It’s a little before 9am on a cold, blustery morning in the capital. A gusty breeze borrowed from November whips right through the back of Heuston station and seems to hasten the step of the entire throng of people it just deposited on its overcrowded platform.
I hate being pushed away from the real capital at the best of times, but as a cyclist — which is what I’m being paid to be today — I gladly accept this tailwind (all the way from Cork) and surf my way to the front of the accumulated swell as if I’m in a race.
The masses pour out of the station’s arteries, ready to pump some life into Dublin. A good chunk of us veer left and spill out onto Victoria Quay, which is where one of the city’s busiest ports for dublinbikes is located.
“Fuck sake,” a man in a neat suit exhales. He checks his watch. Rush hour. Of course there aren’t any bikes available and he quickly opts for Plan B — the Luas, which judging by the size of the queue for bikes, should have been Plan A in the first place anyway.
A few mill around the empty docking stations, hoping a bike will become available, but they don’t wait long, and follow the lead of the man in the neat suit. Sadly, that’s where I’m headed too and I enquire as to where, actually, I’m headed.
“Get off at Abbey Street, go across the road and you should get one beside the GPO on Princes Street,” offers a kind lady from Cork who’s up to visit her daughter in this big bad place. I imagine she has a pot of homemade lasagne in her chunky suitcase.
Bingo. I’ve a choice of bikes on Princes Street and I scan them all with unbelievable dexterity for the best one. They’re all gleaming, except one, which has its saddle turned backwards and lowered.
“Broken, don’t take that one,” comes a voice over my right shoulder. Christina, from the Polish city of Wroclaw, is seven years in Ireland. Her cheery disposition and easygoing approach make her a perfect candidate for what I’m about to ask her.
Today, wherever the bike she has chosen goes, we go. We want to know who uses the dublinbikes scheme, how the system operates and what can people in Cork, Limerick and Galway expect when 740 of these two-wheeled tanks come barrelling through their streets in the coming weeks. I’m on a cycling tour of Dublin, baby!
Christina has one little piece of advice before we depart for Mountjoy Square. “You want to know which is the best bike? Simple. You must see how shiiiiiiney the seatpost is,” and she smiles at me again, as if speaking to a five- year- old with an ice-cream in her hand. “The shiiiiinier it is, the newer it is,” she qualifies, and yes, she’s patronising the country boy.
If I didn’t feel like a chump then, I definitely did when she picked her way up O’Connell Street, weaving and bobbing her way through spaces without as much spare room either side as to swipe a credit card.
“The bike is therapeutic,” she calls over her shoulder as another red light is disregarded. “It’s good for the mind.” Christina, I learn, is a trauma psychiatrist and her daily grind is to hear the crushed lives of those struggling to recover from the serious psychological effects of road smashes and beatings. “Kids’ stories are the hardest,” she adds, and before we know it we’re docking at Mountjoy Square. A stunning start, if I do say so myself.
A few minutes pass. Jade Travers knows the question is coming, but her guard drops (kind of) when she’s reasonably confident it’s not money — or her handbag, we’re after.
“I’m in a rush,” comes the stock response. “So are we,” is trialled as a rejoinder, and she smiles. “Come, I’m only going as far as the Yukiyo bar on Exchequer Street.” That’s 3.2 kilometres away and off we go. Gradual downhill. Jade hammers a furious pace.
As we hurtle back down O’Connell Street, Jade, who’s in her early 30’s and works for Underground Films, becomes something of an impromptu tour guide.
“I love the bikes, they’re great, sure the first half hour is free. What’s not to like? No, seriously, they’re really good; they’re nearly always available, you never have to wait too long if they’re not, but the only thing I’d say is there needs to be more (stations) outside the city centre.” That latter point proved to be a common complaint.
What’s most striking about Jade is for someone so petite, the power she can discharge on the pedals is impressive and I theorise this only comes with experience. We swing over O’Connell Bridge, up around College Green and Dame Street where the crowds of tourists, students, and the city’s suited staff all seem to be, not to mind the endless surge of buses. Jade, however, is an expert on two wheels and comes close to dropping me with her adroit handling and ferocious tempo. Maybe that’s the plan?
The Dublin Bike Scheme is working a treat so far and after huge success in Paris, Barcelona, Milan and Berlin, it’s hardly surprising we’ve adopted it here.
This autumn, as part of the National Transport Authorities’ plan, Cork will receive 320 bikes, 31 stations and 635 stands — meaning there should rarely be a situation where you land at a docking stand and it’s full to capacity. If that were the situation, you’d have to locate another stand, but that’s rarely the case anyway.For 25-year-old Gerard Finn from Carrick on Suir, but moving to Cork to study medicine in a few weeks, the news is good.
“In the morning at rush hour you can go to a station where you’re hoping to get a bike and then there’s none so it can be frustrating, but hopefully with the expansion it’ll be better,” says Gerard, who works for a company that specialises in sending people abroad to study.
“The bikes are in good nick here; if they’re not, people just leave the saddle down, it’s nothing official or anything but if there’s something wrong with a bike it usually has the saddle down and twisted. They’ve done the major bike lanes around Cork, up around UCC so it should be great, and safe too.”
Gerard, who is headed for Merrion Square, is running late for work, but he’s still adamant he’ll get there on time. And off we go again, just over two kilometres to travel this time. He’s already in ‘late-for-college-lecture-mode’ and cranks the right shifter three times clockwise to engage the hardest gear. We’re in Merrion Square in around six minutes flat. And no red lights broken.
The system is so simple that it’s hard not to see how it couldn’t benefit a city. Already we’ve heard a landslide ‘yes’ vote and it’s not yet 11am.
