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

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  • Ernekid

    I’m suprised that they aren’t extending this out to Queen’s and the areas where lots of students live, eg. Stranmillis and the Holylands.

    Cycling in Belfast is really really dangerous, I’ve been nearly knocked off my bike by taxis and Bus drivers more times than I’d like to remember. The route I usually take to go into town is the towpath beside the Lagan. Most cyclepaths are useless they stop-start so often they make little sense. They are usually filled with parked cars as well.

    As I don’t have a bike in Belfast any more, I’m quite likely to sign up to this but If the bikes are only located in the City Centre rather than across the city then their use is quite limited.

  • ‘(mostly illegal) pavement cycling’ can the writer clarify when cycling on the pavement is legal as oppossed to illegal? As a pedestrian I am sick and tired of cyclists racing along the pavements of East Bridge Street (I’ve been hit from behind three times) when the road traffic is flowing freely and, when heading towards the City Centre, cyclists even have the advantage of using the Bus Lanes. I would agree that the cycle paths are not fit for purpose in Belfast City Centre at the moment but what gives cyclists the right to endanger pedestrians, ignore traffic lights and cycle the wrong way up one-way streets just because the one-way system does not suit their journey. If you can’t stick to the law or can’t stick to the cycle paths/road then simply don’t cycle. Any chance of someone blogging for the rights of pedestrians? P.S. loved the video which appears on the Belfast Telegraph’s website today showing the Lord Mayor Nichola Mallon and Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy unveiling the public bike hire scheme. Could it be that they are cycling along the pavement in front of the City Hall? What a good role model they are and is there any chance of the PSNI admonishing them-perhaps a £30 fine?

  • NI Greenways

    Thanks Poolboy. Take East Bridge St out to the Albertbridge Rd – cycling on the pavement is illegal from Cromac Square, past Central Station, across Albert Bridge. Hit the Ravenhill / Short Strand junction and road planners (in their wisdom) designated the footway there to Mountpottinger Road as shared pedestrian/cycling space. It leads to crazy conflict at the bus shelter, danger for pedestrians along the whole stretch, and shows why cycling needs distinct, separate space – for the benefit of all.
    Saintfield Rd is another example of where pavement cycling is legal. Look at pedestrian crossings for additional bicycle lights. Across Belfast there’s a daft patchwork (much like the cycle lanes themselves) leaving people confused and chipping away at the general understanding that cycling on the pavement isn’t actually allowed. I think it’s a simple reality that many Bike Hire journeys are going to involve a good deal of pavement cycling – and that’s not a good thing.

    Pavement cycling is a symptom of badly designed streets. Cycling is not driving, and people instinctively expect to cycle around a city more like a pedestrian than a car. Huge one-way systems are there to manage vehicle flows; they shouldn’t be there to hinder cycling movement – hence our limited contra-flow cycle lanes. Significant growth of cycling will not happen relying on bus lanes, because people are just as frightened of sharing space with buses as the rest of traffic (another thing road planners appear blissfully unaware of).
    Let me amend your point: “If you can’t stick to the speed limit then simply don’t drive” would take a significant proportion of cars off the road in an instant. We’ve normalised misbehaviour in our driving to the point of it being almost invisible, but it causes far more damage (lives lost / changed, street environments made more hostile) than pavement cycling does. A better balance in road design will help to address both issues.

  • Greenways, I didn’t realise that Ravenhill/Short Strand/Mountpottinger junction is a shared cycle lane. Are there any signs posted because I’ve never noticed any? Legally riding on the pavement is illegal at all times unless there are signs/repeater signs/road markings on the pavement. Couldn’t agree more with the comments on street design (likely to get worse in Belfast with some of the changes proposed) but to expand your point can I suggest that drivers breaking the law are likely to have their collar felt whereas cyclists are ignored thus allowing bad cycling habits to continue and grow.

  • Janos Bingham

    I feel your pain Poolboy! I was taken out by a Lycra lout on the Lagan towpath knocking me on my a@&e.

    He made off before I could Interact with him to express my ‘disappointment’ with his riding. It was funny though watching him cycling away unable to get one shoe clipped back on his pedal as I rallied in pursuit. 🙂

    The police were of little help, mainly because I couldn’t offer much in the way of a workable description. I did become a lot more aware of bicycles as a result, especially those you can only detect by using the eyes in the back of your head.

