Belfast Bikes: gearing up for a spoketacular revolution?

Belfast Bikes bike rackIt’s been 25 years or more since I last rode a bicycle when I was a teenager. Cycling proficiency is a dim memory of riding along a road painted onto the tarmac playground with an arm stuck out to indicate I was about to turn.

It doesn’t take long to walk across Belfast. Yet the ten minutes from the Waterfront Hall to the Cathedral Quarter could be halved if who wheels took the strain. And in dry weather, biking across to the Odyssey would be preferable to the windy walk over the bridges.

Yesterday at lunchtime and I trialled the new Coca Cola Zero Belfast Bikes and discovered the joy of simultaneously sticking my arm out to change lane, looking over your shoulder, steering straight ahead and keeping on this side of the grave … all at the same time.

So what 15 things do you need to know?

Belfast Bikes phase 1 sites1. 300 bikes will be available from 6am on Monday morning (27 April) at 30 docking stations across the city centre. Later phases may widen the reach of the scheme.

2. Registration is online. Visitors to Belfast can pay £5 to access the bikes for 3 days. A yearly subscription is £20 and you’ll be sent a smart card you can swipe at one of the terminals to identify yourself.

3. On Sunday at noon, expect to see a grand peloton of Belfast Bikes streaming out of the City Hall gates and cycling around the block. Customers who’ve already paid up for the year have received invitations to participate.

4. You can hire a bike between 6am and midnight. It’s as simple as

belfastbikes appSwipe your annual card or tap in your mobile number along with the number of the bike you want to hire at the solar-powered rental terminals beside the bike stations and it’ll be unlocked within seconds.

You can also use the nextbike app (iOS or Android) to hire a bike. It’ll show you bike stations near you along with the number of bikes available to hire. Select the bike, tap the buttons and the bike will be released. The Belfast Bikes website also allows you to rent/return a bike within the My Account pages.

If the terminal is down and you don’t have access to the smartphone app there’s a phone number on the back of the bikes 034 3357 1551 you can ring from your mobile to hire them.

5. Once you’ve registered, the first 30 minutes is free. Then it’s 50p for the next half hour and a further £1 for each hour up to 4 hours. After that it gets really expensive to have exclusive access to a specific bike. The scheme is set up to encourage you to make short journeys around the city centre: take a bike, ride somewhere, dock it, and when you’re leaving, hire another bike to make the journey back.

Belfast Bikes combination lock6. To leave a bike back, you wheel it into an empty bike rack (a disc on the left hand side of the front wheel slots into the bike rack’s clip) and the light on the rack turns green and the bike is locked in place. If there isn’t an empty slot, the terminal will show you the nearest bike rack with a space, or you can use the combination lock to secure the bike somewhere near to the bike rack and use the app or phone number to register it as returned.

What’s it like?

Jeff from Belfast Times and I set off from the City Hall at lunchtime on Wednesday to pay our respects to the Big Fish, navigate the Bin Lane (aka, the bike lane on Upper Arthur Street that is so often blocked by bins or delivery vehicles) and return to the bike station in front of Donegall Square North. You can watch part of our adventure in Geoff’s video.

Belfast Bike gear change7. The bikes are sturdy. These are not lightweight racers. They’ve got 3 gears and having pedalled furiously for a while I finally figured out how to rotate the gear selector on the right handlebar to get into 2nd gear and cycling became a lot less effort! The bike has lights that activate when you pedal and you can adjust the height of the seat saddle. 8. There’s room on the front for a small bag. You might be able to tie a bag onto the back. Belfast Bike front carrying 9. Belfast city centre is mercifully flat [Ed – so you so you won’t get wheely tyred?] and lunchtime traffic is quite light. 10. From walking and driving around this area of Belfast I thought I knew the streets like the back of my hand. But it was very different riding on two wheels surrounded by faster moving cars and buses, and needing to read signs and look for markings I’d never had to pay attention to before. 11. It’s very confusing where you can cycle and where you can’t. Belfast is full of bus lanes, bus-only streets, streets that have been partially pedestrianised and national bike routes. You’re not allowed to cycle on the footpath. But can you cycle down between Chichester Street between the High Court and Laganside Courts? Can you turn right off Victoria Street at the Albert Clock and take a short cut up the bus lane that runs in front of McHughs? And when you cross the road (using the Toucan crossing with its bike light) at Queens Bridge, can why are there no obvious cycle markings on the other side of the road when you reach the Beacon of Hope? Upper Arthur Street12. The Bin Lane on Upper Arthur Street was clear when we cycled through, though on the way to the City Hall it wasn’t! 13. The Belfast Bikes Welcome Park has some reminders about bike safety and the cycling-related sections of the Highway Code are worth a scan. But if you’re planning to cycle certain routes frequently, it would be good to take your first ride when it’s not too busy and you’re not in a rush to get your bearings and figure out a plan. 14. With an influx of inexperienced cyclists like myself on the roads over the next weeks and months, hopefully drivers will realise that they need to treat these amateurs with care. Otherwise, increasing the number of cyclists on the streets of Belfast will increase the number of accidents. 15. My backside is sore. Maybe that’ll ease with further cycling. I’m certainly looking forward to being able to scoot across town faster than on foot and a lot cheaper than in the car. Maybe it’ll even count as exercise …

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.

