Revealed: The Hidden Geography of London's Cycle Hire Scheme

By James O Malley on at

London’s Cycle Hire bikes are one of the best things to happen to London in the 21st century. Since launching in July 2010, they have transformed mobility for millions of people: no more squeezing onto crowded buses or descending into the depths of the tube – you can breeze through central London, and arrive at work with a sense of joy rather than with your spirit crushed.

And this is why we were incredibly excited to get our hands on some very interesting bike data. Using the Freedom of Information Act, we asked Transport for London (TfL) to supply us with the hiring data for each bike stand, but with each stand separated out to count the number of hires and the number of dockings. A common sight in London is a TfL van redistributing bikes around the city, so that stands don’t remain entirely empty or entirely full. And using this data, we can begin to get a sense of the hidden geography of London: where are people most trying to get away from, and where are they most trying to go to? This data is for financial year 17/18, which ran from April 2017-March 2018.

Here’s the all important map – green pins are bike stands where there are more hires than docks, and red pins and stands where there are more docks than hires.

So.. this map is pretty interesting, right? Zoom out and it appears to tell the story of where people struggle with traditional public transport options: the West End and the City are both well connected, but the Tube and buses are both running at full capacity and rush hour, so clearly some commuters are choosing bikes.

Similarly, the Isle of Dogs is relatively poorly served, with just the Jubilee and one tube station keeping it connected to the rest of London.

The data also appears to expose some other mini transport deserts within central London, such as Holborn Circus – which is home to the bike stand with the largest disparity between the number of hires and the number of docks. 20,984 more, in fact.

Conversely, here’s a table of the stands with significantly more hires than docks. Top of the list by some distance is the enormous bike stand at Waterloo station, which is clearly an incredibly popular jumping off point for commuters. Second and third are more interesting though: Eagle Wharf Road in Hoxton is in a bit of an awkward place. It’s blocked on one side by the canal, it isn’t particularly close to any main roads that might have more regular buses passing through - so it’s easy to imagine why taking a bike is popular.

Looking at the absolute number of hires and docking is interesting too - if only to reveal something fairly amazing. According to this data at least, two bike stands - Queen Street, Bank and Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch - had an almost perfectly balanced number of hires and docks, despite the thousands of individual circumstances and decisions that go into bike usage over the course of the year.

Looking at the data though, we also have to be careful not to do what stats nerds call “overfitting” - over-interpreting the data because it matches up with the story we want to tell. For example, here’s a list of the 22 least used bike stands, combining both docking and hire data. You’ll see why we did a top 22 - because two bike stands were out of action for the entire financial year.

What’s striking is that many of the results are in Stockwell and Brixton, which are both poorer parts of inner London - and one criticism of cycle hire all along has been that it is mostly used by middle class professionals, so they’re really just toys for the rich. This data would seem to suggest that too… if we didn’t know that the reason is more likely to be that the Brixton/Stockwell extension was only launched in February 2018 - so the stands simply likely hadn't been live for very long.

And finally, for completeness here’s a rundown of the most popular bike stands by combined activity.

Why not have a click around the map and see what you can learn? And then tweet TfL and tell them to keep expanding please.

James O’Malley is a freelance nerd and tweets as @Psythor .