What London’s bike hire scheme can learn from other cities as it searches for a new sponsor

By Stephen Parkes, July 2014. www.its.leeds.ac.uk/people/s.parkes

London’s cycle hire scheme has become a prominent fixture in the capital’s transport network since it opened in 2010. Known as “Boris Bikes”, it is Barclays Bank that has provided commercial sponsorship for the scheme from the beginning, a relationship that is due to end in 2015. So the search is now on for a successor with deep pockets, one that is willing to play a role in shaping the future of the scheme.


Many bike hire schemes begin small, with the number of bikes initially in the hundreds rather than thousands. But in London, helped by a swelling population of more than 8m people and the support of the city mayor, the scheme opened with 5,000 bikes and has gradually expanded to 11,200. It is now the second largest scheme in Europe, after Paris. The financial support pledged by Barclays (£25m over five years) was certainly a factor that enabled the scheme to open at this scale.

The end of 2013 saw a decline in the number of journeys made, in comparison to the same period in 2011 and 2012, before picking up again in 2014 to hit a milestone of 30 million journeys. A study of the scheme’s users found they were disproportionately male and from more affluent areas of the city. Hopefully this issue will be addressed by the extension of the scheme to other parts of London, encouraging access to a wider spectrum of the city’s population.

For many schemes, including London’s, private sponsorship is an important element of the business model. JCDecaux and Clear Channel (both outdoor advertising companies) are involved in many European schemes. They typically manage the scheme and supply capital for the start-up and running costs in exchange for rights to a proportion of the advertising boards across the city. The London scheme differs here in that the sponsor’s investment provides advertising of their brand, as opposed to increasing the share of the market they operate in.

For London, this external sponsorship is vital – Transport for London are looking for £37.5m – and the scheme has not yet shown to be profitable. As Barclays withdrew their financial support, the scheme’s expansion into southwest London in 2013 was taxpayer funded. Nearby councils were reported to have jointly paid around £4m towards the £10m cost.

Schemes have sometimes relied upon an individual to champion the policy and ensure its success, especially in the early days of a scheme. London mayors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have had important roles for London, but a champion will continue to be needed to prevent the scheme from faltering.

As the London cycle hire scheme reaches a crossroads, what can be learnt from other schemes? The Paris scheme is seen as a great success but it relies upon high user numbers to offset the expense of sustaining it. Smaller schemes – for example those run by Nextbike– offer a greater likelihood of financial sustainability, but lower running costs are a key factor in this. Crucially, in many cities cyclists benefit from wider roads and more defined space. In contrast, one of the most pressing issues for London is the safety of cyclists, which is a problem for the city as a whole, including those using the bike hire scheme.

Busy, narrow roads and insufficient or absent cycling infrastructure dissuade many from using the scheme. Data suggests that a London hired bike is used far less frequently over the course of a day than a bike would be in many schemes elsewhere. Infrastructure problems are seen as a key factor in this, and this raises the issue of value for money. Resolving the safety and infrastructure problems are of course not easy tasks, and real change in authorities’ attitudes towards cycling is occurring very slowly. But concerted effort and change here may well be the key to reigniting the initial success of the scheme.

The importance of a suitable sponsor for the scheme cannot be underestimated as their financial support will be essential. Public funding will undoubtedly continue to be needed but to a lesser extent if the scheme prospers. It has been contested that Barclays’ decreasing interest in the scheme may be the result of the growing cycling safety issues in London. This is perhaps the most difficult hurdle that the scheme, and whoever its new sponsor will be, must overcome in coming years. Bikes that aren’t used are no use to anyone, whoever pays for them.

bike hire


Big Drive on Automation Research at Leeds

The Institute’s Safety and Technology (S&T) Research Group is driving forward with research to help understand how humans will perform and interact with the vehicles of tomorrow.

The team, currently led by  Associate Professor Dr Natasha Merat, has been involved in a range of projects which have looked at the effect of new vehicle technologies on driver behaviour. Increased automation, involving systems and technology that provide further support to the driving task, is being developed and implemented at a rapid pace in vehicles and, according to PhD candidate Tyron Louw, it has opened up a whole new field of research. “On the most basic level, the way we drive hasn’t changed much since the invention of the car. In the coming decades, however, the driving task is going to become increasingly automated, which fundamentally changes the way in which we will use and interact with our vehicles, both personal and public,” said Louw.

