At about 7am each morning, Ed Wright arrives for his shift as one of Lime’s fleet of van drivers in Bermondsey, south London. At 64, he remains lithe and lively, cycling the seven miles from his Streatham home to Lime’s London warehouse on an ebike. This comes in handy when your job is to heave wounded and lost ebikes found across the capital into your van and replace them with their recently repaired comrades. Sometimes he just switches the batteries.
Lime is to ebike rental as Uber is to taxi service. Founded in San Francisco in 2017, it now operates in more than 230 cities around the world. Of the 30,000 or so rental bikes currently estimated to be on London’s streets, Lime has more than any other company – not just dwarfing fellow ebike companies Human Forest and Tier, but, according to estimates, recently overtaking Santander’s fleet of 12,000 (formerly known as Boris bikes), though Lime does not release figures.
Yet as Lime’s ebike service has grown, so have the problems associated with it. Its cycles are left strewn across pavements. Bikes have fallen on to parked cars, causing hundreds of pounds’ worth of damage. One was photographed in a tree. The firm’s e-scooter trial in 10 London boroughs is not making the situation better.
As we aim for more carbon-neutral travel – the government has set a target for half of all journeys in towns and cities to be walked or cycled by 2030 – the battle over Lime bikes has become a curiously existential one. In the UK it launched in Derby and Nottingham last year (they are also in Manchester and Milton Keynes), providing more opportunities to cycle than ever before. Britons have taken 12m trips on them and cycled a collective 18.5m miles – enough to travel to the moon and back 40 times. And yet, the problem has become obvious: the easier it has become to ride, the harder it has become to walk. In London, Lime boasts, 97% of the population are never more than two minutes from a Lime bike. But on the other hand: you are never more than two minutes from a Lime bike.
Wright loads his van with about 15 fixed bikes, 25 charged batteries and a grappling hook to retrieve those thrown into canals. He has seen his fair share of curious cases. The adventurous cyclist who left one in Enfield, far outside Lime’s catchment area. The people who take them on trains, with Lime HQ watching as their signal hits 100mph. When one is dumped in a canal, its GPS signal will still report its location, but often Wright can’t see it in the water. “It really is like fishing,” he says. Once, he had to retrieve a bike left beside the BMX track in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. It was hidden in bushes, presumably so whoever had rented it could put it through its paces again the next day. He had to walk it over the jumps on the track to get it out (“It was a real hassle”). This, he points out, is not a Lime bike’s intended use.
Our first stop is Bermondsey Spa Gardens, to tidy up a parking bay of e-scooters. They have not been parked so much as kerplunked – the scooters are spread haphazardly over a 20ft radius, half of them fallen to the floor. Wright diligently picks each one up, many from rivals Voi and Dott, lines them neatly in a row, and checks if the Lime scooters need a new battery. This very act of tidying can sometimes cause its own problems, as the scooter become, Wright notes, more attractive to push over. “Sometimes the school kids find the domino effect quite amusing.”
London’s scooters are regulated by Transport for London, which controls where they can be used and parked. For bike rental companies, no such legislation exists. This is where the problems began. When Lime launched five years ago, bikes could be left almost anywhere. You rented a bike via an app, cycled to your destination, and uploaded a picture of your parking spot. As long as the bike was not left in the middle of the road, or across a pavement, or indeed up an oak tree, you were good. If it was, a warning, followed by a £2 fine if you did it again. At Lime HQ, a team of 20 people did nothing but look at pictures of parked bikes all day. (“It was an unenviable job,” says Lime publicist Ellie Bird. It’s now done using AI.)
In the past year, individual London boroughs have stepped in to fill the regulatory void, with almost half (15 of the 32) having signed contracts with Lime. The result is rather haphazard. Cycle into Camden and you must park in one of 200 defined locations (when you see a Lime bike gathering, this is why). Cycle to Southwark, and almost anywhere still goes (the Lime term is “free-floating parking”).
We stop at a Lime bike parking bay in Great Dover Street. Unlike Santander cycles – which must be “docked and locked”, slotted into a stand – Lime bike bays are “virtual”, and often on the pavement. The row is neat – domino effect neat – but even here Lime has its critics.
