It took a man born in New York, a few lessons from Montreal and 6,000 bicycles built in Quebec to help rescue London from its reputation as one of Europe's nastiest cities for cycling.
When London's bike-hire scheme launches at the end of this month, its architects will have learned from the growing pains of other cities' rental programs - how not to have all your bikes left at the bottom of hills, for example, a problem that plagues Paris.
But London's scheme owes its main debt to the Bixi bike-rental model in Montreal. And it has other roots in Canada: All 6,000 of London's bikes will be built at Devinci Cycles in Bagotville, Que., which also made the bikes for Montreal.
"In Montreal, we were impressed with the quality of the bikes, and people's passion for using them. The system was very well-managed," said Kulveer Ranger, transport adviser to Boris Johnson, the cycling-mad, New York-born mayor of London. Mr. Ranger and his team visited Canada last year to check out the scheme and learned (carefully) to ride on the right-hand side of the street.
"There was a sense of ownership of the bikes that people in Montreal have, and that's exactly the kind of thing we want in London, so that Londoners feel that these are their bikes and they look after them."
Vandalizing them isn't going to be easy, because the heavy three-speed Devinci cycles are built like two-wheeled tanks.
"It's not the sexiest bike in the world," Mr. Ranger said, "but it does have a certain elegance." It also has a certain advertising value: The name of Barclays, the bank that has given £25-million in sponsorship, appears in three places.
Félix Gauthier, the president of Devinci, came up with 43 modifications for the London bikes: The lights stay on for two minutes after pedalling stops (so the bike will be illuminated for the duration of a London traffic light), and there are improved mudguards to deal with wet weather. The front-mounted baskets are small and open-sided to discourage joyriding.
For tourists not used to riding on the left side of the road, a sign on the handlebars warns: "Do not undertake (i.e., pass) on the left." Unlike Paris's rent-a-bikes - and perhaps in defiance of the 23,000 bicycles stolen in London in the past year - these will have no locks, except at their docking stations. But as the bikes weigh 23 kilograms, only the most determined mischief-maker is going to throw one in the Thames.
Riders will have to pay an access fee of £1 a day. After that, they'll be charged by the hour, with the scheme's designers hoping most journeys will be short: under 30 minutes is free, but a full 24 hours with a bike will cost £50. (Registered Londoners can hire the bikes from July 30, but it will be the beginning of September before tourists will have access to the scheme.)
The £140-million Barclays Cycle Hire was the brainchild of the previous mayor, Ken Livingston, but has been championed by his successor. An avid cyclist, Mr. Johnson is a familiar figure on London's roads, and once even chased a couple of muggers on his bike.
One of the many hurdles to Mr. Johnson's two-wheeled revolution - which also includes bike "superhighways" and additional cycling police officers - came when his local council refused to put a docking station on the street where the mayor lives (there will be 400 such stations located in central London.)
A series of other small bumps had to be overcome: There was some grumbling that the bikes were manufactured in Canada, and not Britain, and one person has mounted (and lost) a legal challenge against a docking station in the wealthy neighbourhood of Mayfair.
London, with its one-way traffic systems, crowded roads and extra-long bendy buses, is often thought of as a cyclist's nightmare, but these new measures might change that reputation, said Tom Bogdanowicz of the London Cycling Campaign.
"London had to become more cycle friendly, or it risked grinding to a halt. There simply isn't room for more cars on the road.''
Other bike-hire schemes have used savvy marketing and catchy names to make cycling appealing.
- Barclays Cycle Hire, as the bike-hire program is officially known in London, seems in need of an affectionate moniker. The London Wheel? The Big Ben?
- Vélib - a combination of vélo (bicycle) and liberté (freedom) - is the name Parisians have given to their system. It follows on the heels of Vélo'v, in Lyon, and Vélopop, in Avignon.
- ByCyklen, or City Bikes, was launched in Copenhagen in 1995, the first of this bike-sharing generation. Bicing in Barcelona, Spain; Bike Mi in Milan, Italy.
- Bixi was launched in Montreal in the spring of 2009. Toronto residents can sign up next week for Bixi Toronto with the official start in May, 2011.
- ZotWheels, the first automated bike-sharing program in California and the second at a U.S. university, won a green leadership award for the University of California Irvine campus.
- In the Mediterranean, Nicosia is working on a free public bicycle system for Cyprus.
- In Australia, the first bike-share program has begun in Melbourne with Brisbane to follow in September.
- In China, Beijing wants its bikes back. Once commonplace images of thousands of cyclists have been replaced by traffic jams as the middle class embraces the car. Both Beijing and Shanghai officials are pushing bicycle-sharing programs.