Edinburgh cycle hire: Work to bring back bike scheme should be abandoned, council officials recommend

Budget cuts could halt work on new Edinburgh cycle hire project

The previous cycle hire scheme was intended to be self-financing, but thefts and vandalism led to added cost.  Picture: Scott Louden
The previous cycle hire scheme was intended to be self-financing, but thefts and vandalism led to added cost. Picture: Scott Louden

Hopes of reviving a cycle hire scheme for the Capital may be dashed by the huge cuts the council has to make in next year’s budget. Officials have recommended dropping plans to investigate options to bring back a bike scheme following the collapse of the previous one and reallocating money which had been set aside.

However it will be up to councillors to decide and costed options for the reintroduction of a cycle hire scheme are expected to be made available for the different parties to consider as part of the budget process. But all the political groups are acutely conscious that the council will have to save nearly £80 million from next year’s spending plans.

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Edinburgh’s cycle hire scheme was launched in 2018. Sponsored by Just Eat and operated by Serco, it was designed to be self-financing and attracted over 70,000 users. During Covid it became the fastest growing scheme in Britain with a total of 234,500 trips being made. But at the end of the contract in 2021, when the potential for a four-year extension came up, Serco said it could not continue under the existing arrangements. Major problems with theft and vandalism had greatly increased the costs of running the scheme. The council promised to pursue options for a new scheme.

Scrapping any further investigation of a possible revival of the scheme would save £500,000 in 2023/24 and 2024/25 and a further £200,000 in 2025/26.

‘Substantial private sponsorship will be needed’

Labour transport convener Scott Arthur said: “Since becoming transport and environment convener in May I have spent some time thinking about why Edinburgh’s cycle hire scheme failed so catastrophically, and what makes them such a success elsewhere. I’m keen to reintroduce a scheme to Edinburgh and that we use it to get residents more active, and connect tourists to businesses and attractions. The challenge we face, however, is that each of the options I have considered would need non-trivial levels of public subsidy.

“In the coming weeks I will publish costed proposals and I hope to be able to work with all of Edinburgh’s political parties to agree a way forward. Given the cuts the SNP/Green Government is forcing on Edinburgh, however, it is clear to me that substantial private sponsorship will be needed to ensure the success of any scheme.”

Green finance spokesperson Alys Mumford said she was surprised officers were recommending cutting further work on a cycle hire scheme. “It’s something we hear all the time that people in Edinburgh want. It’s embarrassing we don’t have a cycle hire scheme, as a big city and a city that says it aspires to be a cycling-friendly city.”

She said when it came to the budget the Greens would be looking to invest in active travel. “Investing in cycling is going to be a key part of what we do and we’ve been pushing for there to be a replacement for the cycle hire scheme for a long time. The last time it was hoped it would be self-financing, but now we’re faced with the council having to put money in. I think that’s a very worthwhile thing for the council to be doing.”

‘The Government is slashing the council budget by tens of millions’

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SNP leader Adam McVey said his group had not yet taken any position on the budget but pointed out the last SNP-led administration had set money aside for a new cycle hire scheme. “The last scheme was delivered at virtually nil cost and we allocated money in the hope that we could build an infrastructure of these bikes that could then be run on a wash-its-face basis.” He said he hoped a model could be found where the income from rental would cover the ongoing maintenance.

Lib Dem leader Kevin Lang said his group wanted to see the return of a cycle hire scheme as an important part of the city’s move to encourage active travel. “We were incredibly frustrated when the previous arrangement fell through because we felt it was well-used, very popular and growing. But there is still a question mark as to how you deliver a sustainable scheme and what the cost to the council would be. The benefit of the previous scheme was that it was delivered without any additional investment by the council. It’s pretty clear now that we will need additional investment and that challenge comes when the government is slashing the council’s budget by tens of millions of pounds.”

Tory group leader Iain Whyte said most major cities now had a cycle hire scheme, but suggested the chances of reviving a scheme in Edinburgh were “probably blown” by not finding money to keep the original one going. “Everyone suggests it would cost far more to start a new scheme than to keep one going. So even the money that was set aside probably isn’t enough. If there’s no scheme in sight and there’s money that was set aside I suspect it will be taken as a saving because there’s no real prospect of doing anything else.”