Ever since the launch of London's Barclays Cycle Hire scheme (known to many simply as Boris Bikes), iPhone owners using the service have been on a quest to find the perfect companion app. Almost a year ago, the Mayor of London's Transport advisor Lulveer Ranger asked developers to play around with the TfL API to create awesome apps and sure enough, there are many options on the App Store. But are they all worth downloading?
With the return of the good weather to the capital, the opening of the Barclay's cycles to non-members and almost a year working on those apps, its time to revisit this recurring thought: Which is the best iPhone app for your Boris bike? When I received my member key last August, I downloaded a bunch of free and paid apps to find the ultimate solution. I'm still not 100% with any of the options, so I've decided to test them all and the new ones again.
The wish list
I want an app that tells me how many bikes are available at a certain docking station. The odds are high that there will always be at least a working bike available, but so many stations dotted around my neighbourhood, that shouldn't be a risk I'm willing to take.
Far more crucial than bikes available are the amount of free slots. You don't want to arrive to a destination after 20 minutes pedaling just to find that all of the docks are occupied. I understand that other users might have docked in that time, but once I'm there, I also want to know the closest docking station where I can park my Boris bike. Last but not least, I want to know the best way to get to my destination. This doesn't necessarily mean the fastest car route, but the safest for cyclists, most enjoyable and why not, the less challenging one.
Uses circles to indicate the amount of cycles available and the size of the docking station. Tapping on the station displays the amount of free spaces and the last time of update. The app includes two "Locate me" buttons, with the second one being a zoom in view of your current location.
It comes with a timer and a list of favourite stations. Routes are calculated fast even using generic names for locations while giving the distance (miles only) and estimated time. The paid version removes the iAds.
Unlike most apps, Bixou presents you with a list of the nearest stations and their updated status with docks and bikes available. A red icon gives you an idea of how big the station is and the colour shade warns you of full stations. The paid version also comes with a map view that with the same icons to indicate station status and your favorites. The only downside is the lack of a journey planning tool.
Very similar to Bixou in features, it allows you to rename your favourite stops and save them in groups (can get confusing). You can also customise the map view choosing from eight set of map pins, however, the standard view is the most complete even it it doesn't show spaces available. Overall, a good option if you don't need journey planning.
Initially skeptical about this sponsored app from Yell.com for the lack of features, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it addresses one of my main problems: finding the nearest free dock quickly. I'm not keen on the interface, but it's the only app that finds the closest available space with a single tap.
Despite using iOS native elements, the standard view is simply too crammed with pins. I like the fact that stations with no bikes or spaces are coloured in red and green respectively. Trip planning tends to run into a crash and although you can search using post codes, you must choose a destination from a list if you type a name, which often has a cryptic street name. However, the biggest bummer is the lack of journey plans within the app - it opens the route on Google Maps.
Aesthetically closer to Android apps, this Barclays themed app contains useful information about the scheme, tutorials and other tips. Although some of the directions given in the trip planner are odd and the map names some Tube stops in… Japanese!, it includes maps of the scheme's cycle superhighways, which you might find useful.
The map view uses a cyan glow to indicate that there are several stations in the vicinity. Not as cluttered as others in this aspect, but it can have terrible consequences hiding in that glow your nearest station. The AR view is rather pointless (I'm not a big fan) and I never got the play journey option to work properly.
An animation of stations signs falling on a map of central London and the odd crash trying to show your current location are reasons enough to uninstall the app. Certainly a shame, because the somewhat cryptic way to plan a route is quite clever: Tap on a station and add it to the list, then tap on the destination and calculate the route.
Quite possibly the best looking app of the test, it uses a minimalist UI to display nearby stations. However, it doesn't even get updates on the status for each station, making it just a pretty interactive map of the Barclays scheme.
The Ones to Avoid
The map view distinguishes docks with cycles and those with docks available. Unfortunately, the maps and GPS function take too long to load, making it unusable. Completely not worth your time if you also need a trip planner or any extra function.
As you might expect from its icon, this app is incredibly tacky. It includes some intestine ideas like a list of stations near you, but it crashes so often that its not worth downloading.
When you first launch the app, you are asked to enter your speed and weight in a dialogue box not fit for such long sentences. A good way to showcase the developer hasn't tested this much.
The trip planner works after you type the perfect name of your origin (auto-location missing?) and destination, but the route is normally hidden by the large station icons. It includes a fare timer, calorie count tracker, cycling speed and trip log, but the basics are so clunky I can't recommend it.
Notice some of the apps might fix some of the issues mentioned with future updates, but at the time of the writing this is where they stand. Unfortunately the majority of these apps have close to non-existent support from the developer and haven't received an update in the last year. I haven't covered other paid apps that didn't seem to add anything new to the table and just use the same standard iOS elements Apple provides in its SDK and TfL's public API.
One year later, I'm still underwhelmed by the general quality of these apps and its shows the limited target audience and low budget most developers have. Perhaps next year I'll be able to test Boris Bike app that nails the key aspects. Along with a good station finder/journey planner, I also use the fantastic CycleStreets maps on its standalone free app and the GPS-powered workout system in KunKeeper with the cycling setting. If you have tried these or other Cycle Hire apps and think they deserve a different score.