View from railway bridge at Church Hill Road


As the UK is due to leave the European Union in March 2019, the future shape of agricultural support is being considered by the Department for Agriculture, Environmental and Rural Affairs (DAERA). Northern Ireland Greenways believes that any revised agricultural payments framework should encourage greenway development under access to the countryside aims and the greening of land opportunities.

The single biggest barrier to greenway development in Northern Ireland is land access. When our extensive railway network was closed and lifted in the mid 20th century, most of the land was sold or taken into private ownership. Subsequent development or agricultural use makes certain sections unlikely to be considered for greenway use as things stand. A range of options will need to be explored over the next quarter of a century between landowners and government to realise the 1,000km vision for a world-leading greenway network.

“A network of green corridors will contribute to delivering these benefits whilst building attractive environments and vibrant communities around the centres where we live and work. 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.”
Exercise Explore Enjoy: A Strategic Plan for Greenways, DfI

The land access negotiation process can be difficult, as has been seen in route development in parts of the UK and Ireland. Landowners and farmers can see potential greenway paths as problematic, with worries over routes slicing up land holdings, affecting productive potential, and fears of compulsory purchase meaning decisions being imposed upon them.

In Northern Ireland discussions are not that far advanced in most cases, and the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has so far insisted on a system of landowner, neighbour and public consultation as part of early route exploration by local councils.

Consultation on a potential greenway route from Comber to Newtownards, March 2018
Consultation event on a potential greenway route from Comber to Newtownards, March 2018 ©nigreenways

The implications of Brexit on the future of agricultural payments creates an opportunity to reframe the debate on greenways and public access to the countryside.

Some of the criticisms of the current Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payment system include it being too narrowly focused on certain agricultural uses of land, even if it’s not particularly productive or sustainable. Revising the subsidy framework to include the concept of ‘public money for public goods’ can prompt new uses of land to benefit the wider public.

“Active promotion of access to countryside, educational farm visits and biodiverse green space and ensuring the access is healthy, for example ensuring opportunities for beautiful and tranquil experiences, wildlife encounters and physical activity.”
Public health is a public good and should be supported in farming policy, Vicki Hird

This can start with creating a system of payments which reward the creation of new public pathways across private land. This would recognise the need for partnership working between landowners, the local community, councils and government to identify strategic route objectives, standards of design and ongoing operation.

This can not only support the routes identified through the Strategic Plan for Greenways but also be a spur to local communities working to seek new opportunities for active travel infrastructure in their area. Future payments for any greenways created would need to be dependent on the continued access to, and maintenance of, those routes.

There is an industrial heritage aspect of greenway development which can also be recognised in this type of payment framework. Landowners with remnants of our railway past – station platforms and buildings, bridges, tunnels, viaducts and so on – can be rewarded for the conservation and possible regeneration of certain features, protecting and preserving them for future generations.

Neill's Hill Station platform restored by local campaigners
Neill’s Hill Station platform restored by local campaigners along the Comber Greenway in Belfast ©nigreenways

Another way in which greenway development can benefit from a new approach to agricultural payments is in the repurposing of land away from arable and pastoral use to greening such as wild meadows and forestry. Concerns about greenway routes which may divide portions of land could be used as opportunities for landowners to create pockets of woodland, or wild areas which would give a much needed boost to biodiversity and wildlife habitats – and have that work reflected in support payments.

Access to the countryside isn’t just about linear pathways for walking and cycling, but also the quality of engagement with nature and agriculture. Again the future subsidy system should reflect ways in which the public are encouraged to visit and interact with the countryside, such as the creation of open farms, educational opportunities, cafes and visitor experiences, accommodation and outdoor activities. Greenways should be seen as key active travel corridors to enable the public to access these potential activities – and the local employment they will support – creating a beneficial feedback loop to society.

