Belfast Public Bike Share: Accessibility, poverty reduction & public health

A Nextbike bicycle like the ones to be provided in Belfast

Public bike share schemes are a tried and tested way to get people cycling. When schemes are implemented well, with high density of stations complemented by high quality safe infrastructure to use them with, bike shares can be a perfect post-ownership transport system which is both low-cost and socially responsible. Unlike most other forms of mass public transit (except for electric car share systems, as seen in Paris), bike share schemes allow people to use the machines to get to where they need to be, without having to work around timetables, set routes (if there is a good distribution of stations) or the lack of night-time service. Bike share schemes also allow citizens to boost their own physical and mental health by combining their everyday journeys with valuable exercise, all while experiencing a mode of transport that can be as private or as sociable as the rider prefers.

There are several key factors to the success or failure of bike share schemes – density of stations, number of bikes per capita, level of safe infrastructure for their use and local geography/politics can all have an effect on the level of uptake within a scheme’s boundary.

The Belfast Public Bike Share Scheme

Over the past year, Belfast City Council has confirmed the city’s own public bike share programme will go ahead, and has provided clues as to the locations and number of stations/bikes and the expected costs. The service will be provided by Nextbike, which provides contracted bike hire services to municipalities across Europe, with Belfast-specific branding. Similar schemes are being rolled out with Nextbike in Glasgow and other UK cities, with broadly similar aims and specification as the proposed Belfast provision.

Starting with a first phase of around 30 stations within the Belfast City Centre area, the scheme will provide a useful service for tourists and business users within the urban centre, but will benefit relatively low residents. Future expansion will hopefully show provision of stations further out into the suburbs to allow commuting and other local use outside the city centre. However, stations provided close to public transit centres (particularly the upcoming Belfast Transport Hub on Great Victoria Street) will hopefully provide a valuable mode for last-mile journeys to shops and businesses within the city centre. Assuming that the logistics of always having bicycles at key stations is well managed, the scheme has the potential to reduce commute and general inner city journey times for people who until now have travelled via public transit and walked the last leg of their journey.

Accessibility of the Scheme

The original advertised price for an annual registration for the scheme was set at £60, which is an upfront cost that would make the scheme prohibitively expensive for many people in Belfast – a barrier to entry that would restrict the service mostly to the middle classes, who already make up the bulk of cycling traffic in the city. The Council have noted that they are trying to get the yearly pass cost below £30, which, if successful, would open up the scheme to a much wider number of people, and could possibly be a make-or-break factor in the scheme’s success.

The annual registration fee allows for users to benefit from unlimited journeys of under 30 minutes for free, all year round. If the statistics loosely match Dublin in terms of journey times, this will mean that the vast majority of journeys will be made at no direct cost to the user (around 95% of trips will be free). This makes the scheme extremely cheap for those who wish to replace car, taxi or bus journeys in the inner city with bicycle usage on a regular basis, and is likely to enable more short journeys within the scheme’s boundary, particularly between the arts & retail districts of city centre and the Belfast campus of the University of Ulster.

Locations of Belfast Public Bike Share scheme (Phase 1)
Image credit: Fearghal Murray (@Fearghal_Murray)

What is of valid concern is that (Phase 1 of) the scheme is only based in the city centre – it has little to no potential use for people commuting in and out of the scheme boundary, and is unlikely to facilitate such journeys until significant expansion into residential areas or park and ride centres is provided. The scheme is most of benefit to those working in the city centre and tourists; two groups of people with a decent amount in their pocket on average. Since public transport is quite expensive as is, and registering for the scheme presents an additional cost, the service is unlikely to reduce transport poverty for many beyond walking distance of the scheme boundary. In addition, the centre of Belfast is quite small, and the bulk of the scheme’s area of operation is easily walkable.

The bicycles are of unisex design and are comfortable to ride. They are fitted with a front cargo basket and a rear handle, and are geared using excellent Shimano Nexus systems & comfortable saddles, allowing less fit people to use them with ease (if they can face the traffic!). Their upright riding position allows for good visibility and relaxed posture, and the opportunity for a sociable journey. For young people and tourists, this presents an attractive alternative to walking across town.

Public Health Benefits

Since the scheme is limited to the City Centre and hence short distances between stations, it is unlikely to reverse the public health crises at large overnight. However, potential expansion into inner suburbs and residential areas provides an obvious benefit to public health, and facilitating modal switches to the bicycle presents a massive net positive for the health & well-being of those who previously drove or took the bus. Since the benefits of regular exercise are so enormous to both individuals and the healthcare system, it is, in my opinion, of upmost importance to enable and facilitate switches to active travel modes, mainly walking and cycling.

Road safety is currently an issue in the city, and the perceived lack of safety of cycling will likely prevent a significant number of people using the scheme, unless they are travelling along traffic free routes inside the boundary (of which there are few). It is of obvious importance to develop a significant safe cycling network within the inner city to facilitate not only the users of the bike share, but also existing and potential private bicycle users. Such infrastructure must be installed to high standard and be both dense and well-connected. Further traffic calming via Belfast On The Move will help reduce private motor vehicle numbers within the boundary, improving the objective & subjective safety of cyclists, however proposals to allow private taxis in bus lanes is likely to jeopardise any progress in that area.

Reducing Transport Poverty

As previously mentioned, Phase 1 of this scheme is unlikely to provide much relief to transport poverty in the city. Until service expansion brings docking stations to within easy walking distance of residential areas, especially in the north and west of the city (where cycling modal share is lowest), it will not have much financial benefit to those with low incomes. Cycling as a mode of transport has significant financial benefits to the individuals participating, but also to the wider economy and society as a whole, due to savings in healthcare & congestion related expenses, and smaller impacts like reduction in road deterioration. Savings in transport and healthcare expensed can be used to further develop the transport network to enable sustainable journeys and active travel, and in an ideal world provides a nice upwards spiral of benefit and improvement.

My Conclusions & Thoughts on the Scheme

I think the Belfast Public Bike Share scheme is likely to succeed if it is well managed and is presented at a low upfront cost to the user. It presents a significant opportunity to improve cycling in the city, and with further expansion may be capable of reducing the number of cars making short journeys in Belfast. I think that the common tropes for not cycling in Belfast, such as the weather and the hilly terrain, will be unlikely to negatively impact uptake of the Scheme, and I hope that most residents try it out at least once.

However, I would argue that in addition to the scheme, policymakers must begin to ensure that cycling provision is part of every new road and upgrade within the city, and road engineers must provide that provision to a high quality and at high density where possible. In addition, the number and availability of parking spaces within Belfast should be reconsidered, and employers should be incentivised to prioritise public transit and active travel, particularly with their employees who live within Belfast and who don’t have a business case for needing a parking space. Further removal of the car from Belfast City Centre will further enable safe cycling and walking, while making the area more and less polluted. Infrastructure will be important to integrating the Scheme into a larger trend of increasing bicycle traffic within Belfast, and facilitating such increases, at the expense of the private motor vehicle, is important to keep working towards. I warmly welcome the Scheme and hope it succeeds – I’ll certainly be registering for an annual pass once the service launches.

Now, we just have to wait!