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Belfast Bikes leaves council facing huge £200k loss

By Claire McNeilly

Published 29/09/2016

Girls using Belfast Bikes
Girls using Belfast Bikes
Councillor Sonia Copeland

The Belfast Bikes scheme is being run at a huge financial loss to the local council, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

By next year the gap between predicted revenue and the amount actually taken in could be as much as £200,000 - a shortfall that may have to be made up by the city's ratepayers.

Ironically, the innovative public transport scheme launched in April 2015 has just picked up its first national award, being named Best Integrated Community Hub or Cycle Scheme at the annual Cycle Planning Awards in London.

Although the Coca-Cola Zero Belfast Bikes initiative has attracted more than 4,000 annual subscribers since its launch, the figures are not adding up for Belfast City Council, which had been hoping that the revenue raised by the programme would pay for the scheme's maintenance.

Belfast Bikes is operated by public sector service specialist NSL on behalf of the council, with the support of the Department for Infrastructure.

It has proved highly popular, with more than a quarter of a million journeys being undertaken around the city.

More and more users, however, are taking advantage of a loophole whereby the first 30 minutes are free, meaning that, with careful planning, cyclists can negotiate their way around the city without paying anything.

"We need to keep reviewing the bike scheme," admitted Ulster Unionist councillor Sonia Copeland. "We are trying our best as a council to get as many people as possible cycling, and we need to see how we can get more people to use bikes, but the scheme must be financially viable.

"What's happening at the minute is that people are taking a bike for 30 minutes, then putting it back and taking another one, so they never pay for its usage. We need to look at the viability of that. If we all agree on a way forward, perhaps we could recoup something before the end of the financial year (March 2017)."

The issue is likely to be high on the agenda at the next council meeting on October 3, but this newspaper understands that the potential of a six-figure revenue shortfall was discussed at the last Strategic Planning and Resources meeting, as was the need to find an immediate solution. Closing the "first 30-minutes free" courtesy will almost certainly be under consideration.

There are currently 300 bikes in use at 33 stations throughout the city, with the three most popular at Titanic, the Odyssey and Central Station, and more are planned.

Earlier this year, the Belfast Telegraph reported that year-on-year rentals rose by 27% between May 2015 and May 2016, and in the summer months there were often more than 1,000 bikes hired out each day.

The Belfast figures dwarfed those of Glasgow, where just 49,600 bikes were rented out between January and May of this year - although the success came at a cost, with the council investing an extra £20,000 in promotion and advertising for the scheme.

Apart from the 4,000 annual subscribers, there are also more than 3,000 casual three-day memberships. A Belfast City Council spokesman said the bike scheme was "designed to be affordable, and provide a convenient, cost-effective and sustainable way for people to travel around the city".

"The success of the public hire scheme is not just based on financial income," he added. "Belfast City Council is committed to meeting the costs for the first six years of the scheme, and is also committed to investing in its continued development.

"Obviously, the council will continue to keep all aspects of the scheme, including the pricing structure, under review as it moves forward."

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