    I did learn that bicycles are required by law to have a bell, the purpose being to warn pedestrians of their presence (much like a car horn). My own straw poll recorded less than 10% of bikes so equipped. I wonder how many have been ticketed by the police?

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Is cycling to work practical? My point is from the point of view of needing a shower once you arrive at work.

  • Brian O’Neill

    A lot of businesses now offers showers.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Not all do and many of those that do offer very minimal and unclean facilities.

  • NI Greenways

    How far do you commute? About two thirds of ALL journeys to work by Belfast residents are under 5km, reflective of what a small city this is. Unless you’re absolutely gunning it, you’d be hard pressed to work up a sweat, given a few trips to get your fitness up. My commute is just under 3 miles in 15 minutes (regardless of the traffic conditions) at most I suffer a mild brow sweat. This isn’t lycra-clad racing territory..

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Good argument and worth considering. I’m 25 minutes walk from city centre which is 30 minutes on the bus.

  • JoeHassit

    Great post, and I have high hopes for this scheme as a catalyst for more change. Belfast City Council and DRD deserve credit for a lot of positive change in recent years. But I think we can all agree that cycling infrastructure is still of a relatively low standard and in need of development. As a cyclist commuter I often feel like cycling is a high risk endeavour and just not worth it (anyone want to use the Sydenham By-pass cycle lane?)

    I also agree with those frustrated by some cyclist behaviour. Some of the lycra-clad brigade have similar attitudes that ‘white van man’ has on the road. Please slow down and show respect to other users or risk alienating others. An elderly neighbour who got clipped by a cyclist told me the cyclist shouted at her to get off the “cycleway” (same term used by article writer). It’s not. It’s a shared towpath.

  • NI Greenways

    Thanks for the comments Joe. Pick a number, but I firmly believe there’s a certain percentage of the population who regularly and purposefully disregard “the rules” of the road or footway or whatever. That misbehaviour manifests itself regardless of the form of transport they happen to be using. “Cyclists” gets a particularly bad reputation because it’s such an odd, niche activity here – unexpected or dangerous behaviour sticks out like a sore thumb. The person you describe above sounds quite rude.

    The towpath and greenways in Belfast are going to be difficult areas should this Cycling Revolution really take off, as they’re not wide enough to cope with a large increase in usage by two groups (three if you count canine users) with such different speed and style of movement. The “Lagan cycleway” in the article is a layman’s reference to the Stranmillis Embankment cycle track – a great dedicated facility providing a half decent blueprint for many other roads in Belfast – but yeah, topped and tailed by shared space not suited for speedy / competitive / reckless cycling.

  • John^iπ+1=0

    With respect, drivers constantly break the law and never have their “collars felt” and that is essentially why cycling feels so dangerous, particularly where traffic volumes are the largest. This, in turn, is most likely why pavement cycling is rife. Enforcement of road traffic legislation is expensive and time consuming and so is unlikely to be able to enact any significant changes in driver or cyclist behaviour. Also, judging by the comments attracted by cycling articles from major media outlets the chances of a positive mindset change from road users is slim. Which leaves infrastructure change th the only viable option. Unfortunatly, cyclists and particularly pedestrians have been dealt a short straw in NI for years now when it comes to road design. Hopefully it will change.

  • babyface finlayson

    I think it is fair to say that most journeys in to the city centre would be more downhill than up, given the Belfast Hills around the city. So an easy enough sweat free ride into town then work up a good sweat on the way home!
    If you work in Ligoniel though, you are scundered. You will never get up that road without a struggle(for one reason or another).

  • Zig70

    I cycle, run, walk and drive to work on different days. The most dangerous is the walk up the Lisburn road. Driver’s either don’t know or don’t care that pedestrians have the right of way if they have started to cross a junction. Quite often, I avoid the pavement cycle lanes, they are maybe suitable for a slow cycle but not for a commute. Especially if they have frequent junctions. Spending money replacing green men with green man and a bicycle just baffles me.

  • Afonso Gomes

    I commute 7.5 miles and all i need is a deodorant when i get to work. It is as practical as you want to make it.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    The Belfast shower then?

  • Chris Murphy

    What’s to be done? Lobby councillors, MLAs and canvassers for better infra & go all Andy Dufresne & log & report every instance of bikelane parking to #101?