The Draft Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland needs your input. A public consultation is running until Friday 21st November 2014, and your views will help to determine the path which DRD will plot over the next 25 years to deliver the Cycling Revolution™ in Northern Ireland.

drd_bicycle_consultation_event
DRD Cycling Unit Head Andrew Grieve at the Belfast consultation event

You can read the full Draft Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland by downloading it from the DRD website. You can respond to the Draft Strategy a number of ways, listed at the end of this article.

So, what are the hot topics for @nigreenways in the Draft Strategy?

That headline vision statement

“To establish a cycling culture in Northern Ireland to give people the freedom and confidence to travel by bicycle, and where all road users can safely share space with mutual respect.”

Normal
Confusing pre-Bicycle Strategy outbreak of everyday cycling; ignore this..

A decent start, but it’s a few tweaks away from perfection..

Don’t repeat the past mistake of positioning the Bicycle Strategy as a government-led attempt to cold start growth in cycling. Credit is due to DRD for your work over the last year to create the Cycling Unit and this Strategy, but you are pedalling furiously to catch up with the reality on the ground.

TronBelfast

Cycling is on a clear growth curve, even if it remains quite niche as a province-wide activity. An inspired and serious government intervention is needed to push cycling into the mass market. Take this obvious opportunity to put the Bicycle Strategy on the front foot and present a far more efficient vision statement..

“To build on the developing cycling culture in Northern Ireland and create the conditions to give everyone the freedom and confidence to travel by bicycle.”

Sorry, but the twelve words after “bicycle” in your vision is meaningless fillerIt sounds like a really bad DOE road safety advert (and there are many of those) and I genuinely believe the DRD Cycling Unit is better than that. Drop it. Inspire us.

Bicycle Strategy or Cycling Strategy?

“We feel that it is significant that this document is called a ‘Bicycle Strategy’ rather than a ‘Cycling Strategy’ as it presents a clear signal that we are planning for a mode of transport, rather than simply the activity of ‘cycling’.”

Ride11
Two bicycle riders in Belfast arguing about the title of the strategy

It’s astounding how much precious time and oxygen was wasted at stakeholder consultation events discussing this. Knock yourself out. Moving on..

Design for everyone, or no-one

One section of the Draft Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland caught the attention (and ire) of cycling campaigners across the UK and Europe:

designing_for_bicycle_users

Northern Ireland’s very own Dutch cycling expert Cargobike Dad put it perfectly in his own takedown of this section:

“The table has been adapted from the English Department for Transport, published in 2007 .. if we want to look at best practice we should not look to England 7 years ago. It would better to hold them up as an example of how not to implement a cycling strategy.”

As for those fast commuters, alarm bells should be ringing at DRD when everyday bicycle commuters with decades of experience can’t take the hassle on Belfast’s busiest roads any more..

What are the logical outcomes of designing for types of cyclists when DRD considers future route development plans? That high-quality separated cycling infrastructure is less likely around workplaces, or on arterial routes? That it’s more likely around schools? How do you measure the demand among different groups in any particular area? Good luck showing me an area in Belfast that is purely dominated by one of these types, especially if the Cycling Revolution™ actually happens.

This section got a roasting back in August..

profiles

I was planning to write a pithy tirade detailed explanation of why the inclusion of user profiles is a very bad idea, but I’ll give you a 100% guarantee that this section of the Draft Strategy is going to be quietly dropped for the final version. Why? Fast forward to November and everything changed..

bricycle

And who is @bricycle? He’s Brian Deegan, Principal Technical Planner at Transport for London who’s worked in project management on the London Cycle Network for the past six years – and one of the speakers at the recent Changing Gear conference, organised by (wait for it) the DRD Cycling Unit..

The simple principle behind the world’s best cycling infrastructure (also highlighted by Brian Deegan at the conference as being in The Netherlands) is that cycling infrastructure should be designed for everyone to use. To plan a Bicycle Strategy on any other basis puts compromise at the heart of the next 25 years of development.

Cross-government buy-in

“Our ‘cycling future’ is interrelated with a number of other factors .. responsibility for some of these areas sits with other Government Departments or public bodies. For this reason we feel it is vitally important that we work across the sectors to develop and implement this strategy to make sure that the greatest benefits are delivered for everyone.”

