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Boris Bikes vs Voi scooters and Brompton folding bikes - and the winner is... - Birmingham Live

Boris Bikes vs Voi scooters and Brompton folding bikes – and the winner is… – Birmingham Live

We all want to get from A to B, breathe clean air and have fun at the same time without transport costing a fortune.

Now that the West Midlands Cycle Hire scheme has arrived in Birmingham, we’re putting the three main alternatives to the car to the ultimate test to see which form of “active travel” is the best.

Is the new “Boris Bike” more than a match for the Brompton folding bicycle which was here first?

Or is the year-long Voi e-scooter trial going to beat them both with its top speed of 15mph?

With a quarter of all “non-compliant” motorists in Birmingham facing an £8 daily charge to enter the new Clean Air Zone, we’ve pitted all three “micromobility” alternatives together for ease of use, fun, practicality, safety, value and more.

As a teaser, can you guess which of the three options displayed its pricing structure after an eight-second search of its website – while one of them still hadn’t revealed anything after two minutes of fruitless searching?

So, strap on your helmet and come along with us for the ride.

Contenders, ready…

West Midlands Cycle Hire, a Brompton folding bicycle and Voi e-scooters go head-to-head in our test to see which is the best

How they line up

We are listing the runners and riders in the order that they first appeared on the city’s streets, so take a bow if you’ve already noticed that also means alphabetical order, too!

Lane 1: The Brompton Folding Bicycle

Chances are you’ve never noticed the cages in which these bikes are stored – but you’ll find them on New Street (close to the Apple store), Moor Street Queensway (opposite the rear of Primark), Colmore Row (opposite Snow Hill Railway Station), Brindleyplace (corner of Pret A Manger) and Aston University, too.

Lane 2: Voi e-scooters

They are on a year-long trial until September and have made headlines for everything from being dumped in canals, abandoned across pavements and for knocking people over or injuring them. But people seem to love riding them…

Lane 3: West Midlands Cycle Hire (WMCH)

These new bikes are made in Stratford-upon-Avon and have been unleashed across the West Midlands region this spring with West Bromwich ready to join the likes of Coventry, Wolverhampton, Stourbridge, Walsall, Sutton Coldfield, Solihull and now Birmingham on the starting grid.

Size and scale: a folding Brompton bicycle next to seats on New Street

Size and scale: a folding Brompton bicycle next to seats on New Street

1. Visual appeal

Which mode of transport are you going to feel ‘cool’ on – and not just because Birmingham’s weather means there’s generally a 50-50 chance of rain on any given day and the city’s tall buildings create wind canyons?

The Brompton unfolds like a metal Origami trick, but its wheels are relatively small. +++

The Voi comes in a coral colour only. +++

The WMCH bike is a more conventional bicycle than the Brompton and it’s cleverly unisex (assuming that’s a permissible term these days). It certainly looks like it does what it promises. ++++

Signing up with Beryl app ready to unlock a bike is as easy as using the 1-2-3 gears

Signing up with Beryl app ready to unlock a bike is as easy as using the 1-2-3 gears

2. Signing up

In order to get going on one of these machines you have to sign up to use it.

Registering with Brompton was surprisingly fiddly and I ended up having to call a real (and very helpful) person to sort the problem I had. The company has just announced improvements to its app which they say now has ‘elevated user experience design and improved ID recognition’. ++

The Voi has so many instructions you can almost understand why so many are ridden by two people at once and/or on pavements – when neither scenario is permitted. +++

West Midlands Cycle Hire’s app Beryl is delightfully easy to use and its website is a model of modern clarity. A list of docking stations would be handy to go with the zoom-in maps which are harder to use ‘in the field’. +++++

A folded Brompton bicycle coming out of its locker on Moor Street Queensway

A folded Brompton bicycle coming out of its locker on Moor Street Queensway

3. Unlocking

Retrieving your Brompton from its cage is a bit of a bind, rather like buying something from Ikea and having to build it before you can use it.

If it’s in an upper locker be careful about the awkward weight or you could put your back out before you have even unfolded it. ++

Voi – half the time you will just have to climb aboard one from a local pavement. They are, quite literally, all over the place. +++

West Midlands Cycle Hire bikes are more freely available than the Bromptons, less so than Voi. But once you have found one, its Beryl app is a breeze – simply type in the numbers from the handlebar of the bike you have chosen. Pull it out of its docking station and away you go… +++++

Graham Young signals a right-hand turn on Station Road in Solihull to head back to the docking station base

Graham Young signals a right-hand turn on Station Road in Solihull to head back to the docking station base

4. Riding fun

This is a key element because nothing in life is ever worth doing it ain’t fun.

Here, the Brompton comes into its own because once you are pleased with yourself for setting it up, it’s a joy to ride and you can even be 6ft 6in to still be able to ride it with a degree of comfort. ++++

Rather like a pair of platform boots, the Voi is great for adding about five inches to your height. This means it might be the first time you’ve had the chance to go down New Street feeling six feet tall.

But when you can do 15mph with those tiny wheels, you are more likely to come a cropper on the city’s potholed roads if you obey the clear instruction not to ride on the pavement. +++

The WMCH bike isn’t built for speed or wheelies. It’s a safe all-rounder that’s as well designed as an egg. ++++

A man sets off on a Voi e-scooter after chosing one from a selection parked on the pavement outside of Grand Central / New Street Station

A man sets off on a Voi e-scooter after chosing one from a selection parked on the pavement outside of Grand Central / New Street Station

5. Tales of the unexpected

Brompton – it’s dead easy to unfold this bike, but trying to remember how to fold it back up again at the end of your ride could mean real frustration if, like me, you were then wondering if you a) be hit by a downpour and b) would miss your train home.

