London: Rent a bike for nearly nothing

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Sean O'Neill
A Boris bike.

As of late last week, visitors to London can now rent bicycles in the city center for as little as one pound for a 30-minute ride. Since July, about 5,000 so-called "Boris bikes" (named after the mayor) have been kept in automated racks posted throughout the city.

Until now, only local residents were allowed use the two-wheelers. But as of Thursday, you can use your American credit card to unlock a bike, paying a small access fee and an hourly fee. The first half-hour is free.

I tested out the service today, walking up to a kiosk that stood next to a flock of the blue bikes, all painted in the prominent Barclay's bank logos.I used the kiosk's touch screen to request a 24-hour pass. I inserted my American credit card, and £1 was deducted, plus a currency exchange fee for my issuing bank. I then was asked to re-insert my card to finalize the transaction, and this took about 40 seconds. I was given a slip of paper with a code on it. I walked over to the first bike that looked good to me—the one already adjusted to a decent seat height—and punched in the code, unlocking a three-speed.

I biked around for less than a half hour before I re-docked the bike at a different station. After shopping for Christmas cards, I went to a kiosk, and re-entered my credit card. It recognized that I still had many hours left on this pass, and I received a new code, and unlocked a new bike. Because I only biked for less than 20 minutes, I wasn't hit with another charge.

Unlike in many U.S. cities, there are no helmet laws in London. I felt relatively safe riding around, as the traffic congestion charge has reduced the amount of traffic in downtown London.

Finding a bike station is easy. There are 352 docking stations scattered in the city's heart. Print out a free map for routes and bike paths online or pick up a copy from a tourist official. (One catch: You have to be at least 14 years old to ride one of these bikes, and at least 18 to rent one for casual use.) tfl.gov.uk/barclayscyclehire

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