Northern Ireland

Is Belfast ready for the cycling revolution?

Belfast Bikes
Image caption A new public bicycle hire scheme will launch in Belfast later this month

The cycling revolution has begun and now Belfast is hoping to join in.

Later this month, the city will launch a new public bicycle hire scheme, following the lead of London, Dublin, Paris, Madrid, and Milan, where similar initiatives have proven popular.

But already one of the bicycle docking stations has been vandalised just two days after its installation, and some critics are arguing that cycling infrastructure in Belfast is not sufficient to allow users to bike safely.

So is the city really ready for the Belfast Bikes scheme, and will it catch on?

Catching

Belfast City Council, which is behind the scheme, says almost 600 people have already registered their interest ahead of the launch on 26 April.

Three hundred bicycles will be available to hire between 06:00 and midnight each day from 30 locations dotted around the city.

The council is expecting the bikes to be used by the city's residents, commuters, students and tourists.

Image caption Docking stations are located at 30 locations across the city, including this one at Belfast City Hall

Anne Madden, of sustainable transport charity Sustrans, says the scheme is proof that Belfast is catching up with cycling-friendly cities across the world.

"The bike has come of age in Belfast and about time, too, " she says.

"More people are turning to the bike as a way of getting around and for health and fitness.

"Cycling Ulster, the governing body for cycling in here, have told us they've seen a seven-fold increase in their membership in the last five years."

Take-up

Belfast businessman Conor Devine says he has been waiting for two years for the scheme launch in the city, having seen the success of the Dublin model.

"The scheme works really well in Dublin - people have embraced it, it's very normal and there are bikes everywhere," he says.

"So it's about time. It's a great thing and it just shows you where the city has come from in the last 20-odd years.

"I imagine there will be good take-up. I think in 12 to 18 months' time it'll be something we will be very used to."

Image caption This docking station at East Bridge Street was vandalised just two days after being installed

Commentator Jude Collins, a cyclist in the past, says he "loves the idea", but has grave concerns about the dangers of biking in Belfast.

"It sounds wonderful and it's flourishing in Dublin, Paris and other cities throughout the world," he says.

"But it's the safety of it. I'd be afraid to cycle in Belfast. Will there be the secure bike routes for people to use the scheme?"

Success

While Anne Madden agrees to some extent, she explains that Sustrans has recently provided cycle training to over 200 people in preparation for the scheme's introduction.

"Cycling in Belfast has, until recently, not been properly catered for. Feeling safer comes with better infrastructure - it is slightly chicken-and-egg."

Image caption Belfast City Council says that if the scheme proves a success, it could spread out further across the city

Anne Doherty, from Belfast City Council, says Belfast Bikes has created employment, and while it will not be profitable initially, the council hopes that will change by the end of its six-year plan.

A sponsorship deal will provide £300,000 over three years, while the council will cover the operating costs of £400,000 per year.

Funding from the Department of Regional Development has allowed for the initial 30 stations. If the scheme proves a success, it could spread out further across Belfast.

There are currently no docking stations in east or west Belfast, while the furthest south is at Bradbury Place and the furthest north at Carrick Hill.

Expand

"We took lessons from others schemes which showed that the stations should be 300m to 500m apart, so if there are no bikes at one station people can easily go on to the next," Ms Doherty explains.

Image caption BBC Newsline reporter Andy West took a Belfast Bike for a spin through the city

"Dublin was only city centre-based at first but has since expanded out by two more phases, and from 500 bikes to 1,500.

"We would like to do something along those lines, but it's subject to getting more resources.

"The planning can start straight away and we would could expand the scheme within six months to a year."

The wheels, it seems, are in motion.

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