A framework of agricultural payments which recognises greenway development as a key aim of society over the next quarter century, and can reward landowners for work to realise this vision, isn’t a magic wand to wipe away the difficulties and concerns which greenway development can sometimes bring. But it could be an important incentive to work together to create special places and a dense web of easy access to our wonderful countryside, which can draw in visitors from far and wide, and benefit all.

Get involved by emailing your response to the DAERA consultation at by Wednesday 10 October 2018.

You can also use a pro-forma response email (and adapt the text as you need to) on the Nature Matters website.

Read more

DAERA: Northern Ireland Future Agricultural Policy Framework

DAERA: NI Future Agricultural Policy Framework – Stakeholder Engagement (PDF, 990K)

Cycling UK: Get on my land!

Cycling UK: Why post-Brexit agricultural policy is as important for you and your child as it is for farmers

Cycling UK: Agricultural subsidies and why countryside access is a public good

The Programme for Government outcomes which agricultural payment support for access to the countryside, greenways and re-greening can help to deliver:

Indicator 6: Improve mental health
Lead measure: % of population with GHQ12 scores ≥4 (signifying possible mental health problem)

Indicator 23: Improve transport connections for people, goods and services
Lead measure: Average journey time on key economic corridors

Indicator 25: Increase the use of public transport and active travel
Lead measure: % of all journeys which are made by walking/cycling/public transport

Indicator 27: Improve cultural participation
Lead measure: % engaging with arts/cultural activities in the past year

Indicator 29: Increase environmental sustainability
Lead measure: Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Indicator 30: Improve our attractiveness as a destination
Lead measure: Total spend by external visitors

Indicator 31: Increase shared space
Lead measure: % who think leisure centres, parks, libraries and shopping centres in their areas are ‘shared and open’ to both Protestants and Catholics

Indicator 34: Improve the regional balance of economic prosperity through increased employment
Lead measure: Employment rate by geographic area (areas to be defined)

Indicator 37: Improve air quality
Lead measure: Nitrogen dioxide concentration.

Indicator 40: Improve our international reputation
Lead measure: National Brand Index

Indicator 42: Increase quality of life for people with disabilities
Lead measure: Average life satisfaction score of people with disabilities

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 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.”

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.


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’.”

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:


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..


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..


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.”

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

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


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:

“ 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.”


  • 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.


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).


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 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.


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.


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

Bike week is upon us! It’s that time of year when the Regional Development Minister and various politicians are handcuffed to bicycles and horsewhipped around the Stormont Estate for their annual photoshoot. Delve into government and political press releases, articles and interviews and you’d be forgiven for thinking Northern Ireland was an international beacon of active travel. Millions of pounds have flowed into making cycling easy and safe, increasing journeys is a high priority, obesity must be tackled…and so on..

Reproduced under Creative Commons licence from niassembly

Meanwhile reality continues to bite on our roads every day, and very little actually happens to build the conditions for everyday cycling. So when Danny Kennedy tells you how much he wants to see cycling thrive, remember this is the Minister still considering whether to allow thousands of taxis into Belfast bus lanes.

And what of the other parties in Northern Ireland? Brace yourself for an onslaught of free and easy statements of support, but judge for yourself the context. Policies and priorities are in a constant state of change, and interesting developments may be happening behind the scenes. But your political parties represent you on the basis of a mandate from the Assembly elections just 2 years ago. Was cycling (and by extension active travel) important enough to reach party manifestos in 2011?

Image supplied by DRD Travelwise

From 2011 manifestos as listed on the Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland (CAIN) website.


Alliance 2011 Assembly Election manifesto

In Northern Ireland, 28% of all journeys less than one mile and 67% of journeys between one and two miles are made by car. Alliance supports the continued provision and maintenance of cycle lanes on our roads. We recognise the importance of safe road use. In particular, we believe there is a need to educate children in the safe use of roads. We therefore propose primary schools include cycling proficiency as part of the physical education curriculum.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)

DUP 2011 Assembly Election manifesto

Continue to minimise road casualties through road safety engineering, collision remedial schemes, traffic calming, school safety zones and improved pedestrian and cycle networks.