This is crucial to success – access to the power and influence of the shocking number of government organisations with responsibility for cycling here will determine positive outcomes. Understanding of the needs of cycling development is patchy – eg the Public Health Agency definitely gets it, but the Department for Social Development (leading on public realm projects) does not..

Along with finding guaranteed annual funding for this grand vision, how well the DRD Cycling Unit and the Minister can marshal and direct cycling activities across government will determine the Bicycle Strategy’s success. Which leads us neatly on to..

Aiming.. where exactly?

“We have consciously chosen not to set an arbitrary Northern Ireland wide target for the percentage of people cycling by a nominal date as we do not think it will be useful in encouraging people to use the bicycle as a mode of transport at local level. The Delivery Plan [to follow] will contain a series of specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound objectives, policies and actions. This will form the basis for the monitoring undertaken on the progress made by the Strategy.”

IMG_9754-001
Cycling growth evident in winter rush hour, but cycling still pushed to the margins (by DSD again)

After many discussions I understand (and to some extent sympathise with) DRD’s rationale for not placing an over-arching target within this strategy. The subsequent Delivery Plan, city and local area masterplans will carry the SMART objectives and targets. Grand, and the campaigning corps can’t wait to get its teeth into those plans.

Having no big target(s) may lend flexibility to your work, or could be the biggest flaw in the foundations of the Bicycle Strategy. A big target certainly isn’t “useful in encouraging people to use the bicycle” but it is close to essential in navigating the political stream for 25 long years.

Consider this statement by Minister Danny Kennedy at the Regional Development Committee on Wednesday 12th November 2014 (28:03 onwards):

“The Chair and this Committee will know about the challenging financial position that we find ourselves in, particularly next year. But this is a Programme for Government commitment (it’s also a commitment that I’m committed to) and so the necessary finance will have to be effectively ring-fenced for this project to be carried forward. And that is a challenge for this Department, and it’s a challenge for me, but I have to rise to that challenge. And I’ve no doubt that I would rise to the challenge with the support of this Committee, with Executive colleagues, with the Assembly in general and with public opinion..”

Imagine a future Transport Minister defending DRD Cycling Unit infrastructure plans with this robust certainty. This particular issue was about a railway upgrade plan in difficulty, but because it’s in the Programme for Government (PfG) there’s no argument about “if”, just “how”.

Cycling needs its own place among the PfG targets. Splitting by urban/rural, or Belfast/rest of NI makes a lot of sense given the diverging cycling environments. But if cycling infrastructure planning and/or an over-arching growth target is in there after the next election, a mainstream budget will be easier to embed, and suddenly cycling climbs one more step above the day-to-day political fray.

Will a series of area plans with targets and budgets make into the PfG? That’s highly doubtful. Does this risk leaving each plan to fight tooth and nail for survival in a hostile political environment?

So make sure you’re being smart about that target decision, and think about the realpolitik in 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years from now. Can you make it politically super difficult for the next Minister to roll back on commitments made in the Bicycle Strategy? Can ambitious headline targets foster competition between political parties to build reputations, policy commitments and delivery on cycling? Or will you be kicking yourselves as the vision and aspirations slowly evaporate over the years?

I welcome the Draft Strategy, but more importantly I have faith in the quality of the people who are working in the DRD Cycling Unit. This is a once-in-25 years opportunity to get it right..

What do you think?

Those were just a few of the key topics covered by the Draft Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland. Please do take the time to read it and send your thoughts to the DRD Cycling Unit. For more perspectives on the document you should also:

How to respond

Anne Burke
Cycling Unit
Department for Regional Development
Clarence Court
10-18 Adelaide Street
Belfast

Telephone: 028 9054 0179
Fax: 028 9054 0662
Minicom/ TextPhone: (028) 9054 0642
Text Relay Service: (028) 9054 0179
(prefix 18001)

Email: cycling.unit@drdni.gov.uk

There is cause for optimism and much to applaud in the Department for Regional Development (DRD) strategy document for cycling in Northern Ireland. Here are some highlights, slightly trimmed for space:

“..to provide greater choice in the way people travel [we] will work .. to reduce the need for longer journeys and to increase the opportunity for travel by bicycle. This will entail the development of high quality local cycle facilities within new developments and the provision of links with other urban cycle networks, public transport interchanges, the National Cycle Network and the countryside.”

