Pedal power rules as London launches cycle hire scheme

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The Independent Travel

London launched a major cycle hire scheme Friday which aims to make transport in the city greener ahead of the 2012 Olympics, following in the tracks of cities like Paris and Shanghai.

Mayor Boris Johnson, himself a keen cyclist, said the scheme was a "new dawn" for pedal power in London, adding he hoped the bikes would become as common a sight on its streets as black cabs and red double-decker buses.

A total of 5,000 bicycles are available from 315 docking stations across the capital, many of them near landmarks such as Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London.

Initial response from users was encouraging, although Johnson admitted there were early "teething problems" which would need "constant correction and improvement".

After a brief struggle to release one of the sturdy bikes from a docking station in central London's Soho district, Gary McDonagh, 39, gave it the thumbs up following a test ride.

"It feels a bit like riding a people carrier, but it's deceptively fast for its weight," McDonagh, who works for a television company, told AFP.

"It's good that they're robust, with London's weather and the potholes in the roads. It's pretty nifty."

Johnson, who often cycles to work at City Hall, was full of enthusiasm as he launched the scheme, which will cost 140 million pounds (168 million euros, 218 million dollars) over six years.

He hopes the bicycles will "become as commonplace on our roads as black cabs and red buses" - but acknowledged they were not the speediest on the road.

"I don't think this machine is going to win the Tour de France, we've got to be honest," he told AFP in an interview.

"This is not a speed bike but it's a beautiful machine - it glides, it floats like a form of gas from A to B, you hardly have to touch the pedals and it moves and I think it's going to be very popular."

Around half a million cycle journeys are made in London each day and officials hope the scheme will boost this figure by about 40,000.

Cycling in London has become more popular in recent years among residents fed up with often crowded public transport and clogged-up roads, despite a congestion charge introduced in 2003.

There is still some work to do before the scheme is fully operational, though.

Eventually there will be 400 docking stations and 6,000 of the Canadian-designed bicycles available, but about a quarter of the docking stations and one-sixth of the bicycles are not yet in use.

To use the scheme at this stage, people have had to pre-register and more than 12,000 people have done so. In four weeks' time, though, users will simply be able to turn up at a docking station and pay with a credit card.

The first 30 minutes on the bikes are free with charges increasing incrementally after that, although membership costs one pound for 24 hours, five pounds for a week or 45 pounds for a year.

With the London Olympics looming, Johnson wants the scheme to grow to accommodate demand from the flood of visitors expected in the city for the sporting extravaganza.

"We hope to expand the scheme, particularly going east towards the Olympic Park, so that by 2012, people will be able to use the hire bikes to get to the Olympics," the mayor told Sky News television.

The London 2012 organisers want 100 percent of the spectators attending the Games to get there by cycling, walking or taking public transport.

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