On the face of it, the Barclays Cycle Hire for London initiative started last July (colloquially, "Boris Bikes") makes a fine test of the viability of Cameron's Big Society.
Although the equivalent public cycle scheme in Paris, the Vélib, has been dubbed a popular success, it's been expensive. Oh, the rental cost for Parisian punters is low enough — far lower than the price of a London rental (and wouldn't it be). But over two years, 9,000 Vélibs have been stolen, turning up as far afield as Romania and Morocco. Another 9,000 have been vandalised, since the sturdy rentals — free for the first half hour — have become a symbol to the alienated suburban poor of the spoilt bourgeoisie. In all, Paris has already replaced two-thirds of its Vélibs. Will Londoners prove more civic-minded?
Well, it's not hard to prove more civic-minded than the French. Nevertheless, after two months in operation, London's public cycle scheme had lost only five bikes to theft. A casual survey of docks in the capital doesn't turn up a host of crumpled wrecks beaten into submission with the crowbar of class resentment — perhaps because Boris Bikes don't symbolise anything yet but mayoral vanity.
The reason the mayor's two-wheeled namesakes haven't turned up in Budapest may be more mundane than civic pride. Renting a Boris Bike requires a credit or debit card, which will be dunned £300 if the bike disappears. Admittedly limiting the bikes' utility, the London version doesn't include a lock; Vélibs come with locks that Parisian bike thieves have easily fiddled. Wresting a bike from a London dock is more of a project.
Moreover, if one looks to London's wider cycling "community" — though if London cyclists constitute a community, then so do lions, hyenas and wildebeest on the veldt — the spirit of the Big Society has been subsumed by Darwinian free-for-all. I've cycled in a range of countries, and nowhere have I encountered a rabble of cyclists so rude, rivalrous, hostile and cavalier about safety. Londoners appear to regard allowing another bike to ride in front of them as tantamount to taking it up the backside with a cricket bat. With so much dignity on the line, it's a race to every traffic light, and even dodgy manoeuvres such as overtaking on the inside are par for the course. Increasingly, the biggest threat to cyclists in this city isn't buses, taxis or lorries, but other cyclists.