The “..strategy identifies a range of measures that will seek to improve conditions for cyclists and establish a pro-cycling culture. If more people are to be encouraged to cycle, a fundamental shift in attitude will be needed in every part of our society. An increase in safe utility, recreational, tourist and competitive cycling can have economic, health and environmental benefits for society as a whole.”

“Concerns about road safety and our climate are often quoted as reasons why few people cycle in Northern Ireland. However, significant increases in cycling have been achieved through pro-active policies and actions in other European countries having similar weather conditions.”

The “..creation of a cycle-friendly road network is important if more people are to be encouraged to cycle. The traffic management measures needed to improve conditions for cyclists .. will involve the re-allocation of road space from the motorist to the cyclist, however, this will require a fundamental shift in attitude on the part of transport and infrastructure providers and the support of the general public.”

“Our long-term infrastructure objective is to create a network of high quality cycle routes .. [these] may be on-road or off-road and will include dedicated cycle tracks, shared use surfaces, traffic calmed roads and may make use of paths across parks and other open spaces.”

The “..conversion of footways and footpaths to shared use by cyclists and pedestrians will only be considered where there is no other opportunity to improve conditions safely for cyclists on the carriageway or elsewhere.”

We will “..implement an ongoing programme of secure, convenient and, where appropriate, covered cycle parking provision at new and existing main public transport interchanges and park and ride sites .. [and] in main town centres.”

We will:

  • develop local cycling targets and strategies that will encourage more people to cycle
  • implement a programme of traffic calming schemes and 20 mph zones and afford greater priority to collisions involving cyclists in the prioritisation of these schemes;
  • monitor road traffic collisions in which cyclists are involved and initiate appropriate remedial action
  • improve cycle access in towns by the development of planned urban cycle networks and provide at least an additional 50 miles of urban cycle route
  • adopt recognised good practice in cycle-friendly provision and apply detailed cycle audit procedures to ensure that pro-cycle facilities are actively considered during the design of road schemes
  • apply cycle review procedures to major commuter corridors in Belfast and Londonderry

“In developing an action plan to address these issues, the objective will be to achieve a shift in the perception and behaviour of a large section of the general public.”

Targets:

  • double the number of trips by cycle in 5 years
  • quadruple the number of trips by cycle in 15 years

The “..strategy represents a significant commitment to cycling by Government.”

The strategy contains some excellent and progressive content, setting a strong commitment to embedding cycling firmly within the transport mix in Northern Ireland. There’s even recognition that “dedicated cycling tracks” are needed in urban areas which will take road space away from motor vehicles. It talks the talks, and promises to walk the walk – just what a progressive cycling strategy needs to be in 2014.

Except (if you haven’t it figured out by now) this isn’t from the new draft Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland 2014.

BicycleStrategyNI

This is all lifted from the Northern Ireland Cycling Strategy 2000 (PDF, 8.56MB) published back when the politician at the DRD helm was the future First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson (to this day a regular cyclist). Technically, it’s still the framework for cycling in Northern Ireland (that second target was to 2015).

PeterRobinsonCycling

This isn’t a full autopsy on the 2000 strategy to determine its failures and successes; for the most part, that will be obvious with even a basic knowledge of current cycling conditions here. In reading DRD’s new strategy, it’s important to remember our history, so that we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes.

I’m not even going to critique the new draft Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland line by line – smart heads in DRD have kept it light and punchy, easy to read – so go and draw your own conclusions (PDF, 699K). It’s in consultation until Friday 21st November, so if you have even a passing interest in seeing cycling conditions improve in Northern Ireland please send your views to cycling.unit@drdni.gov.uk. I’ll publish my submission when it’s sent.

Cargobike Dad tackles the new strategy and matches my own positive thoughts on how its shaping up. However, this includes the concerning use of cyclist ‘user profiles’ to influence future route design. Dutch cycle network design principles and density means everyone can cycle everywhere. DRD want to be “visionary in our approach and we want to embrace innovation” so why this rush to compromise at the outset? Hopefully concerns will be taken on board.

