Minister for Infrastructure Chris Hazzard has set an ambitious £150 million plan to begin delivery of a 1,000km network of greenways across Northern Ireland over the next 10 years.


The Strategy was developed by the Department along with AECOM and Sustrans using a methodology to assess the relative benefits of individual schemes which led to the formation of a three-tiered approach. A Primary Network will provide the spine of the overall plan:

The Primary Network of around 400km includes many of the main areas of population and reaches some major tourist attractions. It provides the basis for a connected regional network. The East – West (Larne to Belcoo) route includes the east section of EuroVelo Route 1 (between Larne and Craigavon). The North – South (Derry to Newry) route includes the west section. The Causeway Coast is reached via a Central route.

There are seven individual sections to the Primary Network, estimated in the region of £60m to complete and the Strategy sets a target of 75% of this to be delivered within 10 years.


The Secondary Network encompasses most of the other schemes identified between the original NI Greenways vision, AECOM and Sustrans work and input from Councils:

“The Secondary Network of around 600km would extend the reach of the Greenway Network more widely. It includes some excellent routes and Councils may decide to develop these sections for more local reasons. It would not be the intention that all of the Primary Network must be completed before work begins on the Secondary Network. Some of these routes may be more easily designed.”

There are 20 individual sections to the Secondary Network, estimated in the region of £90m to complete and the target is for 25% of this to be delivered within 10 years.


The strategy allows for new schemes to be proposed and taken forward should they be identified:

“Future plans may provide for a third level network of community paths that would provide doorstep opportunities to connect local communities to their local green space and neighbouring communities.”

The Department is setting the overall vision for the greenway network, including design standards and grants schemes to aid delivery, but Northern Ireland’s 11 local councils will be expected to take the lead on delivery on the ground:

“Councils have a key role in the delivery of the Greenway Network. The purpose of this Strategic Plan is to provide a framework to assist Councils and other bodies to develop their own local schemes as part of a Greenway Network for the entire region.”


Minister Hazzard has made clear his vision to see this kind of active travel infrastructure extended throughout Ireland:

“As the first Minister for Infrastructure my focus is on sustainable transport. Greenways can make a huge difference to the daily lives of people by providing the opportunity to enjoy safe and easy access to fresh air and exercise, encouraging more people to commute to work by foot or bicycle, more children to walk or cycle to school, and provide a vital leisure resource for local people and visitors alike.

“This plan sets out my vision and framework for a more strategic and ambitious programme to develop greenway routes right across the whole of the north. I believe that greenways and similar community paths will ultimately create public spaces that will enhance our quality of life and leave an enduring legacy to be enjoyed by future generations.”


Welcoming the Minister’s announcement, Sustrans Northern Ireland Director Gordon Clarke said:

“Supporting rural regeneration through the development of traffic-free greenways was a priority policy area in our Manifesto ahead of last May’s Assembly elections.

“Across the UK we recognise the huge benefits these greenways have for local people. Greenways help to get people walking and cycling for leisure, commuting and school journeys. They also boost local businesses and have a wider tourism potential.

“The delivery of this vision, however, will require a commitment to substantial long-term capital investment from the Northern Ireland Executive.”

Small Grants Programme

So where is the money coming from? There’s no point in setting a vision without backing it up with the means to deliver. Luckily the Minister has already pushed the Strategy forward by inviting local councils to compete for grants to establish the initial stages of Greenways projects.

Remarkably, all 11 local councils responded at Stage 1 with 27 individual project proposals. The competition ran over summer 2016 and 20 greenway projects were successful and will now receive £8,000 funding.


This total £160,000 in grants will enable successful councils to develop concept design options through a feasibility study for their proposed greenway schemes in Stage 2.

For Stage 3 a number of the highest quality of these feasibility studies will be selected to each receive £25,000 to develop a full business case and detailed design for their proposal.

The councils and projects to receive the funding are:

Ards and North Down – three grants (£24,000 in total. £8,000 to each greenway scheme)

  • Comber to Newtownards greenway
  • Orlock Point to Donaghadee greenway
  • Orlock Point to Holywood greenway


Fermanagh and Omagh – two grants (£16,000 in total. £8,000 to each greenway scheme)

  • Enniskillen to Clones greenway
  • Omagh to Carrickmore greenway

Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon – Four grants (£32,000 in total, £8,000 to each greenway scheme)

  • Craigavon to Aghagallon greenway
  • Portadown – (North of) Moy greenway
  • Banbridge to Scarva greenway
  • Portadown – Caledon (via Armagh) greenway

Newry, Mourne and Down – four grants (£32,000 in total. £8,000 to each greenway scheme)

Antrim and Newtownabbey – one grant (£8,000)

  • Doagh to Larne greenway

Lisburn and Castlereagh – one grant (£8,000)

  • Carryduff greenway

Causeway Coast and Glens – one grant (£8,000)

Derry and Strabane – one grant (£8,000)

  • North West Greenway

Mid and East Antrim – one grant (£8,000)

Mid Ulster – two grants (£16,000 in total. £8,000 to each greenway scheme)

  • Clogher Valley Greenway
  • Ulster Canal Greenway

The plans for major capital investment to deliver shovel-ready projects after Stage 3 will be worked on in the coming months.

