London launched a major cycle hire scheme on Friday that aims to make transport in the city greener ahead of the 2012 Olympics, following in the tracks of cities like Paris and Shanghai.
Mayor Boris Johnson, himself a keen cyclist, said the scheme was a "new dawn" for pedal power in London, adding he hoped the bikes will become as common a sight on its streets as black cabs and red double-decker buses.
A total of 5,000 bicycles are currently available from 315 docking stations across the capital, many of them near landmarks such as Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London.
Initial response from users was encouraging, although there have been some early hitches in getting the scheme up and running.
After a brief struggle to release one of the sturdy bikes from a docking station in central London's Soho district, Gary McDonagh, 39, who works for a television company, gave it the thumbs up after a brief test ride.
"It feels a bit like riding a people carrier, but it's deceptively fast for its weight," he told AFP. "It's good that they're robust, with London's weather and the potholes in the roads. It's pretty nifty."
Johnson, who often cycles to work at City Hall, was full of enthusiasm as he launched the scheme.
"Londoners have awoken to a new dawn for the bicycle in the capital," he said.
"Overnight, racks have been filled with thousands of gleaming machines that will transform the look and feel of our streets and become as commonplace on our roads as black cabs and red buses.
"My crusade for the capital to become the greatest big cycling city in the world has taken a gigantic pedal powered push forwards."
Cycling in London has become progressively more popular in recent years among residents fed up with often crowded public transport and congested roads.
There is still some work to do before the scheme is fully operational in its final form, though.
Although more than 12,000 people have signed up to use it, only half of the keys needed to release the Canadian-designed bikes had been activated Friday.
Eventually there will be 400 docking stations and 6,000 bicycles available, but about a quarter of the docking stations and one-sixth of the bicycles are not yet in use.
In order to use the scheme at this stage, users have had to pre-register although after four weeks, they will simply be able to turn up at a docking station and pay with a credit card.
The first 30 minutes of use on the bikes are free with charges increasing incrementally after that, although membership costs one pound for 24 hours, five pounds for a week or 45 pounds for a year.
In Paris, where more than 1,800 stations have been installed since the launch of the Velib' scheme in 2007, a year's subscription is 29 euros, although there is talk of raising it to as high as 45 euros.
With the London Olympics looming, Johnson has said he hopes the cycle hire scheme will be particularly popular.
The London 2012 organisers want 100 percent of the spectators attending the Games to arrive having taken public transport, walked or cycled and there is heavy investment in the subway network and trains to make it happen.
A congestion charge introduced in 2003 has helped ease the pressure on city roads, but International Olympic Committee official Denis Oswald warned this month that despite progress in preparations so far, "traffic is an issue."