Dublin has almost 100 stations (careful not to confuse with stands), with another handful to open soon. You have the option of an annual card which costs €20 or a three-day card which costs €5. The latter is more geared towards tourists and day-trippers and in all honesty, represents good value. Also, the first half an hour is free, but if you exceed this a surcharge applies. When you get your card (at the stations) a €150 security deposit is required, but this is only taken if you don’t return the bike. The locks that come with the bikes provide some security but given the rise in thefts, not much.
Andrew Ramsey, a Ballinteer-based chartered building surveyor is as effusive in his praise as he is sharp in appearance.
“Excellent, very handy to use, relatively inexpensive; it saves me paying for parking when I come into town,” says. “It’s an easy means of public transport. You won’t get them down along the quays early in the morning with people getting off the Luas but they’re where you need them to be, for the most part.”
However, on the downsides he adds: “Brakes aren’t great on them. Luckily enough I haven’t fallen off yet. I only use them for meetings around town, and as long as there’s a station near me it’s okay. Sometimes I’ll take the bike into the meeting with me if I’m doing an inspection of a building, I’ll pay the money. It’s worth it.
“More docking stations would be great actually, they’ve extended them over to Hannover Quay which is very handy, they could probably do with having a few more up around Amiens Street but otherwise they’re excellent. The chain guard is there to prevent my pants from getting dirty or caught up. I suppose you could be dubious about the locking though, whether they’re easy to get through. It’s €150 if the bike does get stolen.” But that’s not at all common the NTA tell me.
Andrew, from Dundalk, is a man about his business and in one slick movement he slots the bike into a stand on Lime Street and mounts the kerb, taking off on foot at the same speed he swooped in at without breaking stride.
We’re almost half an hour waiting for out next ‘victim’ but that’s possibly a product of the rain that’s beginning to spit, so we head over the bridge towards the Famine Memorial on Custom House Quay. A one-kilometre walk. God, I hate walking.
Here, Ian Martin, a 32-year-old solicitor for Bank BNP Paribas in the IFSC is taking an early lunch and if he won’t mind us saying, he looks a tiny bit stressed.
He’s not a man for the stock answer though, and chooses his words like only a solicitor would. Or maybe it’s because he’s from Cork and he’s more entitled/qualified to moan.
“The only bad thing I’d say is with the new stations they’re putting in, it seems a bit ludicrous how close they are to each other. You’re tripping over them in the city centre! There’s one there (as he points to a station 50 yards away), another one over the bridge (where we came from) and one here. Now they’ve put in another three or four between here and the Point, the Point is about a 10-minute walk? Even on Stephen’s Green they put a new one in, literally, on top of another one. It’s almost like they’re trying to fill a quota of stands and pack them in wherever they can. Look, it’s a minor quibble and the more stands the better I guess, and the more further out they expand them the better as well.
“Maybe if you talk to motorists they’ll say they’re an absolute curse and I hate the sight of them. I’m a cyclist, a motorist and a pedestrian and when I’m a motorist cyclists wreck my head, when I’m a cyclist motorists wreck my head so you can’t win, whatever your perspective is, I guess.”
Ian is heading back over the bridge, back up Westmoreland Street, College Green and over to Dame Street where he docks before meeting a friend for lunch. With the lunchtime crowd filtering out into the afternoon sun, we suspect we’ll have our pick here.
A trio of junkies stagger by. Two leggy female Scandinavians come over to the machine for a nose. They mosey on. So far today, the bikes have been the preserve of commuters. But Ian Richie, from just about the furthest city away from Dublin, shatters the template.
“Oooh-some,” is the Kiwi’s response. “I flew from Wullington yesterday and just got here so it’s perfect for me to explore the city on one of these with my girlfriend,” who he beckons over.
Enter Ulsa, from Sweden. “They’re very good, I’ve been using them for years,” she says half-heartedly, eager to regain custody of her boyfriend who’s only here for the week. “They’re in mostly good condition the three times I use them in the week. I just use them to get to town. If there are more stations in the south it would be good, that should be the new area to expand the system.”
And off they go up Dame Street in each other’s slipstream.
We’ve decided to stay put because Ulsa clearly stated “she wasn’t going far” and quick as a flash, Yvonne O’Reilly, a photographer and artist, from just around the corner on Castle Street rocks up for her daily “routine”.
“I have a circuit,” she chirps. “I live quite close to here, so I use them for my circuit about three times a week around town, a scenic route. So I use them for exercise, more so than commuting. They’re multi-purpose and perfect for me because I live in town. If you live outside, beyond the canals, they’re not available really. I’ve used them in New York and Paris and they’re fantastic. They’re like tanks, indestructible, really built to last and really well maintained.
“The thing about me is, I am a cyclist. I love cycling so I end up stopping for photos so much on my way home; I end up getting charged for the bike but they’re well worth it. This is something I’ve always done, but I had a bike stolen before — one of 10 that I had — so I stopped cycling for a number of years and then converted to these.”
Her only concern is the branding on the bikes which, to give them their title, are the Coca-Cola Zero Dublin Bikes.
“I’d be a bit worried about the creeping advertisement, the business dealings of that, who authorises that? I’d just have some concerns about what I’m promoting as I’m cycling around town. But for the most part, they’re great and I hope it always stays like this.”
And with Yvonne goes the bike we’ve been tracking all day. Off to serve another satisfied customer. Twenty-five kilometres is roughly the distance my bike has done in the six hours I’ve been on it. At that rate, assuming there’s another six hours of riding time today, the bikes could cover up to 400 kilometres in the week. That’s a lot of road. That would be a lot of extra fumes in the air if the alternative was cars or buses. Any further questions? The case for the dublinbikes has been made.
‘Today, wherever the bike goes, we go