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In the encounters I’ve had with DRD staff who wrote the strategy (the new Cycling Policy Unit) I’ve found them to be genuine, passionate, open, honest, pragmatic but genuinely open to ideas, savvy operators in a tough Departmental environment and (should it matter) all normal everyday cyclists – the right people in the right place at (hopefully) the right time. They deserve a chance to make a difference.

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What I’m looking for in the new Bicycle Strategy are signs that DRD thinking has moved on from the previous strategy:

  • that best practice in infrastructure design and network density from established cycling countries will factor in plans and, crucially (given past experience) that cycling plans won’t be vetoed within DRD / Transport NI by more influential voices
  • that DRD recognises and wants to grasp the unique opportunity and tools of centralised government executive powers to set Northern Ireland on a course to surpass other areas of the UK and Ireland, not coast in the wake of their failure (in comparison to Netherlands / Denmark etc)

Despite the hyperbole of Danny Kennedy’s call for a “cycling revolution”, I am sold on the Minister’s commitment (and that of his advisors and staff) to what cycling investment can deliver for his department and for Northern Ireland.

Yet two things might override these good intentions:

  • elections in May 2016 which will almost certainly see a new Minister in place (likely from a different political party) who may not share the developing vision for cycling
  • an over-reliance on ‘gambling’ for monitoring round money to deliver cycling projects, rather than a fixed proportion of central funding

Austerity is beginning to rain down hard on budget rounds, and only half of DRD’s £2m capital bids for cycling in June were approved. What chance will cycling have during future budget squeezes, without reliable core ring-fenced funding?

One sentence from the new strategy shows why this is fundamental to success, and why the old strategy didn’t achieve much:

Since 2002 the Department has invested over £10 million in the development and expansion of cycle lanes and on cycling infrastructure measures.

Which broadly speaking means DRD committed around 50p per head of Northern Ireland population each year for most of the lifetime of the 2000 strategy, compared to €24 in the Netherlands. And the headline result*?

NI bicycle journey share in 2000? 1%.

NI bicycle journey share in 2013? 1%.

In hindsight it’s fortunate that the 2000 strategy tried to “encourage cyclists to wear helmets” because that’s 14 years of head-butting brick walls. However there are some encouraging recent signs of cycling growth in Belfast especially, and DRD’s future plan to raise annual per head spending to £4 may begin to make some impact.

It’s important to set the new Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland in this context – it’s a positive high-level vision, but words don’t guarantee significant change, as the 2000 document shows. The devil will be in the detail of delivery plans, local masterplans, securing continuous funding and retaining political will. Hopefully this time round things are different, and I wish DRD well at the start of their new journey.

*DRD NI Travel Survey: Average number of journeys per person per year

ROBblog

 

 

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On Friday 20th June 2014, the second annual Ride On Belfast event took to the city streets. Last year, around 70 people rode from the Gasworks to the City Hall, inspired by and assembled under the banner of The Fréd Festival. This year the theme was ruthless expansion, with the twin aims of:

  • being the biggest peloton in Belfast since the Giro d’Italia
  • encouraging people not used to cycle commuting to try it out

That was the simplest expression of what Ride On Belfast is about – people riding bicycles in Belfast for their own reasons, whether being the most practical way to work, for the school run, for their health or just the enjoyment. It’s not a protest, it’s not ‘taking back’ the roads, it’s not causing aggro to others – just riding a bike.

But to make this year really special, we needed some new, innovative tactics..

The Weather Underground

Belfast is used to long arid summers, heatwaves lasting months and emergency air-drops of Mr Frostie supplies, but Fréd and his goons needed to be sure that precipitation wasn’t going to affect Ride On Belfast. There was nothing for it – with a brass neck, we tweet-bombed all of the finest weather presenters on local television, and Frank Mitchell too.

And by jove, the BBC crew got into the spirit, with Angie Phillips retweeting, Barra Best tweeting his own predictions, and the fabulous Cecilia Daly (the new darling of Belfast cycling) going the extra mile..