Avoiding badly parked bikes can be difficult for the able-bodied (Westminster councillor Patrick Lilley: “I was on my way to the Soho Society AGM looking at my phone and walked straight into one. I told them I’d been assaulted!”). But for blind and partially sighted people, even neat rows of bikes on pavements are accidents waiting to happen. Sarah Gayton of the National Federation of the Blind says a row of fallen Lime bikes was recently obstructing the way out of the Royal Courts of Justice. Her organisation had just won a case regarding tactile paving guidance – a victory made slightly moot when a bike is on top of it.
Lime’s chief executive, Wayne Ting, tells me people constantly tag him in furious social media posts about his bikes. This is not hard to believe. “They’re so angry!” he says. “There’s an ebike outside my house – come pick it up!” But as he looks at each picture, he says, his eye is always drawn to the background: in every one, a row of cars as far as the frame allows.
“And so we do have a problem,” he says. “We do have something littered on every street. And it’s not the overabundance of ebikes.”
If you want to pinpoint exactly when Lime cemented itself as the largest “micromobility” company in the world, there are some pointers. The half billion total journeys worldwide it logged in November. The Twitter (now X) accounts devoted to it. The fact a corporation has become a verb (at Lime HQ, this is company policy – you don’t ride it, you Lime it). The fact a bike and scooter outfit now has its own clothing line (an eco-conscious collaboration with designer Lydia Bolton – any colour as long as it’s lime). That Harry Styles and James Corden were snapped riding Lime bikes together in north London in September did not hurt. Lime saw a noticeable surge from that one (it insists it was not a stunt).
But it was promotion of a more unexpected variety that really put it over the top. People started stealing its bikes. After TikTok videos went viral in June showing the Lime bike “push method” – essentially pushing a Lime bike to get it moving, then cycling without paying – a carbon-neutral crime spree was born. Hacked bikes, says Lime, account for just 5% of trips but 40% of complaints. So many people started cycling hacked Lime bikes that Time Out called their distinctive sound – a “click-clack” caused by the half-engaged locking system – “London’s summer soundtrack”. Lime’s tracking data showed the culprits were almost exclusively children travelling to and from school.
Some believed the conspiracy theory that it was all a marketing campaign (“I’m convinced of it!” says Lilley). But it also caused Lime to be noticed for all the wrong reasons. Free from the prospect of fines, hacked Lime bikes started truly being left everywhere. And as a hacked bike needed another push-start whenever it stopped, they rarely did. “It really incentivised dangerous riding,” says professional cyclist Tobi Dahlhaus, who says he often saw hacked bikes click-clacking through red lights, or children riding them on pavements, or the wrong way down one-way streets.
Yet Dahlhaus is, mostly, a fan. He loves hopping on a Lime bike at the weekend if he is meeting a friend. For his part, he chose a rather safer method of riding a Lime bike at speed by trying for the “Lime bike world record” around Richmond Park, on a noted route for serious cyclists. He got some funny looks – partly because he did it in full Lycra – though he managed a top speed of 50km/h, not bad considering Lime’s battery assist turns off above 25km/h.
At Lime’s cavernous south London warehouse, overlooked by Millwall’s Den stadium, Lime’s director of policy, Hal Stevenson, walks me through its various repair stations. Each bike typically lasts no more than five years. Graffiti is common, but as long as it’s not offensive, he says, a graffitied bike will be sent back out. One simply has “Lime” spray-painted on it.
While Lime does not want its bikes to be stolen, Stevenson says the hacking “did demonstrate the level of demand for cycling in London”. It took the firm three months to determine the scale of the problem and another six to fix it. A modification of every bike in its fleet finished in October, meaning the cycling crimewave is technically over, though not everyone agrees. (“I heard one clicking two days ago,” says Camden councillor Awale Olad.) Still, as Stevenson also notes, the battery did not operate on hacked journeys, so it at least meant the hackers got a good workout.
