Going the distance: the ‘Boris bikes’ being spotted around the world

They have been a feature of London’s streets for nearly 12 years: the docked public bikes for sharing that are billed as one of the easiest and quickest ways for people to make shorter journeys. Or in some cases, it seems, considerably longer ones.

Among the hundreds of bikes that go permanently missing from the 14,000-plus fleet every year, a handful have been tracked down to distinctly non-London locations, including Australia, the Gambia and Turkey, a freedom of information request has disclosed.

Other foreign locations in which the bikes have been officially spotted are Jamaica, Romania and the Republic of Ireland.

According to the FoI response from Transport for London (TfL), which operates the Santander Cycles scheme, the rogue Irish bike was recovered with the help of garda officers, while the British Transport Police has helped to bring back models from Cornwall, Southend-on-Sea and Brighton. There was no news about the fate of the others.

TfL is reluctant to discuss the theft of what many still refer to as “Boris bikes” after the London mayor in office at the time they were introduced, even though the scheme originated from Boris Johnson’s predecessor, Ken Livingstone.

While the London hire scheme is seen as a huge success, recording its 100 millionth journey just over a year ago, the number of bikes lost permanently is gradually rising, albeit from a total number that has more than doubled since it was launched.

In 2013, the first year records are available, 108 bikes went missing – this rose to 950 bikes in 2020 and 851 in the first seven months of last year.

TfL declined to give further details about the particularly exotic places in which some bikes were found, beyond to say that they were identified through a mixture of reports from the public, social media and GPS. From the start of 2020, TfL has trialled GPS tracking for some of the bikes as a way of reducing overall theft numbers.

However, details about some of the examples have previously emerged. Footage from Jamaica showing one of the bikes, in the red livery of Santander – the bank that sponsors the scheme, has been widely shared on social media in recent weeks.

The example from the Gambia appears to be a much earlier case. In 2013, a staff member from the charity Oxfam in the west African country took a photo of one of the bikes, in the blue colours of then sponsor Barclays, being ridden down a dirt road. There was speculation that the bike could have been donated but it was unclear.

Theft and vandalism have created a significant barrier to other bike share schemes in the UK, particularly companies that offered dockless bikes that could be left on the pavement or street after a ride.

In 2018, the Chinese firm Mobike pulled out of Manchester because of what it called “unsustainable” losses from theft and vandalism. It has since ceased all UK operations, but for wider commercial reasons.

In contrast, the TfL scheme requires customers to take bikes from fixed docking points, using either membership or a bank card, and charges up to £300 if a bike is not returned.

The scheme has proved increasingly popular, in part due to the construction of more cycling infrastructure around London, but also, more recently, because of people avoiding public transport due to Covid. The system reported a record number of 10.9m hires in 2021.

David Eddington, TfL’s head of cycle hire, said: “We take cycle theft extremely seriously and are taking measures to deter it, including installing GPS trackers on bikes, installing cameras at select docking stations and checking equipment at docking stations to ensure bikes are returned properly.”

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