Download: Exercise, Explore, Enjoy – A Strategic Plan for Greenways (PDF)



It’s an exciting day capping four and a half years of voluntary campaigning to raise awareness of the Northern Ireland Greenways vision.

We now have central and local government working together on a plan to create a 1,000km network extending across the country and across the border. If delivered, this will be a welcome mat to the world, placing a traffic-free path network at the centre of our tourism offering, and regenerating communities all over the country – rural and urban, west and east of the Bann, north and south of the border.


We should also be able to count on a smooth ride to delivery over the current Northern Ireland Assembly term, given that 77 of 108 returned MLAs pledged their support to development of a greenway network as party of the Election Cycle campaign – a tough promise to go back on, even in these heady days of opposition politics at Stormont.

Personally I’d like to thank Chris Hazzard, his ministerial predecessors Michelle McIlveen and Danny Kennedy for driving this Strategy; Sustrans NI and Cycling UK for their support in the campaign; all the good heads in the GB Cycling Embassy, Cyclist.IE and various campaign groups I’ve been lucky to interact with; some excellent local politicians and the amazing Cycling Unit staff within the Department for Infrastructure.

Belfast cyclists who’ve visited cities in the Netherlands can’t help but be impressed by the dedicated, separated cycling infrastructure. We despair at the state of our own urban roads, with funny green coloured car parks called cycle lanes, and the ‘shared space’ of bus lanes about to be opened up to taxis. When we suggest Dutch-style separated cycle tracks, we’re told there isn’t enough road space, it’s too expensive, or there isn’t the demand.

Aaron Coulter’s fantastic mini series on Bicycling Belfast argues that some of Belfast’s roads are quite narrow, and to expect a fully separate network across the city isn’t realistic, at least in the short term. Certainly in Northern Ireland’s car-dominated society, with alternative urban transport spending being mainly focused on buses, priority for cycling isn’t currently on the agenda.

But these broad generalisations about space and cost mask something important. What about roads where space is not the main issue? Are there opportunities to actually implement sections of high quality separated cycle tracks in areas of Belfast?

Belfast ignoring Dutch cycling lessons

The following video shows a junction on a dual carriageway in ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch), with a typical separate cycle track.


There are a few things to note here:

  • the location is quite central in Den Bosch
  • the speed limit on the dual carriageway is 50kph (31mph)
  • the majority of cyclists are school children as this is a Friday afternoon
  • there is a pedestrian pathway on the right hand side of the road

What strikes me about the scene is the space and priority given to cyclists during interactions with vehicles. Cycling on the track appears to be quite a serene experience. No-one has to pedal hard to keep up with vehicular traffic, and people are able to chat and relax. Vehicles accessing the side roads wait patiently for prioritised cyclists to pass. Not anything you would associate with road cycling in Belfast. You’d have to use the Comber Greenway, Lagan Towpath or Lough Shore routes to get close, but these are rarely complete A – B routes, and are not cycle tracks developed in parallel with the road network, save for a 1km section on the Stranmillis embankment.

What was really striking was how similar the road looked to somewhere in Belfast – the Upper Knockbreda Road. This is part of the A55 Outer Ring road in the city, providing a strategic link for traffic to the south and east of the city to avoid the centre for longer journeys.


Some of the noted similarities:

  • Dual carriageway with a reduced urban speed limit (40mph in Belfast)
  • Turning junctions crossing the carriageway
  • Sections of off slips at junctions
  • Bus stops
  • Nearby schools (Knockbreda High, Lagan College, Grosvenor Grammar, Newtownbreda High)
  • Dedicated cycling provision*
  • Similar width (approx 30m Belfast, 35m Den Bosch)

* Yes, the Belfast road has dedicated cycling provision! In fact, cycle lanes were first put on stretches of this road over 10 years ago. So how does the experience of cycling this dual carriageway stack up against the Den Bosch example? I took a journey with my video camera on a 2.6km stretch from the Castlereagh Road to the Saintfield Road:


This cycle route has been classically bolted on the existing road and pavement, with minimum thought or budget given to the actual needs of cycle users. The confusing jumps between shared pavement (two-way) and on-road (one way) cycling betrays a lack of care in planning. When on-road, cyclists are too close to fast moving traffic for comfort. When on the shared pavement, hazards include road signs, uncertainty about give way markings, and conflict with pedestrians – usually the understandable complaint of pedestrians intimidated by fast moving cyclists.