Lifting it up into a higher berth might also be tricky to the point that you will end up with dirtier hands compared with users of the two rival modes.

But, once hired, you can keep it with you and wherever you got, for days on end if you so wish. +++

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Voi – one scooter. Two wheels. Hop on and go, right? Yes, but… try lifting one and you will realise just how dangerous they could be if you don’t ride correctly.

You will still need to familiarise yourself with how to ride it well (the new models even have flashing indicators). If you see a rider with both feet pointing forwards instead of at a 45-degree angle you will know they either haven’t had instruction or read the instructions.

Most of the time it appears you can leave a Voi just about anywhere. Although the company is trying to combat this with the use of fines, riders seem to dump them anywhere they like anyway. Anecdotal evidence so far suggests a Voi rider is more likely to misuse his vehicle than users of the two bicycles.

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If you really care about the environment do you want to be using a lithium-ion battery, the mining for which is said to damage the environment in developing countries?

On the plus side, did you know the newer Voi, models are also used to measure air pollution and that Voi can create maps from the data to show where users mostly go? The company even has its own brand of folding helmet, too. +++

WMCH – the bigger wheels on its bikes mean it’s easily the most pothole-friendly of the three options. But, as I found the hard way on a bend in Solihull, you won’t be able to afford to take Birmingham’s road surfaces for granted.

But of the two bicycles, the WMCH model is far, far easier to park than the Brompton. Just push it back into a homing device, make sure it clicks and that’s it – your charging period is instantly over and the next user can retrieve it safely. +++++

A Voi rider passing through the new anti-terror barrier at the top of New Street next to Victoria Square and Birmingham City Council House on October 18, 2020

A Voi rider passing through the new anti-terror barrier at the top of New Street next to Victoria Square and Birmingham City Council House on October 18, 2020

6. Price

Birmingham city centre isn’t very big at all – from its middle you can get anywhere in 15 minutes or walk from one side to the other in 30 minutes.

As walking briskly is the best form of exercise, the idea that you need two wheels to make you fitter is not strictly true.

And, of course, walking is free once you’ve hidden the cost of your shoes in an accountant’s brackets.

Brompton cost +++

As with its app, Brompton has made changes since my test – and prices have gone up.

You still need to pay one of two membership fees before you can even have just one ride.

Leisure membership is now being called ‘Occasional’ – the annual fee is still £5 but the cost of daily hire has gone up to £10 (or £10.65 including reduced-excess insurance (£100 instead of £650 if the bike is stolen while you are using it). The previous cost was £6.50.

Users with ‘Frequent membership’ pay £20 to sign up, then £5 per 24-hour hire or £5.65 with reduced-excess cover. (The previous cost was £25 membership and £3.50 per day to hire).

If you sign up to have use of your ‘own’ bike for a year, the cost of a subscription will be £45 per month including insurance for an ML3 model from the rental fleet’.

The policy covers accidental damage and theft, which strictly applies to the insurer only and not a third party.

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To have a flexi package, the cost is £60 for 30 days (with the promise of “treats if you stick around”).

The cheapest Brompton model to buy is £850.

But most models start from £1,250 (including the subscription version) and £1,350 rising to more than £3,000 for top-of-the-range e-bikes.

From clicking on the Brompton website it took me 11 seconds to find out the pricing structure for hiring.

Voi price ++

Voi is not cheap, which perhaps explains why I had still not found the prices after two minutes of searching its website!

To save you the trouble: ad hoc users pay £1 to unlock the scooter and then 20p per minute, or £13 per hour equivalent.

The monthly cost of a Voi subscription is £40 per month (maximum 45-minute ride per scooter hire) or £10 per day.

To see how that compares with buses, trains, cars and taxix, click here

The company aims to create ’15-minute’ cities but walking is far healthier, cheaper and, if you take a brolly, it will be drier, too.

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WMCH price +++++

West Midlands Cycle Hire bicycles – the region’s equivalent of ‘Boris Bikes’ – cost £1 to unlock via the Beryl app.

Riding then costs 5p per minute after that, equivalent to £2.50 for half an hour or £4.50 for an hour – roughly a third of the Voi price because you supply all of the energy via your legs.

From clicking on its website, it took me just eight seconds to find the cost of hire.

West Midlands Cycle Hire bikes in Station Road, Solihull

West Midlands Cycle Hire bikes in Station Road, Solihull

Final verdict

Three modes of transport, six categories – so how did our contenders fare overall?

Here are the marks:

Brompton 17/30

Voi 17/30

West Midlands Cycle Hire 28/30

The result is a clear win for WMCH with its ability to provide a comfortable ride at a fair price – its bikes are delightfully simple to lock and unlock so you can never worry about your own bike being stolen again. They are as simple and clear to use as the company’s website and Beryl App. Because larger wheels make it feel safer, you can relax more.

Apart from having just announced higher prices, Brompton is let down by having to fold and unfold the machine – you might get dirty hands- and then, in order to keep it safe, you’ve got to lug it with you if you are not riding it. At peak times and with great weather, it might be harder for two of you to hire one each from the same ‘station’ making a day out less fun.

As for Voi, it shares joint second place with Brompton by earning a ‘3’ in every test bar its surprisingly eye-watering price. Given that it is a lot of fun to ride it might have stolen second place outright by earning a fourth star in this category.

But, if you are riding on the road in relative darkness and especially if it’s also wet, you will be half expecting to be turfed off your scooter by one of the city’s proliferaton of potholes.

While you are told not to ride on a pavement, there are plenty of city roads I would not feel safe riding a scooter on either.

One such shocker I discovered just this week is Bournville Lane past the Cadbury factory.

Yikes!