s) Serco
Number of vehicles 11,500 bicycles

Santander Cycles is a public bicycle hire scheme in London, United Kingdom. The scheme's bicycles are popularly known as Boris Bikes, after Boris Johnson, who was the Mayor of London when the scheme was launched.

The operation of the scheme is contracted by Transport for London to Serco.[1] The scheme is sponsored, with Santander UK being the main sponsor from April 2015.[2] Barclays Bank was the first sponsor from 2010 to March 2015, when the service was branded as Barclays Cycle Hire.[3][4][5]

Credit for developing and enacting the scheme has been a source of debate. Johnson has taken credit for the plan,[6] although the initial concept was announced by his predecessor Ken Livingstone, during the latter's term in office, [7] and Johnson had only been in office for two months when the scheme was launched. Two years earlier, Livingstone said that the programme would herald a "cycling and walking transformation in London"[8] and Johnson said that he "hoped the bikes would become as common as black cabs and red buses in the capital".[9]

A study showed cyclists using the scheme are three times less likely to be injured per trip than cyclists in London as a whole, possibly due to motorists giving cycle hire users more road space than they do other cyclists.[10] Moreover, recent customer research showed that 49 per cent of Cycle Hire members say that the scheme has prompted them to start cycling in London.[11]

The record for cycle hires in a single day is 73,000.[12]


Blue (Barclays Cycle Hire), yellow (2014 Tour de France) and red (Santander Cycles) cycles in a docking station.

In August 2007 the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, announced that he was planning to implement a cycle hire scheme modelled on the successful Vélib' network in Paris. Following discussions with the Mayor of Paris, Livingstone instructed transport officials to study the Paris and similar schemes, and draw up proposals for London.[13] Discussions were conducted between TfL, the London boroughs and transport commissioners from Lyon, Brussels, Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Oslo and Copenhagen.[14]

In February 2008, plans for the London cycle hire scheme were officially unveiled by Livingstone.[15] The CTC and Green Party hailed the proposals as revolutionary.[8]

BCH commenced operations in July 2010 with 5,000 bicycles and 315 docking stations distributed across the City of London area and parts of eight London boroughs.[16] The coverage zone spans approximately 17 square miles (44 km2). As of March 2012 there were some 8,000 cycles and 570 docking stations in the scheme, which had been used for over 19 million journeys.[17]

Initially, BCH required initial payment of registration and membership fees to be paid in exchange for an electronic access key, but on 3 December 2010 this was changed to allow casual cycle hires by non-members who have a valid credit or debit card.[18]

The project was expected to cost £140 million for planning and implementation over six years, potentially the only Transport for London (TfL) system to fully fund its annual cost of operation, a goal originally estimated to take two to three years.[19]

Between December 2010 and the end of May 2013, the scheme had registered 22 million rides without a death.[20]

The first fatality of a user of the scheme occurred in July 2013. A 20-year-old woman, Philippine De Gerin-Ricard, was killed outside Aldgate East tube station after being struck by a lorry,[21] prompting a protest ride calling for improved separation between cycle routes and other traffic.[22]

In March 2014, 101 of the 10,000 bikes in the scheme were coloured yellow to mark 100 days until the arrival of the 101st Tour de France in London on Monday 7 July 2014.[23][24]


Regular users of the scheme can register on the TfL website and buy access for 24 hours, 7 days, or one year. Users are then posted a key to operate the docking stations; keys cost £3, and up to four can be registered under a single account. The key allows a cycle to be released from the docking station.[25]

On 3 December 2010 the scheme was extended to casual users who are not members of the scheme but hold major payment cards.[26] The cost is the same to members and casual users, except that casual use for one year is not available. A credit or debit card can be used in a docking station to release a bicycle. Access for 24 hours or 7 days can be purchased.

Cycles may be rented at any time during the access period; use for no more than 30 minutes at a time is free of charge.[27] Usage charges, additional to the access charge, are weighted to favour shorter use. Bicycles may be used any number of times within the access period, each use charged according to its duration.


Cycle on Lambeth Bridge.
Hire bike handlebar.

The features of the bicycles built by Cycles Devinci include:[28] [29] [30]

  • Puncture-resistant tyres to increase durability.
  • Drum brakes on both wheels, controlled by right-front, left-rear brake levers on handlebar.
  • Three-speed hub gear operated by a twist grip on right handlebar.
  • Bell on left handlebar.
  • Chain guard.
  • Gear linkage guard.
  • Dynamo-powered front and rear LED lights (for visibility to other traffic, not road illumination) which flash when the bicycle is being ridden and for at least two minutes after it has stopped.
  • Small luggage rack in front of handlebar, open at the sides, with elastic shock cord to secure possessions.
  • Kickstand.
  • Reflective numbers affixed on both sides of frame by rear wheel axle, uniquely identifying each bike.