The arguments will rage over priority and demand – obviously far more people travel on this road in motor vehicles than cycle or walk. The classic argument is that people make rational choices on their method of travel, and if motor vehicles are the dominant mode, they must have priority.

Of course, as this road and most in Belfast show, the choice between cycling and driving is not an equal choice. The comfort and (perception of) safety of a car for a short journey will usually win out over fear of physical danger on a bad cycle route. Fear of traffic is a major barrier, and is not addressed properly in this example. People are not encouraged to cycle on this route so much as tolerated.

While on the periphery of the city, there are several important destinations along the Outer Ring which would greatly benefit from being connected by a high quality cycle route: the schools mentioned before, the Comber Greenway, the Lagan towpath, Belvoir Forest Park, the forthcoming Connswater Community Greenway, Cregagh Glen, the Forestside shopping complex, Knockbreda Healthcare Centre, and many more community connections and key arterial corridors.

Building unnecessary compromise into the network from the start, dooms proper development of cycling as a viable transport form. As we see from the Dutch video, good design principles of separation would see a cycle track ‘behind’ areas of conflict such as bus stops, or traffic signals like the one on this dual carriageway in Belfast:


The difficult areas in the video, when encountering (very low frequency service) bus stops, or cycle lanes on the inside of off slips, show extremely poor design. Taken from the viewpoint of making the least difficulties for general traffic, they are understandable choices – where space is judged too tight, pedestrians and cyclists lose out to traffic needs.

My own view is that separate cycle tracks are actually easy to achieve, given the right budgetary conditions and road space. It’s all of the other aspects of Dutch cycling which prevent road engineers here from implementing them – junction priorities and design, crossings, roundabout design, and strict liability principles. The design manual is either sorely lacking, or there is no willingness think creatively.

Roads Service blind to best practice

As with many of Belfast’s investments in cycling – mainly unenforceable advisory cycle lanes – this is a wasted opportunity. This section is part of a 4.7km project, with cycle lanes or shared paths mostly on both sides of the dual carriageway. The total project spend was just £77,000, very modest when compared to European norms, but money spent nonetheless – and now lost to inadequate infrastructure.

These excerpts from the Roads Service Progress Report to Castlereagh Borough Council (where this road is located) in August 2006 highlight the aspirational rhetoric on local cycling infrastructure, which isn’t matched in reality:

“Whilst usage levels of these routes are not high, they were intended to separate cyclists from other vehicles on heavily trafficked roads to increase safety.”

By any measure, the Upper Knockbreda Road is a fast and busy dual carriageway, despite the 40mph limit. Putting a mandatory cycle lane on the road is not separation, and cyclists would struggle to feel safe here.

“Other cities in GB and in Europe (including those with climatic and topographical characteristics similar to our own) have changed the transport habits of their citizens and achieved proportions of journeys made by bicycle many times higher than here. It is clear that if good facilities are provided and marketed, people will be happy to use them in very significant numbers, to their own benefit, and to the benefit the environment.”

Roads Service are keen to reference best practice from Europe here, and even go some way to knocking down a tired argument about climate being a unique barrier to cycling uptake in Belfast. But it is disingenuous to place this in a report, when the cycle facilities provided do not come close to European best practice. Interestingly, despite this being one of Belfast’s longest mandatory cycle lanes, and on a key strategic transport route, there are no cycle counters installed to measure usage. Belfast has a number of these, which have shown an overall increase of 152% during the time this particular route has been operating. But usage here remains unrecorded.

Belfast cyclists are becoming more aware of the attitudes within Roads Service to cycling as transport, ranging from indifference to hostility, laced with a lack of understanding of cycle users’ needs. Recent initiatives such as Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes are demonstrating that even our inadequate infrastructure isn’t available when it should be.

However Roads Service must maintain the appearance that active travel is core to it’s investment. The June 2002 report to Castlereagh Borough Council was fronted by an image of the redesigned Knock dual carriageway, as a high profile example of cycling needs being catered for. It speaks volumes for the understanding and importance of cycling to Roads Service that no-one had the wit to notice the two cars illegally blocking the mandatory cycle lane. This was clearly during the afternoon school run, at the very time the cycle lane should be used most (if you’d feel happy letting your children use the lane).

How long can Belfast ignore the Dutch?

There are plenty of areas in Belfast with no cycling infrastructure at all which need urgent attention. It is unreasonable to ask for a Dutch-style cycle track to be built on this road in the short term – in many ways the cycling ship has sailed on this road. For future projects with adequate road space, Roads Service need to understand that there is a better way to design cycle infrastructure. Public money is spent by Roads Service on cycling measures which are designed to fit in where possible, leaving a disjointed, confusing and muddled network, unfit for use by all ages, and failing to provide safe high quality cycle tracks to attract more people out of their cars.

