A guide to hire bikes and public bike share schemes

Hiring Nextbikes in Bath
Nextbike in Bath
Nextbike in Bath

A guide to hire bikes and public bike share schemes

With large-scale cycle hire and public bike share schemes being set-up in towns and cities across the country, it’s now easier than ever to leave your bike at home yet still be able to use pedal power. Cycling UK member and cycling journalist Matt Lamy looks at the options.

There’s a lot to be said for cycle hire and bike share schemes. Not only do they provide communities with convenient access to bikes, helping to offset environmental concerns such as climate change and — more locally — air pollution, but effective and well-used cycle hire schemes can help reduce congestion, improve health, and lessen the demand for car parking spaces.

For non-locals, they can also offer a rare treat: the chance to visit and explore a new destination by cycle, but not have to go through all the hassle of transporting your own bike there.

Public Bike Share

While independent cycle hire operators have been around for decades, the most exciting development in the field of cycle hire or bike share involves the large-scale schemes now popping up or being developed around the country, best illustrated by the now expansive Santander London Cycle Hire scheme.

Since on-street bike sharing first appeared in London in 2010, many other UK cities and towns have embraced PBS. The UK now has almost 25,000 bikes available for sharing, with almost 19 million trips made annually on public bike share bicycles by 653,711 unique users (2018 figures). And it’s not just big PBS schemes. Increasingly, employers are also offering workplace pool bikes to their staff for business trips and train operating companies offer bikes from hubs located at railway stations. More than 1,000 bikes are located at 100 railway station hubs; and various suppliers, such as Brompton offer locker-based bike hire. 

The sector is also innovating with ‘smart lock’ dockless bike share schemes, integrating with car share clubs, and starting to promote the use of electric bikes. However, there have been significant problems with this PBS model in the UK. In the last two years, two dockless bike operators - oBike, Urbo - have withdrawn from London, reducing the number of available bikes in the capital from a peak of 5,800 to just over 2,100. Meanwhile, one of the biggest global dockless PBS operators - Mobike - has withdrawn from Manchester, Newcastle and Gateshead due to vandalism and theft, and has reduced its operating zone in London. Most significantly, Ofo - arguably the most visible operator with its bright yellow bikes previously found in London, Oxford, Norwich and Sheffield - has withdrawn from the UK completely.

However, if vandalism and theft can be kept in check, the benefits of PBS schemes compared to other cycle hire models are clear: they use automated self-service, which offers flexible and convenient drop off at a range of docking stations, or sometimes any standard public cycle rack, with prices that encourage short journeys. However, PBS schemes also often require users to register before they can start to borrow bikes, and user costs can ramp up when you keep the same bike for a prolonged period. That means an extensive cycle ride may work out financially prohibitive.

Cycle hire tips

  • Research your options before travel. For example, even if your destination doesn't have a large-scale public bike share, there will almost certainly be smaller independent businesses that offer cycle hire.
  • Similarly, in areas well served by various cycle hire options, work out which will be most convenient for you. It may be that you’d be happy docking and undocking PBS bikes as and when you need them. Alternatively, perhaps you would rather keep a single hire bike for the duration of your visit.
  • If you are going to use a single hire bike for the duration of your visit, remember you must ensure its security when you are not with it — bring a couple of locks from home with you.
  • If you are going to use PBS, register with the specific scheme before you arrive. That way you can spend more time getting to grips with the bike itself rather than having to go through the sometimes confusing and irritating process of sorting out all your details on a terminal in a busy place. 
  • Although hire bikes should be well looked after, accidents and mistakes do happen. Give any bike you plan to ride a good inspection — particularly brakes and controls — before heading onto the road. Also take with you a puncture repair kit and multi-tool only for very, very easy maintenance jobs. If there are any major mechanical problems with your bike, don’t attempt to fix it yourself — just return it to the cycle hire operator.
  • If you normally wear a cycle helmet, take that with you too. And don’t forget your cycling kit, such as a bright and/or reflective waterproof outer layer.

