From Craigavon to Copenhagen: NI’s Failure to Build Soft Bike Infrastructure…

The draft for a Belfast Bicycle Network was launched in 2017 by the Department for Infrastructure. In 2022 the delivery plan finally arrived. It’s due for completion in 2031. The £100 million project is currently decades off schedule and nothing has been constructed.


Look up “the best cities in the world to live” and Copenhagen always features in the top 3. Search “the world’s best cycling cities” and it’s permanently embedded in first place. This isn’t a coincidence. Cycling cities are liveable cities.

“Copenhagenize” is now a recognised verb among city planners. Paris, London, Dublin, Milan, Barcelona and dozens of cities around the world have all Copenhagenized. In 2013, Danny Kennedy (UUP) – then Minister for Infrastructure – returned from his fact finding mission to Copenhagen and immediately announced a “cycling revolution”.

Successful revolutions rely on pacts and alliances – so Kennedy and his revolutionaries organised the groundbreaking Changing Gears conference, created a a new Cycling Unit and then launched Belfast Bike Scheme in time for the Giro d’Italia visiting the Belfast in 2014. He was building soft infrastructure, in preparation for the hard infrastructure that was to follow. He left post the following year and his revolution stopped revolving. So how did Copenhagen do it – and why can’t we?

Never waste a good crisis

Wind back to 1973, when the Arab oil producers (OAPEC) turned off the taps to the nations who supported Israel in the Yom Kippur war – USA, UK, Canada, Japan and the Netherlands. Supplies evaporated, prices quadrupled and the world experienced the first global energy crisis. Denmark – on the periphery – felt the crisis more acutely. It had no natural energy resources of its own. 90% of its energy was generated by burning oil – 90% of that oil came from the Middle East.

While the long term goal was energy independence – through oil exploration and renewables – their short term fix was the “fifth energy”, efficiency. Facing a predictable cold winter, a fractious political culture quickly galvanised and agreed to implement a set of soft, “behavioural change” measures to preserve precious oil reserves.

They asked their citizens to lower room temperatures, take showers instead of baths, stop using cars on Sundays. They lowered speed limits and turned off every other street light. Soft is cheap, messy, unpopular and unpredictable because it involves making people do things they don’t want to do. It can also be incredibly effective.

Along with these soft cultural changes, the capital city Copenhagen, used some hard infrastructure – specifically 150km of cycle lanes – built after WWII. By 1973 around 10% of journeys were still taken by bike. 21.5% of Copenhagen’s population considered themselves cyclists. 32.7% of children cycled to school. Copenhagen had some solid cultural and infrastructural bedrock to transition away from cars and oil.

This mix of an external crisis, soft cultural changes and existing hard infrastructure allowed Denmark to eventually break the relationship between GDP growth and energy consumption and set a course for energy independence. Denmark is now cited as one of the world’s most liveable places with the world’s highest levels of income equality and 2nd happiest country.

We built it, no one came

In 1973 – Northern Ireland was attempting to do something similar. Craigavon was a futuristic new city with 2 separate transport systems, one for cyclists the other for cars.

An incredible 40km of segregated cycle paths, soaring cycle bridges and a warren of subways and underpasses were designed to connect everyone to everything. Craigavon’s “Black Paths” remain the largest, most ambitious segregated active travel project on the island of Ireland. It’s still there – small parts are on a par with Copenhagen, larger parts are crumbling or being reclaimed by nature. We built it and no one came, not on bikes anyhow. What happened?

Caption: Craigavon’s cycling infrastructure, separated from the road network above. ©Cycul

ALT: 12 cycling underpasses in Craigavon – with no visible cyclists.

On the binge

In terms of active travel, Craigavon wasn’t a failure of infrastructure, it was a failure of culture – we failed to build any cycle culture to support it. We built the hard, predictable expensive concrete stuff. We never built the soft, messy, cheap cultural stuff to sit on top.

