Anne Doherty from the Development Department at Belfast City Council has worked on the Coca-Cola Zero Belfast Bikes project from initial concept through to the operational phase in year one. Bikefast grabbed a chat with her to find out how the team delivered a scheme which has recorded an impressive 191,000 journeys in its first year, changing the way people view (and traverse) Belfast.
Although Belfast Bikes is seen primarily as a Belfast City Council scheme, there are a number of organisations and companies involved in making everything run smoothly.
- The Department for Regional Development part-funded Belfast Bikes with a capital grant as one of four Active Travel Demonstration Projects.
- Belfast City Council took the management of the project and have responsibility for ongoing (resource) funding.
- The day-to-day operation of the system is sub-contracted to NSL, the company who are also currently to provide parking enforcement in Belfast.
- The hardware and software of the system itself was provided by Nextbike, an international public bike share systems company.
- Coca-Cola Zero is sponsoring the scheme over the first three years.
— Jon (@byebyethecheese) July 21, 2015
The Belfast Bikes scheme launched on 27th April 2015 to a mixed bag of publicity – a much-anticipated and positive story of investment in the city, but also some difficulties with station vandalism and at least one bike not releasing for a customer on launch day.
“Because it was a new system and a new scheme, it was a bit of a nerve-racking time trying to get it working and tested. Nextbike had upgraded their system and we were a bit of a guinea pig for the technology. A lot of schemes take a little while to bed in and to work.
“Along with the scheme infrastructure we were quite pleased about the other aspects we had established – stakeholder groups, communication activity, the website, email bulletins which got a lot of people interested. It was quite good that we got such positive feedback at the start and a high early take-up. The technology issues were ironed out quite quickly.”
The early signs were positive with accelerating subscription levels and journey numbers growing in tandem into the summer. The good weather and city events helped to raise the profile of the scheme.
“We felt it was going well right after launch. The highest month for usage was June 2015. We could already see at that stage that it was more successful than similar schemes in other UK cities. One of the biggest days of the year was the Tall Ships event which saw people using Belfast Bikes to get around both sides of the river through the areas restricted to vehicles.”
— Claire Hanna (@ClaireHanna) July 2, 2015
One quirk of the system is the terminal power, provided exclusively by a solar panel. This may have proved controversial given how un-sunny Belfast tends to be, but the system seems to be coping.
“It’s okay. They have a battery back-up and we’ve noted that you have to change batteries more often in the winter time. Someone goes round to check and replace them as necessary. The engineers have had to monitor things more regularly during the winter months. One of the main criteria for docking station placement at the start of the project was the positions weren’t overshadowed by buildings.”
— Michael Smith (@meoreo1) November 16, 2015
Like any scheme in a big city there were always going to be problems – perhaps not as disastrous as some were predicting – but the team have faced a few wrinkles through the year.
“There have been some incidents of vandalism around the stations, but nothing major. There are maybe 4 or 5 incidents of vandalism each month which the NSL engineers have to deal with.
“One of the main ongoing problems is how bicycles are docked by customers. Educating users to make sure they return the bike properly is a challenge. In some locations, such as Central Station, there have been incidents of people not checking that bikes were fully locked in.”
— Karen Murray (@arosecast) February 11, 2016
While the journey numbers are a source of pride for the team and for Belfast, the vast majority of trips are under 30 minutes and therefore remain free. Anne says there is no pressure to maximise revenue at this stage.
“It isn’t something our elected members have raised concerns about. They actually think it’s a quite good scheme and worth investing in. It ticks a lot of boxes for us – health, the Active Belfast Agenda, air quality, economy, tourism – they’re looking at the wider benefits. It’s a relatively small amount when it comes to funding a public service and members are keen to extend it to areas outside the city centre.
“We’ve seen that Dublin are looking at increasing their membership charge – it isn’t something that we are thinking about right now. There may be other things we could investigate. The Nextbike system offers the ability to hire four bikes at a time which is a real benefit for our annual subscribers – restricting this option for causal subscriptions may be something we could look at in the future, if revenue becomes an issue.”
— James Draper (@JamesTheDraper) March 18, 2016
The scheme has already started to expand in increments – first towards Titanic Quarter and Queen’s University, and in the near future to the west and north of the city in partnerships with other organisations.
“We’re thrilled to have Titanic Foundation, Titanic Belfast, Titanic Quarter Limited, Queen’s University, the Belfast Health Trust and the Department for Social Development involved in Belfast Bikes.
“We are going to look at that strategically and consider if there are options to increasing income. We have to be mindful of the lifetime costs – we might get the funding for capital costs to cover new stations and bicycles but there’s an associated increase to revenue costs which the Council has to consider.”
— NI Greenways (@nigreenways) January 18, 2016
What were the best and worst aspects of the first year of Belfast Bikes for the team?
“I have to say last year when it launched the project team were under pressure to deliver on time and then we had to deal with the hiccups. But since then I get a kick when I see people on the bikes – *we* delivered that, and it’s really well used by a wide variety of people.
“In the first few months after launch the scheme seemed to be used primarily by people who live and work in Belfast, but we’re seeing casual user rates picking up and we’re hoping that will continue into summer 2016.”
— Anne Doherty (@annededen) April 27, 2016
It’s been a successful first year, but with ‘Phase 2’ expansion plans being drawn up for council discussion this summer, it promises to be another busy year for Belfast Bikes.
“We’d like to grow the marketing this year – we didn’t have any resource to begin with. Since last October we’ve had Alex Wright on board and she’s expanded the social media activity, getting more involved in upcoming cycle festivals and city events. We’re trying to raise the profile with delegates coming to Belfast for events at the new Waterfront Hall Conference Centre, and getting into city centre workplaces to talk about the scheme to encourage corporate uptake. It’s not that we didn’t think of it at the start – we just didn’t have the dedicated resource. There’s so much potential here.
“More National Standards cycling training for potential customers would also be great to facilitate. I think lack of infrastructure is the main reason why many people won’t cycle, and the Council is very supportive of the DRD Cycling Unit’s ongoing improvements to the city. We received some detailed journey data from NSL which shows us that the most popular journey is actually from Central Station to the Gasworks, which is a completely safe traffic-free route.
“But we did have a small budget at the start to offer on-road cycle training and it was good to work in partnership with other Sustrans and others to deliver it. There is so much potential for people to use the scheme more, it’s trying to get people more comfortable using and educating them on the system.”
— The Nordic Nordie (@pinkpeugeot) April 8, 2016
And what of the difference it’s made to the street life in Belfast and the image of cycling here in general?
“It is widely recognised that Belfast Bikes is having a positive reputational impact in the city, improving the image of the city for residents and tourists are citing that Belfast now feels like a normal European city.”
— TBSteve (@TBStevesPix) April 27, 2015