Emma Oba would love it if she could get a bike to dash to job interviews, she says, and, when she gets one, a job.
Usually, Oba gets public transport or walks, but buses are expensive and walking is tiring, she says, stepping along in the line for the Intreo centre on Bishop Street in the south inner city.
“The bike is just more convenient and it would make life easier,” she says.
But she can’t afford a new one right now, she says, and second-handers often have issues like parts not working.
“I would still need to replace them or fix them. which would cost me a lot of money that I’m not looking to spend,” says Oba, tilting her head to the side. “I have a budget.”
Once Oba lands a job, she may find that an employer is into the Cycle-to-Work scheme, whereby they buy her a bike and accessories, which she pays them back for over time and at a discount thanks to tax relief.
But for now she, like many others, are shut out.
“Given the increase in popularity and cycling, there’s no reason not to introduce a more universal scheme,” says Kieran Ryan, communications coordinator for the Dublin Cycling Campaign. One, he says, that would make bikes accessible to everyone.
There are no restrictions for who can avail of grants for electric cars, he says. “Why couldn’t a similar scheme be open to anybody to access an electric bike or particularly things like cargo bikes?”
A spokesperson for the Department of Transport directed queries about the scheme to the Department of Finance.
The Department of Finance wouldn’t comment on queries as to whether it had considered greater inclusion in the Cycle-to-Work scheme.
“It is a longstanding practice of the Minister for Finance not to comment, in advance of the Budget, on any tax matters that might be the subject of Budget decisions,” they said.
Cycling to (Find) Work
Because of the way the Cycle-to-Work scheme is run, the government doesn’t have figures for how many people have gotten bikes through the scheme since its launch in early 2009.
The number of cyclists crossing the canals in the morning rush hour rose steadily from 6,326 in 2009 to 13,131 in 2019, according to the city’s annual cordon count.
As a percentage of all the different kinds of traffic crossing the canals, cyclists increased from 3.4 percent in 2009 to 6 percent in 2019, the figures show.
There’s no count to show how many of those passing cyclists purchased their bikes through the Cycle-to-Work scheme and whether the pick-up has been more among different groups than others.
But just 2 percent of those who responded to a survey of scheme-users, which was carried out two years after the scheme began, were aged between 18 and 24 years, researchers found.
That isn’t surprising, wrote Brian Caulfield, a transport academic, and James Leahy, a transport engineer, in the research paper, “as participants in the scheme have to be in full-time employment”.
The paper also notes that those with higher wages benefit more from the scheme as they get a higher rate of tax relief and make a smaller monthly contribution.
“This preferential treatment for those on higher incomes raises a number of equity issues, which could be addressed in any revision of the current scheme,” the paper says.
Outside the Intreo Centre on Bishop Street on Wednesday, Angelia Bruanacci queues for the jobseekers transitional payment as she looks for a new job.
Getting to interviews is pricey at the minute, she says, especially if it’s far. “And sometimes the line doesn’t get you exactly, so you need to walk or take two buses.”
She’d prefer to cycle. “Because it’s sustainable, it’s clean, and for the weather, winter for example. Sometimes it’s faster than a bus. And it’s very safe to cycle.”
If there was a free or subsidised bike available while she’s on jobseekers, she’d jump for it, she says.
Ryan, of the Dublin Cycling Campaign, says that bicycles can offer independence. “By knowing that I could cycle, it removed almost any barrier to me working anywhere, you know, within the city or within the M50.”
Working For Yourself
Across the city in Phibsboro last Thursday, Luiz Henrique Gonçalves was packing his Deliveroo bag with a McDonald’s order to bring into town by bike.
He’s wrapped up in a jacket with handlebar mittens to protect him against the rush of cold. His bike, complete with speedometer, is electric.
It cost him more than €1,000, he said later on the phone. “So expensive.”
But it was needed for his job, he says. “Sometimes you cycle 60km in a day. It’s too much for a normal bike.”
He had wanted to use the money to buy another computer for his regular job, which is DJing when the clubs are open. But that work dried up for a while so he spent it on a bike instead.
The Cycle-to-Work scheme does offer up to €1,200 for regular bikes and €1,500 for e-bikes and “pedelecs”.
But the Cycle-to-Work scheme isn’t available to those who are self-employed. Deliveroo riders like Gonçalves, then, are cut out.
