Year Zero for the Belfast Cycling Revolution

10842312_10152963743177013_6859593430840328796_oCoca-Cola Zero has been announced as the headline sponsor for Belfast Bike Hire, due to begin operation this April. Other cities have debated the merits of letting major public health interventions be sponsored by fizzy drinks, but there is a bigger picture for Belfast – sustaining the rise of cycling as an everyday activity. With bicycles now powering 4% of all commuting journeys in Belfast and radical strategies being developed on the back of broad political will, we appear to have the right ingredients for Transport Minister Danny Kennedy’s Cycling Revolution™. But are we going to get the real thing or a sugar-free imitation?

Bike Hire – Like many cities around the world (Dublin, London and New York being the better-known examples) city residents and visitors will soon be able to register and hire a public bicycle to travel around Belfast. It’s going to be high-profile; work has started on 30 hire stations at key nodes, with Belfast City Hall the natural centre point.

The pricing structure – £5 for a three-day casual pass or £20 for an annual subscription, with the first 30 minutes of any journey free – should encourage many people to give cycling a try, especially for short trips about the city centre. Even everyday “private cyclists” are getting ready to sign up and use the scheme at those prices. Coca-Cola’s £300k sponsorship over 3 years is a handy subsidy to user costs. The Department for Regional Development (DRD) ploughed in £1.1 million and Belfast City Council has committed to fund the scheme until at least 2020.

The initial footprint doesn’t extend much beyond the ‘inner ring’ of the city, missing big trip generators like Queen’s University, the Royal Victoria Hospital, and the ‘retail village’ suburbs. Adding commuting to the equation would provide sustained usage and start to replace private car journeys, in turn reducing congestion. With the slightest early success councillors will push for expansion, but the whole scheme is built on a massive gamble that people will choose to do something most actively avoid now – riding a bicycle in space shared with general traffic.

Fear – Seven people were killed while cycling in the last two years in Northern Ireland. We all want to “Share the Road to Zero” fatalities and given just 1% of journeys in Northern Ireland are made by bicycle you’d imagine it’s an achievable goal for cycling. Yet a shocking 8% of people killed or seriously injured on our roads in 2014 were pedal cyclists.

Fear actively puts people off travelling by bicycle. A QUB study for the Connswater Greenway showed that 60% of people in Belfast felt the roads were too dangerous to cycle. The statistical risk is tiny, but that statement is as likely to encourage someone to cycle on road against their instincts as it is to convince a fearful flyer to jet off on holiday. Sustrans’ free cycle training for anyone interested in Belfast Bike Hire is great, but we remain rooted in a system where cyclist and bicycle are legally classed as a driver and a vehicle.

Will first-time Bike Hire users really be happy to cycle on Belfast’s busy city centre streets, mixing with Metro buses and impatient traffic? The worry is that (mostly illegal) pavement cycling will escalate as Bike Hirers discover what campaigners already know – and our road planners stubbornly ignore – cycling is a transport mode completely distinct from walking and driving which requires its own space to truly thrive.

Space – Belfast’s road network boasts a remarkable 80km of cycle lanes, yet just 2.5km of that is dedicated 24/7 for cycling. The rest is of zero practical use – blocked by parked cars or shared with even more vulnerable pedestrians. Cycling levels thrive in the south of the city around the traffic-free spine of the Lagan cycleway, but the cyclist is a rare species elsewhere. The lack of a dedicated east-west cycle route across the City Hall axis will become painfully obvious and frustrating to Bike Hire users.


More infographics here

A new Cycling Unit was formed in DRD a year ago, since delivering a draft Bicycle Strategy and an international cycling conference hosted in Belfast. The key-note speaker Klaus Bondam, CEO of the Danish Cyclists’ Federation, stopped short of saying Belfast was putting the cart before the horse with Bike Hire, but pointed to a desperate need for safe cycle infrastructure.

The Cycling Unit’s talk of high-quality routes developing a joined-up and legible network – with physical separation from traffic where needed – has been encouraging. But in 2015 the stabilisers come off and DRD will be judged on two fronts – securing a dedicated budget to deliver their own projects and successful integration of cycling space into ongoing road improvements.

Money – Modest spending plans for 2015-16 contained in the draft strategy got a rough ride at the Regional Development Committee in January as wider political games over broken street lights backfired on DRD. A mooted £4.5 million per year would be a good start, but per head of population that’s just one tenth of what The Netherlands spends on cycling. Austerity will be an easy stick to shove in the spokes during the current election cycle, but cycling was surviving off crumbs in the boom years. The case for investing in cycling isn’t about finding ‘new money’ but giving a higher priority within transport budget allocations.

“[When] we are doing road infrastructure projects .. we should be integrating.” DRD Committee Chair Trevor Clarke (7th Jan 2015)

These words ring loudly as the £125 million York Street Interchange plans being displayed this week represent the first opportunity to judge DRD intent. For zero ‘new’ cash and a blank canvas, it’s a wonderful chance to create an excellent cycle route linking York Street to the city centre, through a bleak urban motorway junction. But the URS design drafts are typically poor – a 1.5m on-road cycle lane, a shared bus lane and useless ‘advanced stop line’ green cycle boxes stamped everywhere like a incurable rash. If you wouldn’t let an 8 year old cycle on it, it fails the test of good infrastructure.

As well as altering York Street’s antiquated cycling design, DRD’s Cycling Unit needs to announce at least one high profile project in 2015 to prove it can make a real impact. With the Connswater Greenway completing this year, and the go-ahead expected for the traffic-free Gasworks Bridge over the Lagan, the momentum is unprecedented – yet easy to squander.

Year Zero – The Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland sets out a 25 year vision for embedding cycling in everyday life. This will extend far beyond the political will of the current Minister, who’s last full year in office (unfortunately) coincides with Year Zero for his Cycling Revolution™. Is there enough broad political support to lock cycling targets and budget commitments into all the main party manifestos? Only by taking its place in Programme for Government targets can cycling get the sustained funding necessary to bring real progress. Without this, the fizz might go out of the Bicycle Strategy straight after next year’s Assembly elections.

There is a movement slowly growing from below that will push hard for change. An All-Party Group on Cycling at Stormont is influencing politicians from within the machine. Local cycling writers are becoming more prominent, led by Malachi O’Doherty and the Lovely Bicycle! blog trading in Boston for Bellarena. 2015 is likely to see the introduction of a regular Ciclovía event in Belfast, filling city streets on a Sunday with people on bicycles in place of motor vehicles. Local business organisations many finally realise that the humble bicycle is only a threat to the dominance of the car in Belfast, not traders’ bottom line. And the reach of the brilliant Fréd Festival is limited only by the creativity of the wider public to dream up cycling events.

2015 promises much for everyday cycling, and I hope Belfast Bike Hire will be great for our city. It can be a catalyst for delivering a more balanced transport system, while undoubtedly introducing the wider public to the downsides of cycling around Belfast. But don’t forget that thousands of people – young and old, male and female, rich and poor – already cycle to work, to school, for shopping and leisure in Belfast every day, and we’ll need to convince thousands more out of their cars in order to keep the city moving. Just plonking 300 bicycles into Belfast city centre, while refusing to stomach the physical changes necessary to give everyone safe space to cycle around Belfast, will leave the Cycling Revolution™ with zero chance of long-term success.

About NI Greenways

Jonathan Hobbs writes the Northern Ireland Greenways blog, campaigning for high-quality networks of traffic-free walking and cycling space around the country and in our cities. In the vanguard of the cycling revolution. Also a dyed-in-the-wool private motorist, just for the record. or twitter  @nigreenways

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.