A downward cycle? On the declining state of Coca Cola Zero Bikes in Cork


Okay, I’m the first to admit that I’m biased when it comes to cycling, but even more than two years after Coca Cola Zero Bikes in Cork started operations, I still consider the system to be one of the biggest assets to the city’s transport system, and easily the biggest improvement to come into the city in the 21st century, together with a small, but expanding network of bike lanes. While current roadworks in the city have temporarily made cycling quite a bit more treacherous, the impact it has had on Cork is noticeable, and the adoption rate nothing less than phenomenal. Just two weeks ago, figures published by Ireland’s National Transport Authority showed that Leesiders had taken just under 720,000 trips with the black and red bikes since the system started operations in December 2014. In comparison, Galway and Limerick just about managed 43,000 and 90,000 trips respectively in the same timespan. There are currently just over 10,000 active subscribers in Cork alone, and the number has been climbing steadily since 2014. From a curiosity, the black and red bikes, as well as the white and red service vehicles have become a fixture in the city. And while a few backwards-minded individuals might whine an moan about the fact that one of the terminals is supposedly blocking the view of a bust of 1916 “hero” Thomas Kent at Cork’s railway station, the benefits and positive side effects of the system are obvious to anyone with even a minimum of intelligence.

So, all’s well on Leeside then? Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case. You see, while user and trip numbers are soaring, and Coke Zero Bikes in Cork is the most popular bike sharing system outside of Dublin, beating even Belfast, the system has been stagnating ever since the original rollout was completed in Spring 2015. There are other issues with the existing system as well, and I’m going to focus on them in this article to shine a bit of a spotlight on them. Basically, they fall into three major categories: Communication, Maintenance, Network Planning.

Communication 

This might be surprising to some people, but it is a real issue. Even with a relatively small bike sharing system like the one in Cork, you’re bound to have some equipment failure every now and then, a station terminal that doesn’t work, or bike stands that won’t release their bikes. That’s a normal and unavoidable part of operating such a network. Take the Coke Zero Bikes station at Brian Ború Bridge, for example. It has been down for a few days now, as far as I can tell, and that in itself isn’t an issue. However, when you check the Service Updates section on the website, all you get is a message for a station outage in Limerick back in June 2017. The situation is even worse for pre-planned shutdowns, due to events. The last information about St. Patrick’s Day closures for example is from St. Patrick’s Day 2016, and the last shutdown notice in general is from September 2016. So even the most up to date information is almost a year out of date, which is quite frankly unacceptable.
See that greyed out station in the top right? 

That's Brian Ború Bridge. It's been out of business for weeks, if not months.

You'd expect something like that to turn up in the Service Updates section of the website. Well, apparently not with Coca Cola Zero Bikes. They seem to think a failure back in June in Limerick is a more important issue.

Then there’s the issue of reaching someone when there is an issue with a bike or station. Once again, issues are unavoidable, even with perfect maintenance. That is part and parcel of operating a system in a public space. However, getting in touch with Coca Cola Zero Bikes is not as straightforward as one might like. While there is a number printed on the membership card, there’s no trace of that number on the website. There, all you have is a generic email address, and a questionable looking contact form. Mind you, when the station at Wandesford Quay decided to act up last year, the customer service as such was great, but in this day and age, a hard-to-find hotline, a generic contact email, as well as a contact sales form are in no way sufficient.
The phone number printed on the Coca Cola Zero Bikes membership card is the only indication that there is any chance of contacting customer service via phone. 

The easy solution to both issues would be to maintain a robust presence on social media, but once again, there is no trace of either Coca Cola Zero Bikes or the operating consortium An Rothar Nua on either Facebook or Twitter, not to mention more exotic platforms like Instagram. Ironically, it is Nextbike, the operating company behind the Belfast bike sharing system, that really serves as a shining example in this regard. They maintain a constant presence on both Facebook and Twitter, and are generally pretty responsive. They also operate a very competent service hotline, whose number can easily be found on their websites, their stations, and even the bikes themselves. 
Nextbike shows how it should be done. That long number above the five digit bike number is the hotline number, right there on the rear luggage rack of EVERY bike!

In addition, it is right there on the station as well, both at the bottom, and in the smaller text blocks. That's how it should be done.

Maintenance

This really is the big one for me. When you’re on one of those bikes, you can be sure that you’ll be mixed in with other road users for at least part of your journey, sometimes a large part of it given how many braindead motorists seem to be mistaking bike lanes for car parks. In such a situation, it is crucial, that lights, brakes, and transmission work flawlessly, the tires have enough air, and the saddle remains in place throughout the ride. Unfortunately, more often than not, that is not the case with Coca Cola Zero Bikes. Once again, I can understand that the bikes experience wear and tear during their use, perhaps more so than usual here in Cork, given the utilisation of the local system. However, it appears that maintenance and indeed care are significantly lacking in Cork.
Pretty much every single bike deployed in Cork shows significant wear and tear by now, as these bikes illustrate.