The bicycles are utility bicycles with a unisex step-through frame. The cycles are not provided with locks (unlike the Vélib' scheme in Paris).

The one-piece aluminium frame and handlebars conceal cables and fasteners in an effort to protect them from vandalism, damage and inclement weather. The heavy-duty tyres are designed to be puncture-resistant and are filled with nitrogen to maintain proper inflation pressure longer.[31] A row of 5 LEDs on front of the luggage rack and twin LED rear lights are integrated into the robust frame, which weighs approximately 23 kg (51 lb).[30][32]

The bikes were designed by industrial designer Michel Dallaire and built in the Saguenay, Quebec region by Cycles Devinci, with aluminum provided by Rio Tinto Alcan,[33] a Canadian company based in Montreal and part of an international mining group headquartered in the UK.

The cycles are low-geared to compensate for their weight and to provide a way of limiting their top speed. Using a Shimano Nexus 3 hub gear with a 38 tooth chainring in front and a larger than standard 23 tooth rear sprocket the setting is 32 gear inches in 1st gear, 44 gear inches in 2nd gear, and 60 gear inches in 3rd gear.[34] This gearing is about 22% lower than would be usual on a three-speed cycle of this sort.

The cycles and the docking stations are built in Canada and are based on the Bixi (bike taxi) cycle rental system that operates in Montreal and other Canadian cities.

Coverage area and expansion

As of September 2015, the coverage area is roughly bounded by:[35]

  • North of the Thames: Hammersmith, Shepherd's Bush, the Westway, St John's Wood, Camden Town, Kings Cross, Angel, Dalston, Old Ford Road, Bow Interchange, Poplar and the Isle of Dogs
  • South of the Thames: Putney, Wandsworth, Battersea, Kennington, Walworth and Tower Bridge

The following boroughs are partly or fully covered: Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, Camden, Islington, the City, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lambeth and Wandsworth.

In March 2012 the cycle hire scheme was extended significantly in east London, and a minor western expansion around Shepherds Bush. 2,300 additional bikes and 4,800 more docking points were added.[36]

In December 2013, the scheme received a further significant expansion ('Phase 3') in west and south west London. This expansion added approximately 2,000 more bikes and 150 new docking points, with new stations in the boroughs of Wandsworth, Hammersmith & Fulham, Lambeth and Kensington & Chelsea.[37]

However, despite calls from other Londoners, the scheme has yet to expand into many areas close to central London, including central and north Islington.[38][39] Coverage[40] is noticeably poor in south-east London, an area that has a limited overall Tube network.[41] In some cases, planned expansion has been delayed by Londoners who support the London Cycle Hire Scheme in principle, but dislike the idea of having a docking station on their street, or losing car parking spaces to make room for docking stations.[42]

By December 2013, the cycle hire scheme had 11,500 bikes for hire.[43]

In March 2016 Santander cycles expanded to cover the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

There are calls to expand the scheme further east into Southwark borough where some areas are poorly served by public transport with the Bakerloo Line extension not expected until 2030.

Many Greenwich residents are also keen to see an expansion there, perhaps via the Greenwich foot tunnel. A petition has been raised. [44] If elected, Mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith has pledged to expand Santander Cycles to Greenwich. With 15,000 new homes being built on the Greenwich peninsula there will be significant demands on public transport. A network of Santander Cycles stations around Greenwich-Deptford-New Cross would significantly enhance the connectivity between DLR, Trains and Overground there. However funding for expansion into Greenwich remains a challenge.[45]

Docking stations

Docking station in Southwark
Terminal screen

Docking stations consist of a terminal and docking points where users pick up and return cycles. The terminal at each docking station contains a screen allowing users to:[46]

  • Hire a cycle with a chip and PIN payment card if the user does not have a key;
  • Print a record of their journey;
  • Find other nearby docking stations, necessary if one is full when returning or empty when seeking a cycle;
  • Get extra time without charge to return the cycle to another docking station if one is full; and
  • See a local street map, scheme costs, the code of conduct, and information in other languages.

If there is a fault with a cycle that was rented, it can be docked at the nearest station and the red 'fault' button on the docking point pressed within ten seconds; another bike can then be taken at no extra cost.

During high load hours the bikes are moved from the busiest stations to the emptiest using trailers pulled by Alkè ATX280E electric vehicles with zero CO2 emissions,[47] and Ford Transit vans with specially-designed tail ramps. There are a number of mobile phone apps to help users find the nearest station.


