Review: Santander Cycles / by David Mather

Transport for London’s cycle hire scheme started in 2010. The bikes feature naming and advertising rights to sponsor the scheme. Originally branded as “Barclays Bike’s” since 2015 they are officially known as Santander Cycles. There is now a network of over 800 docking stations and over 11,000 bikes for commuters and tourists alike. Here’s my review of both the bike and the scheme, as the two are intrinsically linked. 

I first saw a similar scheme in Paris, the Vélib’, in 2008, less than a year after it’s launched. I was hopeful London would get a similar system and was excited to try the London equivalent once it was announced. I believe that increasing access to bicycles is a great way to get more people to look at bikes as an alternative to driving. Since the introduction of the scheme TfL have worked hard to improve London’s road network to incorporate segregated cycle paths - which are simply fantastic in many areas and go hand in hand with the hire bikes.

The process of hiring a cycle is really straightforward, and costs only £2 for a day’s access. Firstly you need to bring your own cycle helmet*. I find that this is no bother and typically just strap my commuting helmet to straps on my bag.

Once arriving into London finding a docking station is the first challenge. Luckily they are easy to spot on the streets due to the contrasting deep blue and scarlet colour scheme and the fact that they are labelled on London’s pedestrian way finding signs too. I would recommend that you download the app too as it gives both details of where the docking stations are and how many bikes/spaces there are at any given time.

A touch screen at the docking station provides the instructions to purchase 24 hours cycle access. A receipt is printed and you enter the code on a small number pad beside the bike. Take care to check the bike before you choose the bike, particularly to make sure that both tyres are inflated. Once the light goes green you need to give the bike a firm pull to release it from the dock. Sessions over 30 minutes incur additional costs, but almost all cycle journeys within the area covered by docking stations can be completed in the half hour. You can use the bike on multiple 30 min sessions throughout the 24 hours.

The bike itself is well built, it feels sturdy and solid. The bike is easy to balance with large wheels and good size tyres. The frame shape as a single low slung design so its suitable for skirts and dresses too. The greasy parts, such as the chain, are well protected so you shouldn’t get oil on your clothes. That said the bikes are sat out in the city and aren’t always clean, but the design does minimise the risk with large mudguards and fairings surrounding the rear wheel.

The saddle is comfortable and the height is easily adjusted. The bike includes front and back lights which are both powered by the bikes motion and automatically turn on, a great plus for safety. The bike is really practical, the front of the bike includes a large storage rack with an elastic strap for your bag. With the weight of this being on the high side the bike is not the quickest. A three speed hub gear system certainly helps make the bike easy to ride, and allows an easy start and acceleration to a cruising speed of about 15mph. A nice touch is the reflective strip around the whole of the of the wheel and the  (relatively) recent addition of Blaze laser lights which project an image of a bike about 15 feet in front of the bike at night.

If you are travelling into central London and are happy to cycle to reach your destination I would recommend using the Santander Cycle scheme over taking in your own bike, especially if your own bike is not a folding bike. Almost a decade on this the bikes launched they cover an increasing area and have fast become a moden icon of the capital. Combining an easy to use hire process, low cost, and increasingly good provision of cycle ways makes using this bike hire as convient as using the tube or a bus. Don’t forget your helmet, and always, always, be careful.

* I must stress that cycling through London without a helmet is not ideal unless you are limiting your journey to cycle paths through London’s parks.

Cover image courtesy of TfL.