Increase the number of regular cyclists. [Tackling obesity]

Green Party

Green Party 2011 Assembly Election manifesto

Introduce measures to give pedestrians priority in residential streets, including a 20mph speed limit in built-up areas.

Ensure most children are able to walk or cycle to school and support employers who promote cycling to work. Giving the highest priority to safe routes to so that most children are able to walk or cycle to school.

Encouraging all other initiatives to incentivise a change of travel mode to cycling – including alterations to allowances paid by employers to their employees for their necessary travel and government tax relief for work related cycling on a scale no less generous than car allowances.

Progressive Unionist Party (PUP)

PUP 2011 Assembly Election manifesto

No mention.

Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin 2011 Assembly Election manifesto

No mention.

Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)

SDLP 2011 Assembly Election manifesto

However, going forward there must be a fundamental shift in the spending balance in order to address the inadequate provision of alternatives to car use and make sustainable, accessible, value-for-money transport the first choice for the people of this region.

It is widely accepted that reducing the speed from 30 mph to 20 mph on urban residential streets through creative urban planning has been proven to increase the number of cyclists on the roads. The SDLP therefore brought draft legislation to the Assembly which would reduce speed limits in urban areas. By making our streets a safer place for all, we will increase uptake of active transport, namely cycling and walking.

Conall McDevitt
Image from SDLP 2011 Assembly Election manifesto

We initiated the draft legislation and also demanded a reversal on cuts to the active transport budget following the startling 98% cut in the Budget. In the next mandate, we will build on our work to date by expanding and promoting the ‘bike to work’ scheme to encourage employees to cycle to work if and where possible, incentivising the scheme by enabling employees to purchase bikes tax-free.

In addition, we will establish a bike scheme in Belfast, whereby bikes are available for short-term public hire across the city, given the success of a similar scheme in Dublin, as well as evidenced in many cities across Europe. Looking beyond our main cities, we support the expansion of the cycle network across the North and an increase in the number of dedicated cycle routes.

Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV)

TUV Assembly Election Manifesto 2011

No mention.

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)

UUP 2011 Assembly Election manifesto

No mention. [Current holders of Regional Development Ministry]

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

UKIP General Election Manifesto – Transport 2010

(Although UKIP did not contest the 2011 Assembly Elections, they have since absorbed and assimilated David McNarry MLA, late of the Ulster Unionist Party. As well as gaining NI’s first UKIP MLA, this gave UKIP a voice on the Regional Development Committee, and therefore immediate influence on transport policy. The closest manifesto and policy for this comparison was the General Election of 2010.)

Support responsible pedal cycling but have zero tolerance on dangerous practices such as running red lights. We will consult on proposals for cyclists to display a cheap ‘Cycledisc’ to deter theft and give 3rd party insurance for car damage.

Worker’s Party

Worker’s Party 2011 Assembly Election manifesto

Improve safety that will reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads and encourage the use of more sustainable forms of transport including public transport and cycling and walking.

The Programme for Government 2011-15

The Northern Ireland Executive (made up of Ministers from DUP, Sinn Féin, Alliance, UUP, SDLP) agreed a Programme for Government to cover the Assembly term. The only implied and explicit mentions of cycling were:

  • Invest over £500 million to promote sustainable modes of travel (DRD)
  • By 2015 create the conditions to facilitate at least 36% of primary school pupils and 22% of secondary school pupils to walk or cycle to school as their main mode of transport (DRD)

Looking ahead to the next election

A great deal of work is needed between Bike Week 2013 and the next Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 2016. Cycling organisations have a role to play, but ordinary people – citizen cyclists – must act to see detailed and stretching ambitions locked into all party manifestos. If we look to Scotland and the Pedal on Parliament campaign, we can see inspiration for a set of goals for Northern Ireland which should be pressed for in the run-up to 2016.