Public Bike Share schemes across the country

Many PBS scheme operators have branches in more than one location, and some cities — currently London, Oxford and Sheffield — have more than one PBS scheme available. Most PBS schemes have easy-to-use websites and apps that provide additional information, such as the current availability of bikes at specific locations, or even have provision for reserving bikes.

(For ease of explanation, we have grouped locations together according to the PBS scheme operator in place.)

Central London

Santander Cycles 

Since the then ‘Barclays’ London Cycle Hire scheme started in 2010, it has grown to include more than 11,500 bikes accessed from more than 750 stations across the capital. The Santander London Cycle Hire scheme uses a system of bike hubs and dedicated docks, although, unlike many other similar schemes, users don’t need to pre-register and everything can be done using the terminal touchscreen and a valid credit or debit card. Once a user has paid the initial access fee they will be issued with a printed five-digit release code, which they use to unlock their bike. When they are finished with their bike, they must return it to any Santander Cycles docking station.

Jump

Electric-assist bikes that provide a boost up to 15mph as you ride, currently available in the London Borough of Islington and is owned by Uber Technologies Inc. 

Brighton, Derby, Lincoln, Liverpool, Northampton, Norfolk Broads, Oxford, Reading, Southport

Hourbike

Very similar to the London Cycle Hire scheme, Hourbike’s schemes use a system of bike hubs and dedicated docks. Registration is via individual scheme websites, mobile apps and some on-street terminals. Users pay online and enter their six-digit account/login number and the four-digit pin code that is emailed and/or texted to them to unlock their bike.

Unlike systems such Nextbike, each region’s Hourbike scheme is a separate entity, so each requires separate registration. Some schemes provide electric as well as pedal bikes.

Brighton — BTN Bikeshare 

eBikes Derby (temporarily closed due to excessive vandalism)

Lincoln — Hirebike

Liverpool — Citybike 

Northampton — Cycle Connect

Oxford — Oxon Bike

Southport — Hourbike 

Belfast, Glasgow, West Midlands, Milton Keynes, Stirling, University of Warwick, Cardiff, University of Surrey

Nextbike

German-based Nextbike operates more than 120 schemes across 25 countries. Users can register via Nextbike’s mobile app, website, terminal (Stirling only) or can even call the registration hotline. Although potential users only need register once to use any Nextbike across the country, bikes can only be taken and returned from dedicated docking stations or terminals. Once users have found a bike they wish to use, a four-digit code will be sent to their mobile phone to unlock it.

Exeter

Co-bikes

Co-bikes is a dedicated electric bike hire system, based on the docking station model. Users must register via Co-bike’s mobile app, website, on-street terminals or registration hotline before using the scheme.

Slough, Kingston University

Smoove

Docking station cycle sharing with online pre-registration required.

London Borough of Ealing, Oxford

Mobike 

Dockless bike sharing. Mobike uses a mobile app to unlock the bike you wish to use. Once you are finished with your bike, you can simply lock it to any public cycle rack (although leaving your bike at an ‘MPL’ — ‘Mobike Preferred Location’ is encouraged). After registering with Mobike you can use the same app to access Mobikes in more than 200 cities worldwide. However, following high levels of vandalism, Mobike's UK operations have been severely reduced.

Cheltenham, London, Plymouth, Oxford, Worthing, Henley-on-Thames, Cotswolds

Donkey Republic 

Dockless bike sharing. Donkey Republic is a worldwide bike share system that uses electronic locks on its bicycles that can be opened via its smartphone app.

Bristol, Southampton

Yobike 

Dockless bike sharing. Users simply download the Yobike app, register their details, then scan the QR code on the Yobike they want to use.

Eastbourne, Chichester, Pagham Harbour

App Bike 

Dockless bike sharing. Users download the App Bike app, register their details, then scan the QR code on the App Bike they want to use.