And so, the day before Ride On Belfast gathered, we got our first official ‘national’ weather forecast!

[gigya src=”https://abfiles.s3.amazonaws.com/swf/default_player_10.swf” style=”background-color:transparent; display:block; box-shadow:0 0 1px 1px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.15); min-width:349px; max-width:700px;” flashvars=”image_option=small&imgURL=https%3A%2F%2Fd15mj6e6qmt1na.cloudfront.net%2Fi%2F9638374%2F300x300%2Fc&link_color=%23c70067&mp3Author=nigreenways&mp3Duration=45505.0&mp3LinkURL=https%3A%2F%2Faudioboo.fm%2Fboos%2F2273070-ride-on-belfast-gets-a-personalised-weather-forecast&mp3Time=11.43pm+21+Jun+2014&mp3Title=Ride+On+Belfast+gets+a+personalised+weather+forecast&mp3URL=https%3A%2F%2Faudioboo.fm%2Fboos%2F2273070-ride-on-belfast-gets-a-personalised-weather-forecast.mp3%3Fsource%3Dwordpress&player_theme=dark&rootID=boo_player_1&show_title=true&waveimgURL=https%3A%2F%2Fd15mj6e6qmt1na.cloudfront.net%2Fi%2Fw%2F724171″ width=”600″ height=”150″ allowFullScreen=”true” wmode=”transparent”]

And as it turned out, the weather was just about perfect on the day..

 

The Gathering

This year’s Ride On Belfast was helped by some last minute news from Translink, as their early morning ban on bicycles on trains was eased to accommodate those travelling for the event:

This was a most welcome nod to active travel, and hopefully will give Translink and DRD pause to consider trialling this over a longer period.

The gathering crowd was impressed to see Northern Ireland’s Transport Minister Danny Kennedy ride into the bunch with his new Cycling Unit in tow. Regular cyclist and MLA Sammy Douglas also joined in.

Minister Danny Kennedy arrives with his bicycle outrides
Minister Danny Kennedy arrives with his bicycle outriders

 

The Grand Départ

Under severe pressure from hungry commuters, the peloton set off a little earlier than planned. With a tight first turn from the Gasworks green onto the road, the Minister seized his opportunity and put in a devastating early kick. This split the peloton at the Ormeau Road crossing, and the breakaway group was never caught again. Apparently, Danny Kennedy’s sprint finish down Donegall Place was a phenomenal sight.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbGdaI6zEqc?rel=0&w=600&h=338]

 

On The Open Road

This year Ride On Belfast took an extended trip around Belfast, leading to an iconic roll down Royal Avenue towards the City Hall. The PSNI officers took a relaxed back seat this year, yet the busier junctions were taken with ease. Notable pinch points (again) were the length of time to traverse Shaftesbury Square (not great for cycling at all) and the bus lane at Great Victoria Street (still not great for buses, never mind cycling). Holding the outside lane along Carrick Hill worked to control what was expected to be the busiest and fastest traffic of the ride. The traffic-restricted streets of the city centre were a joy.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uxRPmcbSYY?rel=0&w=600&h=338]

 

Selfie On Belfast

After the last year with Máirtín Ó Muilleoir as Lord Mayor, Belfast has fallen in love with the selfie. As well as people just taking them for the craic, See.Sense also ran a competition for the best selfie taken by their stand at Belfast City Hall..

https://twitter.com/GeoffCaves/status/479915437950763008

 

City Hall and well-earned grub

A huge thank you again to Travelwise and Belfast City Council for providing a free breakfast at the Bobbin Cafe (and the new option of a free coffee at Javaman) for those who completed Ride On Belfast. The City Hall grounds became a sea of bicycles for the morning, while local cycle lighting tech firm See.Sense showed off their wares and PSNI bike officers were busy security-marking bicycles for the punters.

Inside the City Hall, the breakfast queue stretched out the door (which is testament to the rise in participation at Ride On Belfast) and we’re all grateful to the Bobbin staff for coping under severe pressure.

 

The Media

Straight after the event, our Twitter traffic was enough to set #RideOnBelfast trending locally – maybe next year “sectarianism” can be beaten by cycling? Little steps..