Nickie Aiken, the Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, says the biggest issue in her mailbox – beating the war in Ukraine or immigration – is Lime bikes. “People stop me in the street,” she says, “people bring it up in meetings.”
Like most people I speak to, Aiken wants more people to cycle. But also like most people I speak to, the conversation ends with her sending me pictures of badly parked Lime bikes. Aiken is the architect of the pedicabs bill making its way through the House of Lords, which would see London’s unlicensed pedicab drivers regulated by Transport for London. At the second reading, she says: “A lot of lords did bring (cycle hire companies) up. They’d say: what about ebikes? But the pedicabs bill is not the vehicle, if you excuse the pun, for ebike regulation.” Still, she adds, “there absolutely needs to be some”.
In the meantime, she wants fines to be hugely increased. Under Westminster’s deal with Lime, users are charged £10, after an initial warning, for bad parking, rather than £2. But she thinks this doesn’t even touch the sides. “Ten pounds – for goodness sake. That’s nothing. That’s a pint. It should be £50 or £100, and it should go up every time you get caught.” Lime’s standard scale currently sees users fined £10 only for the fourth offence (by the fifth they get a £20 fine and are banned).
Yet when I contacted Lime to confirm how this worked in Westminster – did it keep going up from £10? What did it go up to? – it refused to say. A week of incredibly dull emails later, it emerged it was not following the agreement. It was charging users £2, as it was everywhere else – and this only went up to £10 on the third offence. Lime later put this down to a “misunderstanding” and said it would “align with Westminster’s expectations” from now on.
For many, this sums up Lime’s unique status: even breaking key parts of a contract comes with minimal consequences. “Lime should be ashamed,” Aiken says later. “Their bikes are causing havoc on the streets and pavements of Westminster. Their fines strategy is pathetic. Westminster council needs to get a serious grip of the situation and insist on tougher fines or confiscate the bikes and fine Lime directly.”
When striking their individual deals with Lime, most central London boroughs opted for “mandatory parking”, meaning users were required to park in either newly created bays defined by white lines on the pavement or “virtual bays”, which amounts to parking around existing bike stands. Both are shown as equally valid destinations on Lime’s app. Lime says for mandatory parking to work, a bay should be no more than a five-minute walk away, or that there should be about 25 of them per square kilometre, because otherwise people will not use them. It requires a lot of space. In Westminster alone, Labour councillor Paul Dimoldenberg says, it created 350 new parking bays, converting 150 former car parking spaces. Though as the GPS is only accurate to within a few metres, even these can sometimes feel more like suggestions.
Along with van drivers such as Wright, Lime employs a team of cyclists, known as patrollers, as a rapid response unit for bikes in particularly hazardous spots. “We’re the first line of defence,” says Ben Burley-Baker, 25, who started as a Lime cyclist while at university. Storms, he says, can cause particularly terrible days, with bikes blown on their sides, but London Pride can be just as bad: “Every person in central London is using a Lime bike, it’s chaotic.”
But faced with endless complaints from residents, local councils have started to take action of their own, with many setting up dedicated reporting tools on their websites, seizing bikes using the Highways Act 1980. “It gives us the power to remove obstructions,” says Dimoldenberg. “We wanted to make it clear to the operators that this would not be tolerated.”
There remains a feeling that Lime could be doing more when it comes to maintaining the service it already runs. That for all the obvious progress in making green travel accessible for everyone – the average Lime rider, for instance, is 33; one in five London users had never used a bike in town before – it’s the product itself that’s making our environment unfriendly. “My concern is they’re more than happy to invest in apps and bikes, but they need to invest more to make it work properly,” says Dimoldenberg, who thinks Lime needs to double the number of people it has on call. (It has about 250 van drivers and cyclists in London, and responded to the claim of understaffing by saying it had made “significant investments” including “team expansion”.)
