As described in an earlier post, I was all set to go to Edinburgh with a Brompton hire bike. I arrived early at New Street and headed for the dock at Moor street, where I recovered Buster the Brompton. Whilst I wrestled him from his cell I noticed that most of the bays I could see were empty, which I hope is a good sign. I have to say it was quite a struggle getting Buster out, as various brackets and flanges that hold the dock together had to be cleared one by one, plus there was a moulding that meant I had limited scope for tilting Buster. I ended up with my hands covered in chain lube, which was a wee bit annoying. That all said, it was a corner cell and returning him at the end of the week (to a cell in the middle of the dock) was much easier. Unfolding Buster went smoothly, and after a brief bit of bother when I thought the lights were not working (they were switched off, even though they are supposed to be permanently on), I was away.
Back at New Street the train to Edinburgh was waiting for me. Alas it turned out to be a diesel multiple unit Super Vibrator, even though the route is fully electrified (the return journey was on a Pendolino). Fortunately my seat turned out to be far enough away from the engine that I didn't have to endure too much noise and vibration on the four and a half hour journey, and was able to get some work done. However, the carriage was cramped and had insufficient luggage space. I had to shift several crates of supplies for the shop out of one luggage space to make room for Buster. Then I discovered my leg was covered in chain lube, teaching me to make sure a Brompton is the right way round when shuffling along the cramped interior of Britain's miniature railway trains. Thankfully I was wearing shorts, so I was able to clean myself quite quickly, but this could have been embarrassing.
At Waverley Station I was met by the people I was staying with in Scotland. However, our meeting was only brief as I was heading to the flat on Buster, and they were going on the bus. I then promptly got lost looking for the exit I wanted from Waverley Station. After getting directions and making two more lift journeys (with someone with a bike made out of bamboo), I finally escaped the station. It has to be said that Bromptons offer a very harsh ride, which is particularly noticeable on Edinburgh's cobbled streets. However, this turned out to be the biggest compromise in having a folding bike. What I thought was going to be the major problem, gearing, was not a big problem at all. First gear got me up all but a couple of the hills I needed to climb, whilst in third gear I was soon screaming along Queen's Drive (after stopping to take a photo of Buster standing below Arthur's Seat). Despite the delays, I arrived at the flat five minutes before the bus travellers, and had Buster folded up and tucked out of the way. That set the scene for the rest of the week, with Buster comfortably beating the bus every time, and on the longest journey by a margin of about half an hour. Edinburgh has an excellent bus service, but you just cannot beat the flexibility of a form of transport that is direct and unaffected by traffic jams or restrictions on vehicle movements.
One problem with having a Brompton Hire bike is the requirement to not leave it anywhere unattended (I hope this doesn't include locked up in private property, such as a car or a house). I found Buster quite heavy to lug around when having him unfolded was inappropriate. It is supposed to be possible to tow a Brompton like a luggage trolley, but this didn't really work for me, as the bike tends to start rocking from side to side, and lifting the front causes the suspension block to catch on the ground. Lockers are generally too small for a folded Brompton. At Holyrood Palace they offered to look after Buster for me, but given that Brompton Hire will demand £750 if the bike is lost, I wasn't willing to take the risk. The parting comment from the first person who made this offer was something about the queen's security being good enough for the head of state but not good enough for Buster. Further into the palace I was made the offer a second time, but this time it was explained that Buster would be in a proper ticketed cloak room, so I accepted the offer. I had a basic D-lock with me, so I clamped it around the folded bike before leaving Buster with the queen's cloakroom staff. They were amused to learn that Buster was the bike's name, not mine; I wonder what Queen Victoria would have thought.