NI’s Executive looks set to continue as a multi-party coalition for the foreseeable future. This means any of the main parties could choose Regional Development under the D’Hondt system. Also, the Programme for Government priorities are agreed between all Executive Ministers (and parties), so having everyone singing off the same hymn sheet before the elections is half the battle.

Cycling as an issue doesn’t fit with the traditional voting patterns in Northern Ireland. It cuts across religious or community identities, but in itself will not be likely to influence voter choice as a single issue. Working to ensure that all political parties include headline policies to ensure funding, strategies and targets for cycling is the most likely route to success. Your work begins this Bike Week.

Bike Week 2013 offers people in Northern Ireland a unique opportunity to hear from active travel experts and to quiz local politicians on cycling development.

Two free public events in Derry~Londonderry and Belfast on Wednesday 19th June entitled Politically Painless Active Travel will explore the steps to get more people cycling and walking in Northern Ireland. The events are being organised by CTC, Sustrans, Travelwise and Derry City Council.

Registration is free and both events are open to the public.

You can register now for either session on the CTC website.

Headline speakers

Dr Rachel Aldred

Rachel Aldred is a London-based cycling sociologist who teaches and researches transport.

A Senior Lecturer in Transport at Westminster University, blogger and commentator on cycling strategy, policy and culture, Dr Aldred will be speaking about how to reach a critical mass of cycling that flips cycling into the mainstream, and behavioural changes needed for individual and political acceptability.

You can follow Dr Aldred on Twitter at @RachelAldred.

Gordon Seabright

Gordon Seabright is the Chief Executive of the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC), the national cycling charity. CTC is an independent charity, with 70,000 members nationally. Gordon took up post in March 2012. He will be giving an overview of the Westminster All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group’s cycling inquiry, getting the fundamentals right and the economic benefits of cycling.

You can follow Gordon Seabright on Twitter at @GSeabright.

Lilli Matson

Lilli MatsonLilli Matson is Transport for London’s (TfL’s) Head of Delivery Planning. She leads TfL’s strategy and planning of surface transport priorities and projects – with a focus on managing freight and transport demand, planning for bus priority across London, promoting walking, cycling, accessible public transport and improving road safety. She will give insights into implementing active travel on crowded roadspace and the political leadership needed.

© Copyright laurentka and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Politically Painless Active Travel seminar

Getting more safer walking and cycling
The Guildhall, Derry~Londonderry
10am Wednesday 19 June 2013

10.00 Registration and coffee

10.20 Jimmy Spratt MLA
Welcome from the Chair of Regional Development Committee

10.25 Dr Rachel Aldred
How to reach a critical mass of cycling that flips cycling into the mainstream and behavioural changes needed for individual and political acceptability

10.50 Denise Gallanagh-Wood (An Taisce) and Michele Murphy (Sustrans)
Getting the nation walking and cycling and the success of green schools in Ireland and Bike It in Northern Ireland

11.15 Dr Willie Burke (Derry City Council) and Ross McGill (Sustrans)
Route Development and promotion in Derry~Londonderry

11.45 Break

12.00 Lilli Matson (Transport for London)
Implementing active travel on crowded roadspace and the political leadership needed

12.25 Gordon Seabright (CTC Chief Executive)
Overview of the Westminster All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group inquiry, getting the fundamentals right and the economic benefits of cycling

12.45 Questions

13.00 Finger buffet

13.30 Walk~Cycle to the Peace Bridge and Riverside Greenway to look at Derry~Londonderry’s active travel infrastructure

14.00 (back at The Guildhall) Sean Lynch MLA
The Deputy Chair of the Regional Development Committee chairs the afternoon session – a member from each of the 5 main Northern Ireland political parties gives the party view on walking and cycling, and then questions from the floor

15.15 Gordon Seabright (CTC Chief Executive)
Summing up

15.30 Close

**Anyone travelling from Belfast to The Guildhall/Peace Bridge event can take advantage of the superb rail link to the North West. Enjoy free WiFi and a relaxing trip along one of the most picturesque rail journeys in Europe. The 07.10 departure from Belfast Great Victoria Street will arrive at Derry~Londonderry at 9.25am. It’s a £17.50 day return from Belfast.