London Borough of Waltham Forest

Urbo

Dockless bike sharing. Users download the Urbo app, register their details, then scan the QR code on the Urbo they want to use.

City of London, Enfield, Bournemouth, Poole, Hereford

Beryl

Created by the people who made Blaze lights, Beryl Bikes is a new app-based dock or dockless PBS.

Guildford, Forth Valley

Bewegen

Bewegen uses custom-designed e-bikes for its docked or dockless PBS network that operates globally. Twenty Bewegen e-bikes can be found at two stations in Guildford and the scheme has recently expanded into Forth Valley. 

North and Eastern England, London, Scotland 

Bike & Go

A dock-based, registration-required PBS operating in 73 locations across the UK, but particularly popular in Scotland, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Yorkshire, East Anglia and Essex. 

London

Freebike

A slightly convoluted app-based system that provides either pedal or electric bikes and uses 'virtual docking stations' at no charge, or charges users if they leave their bike elsewhere.

Ireland: Cork, Galway, Limerick

Coca-Cola Zero Bike

Docking station cycle sharing, with online pre-registration required.

For more information take a look at a map of PBS operators across the country.

Cycle hire options

The chance that any town or city you are planning to visit has a selection of cycle hire options available is growing all the time. But please do not forget smaller-scale cycle hire operations which you will find at local cycle dealers or working independently, especially in areas with a thriving tourist trade.

Unlike bike share schemes, whose role is solely to provide you with a bicycle as quickly and easy as possible, independent cycle hire businesses may offer added value, such as being able to fulfil particular needs — whether that’s providing a specific type of bike, child seat, trailer or even let you hire or buy helmets, locks and other accessories.

Specific venues, such as forestry centres, often have mountain bike hire facilities and you will find similar provisions at most popular leisure cycling hotspots — whether found in rural destinations such as the Camel Trail, or more urban areas such as Richmond Park in London. Also, don’t forget the potential advantages of e-bikes. Electric hire bikes are more likely to be found at independent cycle hire operators.

The range of benefits that comes with using independent cycle hire providers includes the fact that you can keep the bike for the length of your stay; you will know exactly what it will cost you; and you will never have to face the worrying possibility of finding a docking station empty when you want a bike (or full when you want to return it and end your hire).

The drawbacks of using this form of cycle hire is that you have to assume responsibility for the security of your hire bike the whole time it is your possession and — if there is something wrong — swapping it for another bike isn’t as straightforward as simply picking another at a docking station.

Cycling UK's views on promoting bike sharing by Policy Director, Roger Geffen

Cycling UK's views on the pros and cons of dockless hire-bikes have been much in demand lately, at conferences and the media. We have been pointing to evidence that cycle hire schemes enable would-be cycle users to dip their toes in the water on a 'try before you buy' basis. 

Many people then go on to buy a bike of their own, having 'caught the bug'. They are also very useful for people travelling by train to another town, or for people living in flats without ground-floor parking space where they can safely keep a bike of their own for day-to-day use.

We therefore want to support responsible dockless hire-bike operators, ensuring the sector does not suffer reputational damage due to bikes being parked or dumped irresponsibly, or due to an uncontrolled influx of cheap or poorly-maintained bikes.

The main players all share these aspirations. A good deal of credit is due to CoMoUK, who have united the key players together in supporting their accreditation scheme. There is also a sector-wide consensus that some light-touch regulation will be needed, enabling local authorities to manage public space (particularly in crowded areas), to integrate bike sharing schemes into their wider transport strategies, including public transport networks and to take action against those who act irresponsibly. 

Encouragingly, former local transport minister Jesse Norman has confirmed that he is considering how this might be done. Cycling UK will continue to play its part in pushing for proportionate regulation to support responsibly-run cycle hire schemes. They could play a major role in encouraging new people to take up cycling.

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