Don’t get me wrong, the service crews are out looking after the bikes every day, picking up and depositing bikes at different stations, and taking those in need of repairs to their depot, wherever that may be. Yet, it just seems that there are nowhere near enough spare parts or mechanics available to keep those bikes in good condition. I take Coca Cola Zero Bikes almost daily, mostly using the stations at Grattan Street, Patrick Street, and Father Mathew Statue, and getting a bike that is safe and comfortable to use is always a gamble. Just yesterday, on my way home from work, I payed a little more attention than usual, and actually took photos of the damage and disrepair I encountered. 
While that headlight may look like me when I try to get up in the morning, these kinds of failures, were lamps don't stay in place, are getting more and more common.

Vandalism, like bent headlights, or the horrible state of that handgrip, are not really new either.

This is a common occurrence as well, a smashed tail llight.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The cosmetic issues aren’t really the, well, issue here. However, saddles that are bent out of shape, smashed rear lights, rusty braces for the saddle, and front lights that don’t stay up are all clear-cut safety issues. And of course, some of the most severe safety issues are all but invisible. Just about a week ago, only two bikes were left at Grattan Street station, both clearly worn but otherwise okay from the outside. However, both turned out to be completely unsafe. The first bike I rented had a busted transmission, making it all but impossible to use the bike at all, since there was no way you could keep up with traffic in a mixed environment. The second bike had unworkable brakes, and I don’t think I have to elaborate why this is a no-go. A day later, again only two bikes were available at the station, both having deflated rear tyres and one of them again having an inoperable transmission. That was by no means the first time that a large number of bikes turned out to be unusable, there have been times when I had to cycle (no pun intended) through 4-5 bikes in order to get one that was in a roadworthy condition.
Out of shape saddles like this one...

... or this one are unfortunately getting more common as well.

Corrosion is by far the biggest issue, however. While it mostly affects the saddle clamps,

...bikes with rusty frames or handlebars are also out there.

Every station will have at least one bent out of shape saddle, some having many more.
The stations don’t really fare much better. Shortly after the system was opened, most stations were equipped with a card reader for those who wanted to purchase a three day pass using their credit card. This never quite worked out as expected, and the credit card functionality was quickly turned off in the terminals. However, the hardware remained for quite some time. When it was replaced, however, the workmanship turned out to be piss-poor, to put it mildly. Where previously, there had been clear, well worked seams, now you had sealant smeared liberally over those same seams when the terminals were re-sealed. Displays, glass, maps, no matter, it was spread all over them. I’m not a builder by any means, but quite frankly, I could have done a better job on the morning after a three day bender! It is quite frankly unprofessional and adds to the impression that An Rothar Nua doesn’t really give a damn about the Cork operation. This isn’t helped by the fact that bike stands at stations like Grand Parade, Peace Park, or even my home station Camden Quay are often out of business for weeks or even months. One would have expected spare parts and technicians to be at hand to resolve those outages, but apparently, that isn’t the case.
Sorry, but there is no excuse for this kind of shoddy workmanship.

The rear of the terminal doesn't fare any better. This is system-wide, by the way.

Part of the sealant has scattered all over the touch screen displays in some stations.

And that's before some braindead wannabe gangstaz have their way.


Quite a few stations, like this one at Peace Park, also have bike stands out of commission.


Some of these have been out of commission for weeks, if not months.

This one has been down for almost a year.

Now, in fairness, the people of Cork have to shoulder a considerable part of the blame here as well. The bike stations are often used as a playground by children, which is understandable on the face of it. I mean those things move, the bell rings, there are buttons to press, that kind of stuff acts like a magnet for kids, and that mostly doesn’t present an issue. However, invariably, the bikes in their stands will be yanked around, kicked, pushed, handlebars used as monkey bars, and similar activities, and more often than not, the parents are nearby and simply can’t be arsed to do anything about it.
And then, of course, there are those who are old enough to know better for themselves, but obviously don’t. The ever-present teenage tracksuit brigade seem to be magically drawn to the bikes and their stations, and given their age group, shenanigans, showing off, and vandalism usually ensue. Although, in fairness, similar things also go on after the pubs and clubs in the city close, with alcohol, the odd illicit chemical substance and public infrastructure providing a highly volatile combination that anyone out and about in the city around 2-4 AM can see. Most pathetic of all are the wannabe ghetto boyz that act like Cork is somehow the Irish counterpart to Compton, tagging everything that stays stationary for more than ten seconds. 
I probably shouldn’t complain too loudly considering what the Nextbike operated Beflastbikes has to endure. After all, articles published in both the Irish Times and the Irish News in April 2017 showed that a shocking one third of the 576 bike up there had been stolen or vandalised, with locking mechanisms being deliberately sabotaged, and in one case a bike being sawn in half! It really makes the issues with our system down here seem minor, especially given that Nextbike rental bikes are actually pretty solid bicycles. Still, the disrespect for public infrastructure in our city is quite disheartening to see.

