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Membership levels for the public DublinBikes scheme “are no longer in a growth phase and may decline over time”, says a Dublin City Council report.
It gives two reasons for that: the opening of the Luas Cross City, and the roll-out of new, private stationless bike-hire schemes in the past year. “This is a worrying trend given that employment levels are rising in the city core as the economy continues to improve,” the report says.
Several city councillors don’t agree, though. DublinBikes isn’t in a growth phase because the council has stopped adding stations, they say.
“If somebody is living in Santry they’re not gonna join the DublinBikes scheme because they can’t avail of it. So the only way we can look at increasing the numbers in the scheme is increasing the number of people who can access it,” said Fianna Fáil Councillor Paul McAuliffe
“The membership goes up when we increase the service,” said Labour Councillor Andrew Montague.
“[W]hen they expand into new areas they’re going to see the subscription rates going up a lot,” said People Before Profit Councillor Tina MacVeigh.
If sign-ups to DublinBikes have stalled, and the expansion of its network has too, will private stationless bike-hire schemes move in to serve areas that don’t yet have bike-share service? Or will both simply fight it out for riders in the same popular areas?
Which Parts of the City?
There are currently 102 docking stations on the DublinBikes map of where to pick up wheels in the city.
The council is putting in 15 more stations in Grangegorman, and adding in some extra capacity in some other areas of the city, at the moment – funded with €1.2 million from the National Transport Authority, a council spokesperson said.
The map of bike stations still has a couple of bites out of it, though. In the south, streets around the Coombe, Dolphin’s Barn, and South Circular Road have no stations.
Harold’s Cross, Rathmines, Drimnagh and further south don’t have them either. On the northside, Cabra, Drumcondra, and further north have no stations.
“Anytime I speak to residents in Rathmines and Harold’s Cross, one of the first things people ask me is, ‘Can we get more of those DublinBikes?’” said Patrick Costello, a Green Party councillor. “There is huge huge pent-up demand for DublinBikes in general.”
The “DublinBikes Strategic Planning Framework 2011-2016” laid out a five-year vision of multiple phases of expansion that would eventually extend DublinBikes’ reach into outer areas like Sandymount, Whitehall, and Harold’s Cross.
“I’d love to see expansion of the scheme, but there are significant costs associated with it,” said Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe, head of the council’s transport committee.
“It requires funding from central government to do this and we’re still only at phase three of a comprehensive expansion plan for DublinBikes, so we’re years behind where we would like to be,” said Cuffe.
A council spokesperson echoed that. Any expansion beyond the extra stations in Grangegorman “will likely be dependent on the identification of additional sustainable funding for capital and operational costs,” they said.
It will also depend, it said, on “a strategic review of the impact of stationless bike hire on the Just Eat dublinbikes business and operational model”, they said.
DublinBikes has 66,739 long-term subscribers and 9,757 short-term subscribers, according to its own data.
Colm Ryder of the Dublin Cycling Campaign said he sees DublinBikes as an intensively used, successful scheme. “I think the number of people who had never gotten on a bicycle who got on bikes because of the bike scheme is telling as well.”
The arrival of stationless bikes will spread bike-sharing into more areas of the city, too, he said.
DublinBikes must be returned to designated DublinBikes parking stations. Schemes using stationless bikes are a bit more flexible, allowing riders to park at Sheffield stands across the city, the same metal tubes any cyclist might lock their bike to.
Two stationless bike operators have been licenced in Dublin so far. At the moment, one of them, BleeperBike, has 500 stationless bikes available for hire in the city.
Hugh Cooney, the CEO of BleeperBike, says the neighbourhoods using BleeperBike most so far are Rathmines, Donnybrook and Ballsbridge. These are areas not currently served by DublinBikes. “Most journeys are coming into the city centre,” he says.
On the north side, Phibsborough, Mountjoy Square, Stoneybatter, and Cabra are also popular starting locations for BleeperBike users, he said. (There were 13,000 rides in October, with an average cycling time of 16 minutes per ride.)
Not all areas outside of DublinBikes’ reach are covered by BleeperBike though.
Some areas are shaded in red within the mobile app, indicating that users cannot park or pick up bikes there. “Green” areas are portions of the city where bikes are available for hire.
That’s based on where they were being used. “Areas where bikes were just going once a week, they’re not in the green zone because it was a disproportionate logistical cost for us to get bikes back from those areas for one or two bikes here or there where most bikes were staying in the green zone,” Cooney said.
Some areas of the city still aren’t covered by either scheme. “The business model is low margin so we have to be in high usage areas,” he says.
The cost of the DublinBikes scheme has been kept low, subsidised by advertising and sponsorship.
An annual subscription to DublinBikes costs €25. After paying that, riders can use a bike for up to a half hour for no additional cost; the next half-hour is €0.50, and so on. DublinBikes says that 96 percent of its rides are free.
The annual subscription was last increased in February 2017 – and the DublinBikes budget notes to councillors said that it’s expected it won’t go up to €30 for a couple of years.
The extra DublinBikes stations at Grangegorman should mean there’s no increase in charges for cyclists for the time being, said a response from council officials during discussions around next year’s budget.
But the sponsorship contract with JustEat includes a clause that if membership levels go down, so too does the amount that JustEat pays in sponsorship to the council, it says.
Council figures show the rental income that the council expects to get this year from the scheme is €1,740,000, rather than the €1,750,000 that it had it its budget.
It also didn’t get €400,000 from digital advertising, figures show – so it is expected to have run at a loss of €162,000 this year.
The expected sponsorship from JustEat for 2019 is €330,000 down from €360,000, council figures show. Rental income is expected to go up to €1,850,000 from €1,740,000.
Private bike-share schemes are more expensive for users than DublinBikes.
Bleeperbike offers customers five pricing tiers. Presently, users who top up €4 in the app can enjoy five hour-long rides. A day pass costs €8. A monthly membership is priced at €10. Three months is €20, and an annual subscription is priced at €75.
Cooney says that for now, the company is focused on increasing the number of people who use the service rather than adding additional bikes this winter.
He says it will look at advertising partnerships for the new year. But Bleeperbike will have to receive approval from Dublin City Council, whose December 2017 bylaws stipulated specific guidelines for suitable advert partners. No alcohol advertising, for example.
Cooney says he believes that dockless bikes are the future of bike-sharing in Dublin. “The infrastructure is much cheaper to build. You get the same service with a much smaller capital investment.”
Stationless bike-share schemes rely on council-provided cycle parking, which costs the council money to put in. The schemes have to pay the council a per-bike fee to cover that.
Cooney said his main costs were staff, bike parts and maintenance, and paying for the bike permits and insurance.
Though sign-ups have slowed on the DublinBikes scheme, several councillors say there is still demand for the expansion of DublinBikes among their constituents, even with the introduction of dockless bicycles.
“Stationed bikes provide reliability and predictability. The stationless ones, at present, don’t have that. They don’t have the volume and they don’t have the reliability of a bike being there when you need it.” said Fianna Fáil’s McAuliffe.
As for the future of DublinBikes, “At some point, to allow for continued expansion, we’re going to need further investment,” said Costello of the Green Party.