While Denmark’s petrol tank was running on empty in 1973 – the UK was just starting to fill up on North Sea oil. The cultures diverged – Denmark went on the wagon, the UK went on a binge.

By the late 70s and early 80s UK citizens were hankering after hot hatches. Cycling was for children and luddites. The Danes, on the other hand, were taking personal responsibility for their energy. Cycling was a solution.

That 40 year binge is now evident across Northern Ireland. DfI’s Bicycle Strategy for NI (published in 2015) aimed for 20% of all journeys – less than 1 mile – to be taken by bicycle by 2025. Less than 2 years away, it remains at 1%. Unbelievably, 0% of secondary school children cycle to school. We still have the highest car ownership in the UK.

No minister

Danny Kennedy and his revolutionaries left DFI in 2015. Michelle McIlveen (DUP) and Chris Hazard (SF) showed little interest in continuing the fight. Kennedy’s pacts and alliances disintegrated ahead of yet another, inevitable assembly suspension in 2017.

By the time Nichola Mallon (SDLP) took the wheel at DFI in 2020, the road engineers had been left alone and unsupervised in the silo for 3 years. The cycling revolution was over. When the COVID crisis struck months later, Mallon couldn’t capitalise on the crisis because her department still only knew how to move cars – not people.

Moving cars is what DfI have been trained to do. They appreciate the clean lines of shuttered concrete, speak fluent traffic flow and appreciate the heady aromas of hot asphalt. They don’t understand the soft, mushy, behaviour change stuff. It’s intangible, not easily surveyed, measured or project managed. You can’t cut a ribbon on it. It can’t be sign posted or viewed on Google maps. You can’t stand back and admire your handiwork.

In 2023, with yet another suspension and no minister to steer the juggernaut, DfI have responded to the latest budget cuts by simply scrapping all the cheap, soft stuff – road safety advertising, Cycling Proficiency Scheme, Road Safety Grant Scheme, Active Travel School Programme. More soft structures dismantled.

Scaffold skips & silos

Soft structures are built on a scaffolding of collaboration and partnership between a wide range of organisations. Each part connected by dialogue, trust, shared vision and common purpose. It’s mostly financed by social capital – i.e. 1000s of personal relationships across government departments, education, business, arts, sport, community, religion, 3rd sector etc. It’s the job of politicians to nurture and protect these structures.

Unfortunately, each time our politicians collapse Stormont, they pull large parts of the scaffolding down with it. Most of what has been built gets tossed in a skip and all that social capital is squandered. Some organisations rummage through the skip in an attempt to salvage the remnants to rebuild. Others organisations and individuals – exasperated and exhausted – simply walk away. Rebuilding takes years. Inevitably Stormont pulls it all down again.

The think tank Pivotal published Good Governance in NI in Mar 2020. A particular theme runs through it:

“Challenges were met with a lack of collective ownership, with ministers and civil servants often working in silos.”

“Long-term thinking was scarce…with ministers and civil servants often working in silos.”

“This lack of unity is compounded by the fact departments are funded in silos.

“To be effective, collaboration across traditional silos is essential.”

“Silo working… is one theme to have emerged from the RHI inquiry – but this is not an isolated case.”

When large parts of our society operate from 2 large silos – unable to form lasting pacts and alliances – it’s hardly surprising when our politicians and government departments are also happy operating from silos – unable and unwilling to form pacts and alliances.

Copenhagen became a model city for a 21st century city, because its politicians got out of their silos long enough to respond to an external crisis. They sold a vision of fuel independence. They built soft cultural structures along with hard infrastructure, stayed the course and earned trust.

We built many soft structures using the Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago. Since then we’ve been pulling them down too often to build anything concrete. Perhaps all subsequent crises simply don’t measure up to “the troubles” – and don’t warrant the effort?

That’s why we can’t Copenhagenize – because we can’t do soft.

Soft is simply too hard.

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