Roads Service need to be directed, and empowered, by pressing targets and dedicated budget to design projects with the needs of cycle users at their core. We can’t afford to keep missing opportunities like this.

It’s no mistake that cycling levels and safety are so good in the Netherlands. It is a mistake to think that we can ignore best practice, and try to design successful cycle networks which cater for motorists’ needs rather than cyclists. While we continue down this path we waste good money, and waste chances to make a real impact on Belfast cycling.

Former Ballymoney to Ballycastle railway

I wrote to the Countryside Access and Activities Network (CAAN)  to highlight this blog. They are currently seeking responses to 9 Issue Papers which will feed into the development of a Northern Ireland Outdoor Recreation Action Plan 2012-21. I received a very encouraging response, and I would urge anyone with an interest to contribute to the debate. The issue papers can be viewed on the Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland website.

Continue reading “NI Outdoor Recreation Action Plan”

Northern Ireland’s disused railway network is a forgotten piece of industrial and rural heritage being lost to time. Over 600 miles of track bed lies dormant, winding through spectacular countryside, linking villages, towns and cities, major attractions and workplaces. It represents a major potential tourist draw begging to be developed. While our population faces a growing obesity problem, a major plank in the fight for healthier lifestyles sits quietly waiting for its moment to shine.

Town and transport planners are aware of the legacy of the railways in Northern Ireland. Brief mention is made of the potential for using former lines as new roads to move cars into and out of our congested town spaces. Yet the experience of the Comber Greenway in Belfast shows what is possible when urban and rural space is opened to walkers and cyclists, away from the noise, hustle and danger of roadside paths.

Northern Ireland walking and cycling paths

Providing a backbone infrastructure across Northern Ireland of traffic-free, high quality walking and cycling paths can give a safe space for families, commuters and tourists for leisure. Cycle deaths and serious injuries continue to plague our road networks. While providing a new traffic-free network will not prevent this, a signature project to provide safe cycle space across Northern Ireland can be an exemplar to local councils; providing practical evidence of how developing safer traffic-separated cycle lanes within urban areas can only increase cycling take-up, with the associated benefits to the health of the population.

This is a vision which can only be realised through true community drive and spirit. Given the economic difficulties faced by Stormont and local councils, public money cannot be relied upon to deliver. Alternative funding sources must be explored; local communities need to join to lobby for action. While this cannot be an ‘all or nothing’ project, the true value in the long run to the economy will be in a fully integrated traffic-free network for walking and cycling in Northern Ireland, to encourage new forms of tourism, and to begin to tackle the growing health issues we face. As a project this is an opportunity for balanced investment between East and West of Northern Ireland, for rural investment balanced against urban, and to invest in border areas.

Northern Ireland disused railways

The disused railway network is not fully intact to this day. With the mostly rural setting, some sections have been lost to agricultural lands, building development, industrial estates, and former railway buildings being renovated into domestic dwellings. These issues will need to be tackled if a continuous network is to be realised. Discussions between landowners, local communities and political stakeholders are vital to find solutions, whether by route diversions or access agreements. Linking traffic-free paths across developed towns and cities is a challenge, but should be pursued with vigour to add safety and the potential for town renewal and redevelopment.

The railway network was pared down to the bone in the 1950s and 1960s. A generation who experienced the life and times of steam rail travel in Northern Ireland is still with us, ready to share their memories and add value to the heritage of our forgotten infrastructure. We have a responsibility to tap this resource before it is truly forgotten to history. The value to future generations of a link with our past, and presenting a pride in our heritage, will add to the hook for an active holiday sector which such a network could deliver for Northern Ireland.

Sustainable travel in Northern Ireland

The challenges are immense, but consider the benefits. 600 miles of traffic-free paths, trailing to every corner of Northern Ireland. A spectacular selling point to promote tourism in Northern Ireland, and an opportunity to create jobs around the outdoor activity and hospitality sectors. New connections between villages, towns and cities, with an alternative to private car travel. Every major Northern Ireland tourist attraction linked by this network. Safe space for individuals and families to walk or cycle, jog or walk the dog, opening access to our countryside.

Over the next few weeks I’ll take each potential Northern Ireland Greenway route, provide an overview, route maps on Google, the advantages, the history and the setting, and open the ideas for discussion. Northern Ireland already has some fantastic resources for segregated cycle and walking paths, running from Newtownabbey through Belfast to Lisburn, the Comber Greenway, the developing Connswater Community Greenway project and the Newry Canalway to name a few. There is an opportunity to uncover our hidden past, build for a healthier future, and provide a world-class walking and cycling infrastructure to sell to the world.