Una Mullally: Dublinbikes scheme hits the brakes

The council faces a difficult conundrum about financing the popular bicycles

‘Neo-liberal political entities, such as Fine Gael, love such [commercial] “relationships”, because it removes the responsibility of the State to altruistically fund things.’ Photograph: David Sleator

‘Neo-liberal political entities, such as Fine Gael, love such [commercial] “relationships”, because it removes the responsibility of the State to altruistically fund things.’ Photograph: David Sleator

 

I love Dublinbikes. As a daily user, the scheme is convenient, cheap, environmentally friendly and easy to use. But it’s also a victim of its own success. Its popularity can be measured any time you arrive at empty stations just when you most need a bike, especially at peak times in the morning and during the post-work rush. I’ve started to give up on some stations, knowing they’ll always be empty at those times. Occasionally there are reports about the scheme expanding. Yes, please! But for now the bike scheme has its brakes permanently on.

The National Transport Authority detailed an expansion of the scheme to 15 new stations, including to Grangegorman, where DIT now has its large campus. This was to be completed by October. But Dublin City Council does not have the cash. According to Olivia Kelly, writing in this paper, the scheme costs €1.9 million to run. Subscriptions and usage charges bring in €1.2 million. Coca-Cola’s sponsorship is €312,000, leaving the council to pay for a €388,000 shortfall. The expansion would cost €1.2 million, and the running costs of those extra stations is estimated at €500,000 a year.

Funding proposal

A new funding mechanism was recommended, with the unimaginative idea of advertising screens on public land proposed. Meanwhile, An Taisce’s heritage officer labelled the plans for screens in Dublin 4 as nasty, tacky and grossly offensive. Tell us how you really feel, An Taisce.

The council is in a bind, because it has to fulfil a deal with its original Dublinbikes investor, the outdoor advertising company JCDecaux, never mind find more new ways of generating cash to keep the scheme going.

Because the Dublinbikes scheme was dependent on private cash from the outset, in the form of swapping funding for advertising space, it has few options but to keep returning to this process. Publicly owned land is the council’s version of the family jewels, and once it dips into that pot it ends up constantly pawning bits off to keep going.

Neo-liberal political entities such as Fine Gael love such “relationships” as they remove the responsibility of the State to altruistically fund things. As in many areas of public funding, the less Government needs to intervene or support, the better, from Fine Gael’s point of view.

But the problem is that a private company’s priority isn’t altruism, it’s profit. It is always going to be profit. Coca- Cola is hardly funding Dublinbikes just because it believes cycling is great for public health, and the healthier people are, the better. It sells cans of sugar, for God’s sake. Dublinbikes, like Dublin buses, offered an advertising opportunity, another thing with wheels to slap an ad on. For JCDecaux, Dublinbikes created the potential for advertising space to be erected in places it had never existed previously.

Local-government bind

Another problem with such commercial collaborations with local government being “successful” is that the State’s obligation to fund schemes and projects and ideas is then eroded by the intervention of private funding. If the council did it with Dublinbikes, then why not parks? Sell ’em all!

The more local government has its budgets squeezed, the more its power is diminished, the more often it is going to find itself in these kinds of binds. Asking for funding from private companies is not sustainable even if it is initially successful, primarily because they are not answerable to the public, do not need to commit to the public good, and are entitled to pursue their own agendas.

If the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government allocated the council funding to cover Dublinbikes (or if the council jiggled its budgets around and found the funding elsewhere within its own pool), we wouldn’t be in this situation. But, realistically, how can the council now ask for that money when it – initially successfully – went to a private third party at the scheme’s genesis?

And could Dublin City Council really justify taking the money it needs to expand and run Dublinbikes from elsewhere in its budget when it is already dealing with the more pressing crises of housing and homelessness? So it cannot use more of its own money, it cannot go cap in hand to the department and it cannot keep troubleshooting with private companies. Perhaps the customer will have to take the hit.

Eircode

The money we’re talking about is a pittance when you observe waste in other departments for recent “innovations” that offer the public far less than bike schemes. The Department of Communications’s failed Eircode nouveau-postcode system, which incorrectly answered a question nobody asked, cost €38 million. According to An Post, the system is used by less than 5 per cent of mail customers. The cost of Eircode’s establishment would have run the existing Dublinbikes scheme for 20 years.
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