Bicycles help green Ireland's capital

DUBLIN, Ireland ― It’s not quite like Amsterdam yet, but against the odds Dublin is becoming a city of cyclists again.

A free bicycle scheme in this rainy metropolis of narrow roads, potholes and, it has to be said, bicycle thieves, has been a spectacular triumph. Indeed Dublin City Council boasts that the program is “the most successful in the world by any measure.”

Despite predictions that the 450 specially-made bikes, available from 40 stations around the city, would quickly be stolen or tossed in the River Liffey by vandals, only two have been pilfered in the first six months of operation. These were quickly recovered, and none have been vandalized, according to council spokesman Paul Finan.

It helps that the bicycle is ugly and that one needs a credit card to use it. The machine is free for the first half an hour, but costs half a euro ($0.67) for the first full hour, and 6.50 euros for four hours. This ensures that riders don’t leave them lying around, otherwise the final charge on their credit card would be substantial.

“The scheme has exceeded all expectations,” said Finan. “Since its launch in September '09, we are heading for over 500,000 trips with a population of 1.2 million people in the Dublin region.”

Dublin’s success compares dramatically with a similar scheme launched in Paris in 2007 and run by the same company, JC Decaux. In the first 18 months, half the original fleet of 15,000 in the French capital disappeared. Many were dumped in the Seine, and a few ended up in eastern Europe and Africa.

The Dublin bicycle program is part of an effort by the council to reduce carbon emissions and make the Irish capital a green city. A government bike-to-work tax incentive program introduced last year has also increased the number of bicycles on the road. It allows employers to buy bikes for up to a maximum of 1,000 euros, and sell them to their workers tax-free, which reduces the price by about 40 percent.

Alas, the shiny new bikes bought under the bike-to-work scheme have created a bigger turnover for bicycle thieves. According to the Irish Central Statistics Office, the number of private bicycles reported stolen in Dublin in the first nine months of last year rose by nearly one-third, to 3,136, compared to the same period the previous year. The real figure is undoubtedly higher as many people don’t bother reporting the theft of bicycles.

(Bicycle stealing is one of the oldest forms of theft in Dublin. This correspondent recalls his Raleigh being lifted 40 years ago, and being told by a police sergeant, with an exaggerated wink, “there’s your bike over there,” as he pointed to a thousand stolen machines in a storage shed. I took the nearest good-looking one and cycled happily away.)

The police in Dublin have also taken to the bicycle again after a lapse of half a century. For the last five years police patrols on mountain bikes have become a familiar sight in the Irish capital. This, as any reader of the celebrated satirist Flann O’Brien will know, carries special risks. In O'Brien's popular book “The Third Policeman,” published in 1940, a guardian of the law spends so much time on his bicycle that molecules are transferred from one to the other, and he adopts the habits of the machine, preferring to rest by propping an elbow against the wall.

To encourage cyclists, the council has also dropped the Dublin speed limit in the city center to 20 miles an hour. At that rate the cyclist is just as likely as the motorist to get a speeding ticket.

Incidentally, the image of a rainy Dublin is not quite accurate. The city gets 29 inches of rain a year. This compares to 42 inches a year in Boston and 45 inches in New York. According to the Irish meteorological office, Met Eireann, a commuter who spends 15 minutes cycling to work every day will get wet on only four days out of every 100. This assumes, of course, that the cyclist can pick just the right time between the showers.