Why are we asking this now?
Because Londoners are being given their first chance to size up and test ride the first of a new fleet of hire bikes heralded by the London Mayor as a "revolution in cycling". The first of the machines that will soon throng the capital's streets are being unveiled at this weekend's Cycle Show, which opens to the public today. Boris Johnson has thrown millions into the scheme and has a huge amount riding on the success of his shiny new bikes as he bids to turn the capital into a haven for two-wheeled transport.
So how will it work?
The Mayor and Transport for London (TfL), the body responsible for much of the capital's transport infrastructure, are going big with this scheme and plan to roll out some 6,000 bikes next summer. More than 400 automated docking stations will spring up across the nine London boroughs and several Royal Parks that make up central London's central "Zone 1" travel area. Riders will need to sign up to a weekly, monthly or annual subscription and, and will be able to release a bike in exchange for a fully-refundable credit card deposit. The scheme will operate 24 hours a day.
What are the bikes like?
Heavy, sturdy and very functional. They are being built by Canadian company Bixi and are designed to last, with a chunky frame and rugged tyres. There are dynamo-powered lights, three gears that rely on a durable grip-shift system and guards to keep the oily chain away from clothes. Riders adopt the traditional "sit-up-and-beg" position and may load a bag into the rack-cum-basket mounted on the handlebars. A lock is not provided – users will be encouraged to leave bikes at secure docking stations. It's not clear what will happen to the deposit if a bike is stolen between docks.
Why are they doing it?
Boris Johnson has placed cycling at the heart of his transport policy with a series of high-profile schemes. The hire bikes are being launched to coincide with the first of the mayor's Cycle Superhighways, which will channel cyclists along clearly-signed and safe routes. Johnson reckons the plans will boost the number of cycle journeys in London by 400 per cent by 2025. "[We] want to make cycling a safe and more attractive option for everyone in London," said the Mayor's transport adviser, Kulveer Ranger. "The 6,000 bikes in our hire scheme will make cycling more accessible and the Cycle Superhighways will provide cyclists with the reassurance of cycling in numbers."
Who's running it?
A services company called Serco, which also runs the capital's Docklands Light Railway and Woolwich Ferry, won the £140m contract to set up and run the bike hire scheme in August. It's a departure from the deals struck in other cities around the world, where large outdoor marketing groups put up a large part of the funding in exchange for advertising at docking stations.
Serco will get its cash directly from TfL, which will rely on hire fees and high-profile sponsorship to keep the bikes rolling. It's not yet known how much it will cost to subscribe to the scheme or the size of the deposits required to release bikes from their automated racks.
So what's not to like?
As with most of Johnson's attempts to whip the capital's transport system into shape, the bike hire scheme is not without its critics. There are unconfirmed reports that the system will not be compatible with the swipe-and-go Oyster travel cards used by millions of Londoners. It's thought that many of London's major rail stations will not have docking stations. Meanwhile, the concentration on central London has led many to accuse the scheme's originators of fishing for the tourist dollar rather than providing a viable means of transport for everyday commuters and other cyclists.
Where will they go?
The 400 docking stations around the capital will be home to more than 10,000 racks that will require a lot of prime real estate. And not everyone wants automated bike racks in their back yard. Last month, Boris Johnson's own neighbours turned their noses up at a proposed rack when Islington council in North London rejected a planning application for a docking station on the Mayor's road. Fifteen residents opposed the move, citing concerns about noise and crime. Locals also feared the racks would be an eyesore. It was a slap in the face for Johnson but his office insisted that they were well on the way to securing permission to install the 400 racks required to launch next summer.
What about regular cycling?
This is another sore point for Johnson-sceptics. Few have come out to call his hire scheme a bad thing for the capital but many campaigners believe that the £23m a year it will cost could be better spent on improving London's existing cycling infrastructure without the high-profile press launches and plaudits that come with schemes like these.
London still lags behind most European cities when it comes to happy cycling. The capital's recent boom has come in spite of what many cyclists and campaigners believe is a poorly planned and maintained network of paths – and a failure by authorities and employers to provide adequate storage facilities. Access to bikes arguably isn't the problem –sales are soaring as prices drop with Halfords the most recent retailer to announce big profits.
Are the hire-scheme bikes safe?
As safe as any bike (so pretty safe – in 2007, the rate of cyclist deaths was 32 per billion kilometres ridden) but if, as the Mayor hopes, the scheme gives rise to a new group of inexperienced riders, some fear that accident rates, which have been falling, will creep up again. TfL promises to kick off a safety campaign in time for the launch and it's hoped the Superhighways will offer a more secure environment, but the scheme will rely on users to bring their own helmets and the sudden influx of 6,000 new bikes can only increase already-boiling tensions between cyclists and motorists.
What happens in other cities?
Bike-hire systems operate with varying degrees of success in dozens of cities around the world including Montreal, Barcelona and Dublin. In Britain, towns including Blackpool and Southport operate small scale set-ups often targeted at tourists. But easily the biggest bike hire scheme in the world runs in Paris, where the Vélib' system has been online for more than two years.
Ten thousands bikes were launched but that number has since doubled. The grey bikes have proved popular but some 16,000 bikes have had to be replaced due to vandalism, 8,000 have been stolen, and more than 100 have been pulled from the Seine River. Meanwhile thousands of users have struggled with punctures and other maintenance issues, and drivers have protested against the appropriation of street-side parking for mass bike racks.
The French experience will doubtless keep Johnson and his team awake at night when London's launch date creeps closer. They're going to have to pedal fast if this really is the revolution in cycling Londoners have been promised.
Is the capital's hire scheme a model for city cycling?
* It will boost participation in cycling, improving health and helping to cut congestion
* It will complement and relieve pressure on overcrowded rail, Tube and bus networks
* More bikes on the roads will deliver the message that cycling is the way to go
* It comes at the expense of less showy but more important improvements to the cycling infrastructure
* A sudden influx of inexperienced cyclists poses a serious safety threat to all road users
* Similar schemes have been beset by theft, vandalism and the objections of local residents