I've written about cycling in Edinburgh before, but in summary Edinburgh is car sick. The tour guides will tell you about the way the streets were used as open sewers in the past. They still are, but now the sewerage is motor vehicles. There's not one road in the city centre that isn't used for motor traffic. Even the few sections of road where cars are restricted are still full of motor vehicles at certain times. Most of the Royal Mile, a UNESCO world heritage site, is rammed with motor vehicles. This makes the city most unpleasant for people cycling and walking, and of course the latter group includes the tourists from around the world who fill and block the narrow pavements. The noise from the vast numbers of cars, trucks, and buses cannot be escaped, even up on Arthur's Seat. Arthur's Seat itself is in Holyrood Park, but apart from Sundays the roads through the park are heavily trafficked. I was chased up the hill by cars, taxis, minibuses, and even continental tour coaches. Dudingston Low Road is used as a rat run, despite being narrow and bendy, and twice a black cab tried to overtake me uphill on blind bends. It was so unpleasant and dangerous that I folded up Buster and carried him up the hill to Queen's Drive, on which I used the pavement as a contraflow cycle lane to get me back to the flat. Look at a map of Edinburgh and you will see it has a ring road, formed of the A1/A90 around the north of the city, and the dual-carriageway A720 to the south. Yet the A1 meets the A7 (photo below) and the A900 right outside Waverley Station at a vile, multi-lane junction. Pedestrians are forced by barriers (and the heavy traffic) to use controlled crossings that are biased heavily in favour of carriageway traffic. By comparison the centre of Birmingham (which thirty years ago was just the same) is peaceful and quiet. The Dutch would of course close the city centre to through traffic and force it to use the ring road, but in traffic engineering terms Edinburgh is firmly entrenched in the last century.
Yet the irony is that Edinburgh has built and is building cycling-specific infrastructure that shames what we have in Birmingham (though Edinburgh does have plenty of painted, non-mandatory lanes and ASLs too). A network of abandoned railway lines has been turned into a network of wide, well signposted shared-use paths finished with smooth bitmac. New segregated cycle paths are starting to appear, again in smooth bitmac. That, combined with a large academic population associated with one of the world's foremost universities, has resulted in a remarkable number of people cycling for a British town, people who are not deterred by the steep hills or dark, cold winters, destroying several myths in one go. Of course those people cannot limit themselves to the safe infrastructure, or they wouldn't even be able to access the city centre, so Edinburgh is acquiring a reputation for cycling deaths and injuries. If Edinburgh were to learn from what has been done in the Dutch university town of Groningen, they too would have a cycling modal share of 60%, and the people-friendly city centre that goes with that. As has been shown time and again (including in Birmingham's New Street), people bring trade, whereas passing cars damage it.
Whilst my day-to-day cycling was of necessity on Edinburgh's untamed roads, I did take Buster on a largely off-road route to the beach at Portobello, and that little tour is described pictorially below.
Whilst the wheels appear to be coming off the Birmingham Cycling Revolution, for me the Brompton Hire scheme is a success. The bikes work very well, are cheap and easy to hire, and can be taken with you to other towns and cities on all forms of public transport, as well as in a car (you can leave a Brompton Hire bike in at any dock in the country; Birmingham Bromptons have been turning up in docks very far from Birmingham). The dynamo lights, mudguards, and Brompton bag holder mean they make serious 24/7/365 transport. Although intended for travel around town, the excellent gearing allows them to make good progress if you need to travel a considerable distance on one (I recently learned that Buster has been to Wales and back). That same gearing allowed me to keep up with the Edinburgh motor traffic, and whilst that wasn't exactly pleasant, doing so on a folding bike made the fancy four wheel drives, and especially the Lamborghini on Holyrood Road, look utterly ridiculous. In town, Brom Brom beats Vroom Vroom. I'm really pleased to for once wholeheartedly recommend something that BCR has helped to make possible. I just hope that success doesn't get turned into a failure by lack of progress elsewhere in the BCR project, because most people will refuse to ride a bike surrounded by four wheel drives and the occasional Lamborghini driver trying to make his car sound butch in traffic moving little faster than a middle-aged bloke pedalling uphill on a folding bike.
Update: Since writing this article I've hired a second Brompton, and the experience was nothing like as positive. The dock at Moor Street refused to accept my access code, and it to took two calls to the "emergency" number to get through to a person and get the door opened. Trying to address the problem by myself using SMS, I tried booking a new bike and reporting the bike as faulty. The Brompton Hire software wouldn't let me book a second bike until I had either taken the first bike, or cancelled my booking (with no information about how to do this with SMS). It also told me I couldn't report the bike as faulty until I had taken the bike from the faulty dock. As a result I missed my train, but fortunately there were no repercussions other than lost time. The bike itself had a faulty gear shifter, which was a serious annoyance. On trying to return the bike the dock refused to accept my return code until I had entered it three or four times. I have emailed Brompton Hire about this, but they failed to reply. This is just the sort of customer experience they need to address if the scheme isn't to fail early.