Whoever99 at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

Politically Painless Active Travel public meeting

Getting more safer walking and cycling
The MAC (The Factory space), Belfast
6pm Wednesday 19 June 2013

18.00 Arrival & registration

18.10 Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy
Welcome and Minister’s comment

18.15 Gordon Seabright (CTC Chief Executive)
Overview of the Westminster All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group inquiry, getting the fundamentals right and the economic benefits of cycling

18.40 Dr Rachel Aldred
How to reach a critical mass of cycling that flips cycling into the mainstream and behavioural changes needed for individual and political acceptability

19.05 Denise Gallanagh-Wood  (An Taisce)
Getting the nation walking and cycling and the success of green schools in Ireland

19.30 Tim Edgar (CTC)
CTC Bike Club and Belfast City Council

19.45 Beth Harding (Sustrans)
The results from working in schools

20.00 Gordon Clarke (Sustrans Director Ireland)
Summing up

20.10 Questions

20.25 Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy
The Minister’s closing comments

20.30 Close

You can register now for either session on the CTC website.

Belfast, my home town,  remains a very divided city in many ways – you just need to look at the recent ‘flag’ unrest for a quick snapshot of some key fault lines.  Riding a bike doesn’t strike me as a particularly divisive activity – in fact it seems like a liberating, egalitarian way of travelling. The Dutch Cycling Embassy would say that in the Netherlands, people at all levels of society and income use the bicycle – “young or old, rich or poor, everyone cycles” – and why would it be any different in Belfast, even with tiny numbers by comparison? But are we overlooking some important details in the bigger picture?


In a city where commuter cycling modal share is only between 2.1% and 4% in 2011, and where the physical environment and perceived danger actively discourages people from cycling for transport, is bicycle ownership purely a luxury? Is there some truth to the suggestion that unhealthy city environments shape the urban cyclist population to be unnaturally male and middle class?

Detailed ward-level figures from the 2011 Census allows us to delve deeper into the mysteries of commuting choices in Belfast. Does the reality destroy such myths, or has the domination of the private motorist, and a city environment unsuitable for mass cycling, left key sections of our society behind? Part 1 of Socio-economics of Belfast commuter cycling, a short series of blog posts being released over 2013, looks at how cycling as a form of transport is unevenly distributed across Belfast.

Cycling across the class divide?

First to set the scene for those who don’t know, Belfast is a relatively small city, with low population density and a highly centralised employment and retail core. The city’s development, heavily affected by The Troubles, has left fractured communities sharply divided by religious background and class – although lines have begun to blur over the last 20 years. Leafy affluent suburbs mix with deprived inner city areas, more concentrated in the central core, west and north.

Crash course on the Belfast labour market

The five central wards with more than 10,000 employee jobs (Shaftesbury, Duncairn, Falls, Botanic, Island) account for 59% of employment in the city (map 1) with the only major employment centre outside the central spine being the Stormont area to the outer east, site of many government department offices. The labour market is split between approximately 55% of workers travelling in from outside the city, and 45% who live within Belfast. But 75% of employed Belfast residents work within the city council area, so the internal labour market seems quite inwardly focused.


To look at how the population is distributed across the city, the Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure 2010 ranks areas of Northern Ireland according to a mix of:

  • income deprivation (25% weight)
  • employment deprivation (25%)
  • health deprivation and disability (15%)
  • education, skills and training deprivation (15%)
  • proximity to services deprivation (10%)
  • living environment deprivation (5%)
  • crime and disorder (5%)

12 Belfast wards rank in the top 20 most deprived wards in the whole of Northern Ireland (out of 582). The MDM map above shows a clear divide in the south and east of the city, where some of the more affluent suburbs are situated. For this analysis, and plotted on the maps below, Belfast’s division into 51 electoral wards allows for a nice split into top 1/3, middle 1/3 and bottom 1/3.

