An ‘east versus west’ row broke out at Belfast Council this week over the designation of Belfast Bikes stations.
At the council’s City Growth and Regeneration Committee meeting (June 9), elected representatives heard a presentation from a council officer on the Belfast Bikes Strategic Review, with details on further expansion and investment.
The highly positive report, including proposals to spend £525,000 in the next year, and create 15 new bike stations in 2022/23, was overshadowed by a debate that began with Sinn Fein calling for an equality screening on the strategy, which resulted in the DUP and Alliance accusing them of politicking the issue, while the Greens accused them of “joining the journey later than expected”.
Sinn Fein Councillor Ciaran Beattie said while the scheme was “good for the city” he added the people of west Belfast were “second class citizens” when it came to the Belfast Bikes.
He said: “There are 48 stations in the city, four of those are west. One on the Shankill Road, two in the lower Falls. The other is at the Royal hospital, at a location that was probably the worst spot in the hospital you could put it — the furthest point from the children’s hospital and the main hospital, at a part of the road that has the least pedestrian footfall.
“So west Belfast in terms of the Bike stations is not served properly. The report as it stands has given no equality implications. I don’t want to see any bikes taken away from anybody, I want to see them put in more places. But I do think we should have a specific focus on areas where there are high levels of deprivation, and high levels of health inequalities.”
Alliance Councillor Michael Long said the Sinn Fein narrative of west Belfast was “not true”.
He said: “I am flabbergasted by some of the figures that are bandied about. Let’s be honest, this is a city centre project that has been expanded. In reality if you look at it, there are five in south Belfast, four in west Belfast, four in east Belfast.
“There are four on the east side of the Lagan in total if you want to go for that particular measurement or divide.”
He added: “The issue was raised there aren’t going to be any in Colin — well there aren’t going to be any in Ormiston either. And the reason is because they are on the edge of the city.
“So to try and make this into some kind of fake east versus west, north versus south battle is totally ridiculous. The reality is this is a city centre project, which has to be expanded on a wide range of criteria. But the narrative that has come out of this from Sinn Fein that this is something being done against west Belfast is factually incorrect.”
DUP Councillor David Brooks said he was “exasperated and disappointed by Sinn Fein trying to politicise” the Belfast Bikes. He added: “It is convenient sometimes to talk about quarters in the city, but a Belfast Bike station on the lower Newtownards Road means very little to my constituents at Cregagh or even further across.”
Green Councillor Mal O’Hara said regarding the Sinn Fein position: “I do have some appreciation for what Councillor Beattie has said in relation to the poor infrastructure in the west. But it is looking in the mirror — you have been the dominant party there for over 30 years in that locality.
“Maybe you should reflect on your own political aspirations in relation to cycling. I’m glad you’ve joined this journey — it may be later than expected, but I’m relieved to hear it.”
At the meeting a Sinn Fein proposal to lower the minimum age for those using the bikes from 18 years to 16 years was approved. Green proposals to give free access or discounts for certain young age brackets, and to look at air pollution levels in expansion areas, was also agreed.
Belfast Bikes was launched in 2015 with 30 docking stations and 300 bikes, and currently operates with 48 docking stations and 400 bikes. While usage in the financial years 2019/20 and 2020/21 was lower than the pre-pandemic years, things have improved markedly this year — with March 2021 seeing a record high monthly rate of 28,903 rentals.
Last week a commitment to four new stations were announced outside the city centre — at the Kennedy Centre, Falls Road, the Waterworks, Cavehill Road, Lisnasharragh Leisure Centre, Montgomery Road, and Olympia Leisure Centre, Boucher Road.
The strategic review document suggests a further 15 new stations in the four quarters of the city — in the north, along the Antrim Road, Shore Road, York Gate shopping centre and the Duncrue estate; and in the west along Falls Road (St Mary’s College/Culturlann), Andersonstown Road, Springfield Road, Whiterock Road and Shankill Road/Woodvale Road.
In the south plans are mooted for Lisburn Road, Malone Road, and upper Ormeau Road, while in the east stations are suggested for Ravenhill Road, Cregagh Road, Ulster Rugby grounds, Castlereagh Road, Holywood Road, Belmont Road and Upper Newtownards Road.
The review also proposes city centre stations at the new Belfast UU campus, the upcoming ‘Tribeca’ development in the Cathedral Quarter, and in the east to service the upcoming Sirocco development.
The review also proposes relocating underused bike stations currently at Cromac Square/St Georges Market, Millfield Belfast Met, and Carrick Hill.
The review had one negative fact to report, on the subject of vandalism. Despite the management contract having a provision to cover the costs of vandalism, the council paper states: “Unfortunately, that provision within the contract has been regularly exceeded.” The gross costs relating to damage and loss resulting from vandalism in the financial year 2020/21 was over £13,000.