18 November 2017

Urbo bike road test

It took a while to get my hands on one of the new Urbo hire bikes, even after I downloaded the app and signed up. That’s because there are only 250 of them in the whole of Waltham Forest, so the chances of finding a bike when you want one are low. The app seems quite erratic too. I came out of Blackhorse Road tube looking at the map and it told me there were no bikes in my area. But across the road there were two of them, highly visible with their signature bright green wheels. Getting the bike to unlock was the first hurdle. The bikes just have a European style demobilisation lock on the back wheel. I messed up somehow and lost 50p, but the second attempt was successful. On the app, you click on ‘unlock’ then scan the QR code on the lock, and after a bit of a wait the lock pings open and you’re ready to go.

I had a good look at the bike first. Like a Boris bike, it is very heavy, has three gears and a kickstand, mudguards and lights. It doesn’t look as vandal-proof as the Boris bikes, with quite a few accessible bolts. It has a handy front basket with a sheet of brown plastic which turns out to be a photovoltaic panel to charge the electronics. I found the kickstand was half unbolted, and more seriously the saddle does adjust but although I’m not that tall, just six foot, the highest setting is not quite high enough. A Boris bike saddle will extend a good 10cm higher. Getting on the bike, I was immediately worried because it felt unstable, like riding with a flat tyre. Perhaps I should go to a petrol station and pump them up to a decent pressure? But there are no valves - the bikes have solid tyres, puncture-proof because they are filled with some kind of foam rather than air. You get used to it but there is a sideways wobble whenever you go over anything uneven in the road. Plus I’m riding with my knees slightly bent because the saddle is too low.

I rode my Urbo to the high street, left it unlocked outside a shop (but keeping it in view) while I bought a few things, and rode back with my purchases in the basket. Locked the bike and left it in the street outside my house. Two hours later it was still there so I made another short shopping trip, about 15 minutes for 50p. You are supposed to leave them in a designated spot which is all very well, but cycling is not like driving a car and then walking from a parking space, your journey is likely only short and adding a ten minute walk is not the way you want to use a bike. This time I left the bike on the corner by the main road where a lot of people could see it, and a short walk from the tube, but it was still there 24 hours later.

To summarise, these are not bikes that proper cyclists will like much, but they get you from A to B if you can find one available. The scheme is currently just £1 to join and you get £2.50 credit to start with, which is up to two and a half hours of riding, so you can join without any long-term commitment, on the chance that it will come in useful. It’s interesting that Urbo chose Waltham Forest out of the many areas that don’t have a bike sharing scheme, presumably becasue of Mini Holland. But the joining fee will go up to £30 eventually, which will not be worthwhile unless you can use it on a regular basis. At the moment this is an unreliable service, and it will not be much practical use unless they bring in a lot more bikes. Even then you will be restricted to the borough and any other areas Urbo might decide to colonise in future. It would be a lot more useful to have the London-wide Santander docking stations extend out to Waltham Forest and other outer boroughs, and I wonder if all the privatised bike sharing schemes make that more or less likely?