  • Ernekid

    I’m surprised at how limited the range of the bike stations are. I don’t see the point of just putting them in the City centre, commuters aren’t likely to use them. You’d think they’d put a bike station outside Queens and the student accommodation areas. Belfasts cycling infrastructure is terrible and a lot of people will end up cycling on pavements creating risk for pedestrians. They should have build dedicated cycle lanes seperated from car traffic like they have on stretches of the Lagan Embankment.

  • This whole thing is just a silly idea. I know people in powerful places have to look like they are doing something for public health but the money could have been spent on improving cycling routes etc. Anyone realistically half interested in cycling will own a bike, so the only people benefitting are tourists. How long until the first foreign tourist ends up seriously injured due to the lack of cycling infrastructure combined with Belfast’s roads being amongst the most crowded anywhere.
    Does anyone know about the upkeep costs of these bikes? There will be a hefty maintenance contract somewhere to move bikes from one place to another at night, to maintain chains and gears and to make sure tyres are ionflated etc.

  • johngf

    I own a bike (2 actually) and I’m interested. I live a good distance away from work so I get the train. I think it would be very handy for me to hire a bike during lunchtime if I need to pop to the shops. I walk pretty fast, but the post office is still at least 10 minutes away for me. £20 for a year could be worth it for when I need to get out and about at lunchtime. You can even hire several bikes at once if you’re riding with a friend who doesn’t have an account.

  • babyface finlayson

    I agree about the limited range, but hopefully that will be widened. Going as far as Shaws Bridge by towpath is quite flat, the Shore Road, Queens as you say, East Belfast too.
    Heading west or north gets hilly a bit quick so no point sticking any up there, I say.
    Am I being overly cynical to expect a certain amount of vandalism to begin with?

  • Ernekid, the problem with locating bike stations is tidal flow. If you put a station in a location which is appeals to commuters, all of the bikes at that location will be used up and there will not be enough bike stations at the destination locations to accommodate the bikes when people have finished their trip. In London, bike stations were (initially) not located close to major rail stations for this reason. It does seem counter-intuitive, but this is how it works in practical terms.

    If uptake of the system is good, and more bike stations can be supplied, then over time it will be possible to provide sufficient stations to deal with the tidal flow issue.

  • I don’t own a bike, am not a tourist, drive into Belfast every day and could see myself using these for jaunts across the city several times a week.

    In other British cities where the same nextbike scheme operates, they tend to have a £60/year annual levy. I suspect Coke Zero’s sponsorship is reducing that and paying towards the maintenance by NSL (who are running the scheme in Belfast).

  • Vandalism is possible – how soon before one ends up in the Lagan? The bank details and phone number of people renting them is known … and they’ve signed up to conditions that include a sizeable non-return fee. Stealing a bike off a renter is possible – but there’s not much chance of the renters themselves half inching a bike given the distinct look and branding and the penalty.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    We know that the system can work well as it has been successfully operated elsewhere, eg London and Dublin.

    I can think of a number of ways it would be useful. Students staying at home and living in North, West or East Belfast can take a bus into town and then the bike up to university instead of having to pay for a second bus. I can quickly take a bike from my workplace near the university to my bank branch in Royal Avenue, or to the pub in the Cathedral Quarter, instead of doing a 20 minute walk.

    I’m looking forward to future expansion. Pushing the system out in each direction as far as places like the city airport, Hollywood Arches, Newington, top of the Grosvenor Road, Rosetta, Mount Vernon and so on would create an easy commuting option for a lot of people.

  • kalista63

    When they brought in the cops on bikes, I remember walking up Castle St, near the King St junction and two cops abandoned their bikes to chase some kids. Another couple of kids turned up and stole the bikes.

    This, we’re Dublin or London nonsense makes me channel my inner Irvine Welsh. It’s a bit fur coat and no knickers.

  • aquifer

    It seems that if you register annually that it also works in Glasgow Birmingham Bath and a lot of other cities including Berlin Hamburg etc. This could also be great for local people who own a bike already but would not have it with them elsewhere, or who may need a spare or two for visitors.