Lime also takes no responsibility for parked bikes falling on cars and causing damage, sometimes totalling hundreds of pounds. Lime tells complainants the responsibility falls to the person who parked it – but will not tell them whom that person was. It’s not unheard of for billion-dollar Silicon Valley companies to preach about making the world better while accepting none of the responsibility for the way in which they make it worse. “It’s become accepted among the tech community,” says Olad. “Just as you see with the UberEats and Deliveroo drivers who run you down on the pavement – that they can abuse the public realm for their own financial gains. They need to be dealt with.” In response, Lime says: “We are meeting the operational requirements set out in our new contract and reinvesting revenue into the management and expansion of the service.”
There was an attempt by London Councils – a cross-party organisation that represents all London borough councils and the City of London – to create legislation for ebike firms that would have given councils the power to fine operators and force them to share their data. The only catch: all of them had to sign up. Havering and Hackney declined. Hackney unveiled its own deal with Lime soon after. “The London Councils plan was just very sensible, common sense,” says Lilley. “They saw everything that was coming down the line. And it just got ruined by one or two local authorities not taking part.”
Rival company Dott pulled out of the London market in September last year, sending its bikes to Paris and Rome instead, with chief executive Henri Moissinac calling the patchwork regulation in London “totally out of control”. The final straw, he said, occurred when it failed to get a licence to operate in Camden. The motor of a Dott bike would cut out when a rider crossed borough boundaries, infuriating users.
I later speak to a Derby resident – cycling enthusiast Nick Booth, 60 – to see how the Lime scheme, which launched earlier this year, has gone down there. “Well, I mostly see them left in the middle of the park,” he says. “And lying on the side of the road, outside houses. There are as many outside the parking docks as in them.”
The promise of ebike rentals is not just one of green travel but frictionless travel: one you do not have to wait for, or walk to, or plan around. An ebike on every corner, allowing you to get to your destination without breaking sweat. It’s a dream that only works if such schemes operate on a large scale. But for now at least, it’s the scale itself that’s the problem – and the source of friction. Chief executive Ting admits more needs to be done. “We cannot successfully serve communities if we don’t win over both riders and non-riders,” he says. “You’ve got to win their hearts and minds as well.” And, he admits, UK-wide regulation is part of that: “We need the same rules across all of it.”
But he prefers to see the problem in big-picture terms. “We started by saying, how do we build cities around cars? But now there’s a reimagining of that. Which is: how do we build the city around people?” The expansion of London’s Ulez zone, he claims, saw demand for Lime’s ebikes notably increase. “Between August and September, our trips went up 20%. You go outside, you can feel it.” To hear him tell it, the parking problem has an easy fix: take spaces away from cars. “In London, there are as many parking spaces as 10 Hyde Parks. But imagine we take one out of every 10 and turn them into bike parking. It would solve all the bike challenges.”
For all Lime’s growth, he says, it still accounts for just 0.2% of trips of less than 4.5 miles where it operates. Even increasing the business tenfold (“And I have no doubt we can do that”) would only increase that figure to 2%.
Currently, he says, Lime is working on two new “modes” of battery-powered transport, though he’s reticent about giving details. One, he says, would be a cargo bike of some kind, designed for people with heavy shopping (“it’s kinda hard to do that on a scooter”). Another sounds even more ambitious, as it would allow passengers: “People tell us if it’s cold, if it rains, if I want to have two passengers, these things are currently difficult for Lime – so are there modes that will allow us to tackle that?”
From one perspective, these will provide more ways that we can travel while harming the planet that much less. But from another, it will allow Lime to profit even more from a lack of regulation and accountability.
But one thing seems certain: Lime is here to stay. Something Ed Wright, on his bike patrols, knows more than most. While his role often sees him retrieving bikes that have been abused – from those missing a pedal, or with a buckled wheel, to ones that have been set on fire – his toughest task, he says, is retrieving bikes that Lime riders love a little too much.
Often, people will hide a bike in foliage near their flat, so that it’s easier to ride it again the next day. Or they will leave it on their landing – an issue for Wright when that landing is in a tower block, and the bike’s GPS will not indicate which floor it’s on.
“But that’s actually the part I really love,” he tells me with a grin. “Sleuthing! I quite enjoy taking it back. It’s not your bike, it’s for general use. But it happens a lot. And I’m sure that person who hid that bike will do it again.”