Dublin's long-awaited wheel deal on track for September roll-out

Sat, Jun 13, 2009, 01:00

ALONG WITH THE lamp posts, bus shelters and statues with arrestingly inventive nicknames, central Dublin is steadily acquiring a new kind of street furniture. During the last couple of weeks, a new type of bike stand has begun to appear at various locations in the city centre, usually in clusters of 10 or 20, writes ROSITA BOLAND

They’re still minus bikes, and will be for several more weeks, but come September these 450 stands will be home to the long-promised and controversial bike-rental scheme that is now operating in several other European cities.

In 2006, Dublin City Council announced that a deal had been made with advertising company JC Decaux: free bikes for the city, in exchange for free advertising space. There are 72 such spaces around Dublin, and they have been in place since last September. Look closely at the next ad space you walk past, as it’s likely to have the distinctive black letters of the organisation on it. You’ll have plenty of time to name-check the advertising company, since the deal made with the council is for a period of 15 years.

There has been mixed reaction from the public about the scheme. The biggest complaints were that the number of bikes the city got was not enough, and that while the council didn’t pay for the bikes, the public will have to pay to use them; and also that the city centre lacks a dedicated bike-lane system to safely support existing, let alone additional, cyclists.

So what can we expect in September, the expected month for the delayed scheme to be launched? There will be 450 sturdy unisex bikes at 40 locations between the two canals, including Mountjoy Square, Merrion Square, Portobello, and Heuston Station. The distinctive bikes, which Michael Sands, head of communications at Dublin City Council, describes as “old-fashioned looking” are French-made and the same type that Paris has been using since its scheme launched in July 2007. The Parisian bikes are resolutely grey; the Dublin bikes will be partly blue, to reflect the city’s official colour, rather than the occasional colour of the sky. They are bikes designed for functional short urban journeys, rather than climbing mountain passes on the Tour de France, and presumably made to look plain to make them less attractive to thieves.

The bikes come free to Dublin City Council, but it is not a free bike scheme to the public. Bikes that were made available free to the urban public in the past have unsurprisingly proved to be somewhat naive experiments in trust. In 1993 at Cambridge in England, a free community bike scheme launched with 300 bikes. By nightfall, every single bike had disappeared.

In Dublin, before you can take a bike out of its stand, you must first either buy a “Smart Card” for €10 over the internet, via a website yet to launch, or put a charge of €150 on your credit card. This registration will activate your account. The first half-hour usage is free, and thereafter, it’s 50 cent per half hour. According to Sands, in other cities where the scheme is underway, average bike journeys are between 18 and 22 minutes, with bikes being turned over from eight to 10 times a day. You can deposit the bikes at any other station around the city, providing there is a vacant slot for it. If you don’t return the bike, your time clocks up, as does the money you are charged for the rental.

Alternatively, you could borrow bikes all day long for free, as long as each journey time does not extend beyond 30 minutes. Cinderella-like, the bikes need to be back in their stations soon after midnight: you can remove or return bikes only between the hours of 5.30am and 12.30am. If you keep one beyond the deadline, you continue to incur a charge of 50 cent per half hour until the time you eventually return it. Due to the method of advance registration necessary to use the bikes, where personal details have to be supplied, the intention is that there will be sufficient measures in place to track where each bike in the system is at any given time.

Sands doesn’t give a figure for the value of each bike, but they are the same make as the “Velib” bikes on the streets of Paris, which have been reported to be worth in the region of €350 each. Paris started its scheme with 14,000 bikes and now have 20,000 of them. In the first two months, two million journeys were made. Since then, however, thousands of the original fleet have been stolen, lost or damaged so severely they needed to be replaced.

Dublin does not have a particularly proud civic record when it comes to respecting public property, so there has to be some anxiety about the fate of these 450 bikes, never mind how plain they look, a dash of blue paint notwithstanding. They’re still bikes, and bikes which will be known by the whole city to be roosting like little metallic sitting ducks at allocated nesting locations every night. In 2003, when Dublin hosted Cow Parade, an outdoor cultural art exhibition of decorated life-sized cows, the first 10 cows that were placed on the city’s streets were all vandalised so badly within 24 hours that the entire exhibition had to migrate indoors or to public spaces under surveillance. One cow was beheaded with a saw. Another was stolen. All had graffiti on them within hours. Cow Paradehad run in many other international cities, including New York, London and Sydney and in no other city had the exhibits ever needed to be relocated.

There is an undisguised and frank expression of relief in Michael Sands’s voice when asked what Dublin City Council will do in the event of theft or damage to the city’s 450 bikes. “JC Decaux is responsible for that. Our deal with them is that the city must have 450 bikes fit for use at all times.” We’ll see over time who got the better half of the deal.