'I keep telling people to use Boris bikes, I think they're great': Santander cycle use hit record figures in 2021

11 million bikes were hired last year, and users say benefits include quick and easy journeys as well as feeling safer than walking

Santander cycles London
(Image credit: Getty Images)

For Hannah Fisher, the pandemic was the perfect opportunity to start cycling in London. Living in a small flat, owning a bike was not an option, so it made perfect sense to use a Santander Cycle - or as they're often called - a 'Boris bike'.

The 25-year old started taking advantage of the London cycle hire scheme in May 2020 at the peak of lockdown - she knows exactly when thanks to a Strava check - and found them perfect for cutting down journey times when avoiding public transport.

Benefits for Fisher have included not only the simple enjoyment and convenience of cycling, but she also said the scheme allowed her to feel safer returning home after dark.

The London bike hire scheme had its record year in 2021, with Transport for London releasing figures showing that 11 million bikes were hired out last year.

"It has opened up aspects of the city that I otherwise wouldn't have considered," Hannah explained. "The beauty is that I can choose to do it when I want to and when it suits me. Obviously, there's a cost, but for the convenience it's really worth it. 

"If I hadn't ever started cycling in London [using the Santander cycles], I would never have considered getting a bike, whereas now it has been the starter path to that."

178,000 people signed up to the scheme in 2021, a 7% increase on the year before; last year beat the record for hires set by 2018 by 371,000.

Hannah sees other positives in cycling in the city, beyond health, pandemic, and environmental reasons. Recent news events - such as the tragic murder of Sarah Everard, and more recently Ashling Murphy - have drawn huge media attention to the reasons women often feel unsafe when walking after dark.

"I tend to avoid walking, going anywhere on my own in the dark," she said. "But I've cycled back before, when I was living in Shepherd's Bush I'd cycle back from my friend's house in Fulham. With a reflector sash on, and I actually felt fine cycling. 

"I was more worried about traffic and buses than worrying about the fact I was out late at night. I probably wouldn't have walked that route home. Because I was cycling and I was fast, I felt more in control. 

"I keep telling people to use Boris bikes, I think they're great."

Another young woman to take up cycling through the Santander Cycles during the pandemic is Lois Harmer. She told Cycling Weekly: "I love them," though adding, "I think I'd be faster if I wasn't on something as weighty, or clunky."

The Santander bike frames weigh a reported 23kg, though this extra heft is supported by low gearing and several individuals and groups succeeding in riding mountains on the machines.

Harmer explained: "It seemed more something recreationally than for travel. It felt feasible to do within covid restrictions. Since then, I've become more confident in terms of using them and getting out and about in London. 

"It has been a kind of segue, so now I'm more likely to use it as a mode of transport, getting from place to place to meet friends, that kind of thing."

Hannah started using the hire bikes for a similar reason, to do something within the covid guidelines: "With lockdown, my boyfriend lived in Brixton and I lived in Shepherd's Bush and it was an hour and a half walk to meet in the middle, and we decided that was too difficult to do. 

"I couldn't store a bike in the flat, so I just ordered a helmet and a reflective strip and decided I'd try a Boris bike. There's a set literally round the corner from my flat. The hardest thing is finding your way around without access to directions."

"It's a really nice middle ground when you don't have access to a bike all the time, but it's an option. I think it's a really nice thing to do. I really like it," she said.

In a press release, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said that the success could only continue with safe routes for cyclists.

“It’s fantastic to see our cycle hire scheme reach such incredible heights, achieving its highest ever hire numbers last year,” he said. “Not only have we seen a huge rise in cycling since the pandemic, but participation has also broadened, particularly among people from minority ethnic communities.”

"In order to keep up this success we need safe roads for cyclists, and we continue to work with boroughs to roll out cycle lanes, extra pavement space and safer junctions."

An Australian study published this week showed that a lack of cycling infrastructure that separates cyclists from motor traffic is the biggest reason behind people not cycling

Car usage has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels in London, with public transport usage still low. On Friday, Londoners were warned to "reduce physical exertion", especially outdoors, due to "very high" levels of air pollution.

Transport for London's head of cycle hire, David Eddington, said that there were plans to improve the scheme in coming years.

“We’re looking forward to introducing electric bikes and expanding our iconic cycle hire scheme in the coming years, so even more Londoners and visitors can discover the benefits of cycling in the capital.”

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