As project partners in the AdaptIVe (Automated Driving Applications & Technologies for Intelligent Vehicles) and CityMobil2 projects, funded by the European Commission, the S&T Group at Leeds is currently building on expertise gained in previous projects on automation, such as EASY (Effects of Automated Systems on Safety) and CityMobil.


The AdaptIVe project (coordinated by VW), which continues the work achieved from previous projects, HaveIT and InteractIVe, has set out to develop and test new functionalities for cars and trucks, offering both partially automated and highly automated driving on motorways, in urban scenarios, and for close-distance manoeuvres. Using the University of Leeds Driving Simulator, researchers in the S&T Group will conduct a series of simulator experiments with the focus on understanding how drivers will behave before, during, and after they are required to take control of an automated vehicle.

The importance of investigating the driver’s role in automation is self-evident, says Louw. “There is a common assumption that giving vehicles automation will automatically be safer for the driver. However, (for the foreseeable future) automation technology in vehicles will still require the driver to take control in some situations, and because we know driver error has some role in the majority of crashes, we need to look closely at that interaction. It is our goal, as human factors experts, to understand the drivers’ capabilities and limitations in this new environment, because automation is marching towards us and humans aren’t going anywhere,” said Louw.


The other project on automation currently in progress at Leeds, CityMobil2 (coordinated by CTL, University of Rome), is a major research, development and demonstration project addressing the integration of Automated Road Transport Systems (ARTS) in the urban environment. The team at Leeds is working closely with researchers at The German Aerospace Centre (DLR) to understand road users’ interaction with automated public transport systems. Talking about the importance of this aspect of the project Louw said, “An ARTS is similar to existing public (bus and tram) transport systems in many ways but it differs in one important respect, there is no driver. On the surface it doesn’t seem like this would be a problem, but seeing the driver has become a familiar and important cue for road users; it is important to understand whether and to what extent their behaviour around these vehicles will change if there is no driver. Using this information we hope to create a smoother integration of ARTS into the existing transport infrastructure.”

In addition, the Institute for Transport Studies has two PhD students doing research in the area. Pablo Guillen, in collaboration with the School of Computing and the Institute of Psychological Sciences, is developing an Adaptive Automation system for drivers who fall asleep behind the wheel. “The main goal is to develop/adopt a Machine Learning algorithm that can use physiological (EEG, blinking, heart rate, etc.) and driving behaviour (lane deviation, steering deviation, etc.) variables of the driver to determine their level of sleepiness. After that, it will decide if the driver needs partial or complete help in driving tasks by changing the level of automation of the car,” said Guillen. Tyron Louw, supervised by Dr Natasha Merat and Dr Hamish Jamson, is researching how to ensure drivers can safely take back control of an automated vehicle. “Fatigue/sleepiness, distraction and monotony reduce drivers’ ability to respond to critical events. The idea behind automation is that if you remove the human error element from the equation, then there should be fewer collisions. The irony of automation, however, is that if the system suddenly needs a sleeping or movie-watching driver to take back control of the vehicle, you may find drivers more sleepy and/or distracted, which means they would be in a worse off position to respond to a critical situation than if they were driving all along. My goal is to better understand the human capabilities and limitations in that situation, which will hopefully encourage a more human-centred approach in the design of automated vehicles,” said Louw.

The desire to test the feasibility of implementing ‘driverless cars’ on real roads is gaining momentum in the UK and Europe, and although one main aim may be to investigate the technological feasibility of such systems, the question of how drivers and road users perceive and interact with these vehicles and an appreciation of their added value by the general driving population is clearly crucial for public acceptance and uptake. Through its involvement in the iMobility working group and its recent selection as one of seven academic centres of excellence by the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) – the national research and innovation centre for Transport Systems – the S&T group and the Transport Systems Hub, is hoping to engage policy makers in discussions concerning the human factors relevance and challenges posed by these systems.

As a result of her involvement in the European iMobility group on Vehicle Automation and the Vehicle & Road Automation (VRA) project, Dr Merat is organizing a special session on Human Factors: Challenges of Vehicle Automation this September, at the 21st World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems in Detroit. She is also currently editing a special section of Transportation Research Part F on this topic. This work complements a special issue of the Human Factors journal on Vehicle automation and driver behaviour, published in 2012.

 AdaptIVe will run until 2018 and CityMobil2 will run until 2016.