That’s unfair, says Ryan, of the Dublin Cycling Campaign. “That it should only be accessible to PAYE workers is an inequitable scheme.”
“We all know that there are many people in society who do work which benefits society but they’re not necessarily employees,” he says.
Henrique Gonçalves says he knows delivery riders who struggle with a normal bike through the wind and rain. “It’s so hard, it’s hard.”
For them, being able to afford an e-bike would make their lives much easier, he says.
“If they give us some discounts or something like that, it would be amazing, and much more easy for us to get a bike, to start working quickly,” says Henrique Gonçalves.
With no employer to front up the cash for a bike, a Cycle-to-Work scheme for the self-employed might have to run a little differently – or the benefit might be the tax relief alone.
Ryan says he thinks Revenue bases the scheme off PAYE as it’s straightforward. “I guess there are fewer ways for people to try and circumvent the scheme.”
Ryan says there’s also hidden workers to consider.
Like, those who do unpaid work caring for children and relatives are cut off from the scheme. “Who are essentially providing a service which the state would otherwise be providing,” says Ryan.
Expanding the Menu
Some kinds of cycling equipment still don’t fall within the scheme, either because it’s usually more expensive than the current thresholds, or it just isn’t listed as an eligible add-on.
In February, Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns asked the finance minister his views on adjusting the scheme to cover child seats and trailers.
Fine Gael Minister Paschal Donohoe said that would cost more. “I have no plans at present to make changes to the cycle to work scheme to include child seats and trailers.”
Ryan singles out electric cargo bikes as in need of subsidies. They are the most promising swap for cars, he says.
But electric cargo bikes cost more than €2,500, he says. More than the current threshold of €1,500 under the scheme.
“It’s not something that someone’s going to take a leap of faith on if they haven’t tried one beforehand,” he says.
“It’s beyond the threshold that most people could afford if they were trying to buy a bike, or even an e-bike, yet it’s still far cheaper than a car,” he says.
More people would take a chance on them if there was an incentive scheme, he says. Households with two cars could replace one with a cargo e-bike.
Also, “something like an e-bike would be highly beneficial to someone who’s older or retired, but they don’t have a mechanism for getting a subsidy to buy a e-bike”, he says. The government should incentivise that, he says.
“For many people a barrier to commuting by bike is the distance, or being worried about being unpresentable, or sweaty when they arrive at work,” he says.
E-bikes require less physical exertion than pedal bikes so likely generate less sweat, he says. A cargo e-bike could also be quicker to get kids to school or do the shopping too, he says.
First, though Ryan says, the Cycle-to-Work scheme should be made available to more people.
“I think that would just be a fairer approach,” he says. “You don’t get too many complaints from people about how much the bike scheme covers.”
Costing It Out
The Department of Finance has estimated that the bike-to-work scheme cost the state about €4 million in 202o and in 2021, said Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe in June.
But calculating costs can draw in more than the euros in and euros out of the national budget.
Cycling is a net benefit to society in monetary terms, says Colm Byrne, a consultant geriatrician at the Mater Hospital. “Due to the improvement in people’s health.”
Byrne cites a British study showing a 40 percent reduction in mortality over 15 years in people who commuted to work by bike compared to people who commuted by public transport.
“There’s societal health benefits, and there are also reductions in cardiovascular disease and cancer as well,” he says.
A 2021 University of Oxford transport study also found that cyclists had 84 percent lower CO2 emissions from all daily travel than non-cyclists.
As well as updating the Cycle-to-Work scheme, removing VAT on bicycles and bicycle equipment would be simple to reduce the price of bikes for everybody, says Ryan.
Alternatively, a tax refund or rebate scheme where anybody, not just an employer, can buy a bike and claim tax back against it, he says.
Byrne says the inequity of income brackets should first be ironed out. Providing a 50 percent tax rebate to everybody regardless of income level, he says.
Expanding the current scheme would be a first step, Ryan says, as “everyone’s kind of familiar with it”.
What could be better though, is just providing the bikes free of charge for those on social welfare and state pensions, he says.
Says Byrne: “The societal health benefits are there … for doing it. It would be an investment in health prevention.”
Byrne points to another update he would like. “It’s totally optional for an employer whether they want to engage with it,” he says, and he’s heard some large companies don’t offer it to employees.
“If there’s a massive employer like that in the country who refuses to engage in the scheme. There actually isn’t a mechanism to compel them to do that,” says Ryan.