  • NMS

    The bikes are moved from the excess points to those stations which require them on a regular basis. There is little problem in Dublin where there are stations beside or close to most tram stops. From personal experience, full stations are a bigger problem than empty ones!

    Once people get used to taking the bikes in conjunction with other modes of transport, it is then the expansion is required. Take the baby steps first. In Dublin there are stations as far west as Kilmainham, as far east as the Point Theatre, as far north as the Mater Hospital and on the southside as the Grand Canal. There are plans for further expansion, but having too many stations at the start without traffic calming measures to make cycling safer, is a waste of time. Dublin is lucky in that the City Manager is a serious cyclist and is continuously pushing for further traffic calming measures.

    The Dublin Bike scheme is ten years old and was an initiative of the Labour Councillor Andrew Montague

  • Practically_Family

    Sure why not just swing from tree to tree?

  • babyface finlayson

    I’m all in favour of anything that increases cycling, so I hope it succeeds
    . I would fear for tourists trying to negotiate our haphazard cycle lanes.

  • afghanistanbananastand

    A few months back, I was in London for the first time in years for work. I was staggered at how many “Boris bikes” were participating in the rush hour. I quite fancied a go myself, in fact, but bottled out.

    It’s at once amusing and depressing to see so many people lining up to demolish the Belfast scheme before it even starts.

    The Dublin scheme recently celebrated it’s 10 millionth journey. It’s a larger city, sure, but otherwise just how different is it from Belfast? They share our lack of cycling infrastructure, our climate, have a similar geography to the city centre and a broadly similar number of dedicated thieves and vandals (I’d guess). I believe the same company are actually running the Dublin and Belfast schemes.

    So – a simple question for the naysayers: it’s worked there, why not here?

  • afghanistanbananastand

    As one of the many people employed in the technology industry in Belfast, I have worked in offices in the NISP (Titanic Quarter), the Gasworks and Clarendon Dock. All of these are walking distance, more or less, from the city centre. Depending on your destination once in town, a return trip could take as much as half an hour brisk walk, maybe more. Pop on a bike and you could easily reduce that to ten minutes.

    I’ll be signing up for this reason alone, as will several colleagues, if water cooler chat is to be believed.

    Now consider my colleagues who commute to central Belfast daily by public transport. The Europa and Central Station are a fair old hike from all the above “tech hubs”. This scheme will be a major boon to them. Once again, the water cooler chat concurs.

    This will be a raging success. Addition of further sites (especially South of the city centre) in the short to medium term, and improved cycling infrastructure in the medium to long term will certainly follow.

  • I have no issue with the idea of the bike scheme. If it pays for itself then there is no problem at all. I also agree with the comment below that if the scheme was expanded then there may be more usage.
    My only concern is public subsidy. As you mentioned, because it is exclusively within the city area, most of the usage would come from moving people off foot on to bikes, which wouldn’t really tackle congestion, improve public health or generally be a good use of public money.
    I also recognise it has been a success in Dublin and London, but Belfast is different . It has a much smaller city centre, meaning most places can easily be reached on foot, and car ownership is much higher.
    Also, stay out of the pubs if you’re cycling. A friend is up in court shortly for cycling under the influence. Who knew the police enforced this, but it is in Scotland, so perhaps the law is different in NI.

  • babyface finlayson

    Ok so you have 2 bikes and poor alaninbelfast doesn’t have any.
    Isn’t this just pure whatabikery?

  • Brian O’Neill

    That was considered but ireland is the least forested country in Europe

  • Claire Stewart

    I live outside Belfast and commute to the city centre, parking in a private car park near the gas works. I am hoping that this scheme will be of great benefit to me, as I can pick up a bike near the car park and ride to the bike dock right outside my office window in around 5 minutes, rather than walk for at least 15 minutes each way. My colleagues, however, are a little sceptical and, to be fair, having seen the number of vandalised privately owned bikes chained up at various points on my walk to work, so am I. I genuinely hope the scheme is a great success and look forward to the additional flexi time I can work up as a result.

  • Ciaran G

    Having gave it a try for a few days, I’d like to offer some criticism. First of all, the kiosks are incredibly slow, and entering in your details took me 5 minutes on the first day. There was a long delay between pressing the screen and characters appearing on screen. That needs to be sorted out. Secondly, there are apps, but unfortunately not for Windows Phone users. So the only other way to rent a bike is to call the hotline. Unfortunately, it’s a landline 03 number which incurs a 45p per minute charge on my network (Vodafone). Especially if you use the bike for short journeys, those charges will mount up fast.