In the first three months of the scheme, 95 percent of journeys did not exceed half an hour, earning TfL access fees but no usage fees.[48] The scheme generated £323,545 in revenue for usage in the first 96 days.[48] Only 72,700 of the first 1.4 million journeys earned any revenue, with 44 percent of income coming from users charged the £150 (US $252) "late return" fees.[48] With an average £3,370 income per day from journeys, the scheme needed to grow substantially over the following five years to meet its cost.[48] In this early period there was a steady growth in the number of bike journeys. It was expected that when casual use was introduced it would become the bigger revenue generator.[48] Access fees were doubled in January 2013,[49] which was expected to bring in an extra £4-6m annually.[50] User satisfaction level dropped after the increase.[51]

In May 2012 (before access charges doubled in 2013), TfL estimated that the scheme would cost taxpayers £225m by 2015/16, almost 5 times the maximum due from Barclays.[52][53]

Reception and criticisms

BCH debuted with great fanfare, with over 90,000 users registering one million cycle rides being taken in the first ten weeks of operation.[54] The millionth journey rider was awarded free annual membership to the scheme for five years for him and three friends.[55]

In particular, the BCH scheme was criticised for allowing riders to have unlimited use by docking the bike every thirty minutes at a station (the first 30 minutes' use are free) resulting in a dependence upon late fees and penalties to make up revenues.[48][56] Other users complained of computer issues, erroneous charges, and problems with docking stations.[17][57][58][59][60] The system requires the cyclist to find docking stations close to the points of departure and destination, lacking one of the key advantages of the bicycle in an urban setting.[61] The system also does not enable transport to the suburbs; as TfL says, it is "best for short journeys".[62] Some users also found the bikes too heavy and unwieldy, at 23 kilograms (51 lb).[30][32]

In June 2011, TfL issued a 'critical improvement plan' to the BCH contractor, Serco, demanding immediate improvements in service, and in a comment to the press a TfL spokesman stated that "the service it (Serco) has provided for our Barclays Cycle Hire users has not reached the consistently high standards we expect," adding "We expect to see immediate improvements."[17][not in citation given] Serco has in turn admitted that "some aspects of the service still need to be improved."[17][not in citation given]

Redistribution of bikes has also been hindered by the refusal by the councils of Westminster and of Kensington & Chelsea to allow Serco to move bikes around their boroughs at night, between the hours of 22.00-08.00, creating significant challenges in meeting morning peak demand.[citation needed]

At the time of launch, anti-arms-trade campaigners protested against Barclays' involvement in the scheme and attached stickers to the bikes highlighting the Bank's investment in the arms trade.[63][64]

The Cycle Hire scheme and those who delivered it achieved recognition from a wide cross-section of industries impacted by the project. A total of 15 awards were received within a year of launch[citation needed] recognising not just the impact on transport in London but also the innovative design, the public relations exercise and the challenging delivery timescales. Those awards included "Best Facility" from the London Cycling Campaign[65] and an Infrastructure award from the Institution of Civil Engineers.[66]

Repair and replacement

An Alkè ATX280E electric utility vehicle, used to redistribute bicycles

According to Transport for London, in the first six months of operation two-thirds of the fleet of London's Cycle Hire scheme fleet required repair.[67] Serco, the company contractor for bicycle operations, was repairing more than 30 bikes a day as of February 2011,[67] and at any one time around 200 of the 5,400 strong fleet were off the road for maintenance.[67] As of February 2011, three BCH machines had been damaged beyond repair while in service, and ten bicycles had been stolen.[32] Six docking stations had been hit and damaged by motor vehicles and six had been vandalised.[67]

Repairs take place at two depots in Kings Cross and Clapham.[68]


Users of the scheme must pay both an access fee and usage charges.[69] Bicycles may be used any number of times within the access period, each use charged according to its duration.

Access fees doubled in January 2013[49] and the weekly access period was withdrawn in January 2015. As of January 2015, the two access fee options were 24-hour access for £2, or annual access (for members only) for £90.

Extra ride charges are weighted to promote the constant circulation of bicycles. The first 30 minutes of each journey are free; for longer hire durations the price increases by £2 every extra 30 minutes. If a user docks a bike, five minutes must elapse before they can take out another one. This means a user can have as many journeys as they like and only pay £2 so long as each journey is under 30 minutes.

Bicycles must be returned within 24 hours. Failure to return a bicycle or damaging one could incur a charge of up to £300.

Notes and references

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  40. Zoom out on map to see overall docking station distribution
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External links