The news has come as a disappointment to Disabled Camden residents who have complained about Lime bike riders’ anti-social parking.
The contracts, agreed on 25th April, allow the companies to unleash a combined fleet of 1,600 bikes onto the streets of Camden. To provide parking spaces for the fleets, the Council has built 190 bays, which can hold an estimated 1,500 bikes.
But e-bike parking bays have been in place in Camden for some time already and they are often ignored. I don’t think Camden should have signed the contracts because the companies don’t make sure their bikes are parked properly and nor, in my experience, do they repair stranded or damaged bikes quickly.
I also don’t think they help people’s health because people don’t have to use their legs very much on them and the average journeys people use them for in Camden are only short (1.7km).
The scheme needs to run like the e-scooter scheme, which charges people if they don’t park them back in their bays and take a photo. While Lime continues to operate this badly, the council should call the bikes back in and then start again.
But Camden’s environment councillor, Adam Harrison, has said that the only way the council can make e-bike companies improve their riders’ parking is by signing contracts that hold the companies to account.
Councils have no formal powers over dockless e-bikes. No powers exist to ‘ban’ e-bikes – Adam Harrison.
Councillor Harrison told CDA: “Camden is intending to crack down on bad parking. By placing the bikes’ operation on a contractual footing we will be acquiring the powers the government has long failed to give us.”
He added: “To be very clear, unlike e-scooters (which operate through a TfL contract and because the Department for Transport has permitted trials of them) councils have no formal powers over dockless e-bikes. No powers exist to ‘ban’ e-bikes – they are permitted vehicles on England’s roads.”
Before the new contracts were signed, Camden had a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Lime bikes, which said that Lime would fine any riders parking outside of the dockless parking bays established by Camden or the ‘virtual’ parking bays (areas of pavement where parking bays would be established in future).
According to Councillor Harrison, the MoU was, however, largely toothless.
CDA asked Councillor Harrison if Camden couldn’t stop Lime bikes from operating in the borough by telling them they are not wanted here, refusing to sign agreements with them and not building them parking bays.
In response Councillor Harrison said: “I’m not clear how refusing any engagement with the many hire companies that exist would help. They would just then allow their riders to park on the pavement.”
Disabled people and our organisations are not the only ones to voice concern about the way e-bikes are left on pavements.
James Cleeton, director of Sustrans, a sustainable transport charity, said: “Leaving these bikes on pavements often creates a dangerous obstacle to disabled people which is totally unacceptable. Our public spaces are for us all to share and should be equally accessible to everyone.”
He added: “The Disabled Citizens’ Inquiry we published with Transport for All recommends putting the views and ideas of disabled people at the heart of policy, investment and practice for walking and wheeling.”
The views and ideas of disabled people at the heart of policy, investment and practice for walking and wheeling – James Cleeton, director of Sustrans.
But it’s the lack of involvement of Disabled and other Camden residents in Council’s decision-making on e-bikes that has triggered anger among some people.
CDA member and Gospel Oak activist Mick Farrant said: “Officers signed the contract with Lime BEFORE the debate in full Council. It’s yet another example of officers making decisions without any consultation. Why was this allowed to happen and what is being done about this?”
The council has confirmed with CDA that it committed itself to both contracts on 25th April, three weeks prior to the Culture and Environment Scrutiny meeting about e-bikes on 16th May 2023. Together, the deals are reportedly worth £1 million to the Town Hall.
Park like your Gran is watching
Lime bikes, which is based in Ireland, has also recognised that anti-social parking is a problem in the borough.
In its presentation to the Scrutiny Committee on May 16th 2023, company representatives said: “Lime understands the importance of delivering compliant parking and preventing pavement obstructions in Camden. We have worked with officers to develop and implement a range of parking enforcement tools to better manage user parking.”
The tools include GPS-based Mandatory Parking Zones, end-trip photos and a ‘Park Like your Gran is Watching’ campaign.
But anyone who lives in the borough will know that none of these ideas have worked and since they signed the new contract, there still hasn’t been any improvement in how they are parked.
Farrant told CDA: “I am an electric bike owner and my bike is much used as I have mobility problems, but I doubt many Disabled people hire bikes or scooters and both are left on pavements at great risk to vulnerable people.”
He added: “The present situation in Camden – not just Lime bikes – is totally unregulated. Many are stolen – those being driven with a clicking noise – this needs stopping.”
Green light for green scheme?
E-vehicle hire schemes are seen by the council as a way to achieve the goals in its Camden Transport Strategy, which aims to cut car travel, reduce carbon emissions and pollution and encourage active modes of transport.
The Town Hall believes hire e-bikes and e-scooters help protect the environment and boost people’s health because the people riding them would otherwise have used cars, which cause more air pollution and carbon emissions and do not allow for exercise.
But some Camden residents have questioned how green e-bikes really are.
Local musician and activist Hamish Birchall sent a written statement to the scrutiny committee challenging the council and the e-hire bike companies on the alleged environmental benefits of e-vehicle schemes.
Is prioritising improvement of local air quality above global CO2 reduction. Is it better to save a few lives in London than to save the planet?
One part of the two-page statement said: “We need to see their carbon lifecycle analyses, not just unevidenced green assertions.”
In an email conversation with CDA, Birchall added: “The only question that matters, and that still needs an answer, is whether or not the scheme as a whole, in operation, offsets its total CO2 output or does better than that.”
Birchall’s point is that any improvements in local carbon emissions and air quality achieved through encouraging people to switch from cars to e-vehicles will have no value if it turns out the amount of carbon released by the e-bike companies, on a global level, (through manufacture, export, transport, servicing, battery disposal) is greater than their total carbon savings (achieved by encouraging people to use their cars less often).
Otherwise, he says, the council would be prioritising improvement of local air quality above global CO2 reduction.
“Is it better to save a few lives in London than to save the planet?” he asked.
An article published in the Guardian two years ago supports the idea that bikes and e-bikes are not as green as they may seem, although they have a much smaller carbon footprint than cars.
The problem is that bike companies are connected up to a carbon-intensive global economic system. They deliberately sell bikes that wear out so you have to buy more bikes and rely on polluting transportation, manufacturing and energy systems.
They don’t have clean, green hands.
Only 6% of e-scooter riders in London would otherwise have used cars – Department for Transport’s National Evaluation of e-scooter Trials, Technical Report, December 2022
Birchall also challenged the Town Hall’s claims that e-bike journeys always replace car journeys, citing researching undertaken by the Department for Transport.
The report also states 42% of e-scooter rides had replaced walking trips and 10% had replaced pedal-bike journeys, meaning the availability of the scooters had nudged some people away from more effortful active travel options.
But Sustrans director Cleeton is more optimistic about green benefits of e-bikes.
He said: “A University of Leeds study found that e-bikes, if used to replace car travel, have the capability to cut car carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in England by up to 50% (about 30 million tonnes per year).
Cleeton added: “As well as reducing CO2 levels, e-bike use has other benefits including improving local air quality and health.”
The Leeds study figures, however, are premised upon people making a ‘radical change in travel behaviour’ by replacing ‘as many car journeys as they are able to’ with e-bike trips. There is, of course, no guarantee that people will engage in such drastic behaviour shifts.
I sent an email to Lime asking them to comment on these issues but they didn’t answer me.