Commuter travel choices in Belfast

Any city will have a vast array of daily journeys  to work locations, but Belfast’s bus route map tells you about the dominant commuter traffic flows within the city – predominantly in a radial pattern between centre and suburbs. There is plenty of available data on commuting choices, not least the excellent DRD Northern Ireland Travel Survey which put Belfast commuter cycling modal share at a surprisingly high 4% in 2009-11. But for consistency, and the ability to delve into ward level data, we’ll stick with the recently released 2011 Census Key Statistics.


Belfast, being the main urban centre in the mainly rural Northern Ireland, is much more reliant on bus, walking and bicycle journeys to work, and significantly less reliant on the private car. However, all the various forms of car or van travel still accounts for around 60% of commuter journeys by workers living in Belfast.

Distribution of ‘sustainable’ commuting modes in Belfast

So bearing in mind the level and distribution of deprivation around the city, we can bring in 2011 Census ward level data on main mode of transport to work, split into walking, public transport (bus, train) and cycling. The data can then be ranked by percentage of all main modes of transport to work from each ward, grouping these into the top, middle and bottom 1/3s, and finally mapped to determine any patterns.

Walking is concentrated on the wards closest to the city centre, not surprisingly. The pattern certainly closely matching the most highly deprived areas, but we must be cautious about drawing conclusions here. Walking to work from the outer wards to the city centre would mean journey times of an hour or more – that and the physical effort perhaps making it the least attractive option.


Public transport usage, which is overwhelmingly by bus in Belfast (13.5%, against just 1% who take the train) is most concentrated in the more deprived wards in the north of the city, while the bottom 1/3 wards (same levels of Metro service across the city) show a close correlation to the least deprived areas of south and east.

Amalgamating the walking and public transport data, along with cycling, we can build up a picture of wards ranked by use of ‘sustainable transport‘ as the main mode of travel to work (table below). But does the cycling data match up to the developing pattern?

The overall shape of ‘sustainable’ transport in Belfast fits within a pattern of higher usage in more deprived areas, and lowest in the least deprived areas.


However, the cycling pattern is radically different; a heavy concentration of commuter cyclists within the more affluent areas of south and east, and wards with higher deprivation rankings in the north and west showing much lower percentages of cycling.

Taking a median MDM ranking from the top and bottom 1/3 wards for each of these categories, highlights the unique commuter cycling split across Belfast even more starkly.


For bus/train, walking and all ‘sustainable’ transport, the median MDM rank of the top 1/3 wards is much higher (more deprived) than the bottom third. Cycling flips this on its head, showing higher modal share for cycling in areas of lower deprivation in Belfast.

With the greatest concentration of employee jobs and commuter flows into the city centre, we can rewind these journeys using 2001 Census data (2011 equivalent not available yet) to see where those bikes parked in workplace lock ups have arrived from. The top three wards by number of employee jobs in 2001, Shaftesbury, Duncairn and Falls, accounted for nearly half the employment in the city (46%). Looking at the number of cyclists in each ward making a journey to this central hub, we can again see the concentration in the more affluent inner south-east suburbs.


*Thanks to the NISRA Census Customer Service team for producing  this ad hoc report

Top10CyclingBelfastWardsThere are certain structural issues which influence main mode of transport choices in Belfast. The last map shows a close correlation between areas of high deprivation and lower percentages of household car ownership, and the opposite true of areas of lower deprivation. But the concentration of cycle commuting also closely matches areas of higher car ownership, so perhaps the assertion that bikes are luxury items in Belfast may hold some truth at present.

The Netherlands is the only country in Europe to have more bikes than people. Across Northern Ireland in 2011, just 39% of households owned at least one bike, and less than a quarter own two or more, making an ‘accompanied’ journey possible. These structural issues must be addressed alongside investment in safer routes if a bigger impact is to be made across all levels of society.

