The early and perhaps surprising success of Coca-Cola Zero Belfast Bikes has seen continual demands for expansion. Before Belfast City Council announces the official ‘Phase 2’ of the project, expansion is already being driven by a series of partnerships with organisations across the public, private and academic sectors. Northern Ireland Greenways can now reveal firm plans to grow the bike hire scheme to at least 45 stations across Belfast.
Belfast Bikes launched in April 2015 with 300 bicycles and 30 stations dotted around the inner core of Belfast. The capital costs of £1.1m were provided by the Department for Regional Development (DRD), with Belfast City Council committing to administer the scheme until 2020. Nextbike were chosen to provide the bicycles, station infrastructure and systems, while NSL won a 3-year contract to run the day-to-day operations. Coca-Cola Zero are providing £100k a year to sponsor Belfast Bikes for the first 3 years.
The initial scheme layout faced some criticism for its city centre limitation, although in Belfast the geographical coverage of any major public investment can be sensitive. The decision to focus on the inner city, driven mostly by the need keep a dense pattern of stations within 300-500 metres of their neighbours, paid off when user numbers and usage levels grew steadily over the summer of 2015.
By October 2015 the signs of success were clear – 100,000 hires within 6 months, with a favourable comparison to Glasgow’s scheme taking 14 months to reach the same total with more stations, bicycles and subscribers. Belfast had a genuine good news story and the political support to green-light expansion plans.
Before undertaking a major expansion with ‘Phase 2’ (plans expected to reach Council by Summer 2016) Belfast City Council have been able to partner with external organisations to provide an interim expansion of docking stations. This saw Queen’s University fund the establishing of 2 stations within its grounds, and Titanic Quarter Limited doing the same for a dock near Titanic Belfast. All 3 stations opened in November 2015 and 30 extra bikes brought Belfast’s total fleet up to 330 by the start of 2016.
But further expansion is on the cards with more organisations offering capital funds to create new stations. Negotiations are underway between the Council and Belfast Health and Social Care Trust (BHSCT) to provide stations at its 3 main hospitals. Sustrans has already launched its offer of free on-road cycle training for BHSCT staff to encourage Belfast Bike Hire registrations. These docking stations should be approved by the Council’s Strategic Policy and Resources Committee (SP&R) on Friday 22nd January 2016 with shovels breaking ground within months.
The Department for Social Development (DSD) also wants Belfast Bikes to form a key part of their inner city regeneration schemes, Building Successful Communities (BSC), in the north and west of the city.
The DSD schemes on the Lower Falls and Lower Shankill are also expected to be approved by the SP&R Committee this Friday. However the Lower Oldpark proposal could be shifted closer to the city centre (and within a workable range of the main Belfast Bikes footprint) by switching focus to the new Girdwood Community Hub beside the Mater Hospital and Crumlin Road Gaol. The lead time is likely to be slower for the DSD proposals with further approvals needed by the 3 individual BSC Forums.
Another sign of the success and importance of the Belfast Bikes scheme is growing private sector interest. The approved planning application for a new Allstate NI office beside Belfast Central Station includes a £25,000 commitment for the establishment of a Bike Hire station at Maysfield. Allstate has form as a company promoting sustainable transport in Belfast, winning the 2014 Fréd Festival Award for Best Large Employer for Cycling.
With various regeneration schemes and new builds around the city over the next few years, expect many more organisations to step in, taking some of the capital funding burden away from ratepayers in a win-win arrangement for the city.
As we near election time the shining success of Belfast Bikes can only help to highlight the demand for cycling in Belfast and with it the need for investment in safer, dedicated infrastructure. Seeing big employers recognising the value of cheap, flexible and congestion-busting transport around Belfast is heartening too. Belfast City Council’s next step into ‘Phase 2’ holds risks, but the popularity of Coca-Cola Zero Belfast Bikes cannot be doubted and should justify a bold expansion over the next 18 months.