London's Barclays Cycle Hire scheme will open to non-members on 3 December, so anyone with a Visa card or MasterCard will be able to go to their nearest docking station and borrow a bike.
At the moment, users must buy a membership key, which costs £3. Then there's an access fee of £1/day, £5/week or £45/year. And there are usage charges on top of that: the first 30 minutes of every journey are free, then prices range from £1 for an hour to £50 for the maximum 24 hours.
Under the new system, people can use their credit or debit card to unlock the bike. They still have to choose an access period – either 24 hours of seven days – and pay the same access and usage charges. The first half hour of each journey is still free.
The advantage is clear: you don't need to buy a key and carry it around with you. And if you're clever you can use the 'Boris bikes' for a whole day for just £1 – each machine has to be returned to a docking station within 30 minutes to avoid the usage fee, but there's nothing to stop you then taking out another bike and using that for half an hour, and so on.
So, what are the drawbacks? The maximum access period is a week rather than a year, and at popular docking stations users may have to queue to use the on-street terminal instead of just unlocking a bike.
You can only use Visa (including Electron) and MasterCard cards, not Maestro, American Express, Diners or JCB. There are also concerns about card fraud, although Transport for London say cutting-edge anti-skimming devices will be fitted to all Barclays Cycle Hire terminals.
Mayor of London Boris Johnson said: “It's fantastic that the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme has not only proved incredibly popular but the system has shown itself to be rigorous and robust. Now it's been thoroughly tried and tested by more than 100,000 members we're ready for the next stage where anyone who fancies taking to two wheels can do so in an instant with a simple swipe of their card."
Barclays Cycle Hire operates across central London. Bicycles are available in Camden, City of London, Hackney, Islington, Lambeth, Kensington & Chelsea, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Westminster and several of the royal park.
Some 95 percent of all journeys made by Barclays Cycle Hire members since the scheme's launch in July have been under 30 minutes, so most users only pay their hourly, weekly or annual access fee and no usage charges.
In other news, the London Evening Standard this week reported that Barclays Cycle Hire bikes were involved in 34 incidents during the scheme's first two months. There were also several accidents linked to the wider scheme, including a cyclist knocked off their bike by a trailer used to transport the hire bikes, and a docking station falling on a child. On some 13 occasions between 30 July and 30 September, emergency services were called.
However, these accidents have to be seen in the context of the huge number of journeys made using the hire bikes, and the fact that, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), an average of 10 cyclists were killed or injured in London each day last year – although this doesn't tally with provisional figures from the Department for Transport.
A spokeswoman for Transport for London told the Standard: “Despite the fact that over 1.6 million Barclays Cycle Hire journeys have been made since the launch of the scheme almost four months ago, we had just 10 reports of users being injured while using the bikes during the first 11 weeks of operation.”