Urban cycling for all?

So is cycling to work in Belfast a mainly middle class activity? It is of course impossible, unreasonable and undesirable to attempt to assign labels to every person within a particular area, and many wards in Belfast have a mix of streets where deprivation levels vary greatly. However we can see clear evidence of lower cycling uptake in the more deprived areas of the city, and a localised cluster of higher commuter cycling modal share in more affluent wards. We can speculate on some of the factors at work for people and families in areas of highest deprivation:

  • high one-off cost to buy a commuter bike
  • the number of deprived wards within walking distance of main centres of employment
  • low concentration of leisure routes through communities in north and west Belfast eg Lagan Towpath in south, Comber Greenway in east
  • outer wards in north and west situated higher in the hills, physical effort perhaps makes cycling seem less attractive
  • larger concentrations of terraced housing stock providing less space for safe bike storage
  • a Belfast ‘Troubles’ quirk – a cheap, efficient and social alternative in dedicated black taxi ‘bus’ routes

A more detailed study would be needed to draw clearer conclusions on this. There is some interesting research work on cycling perspectives within deprived inner-city areas, and perhaps this is a rich vein for study in Belfast.

CyclingDecadeChangeBelfastThere is also some evidence that the 60% increase in commuter cyclists has been partly due to uptake in areas of higher deprivation, albeit from a low starting base in many instances. This is encouraging and needs to be built upon. One of the upcoming cycling projects in the city is the roll out of a council-led bike hire scheme. While this is more evidence of a growing awareness of cycling as a key urban transport mode, lessons from London should be heeded to ensure broad usage among all levels of society.

I’ve posted the partly financial reasons why I cycle to work in Belfast, and (excluding initial purchase and ongoing maintenance costs) cycling is effectively free transport. It seems reasonable to think that cycling should be viewed as a highly flexible and efficient form of urban transport, but also an option which weighs less heavily on a household budget than owning one or more cars. But it appears many people in the most deprived areas of Belfast are unable or unwilling to reap the many benefits of cycling.

There is a policy challenge here to assess why areas of Belfast are being left behind in adding cycling to their range of transport options, and to create city-wide conditions where cycling is a natural choice for everyone, not just the well-off.


Census figures have given a boost to active travel in Belfast, showing a strong rise in the level of cycling in the city. In the ten years up to the 2011 Census, there has been a 60% rise in the number of Belfast residents using a bike as their main form of transport between their home and place of work.

Broad modal share for commuter cycling in Belfast has also jumped up by just over 50%, with cyclists now accounting for 2.1% of travel to work share, up from 1.4% in 2001.

The tables below show the method of travel to work for the employed working age population. I’ve compared the Northern Ireland headline figures with a split between Belfast Council area and the rest of NI excluding Belfast.

Method of travel to work (resident population) 2011
All persons (16-74 years) in employment and currently working


Belfast has a much lower reliance on private motorised travel (Motorcycle, scooter, moped, car or van driver or passenger, can or van pool or taxi) than the rest of Northern Ireland, with greater usage of public transport (train, bus or minibus), walking, and now significantly over three times the rate of cycle commuting than the rest of Northern Ireland.

Change in method of travel to work (resident population) between 2001 and 2011
All persons (16-74 years) in employment and currently working


The headline Northern Ireland figure shows a rise in bicycle commuters of 5% between 2001 and 2011, but delving deeper shows that Belfast is starting to leave the rest of Northern Ireland behind in modal shift terms. Belfast has seen a massive 60% increase in cycle commuters, while the rest of NI has seen a fall of 12%. While this poses some difficult questions of NI-wide policies, there is a clear challenge to allow Belfast to forge ahead with a wholly separate strategy for urban utility and commuter cycling.

Private motorised travel to work, while on the rise in Northern Ireland as a whole, has stagnated in Belfast in the last decade. Yet interestingly, car or van pooling showed the biggest increase of any transport method in Belfast (80%) in part pointing to good work and outcomes from the Travelwise NI campaign.

