Trying Out the West Midlands Hire Bikes

West Midlands hire bike in dock

The West Midlands' has been promised a short-term bike hire scheme for several years now, with repeated announcements and not an awful lot of progress.

While the Brompton Dock scheme has been operating successfully from key locations in Birmingham for a while, it's aimed at longer-term hire, and isn't practical for point-to-point journeys. We've also seen an abortive attempt at a car sharing scheme (which seemed fatally flawed by being no cheaper than a taxi, and using cars that were too small for transporting much of anything, unlike more traditional car clubs such as Co-Wheels), and the somewhat more successful Voi electric scooter trial.  But the 'Boris Bike' style scheme that we've all been waiting for finally launched in Sutton Coldfield earlier this month, so last week I rode over there to see if it was actually real, and wasn't disappointed.

Installing the Beryl app was straightforward, and it showed that bikes were available in a few locations in Sutton Coldfield. I headed for the one near Wyndley Leisure Centre, on the basis that I knew where it was, and would have Sutton Park on hand for a test ride, rather than fighting with the traffic in the town centre.

After my initial surprise that they weren't vapourwear, I was impressed.  The bikes are built by Pashely, to a similar standard to the TFL hire bikes.  The main functional difference, apart from their distinctive green livery and being shiny and new, is the way the hire scheme works.  In London, the bike is just a bike, and the system for securing and releasing them is part of the docking station.  Here they've chosen to build the electronic locking mechanism into the bike, with the dock being a simple metal structure, and a smartphone app for taking payment.  While this may seem unintuitive, as it makes the bikes more expensive, I expect this is easily outweighed by the lower cost of the dock:  No groundwork needs to be done to install it, and there is no requirement for an electricity supply.  Maintenance of the electronics is simplified by being able to take a faulty bike away in a van, rather than having to perform maintenance in-situ.  Hopefully this means that the docks can be rolled out across the West Midlands quickly and efficiently.

The Bery app (and presumably on-bike hardware) is a third-party service, used in a number of cities.  This makes good sense, as it should be a mature system, and saves re-inventing the wheel.  To unlock a bike, you either wave your phone at the bike for NFC, or type in the bike's 6-digit number.  Then, as if by magic, there's a *clunk* from the vicinity of the front wheel, and you're free to pull the bike from the dock and ride it.  The locking mechanism can operate without a dock, immobilising the front wheel.  You can use this to temporarily lock the bike on its kickstand (eg. when popping into a shop), keeping your hire period running, unlocking on your return using the app.  It occurs to me that this means that the bikes could be operated as part of a geo-docked or dockless hire scheme at some point in future.  I'm strongly against dockless schemes, as carelessly parked bikes/scooters block pavements and can pose a hazard to disabled pedestrians.  They're also less predictable for the hire scheme users.

The bikes themselves are well designed and sturdily built.  Heavy, but stable to ride.  Their 24" wheels and 47mm tyres should cope well with the poor road surfaces and unsurfaced cycle routes we're used to in the West Midlands, and I can confirm that they pass the cattle-grid test.  The three-speed nexus hubs are, like those on the London bikes, geared quite low.  However, unlike London, the West Midlands has hills, and I think they've got this right.  I found things got a bit spinny for the (nice and grippy) flat pedals above 15mph in top gear, but in bottom gear I could winch my way up Sutton Park's steeper gradients with ease.  On the way back down I confirmed that the drum brakes are effective, but the levers felt quite stiff, I expect this will probably improve as they bed in.  I neglected to test the bell, but it looks like the usual PING! type.  The front luggage rack is about right for a handbag or small rucksack (or Carradice racktop bag!), and has a strong no-nonsense bungee to help secure items.  The bikes are fitted with what I'd describe as a "5 kilometre saddle" - generous and squishy and well-suited for a wide variety of users in an upright riding position, but I wouldn't want to attempt an Audax on it.  The seatpost is engraved with numbers so you can quickly set it to your preferred height, and the clamp is much stronger than those on the earlier London hire bikes, which were notorious for slipping.  Basic lights are provided, and activate when you unlock the bike (I haven't yet seen how they perform in the dark, but I expect they're fine for city riding, but not really bright enough for canal paths and the like).

As I was taking photos, a passer-by asked me if the bikes were electric.  I believe that 150 electric-assist bikes are supposed to be in the pipeline, but this initial roll-out is human powered.

I was sceptical about their choice of start location for the scheme, particularly as the temporary cycle infrastructure in Sutton Coldfield has just been removed, but seeing them being used changed my mind.  As it stands the scheme is only really of interest for people wanting to go for a pootle in Sutton Park, and judging by the number of people doing just that, it seems like a good choice of test location - the bikes are being used in spite of a limited number of docks.  I spoke to the couple using the bikes in the background of the photo above, and the woman said that she hadn't ridden a bike since she was six years old: After an experimental wobble up and down the path, they set off for the entrance to the park - you can't really argue with that!

Assuming the bikes get rolled out across the West Midlands as planned, with 1500 bikes and 170 docking stations, they should become more useful for transport cycling.  The sticking point is the price: At £1 to unlock and then 5p/minute, this is comparable to the Voi scooters (at £1 to unlock and 20p/min), and disappointing compared to the free-for-the-first-30-minutes we were at one point promised.  Integration with the Swift system is promised later in the year, for now you need a credit or debit card.

Find out more at https://www.wmcyclehire.co.uk/

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Front view of WM hire bike
Front view of the West Midlands hire bike, showing the drum brake, sturdy Marathon Plus tyres and lighting.

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WM hire bike handlebars
A view of the handlebars and front luggage rack of the West Midlands hire bike

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WM hire bike in dock
A west Midlands hire bike in its docking station.

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WM hire bike locking mechanism
A close up of the mechanism locking the hire bike into place in the dock. The electronics and moving parts are all in the bike, making it cheap and easy to roll out docking stations.

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WM hire bike seat
A closeup of the saddle and seatpost of a West Midlands hire bike. The seatpost is engraved with clear markings so you can set it to the right position each time, and the clamp has a generous lever for strong clamping force.

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WM hire bike on its kickstand
The bikes have kickstands, and the locking mechanism can be engaged away from a dock.