Network Planning 

This is something I’ve written about in a number of previous articles. The current system of rental stations covers pretty much the entire city centre, and I’m lucky enough that most of the spots I frequent on a daily basis, Merchant’s Quay, Sheare Street, Patrick Street, and of course my home station at Camden Quay, as well as most major attractions, like UCC, Fitzgerald Park, or Elizabeth Fort have a station within just a few meters distance. However, there are still numerous areas that are completely uncovered, mainly to the east and west of the existing network. I still don’t get why the area between UCC, the Cork County Council, and CIT was not included in the original network. The road network isn’t any worse than in the rest of the city, and the amount of potential users in that area is immense considering the amalgamation of major high tech employers, and student accommodation, in the area, not to mention the CIT campus. 
The situation is similar to the east. Paírc Uí Chaoimh has just been completed, and turned out to be a very impressive stadium. Marina Park is on the cusp of redevelopment, and the Blackrock Marina has just been refurbished, creating what is by many accounts a magnificent public space. The old Passage West railway line has been turned into what can best be described as a cycling highway, with a high quality path from the Marina Park all the way to Mahon Point, and beyond, providing a significant part of the city with a safe cycling alternative to throwing yourself to the mercy of Cork motorists, who are a fickle bunch at the best of times. Yet, in an Evening Echo article from August 11th, 2017, the NTA has stated that only one more station is currently being planned for Cork, and that is one at the new entrance to Kent Station. They are instead putting all of their resources into making the Galway and Limerick systems more attractive.
Now don’t get me wrong, cycling in Galway and Limerick apparently needs all the hope it can get, and An Rothar Nua appears to be up against some spectacularly stubborn and narrow-minded opposition up there, judging from the reports that I’ve read. Still, it strikes me as a bit short-sighted to just let the most successful system stew in its own juices instead of capitalising on its success. This is all the more true when you take into consideration that the Limerick system seems to be dealing with the same kind of maintenance issues that Cork is, according to user reports.
That being said, I do have to disagree with those calling for a drastic expansion of the network towards Blackrock and Mahon Point, at least for the time being. As I mentioned earlier, Marina Park is on the verge of being redeveloped, and any such work will of course close the existing pathways in the park at least for a certain period, similarly, the landscaping around Paírc Uí Chaoimh still appears to be not completely done, so there’s quite a bit of construction work to be done there. And lastly, from what I’ve seen, both Monahan Road and Centre Park Road don’t appear too cycle-friendly, and opening stations in Blackrock and Mahon could in effect lead to two almost completely isolated systems. I also have to disagree with Des Cahill, the former lord mayor of Cork’s assertion that Blackrock Castle is a prime location for a bike station, as he stated in the aforementioned Evening Echo article. The castle may be a very attractive destination, however the road leading to the castle is far too narrow to cycle along safely, especially given the quality of drivers here in Ireland, and the prevailing attitude towards cyclists. I’d love to be able to cycle out to Blackrock Castle, drop of my rental bike at a station, and just enjoy an hour or two there, but unless a grade-separated bike path is added to that road, it is just too risky.

So, with all that being discussed, where does Coca Cola Zero Bikes actually stand in Cork? Well, it has become part of everyday life, and a tremendous asset for the city. I’m personally very fond of the system, and use it as much as possible. However, due to the issues highlighted above, I cannot shake the feeling that either the Cork system is being deliberately neglected to push other networks, or that An Rothar Nua is simply in over their heads. The maintenance problems mentioned above just shouldn’t occur with the regularity they are occurring, and seem to indicate a severe shortage of technicians and/or spare parts, neither of which is acceptable for a system that has been in operation for over two years by now.
And while I oppose, for the time being, an expansion of the network into the Docklands or Blackrock, due to the reasons I outlined above, some network decisions just continue to baffle me. It makes no sense not to expand the network westwards to Victoria Cross and CIT, and quite frankly, I have to wonder why this wasn’t included in the base setup for Coke Zero Bikes in Cork. Whatever the reason, Coca Cola Zero Bikes in Cork is currently falling way behind its potential due to the issues mentioned in this article, and it is high time to put political pressure on the Department of Transport and NTA to allocate the required resources for the Cork system to realise its full potential.

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