An Irishman's Diary

 

MY PREDICTION earlier this year that 300 of Dublin’s free rental bikes would end up “at the bottom of the canal” in the scheme’s first week was of course an exaggeration.

In truth, I thought the time frame involved would be more like a fortnight, or even three weeks; and I presumed some bikes would end up at the bottom of the Liffey as well. But now that almost two months have passed, and the bicycles remain overwhelmingly unstolen and unvandalised, an apology for my lack of faith may be in order.

For logistical reasons, sadly, I am not a user of the scheme. Although I live in a much touristed part of the city – the South West of Heuston area (or SoWha? as I keep telling Dublin Tourism they should brand it. I don’t know why they won’t listen) – there are no bike stations near me. Neither of my neighbours, Kilmainham Gaol or the Irish Museum of Modern Art, has one. Nor does Heuston Station itself.

If any of these had such a facility, I could commute to and from The Irish Times, which has a bike station on its doorstep (presumably for those tourists who stop to take pictures of the clock). But as it is, I still use my own bicycle. And I feel I’m missing out on the excitement.

There seems to be almost a sense of euphoria among the free bike users: something I recognise from my first experience with the Paris Velibs two years ago. It’s a feeling of having the complete freedom of the city. That and not having to worry about your bike being stolen, wherever you lock it. Even the process of having to change mounts every half hour, like horses on the old Pony Express, can be faintly exhilarating.

The Dublin scheme has probably benefited from the Paris experiment, where an extraordinary 80 per cent of the original bikes have been stolen or destroyed.

The locking and docking mechanisms are better now and the bikes themselves more damage-proof. The Dublin version also looks prettier than the French. This is probably an unintended effect of the official blue livery: I believe the bikes are meant to look ugly, to minimise the attraction for thieves. But especially when lined up together at a docking station, the Dublin ones look downright handsome. If nobody has called the design “iconic” yet, it won’t be long.

Another difference between the French and Irish bikes, as I recall, is that the former have a code of ethics on the handlebars, reminding cyclists not to break traffic lights, mount footpaths, and ride contra-flow on one-way streets. Maybe the city council realised this would be asking too much here. In any case, beyond a half-hearted admonition to users to obey the rules of the road, the Dublin bikes are non-judgmental.

Yet the nature of the Velibs in Dublin and Paris alike is such as to discourage reckless behaviour. The bikes are not built for speed or adventure. Their personality, if they have one, is a cross between a middle-aged hospital matron and one of her patients (whose condition is serious but stable). Some of this is bound to rub off on users, even if not in the literal sense of Flann O’Brien’s molecular theory.

One of the annoying things about the Dublin scheme, I gather, is its Cinderella-like attitude to social life. The bikes do not turn into pumpkins at midnight, and you can leave them back any time. But you can’t take one out after 12.30am. That and the occasional redistribution problems aside, the scheme has been a roaring success.

There is no cause of complacency, of course. And I note that the council has so far taken care to locate all stations between the two canals, as if to minimise the risk of the bikes ending up in either. Even so, it would be churlish to acknowledge that the use of the city’s waterways as a final destination for the bikes has been a whopping 100 per cent lower than I predicted. I doff my hat to all concerned.

YET ANOTHER tourist attraction close to where I live is the National Museum at Collins Barracks. It’s on the other side of the river, admittedly: in the north of Guinness’s office quarter (again I’m mystified by Dublin Tourism’s failure to adopt my catchy name for the area: “NoGo”). And as well as being home to the magnificent Soldiers and Chiefs exhibition – covering five centuries of Irish military history – I’m told the museum will host a special family day next Saturday with events marking Ireland’s involvement in the first World War. Further details at www.museum.ie. But by the way, and it becomes hard not to take this personally, Collins Barracks is yet another place in my part of Dublin not to have a bike station. This is ironic, considering it’s named after one of the most famous cyclists in Irish history: a man who went almost everywhere on his trusty two-wheeler, even as he ran a war and an underground finance ministry.

Then again, Michael Collins might not have been an enthusiast for the Velib scheme, what with all the bicycles being microchipped, allowing their every movement to be tracked. No, come to think of it. If the Big Fellow’s ghost is still cycling around Dublin, he’s probably doing what I continue to do: wearing out his own tyres and brake blocks and worrying every time he leaves the bike out of his sight, no matter how good the lock is.