Paul Reilly brought the UTV cameras down to see what all the fuss was about, and importantly set the day in context with a reminder of the shocking scene of a child’s bicycle under a truck at Ballyhackamore the day before. Along with the tragic death of 5 year old Conor O’Neill 9 days before, Bike Week had a strong focus on road safety and infrastructure improvement this year.

DKROB

The Irish News covered the event in its Saturday edition. Might need to check that ear-to-shorthand connection though, as ‘enthusiast’ (a word I’m almost violently resistant to when it comes to practical cycling) somehow crept into a quote. And “giro d’italia” needs capitals. #facepalm

 

The Aftermath

Ride On Belfast turned out to be a really positive, fun event and this was reflected in social media comments directly afterwards. We had new cycling commuters, people trying out cycling for the first time in years, as well as familiar faces.

https://twitter.com/donnakmonteith/status/479984227816337409

In the end, the various breakaway groups which started from the Gasworks numbered 150, with close to 200 registered for the bicycle breakfast at City Hall. Overall that was a doubling of participation from 2013, which is a credit to all involved – The Fréd Festival, Travelwise (DRD) and Belfast City Council.

Building high quality separated cycle paths isn’t possible.

Belfast’s roads are too narrow.

This is one of the many default arguments against investing in the type of cycling infrastructure seen in the Netherlands or Copenhagen. Sometimes it’s worth looking at the urban landscape from a different perspective..

Decorative cobble lane, Belfast City Hall

Continue reading “Right under our noses”

A quick whizz through the @nigreenways highlights of the year..

January

2013 began with a bang in Belfast – remember flegs? – and NI Greenways couldn’t resist getting in on the rush hour hysteria. Amid the rumours of roads being blocked and large roving protests popping up to cause maximum traffic disruption, canny commuter cyclists still had time to observe normal city life; and this commuter caused a mini panic among office workers at 5pm on a Friday night..

Continue reading “Review of the year 2013”

Stand for a few moments in the centre of Belfast and you’ll see why many people think cycling is steadily rising here. Now official statistics from the Department for Regional Development (DRD) are beginning to support the anecdotes. The Northern Ireland Travel Survey (TSNI) 2010-12 released in July 2013 pointed to a spike in the number of cycling journeys, and now the detailed analysis lifts the lid off more headlines.

Albert Bridge cycling queue

Continue reading “Slowly, but very surely..”

In a remarkable start to the 2013-14 Assembly session, cycling policy has made a huge leap up the agenda. Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy has taken the first steps towards putting cycling into mainstream transport planning in Northern Ireland. Yet the talk of a cycling revolution (it’s not) needs to be tempered with the harsh realities of where we start from, what exactly is on the table, and the long struggle ahead.

Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence from niassembly

Monday 9th September 2013 had been playfully dubbed #Cyclegeddon; 17 questions on cycling had been put to Ministers before the Assembly had even resumed. Putting that into context, a total of 100 questions had been asked in the past 12 months. Remarkable.

Continue reading “Cyclegeddon hits the Northern Ireland Assembly”

The Department for Regional Development are about to deliver another quiet kick in the teeth to cyclists in Belfast, by rolling back a new bus lane in order to reward bad driving.

East Bridge Street is one of the top two roads for cycling traffic in Northern Ireland, with the Albert Bridge acting as a funnel for most citybound journeys from East Belfast. It already suffers from the dangerous Albert Bridge itself dissuading cyclists, illegal taxi parking in a bus lane, and a dangerous junction caused by drivers queue-jumping and fancying a late swerve onto Cromac Street.

Continue reading “DRD's nightmare on East Bridge Street”

Blocked cycle lane

In May I posted a video on YouTube of the Castlereagh Road ‘Cycle Lane’. Cycling daily on this route home, I can count on one hand the number of evenings where I’ve had a clear run at the full length of the new cycle lane, which has been in operation since last year.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Zr5xuDlOVQ&w=560&h=315]

A lively response to the video included an invitation from the Ulster Unionist Party to put the concerns directly in writing to the Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy. Below you can read my letter, and the response received from the Roads Service Chief Executive Geoff Allister.

Continue reading “Belfast's redundant cycle lanes”