With winter in full swing, there has been a slow take-up for nextbike, the‘Boris Bikes’ style scheme set up by the West Midlands Combined Authority.
Rows of bikes have sprung up in areas of Wolverhampton, available to rent for as little as 50p for half an hour.
The idea is to eventually have bikes available throughout the region, creating a culture in which it will be second nature to hop on a rented bike.
Where can I hire a bike?
Outside the Civic Centre, at St Peter’s Square
Wolverhampton Market, in Cleveland Street
Outside Sainsbury’s superstore on the Ring Road
St John’s Retail Park, on the Ring Road
The Way Youth Zone, on the Penn Road island.
At the moment there are 25 bikes for hire, but there are plans to extend the scheme to feature 5,000 bikes, with stations in Dudley, Birmingham, Walsall and Sandwell. And with spring around the corner, those behind the scheme insist it is here to stay.
The plans are a partnership between TfWM and a number of councils across Wolverhampton, Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall, as well as the wider West Midlands.
It is being delivered by global bike share group nextbike.
WATCH: How will a novice take to Wolverhampton’s new public bicycle network?
A man in his 60s fixes his gaze on me as I cycle past the bus stop outside Beatties.
“You okay mate, you struggling a bit?” he shouts.
The cycling fraternity should really hire me as their PR man. While the Lycra-wearing, red-light dodging pavement warriors only give responsible cyclists a bad name, my introduction to two-wheeled transport just elicits a gentle shake of the head. Or, if I’m really lucky, a patronising smile of pity. I’m improving relations no end.
I’m one of the first customers of nextbike, Wolverhampton’s ‘Boris Bikes’-style scheme, instigated by the West Midlands Combined Authority. The project has seen the installation of five ‘bike stations’ across the city, where people can hire bikes for as little as 50p per half-hour. It seems we’re all cyclists now.
If you’re technically minded, you can book your bike via a phone app. If you’re me, you don’t really know what that means, so you end up standing at the side of the ring road speaking very loudly to staff in a call centre.
Once you have registered and given your bank details, you are asked for the bike’s registration number which is on a keypad at the back – don’t do what I did, and give them the number of the bike station, or you could end up paying for a bike that doesn’t exist. You are then given a security code to insert into a keypad on the back of the bike, which allows you to remove it from the rack. You are then free to ride it wherever you want, before returning it to any bike station in the city, where you will be charged accordingly.
In one fell swoop, Wolverhampton is your oyster.
At the moment there are 25 bikes for hire, but there are plans to extend the scheme to feature 5,000 bikes, with stations in Dudley, Birmingham, Walsall and Sandwell.
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One unforeseen consequence, though, could be an explosion in the number of cyclists just like me – inexperienced, incompetent and nervous. In truth, I’m far too slow to cause any real harm, but I certainly attracted a fair amount of attention as I navigated my way around the city.
Beginning on the cycle lane outside Sainsbury’s, two passing shoppers stop in their tracks to watch, in the same way that doting grandparents might watch a child riding without stabilisers for the first time.
“It’s a work of art,” says a man watching me half walking, half riding my way towards Peel Street. Progress is reasonably brisk along Pitt Street, past where the old market used to be, but things start to get a bit hairy as we approach the roadworks in Worcester Street, where I am overtaken by a stream of cars.
Mounting and dismounting – something I find myself doing quite a lot – proves a challenge, on one occasion almost doing myself a very painful injury as I catch my sensitive area on the electronic gubbins at the back.
Determined not to lower myself to the level of the red-light jumpers, I patiently wait at the traffic signals before turning into Cleveland Street. I’m not entirely sure the driver behind appreciates my patience, though, as I struggle to regain my balance when the lights turn green.
Am I allowed to ride in the bus lanes? I assume that I must be, although it doesn’t seem to be a terribly good idea. And then there is the 20ft cycle path outside Wilko’s. By the time I’m moving in a straight line, it’s time to get off. Confusing doesn’t cover it.
One thing you quickly become aware of as a cyclist is the lack of a rear-view mirror, meaning you have to crane your neck if you want to know what is behind.
I was expecting the ride up Darlington Street to be something of an uphill struggle — Wolverhampton does mean ‘Wulfrun’s High Town’ after all. But in a low gear, it is surprisingly light work – until a bus begins to overtake. Losing my nerve, I splutter to a stop in the gutter and let the bus pass.
Remounting, and continuing up the hill, I’m back in business again – until said bus pulls over to stop. I turn round to see another one approaching from behind. Typical, you wait all day for a bus, and then two of them turn up at once.
There is no doubt the bikes have been a success in London, being used for around eight million miles a year. The West Midlands obviously does not have the same tourist pull, but there does seem to be a lot of interest already.
Half of the 10 bikes outside Sainsbury’s were already in use by the time we turned up, and as I returned my bike – carefully following the return procedure to ensure I incurred no further charges – there were five people looking to try the remaining ones out.
Let’s hope they are more skilled on the roads than I am.