Public transport has also seen a dip in numbers of commuters, mostly due to a reduction in bus passengers. The number of Belfast residents travelling to work by train has risen by 72%, but interestingly more than twice as many people living in Belfast cycle to work than take the train. Similarly train commuters have risen by 63% across NI, obscured in the public transport category by a 15% drop in bus commuters, a much larger group.

For more detailed information you can access the supporting data tables through the Census 2011: Key Statistics for Northern Ireland Statistics Bulletin on the NISRA website (PDF).

Belfast cycling on a different path

One of the main points for future policy is the growing divergence between cycling levels in Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland. Data gathered by Roads Service from cycle counters in Belfast has shown a quiet groundswell of cycling uptake over ten years from 2000 to 2010. Over this period, cycle usage at key locations in Belfast has risen by a staggering 152%, with some of the most popular areas (Stranmillis Embankment, Albertbridge Road) showing increases well above 200%. The early indications are pointing to real year on year progress in Belfast cycling levels.

The census figures show, perhaps surprisingly, overall numbers of commuter cyclists have decreased in 19 of 26 district council areas in Northern Ireland since 2001. Of the top ten council areas by number of cycling workers, six have seen a decrease.

Top 10 councils by number of persons using a bicycle as main method of travel to work 2011
All persons  (16-74 years) in employment and currently working (resident population)


The Belfast Metropolitan Area (Belfast, Castlereagh, Carrickfergus, Lisburn, Newtownabbey and North Down councils) has seen a 30% rise in cycling as the main form of transport, but this is mostly due to Belfast adding 853 new cycle commuters against just 47 in the other five council areas combined.

Antrim, which had the fourth highest number of commuter cyclists in 2001, has seen a significant reduction of 42% in the last decade.

Taxis in bus lanes – the twist?

Recently DRD have signalled their intention to allow all taxis the use of bus lanes. A consultation received an overwhelmingly negative response, but DRD plan to press ahead. The majority of bus lanes in Northern Ireland are in Belfast. It is interesting to note that in the ten years to 2011, the number of people using taxis as a main mode of travel to work has decreased by 8% across Northern Ireland and by 24% in Belfast. This is compared to commuter cyclists rising by 5% across Northern Ireland and by 60% in Belfast. Comparing the absolute numbers, Belfast taxi commuters have dropped from 4,000 to 3,000, while commuter cyclists have increased from 1,400 to 2,300. This goes a little way to exposing the flawed reasoning as DRD move to prioritise taxi movements in bus lanes, to the expressed detriment of cyclists.

Belfast – a cycling city on the rise

The census figures released this week are broad headline travel to work statistics. As a previous blog post shows, we wait for a more detailed analysis of methods of travel to work by distance. For example in the South Belfast Parliamentary Constituency Area in 2001, cycling modal share for commuting journeys between 2-5km was already above 3%.

The rise to 2.1% for cycling as a method of travel to work is just the beginning for Belfast. The question we must ask of government departments, politicians and Belfast City Council is: do you want to build upon this, and how far will you commit to seeing it happen? These rises are set against soft policies of advisory cycle lanes, advanced stop line cycle boxes, education and awareness campaigns and a nascent cycle to work tax relief scheme. We even have a city bike hire scheme in the pipeline.

Supercharging these already impressive rises over the next ten years is possible with the right commitment to budget and priority. More hard measures such as quality cycle corridors instead of piecemeal unenforced/unenforceable cycle lanes, the Gasworks Bridge, junction priority and redesign can start to send a message to reluctant possible cyclists. Most importantly, better engagement and consultation with the daily cycle commuters can only help to identify the areas of greatest weakness, and boost the chances of working together to improve the city. DRD and Roads Service must recognise the growing importance of cycling as a form of urban transport in Belfast, and give much needed weight to our issues within the city’s network planning.

Notes to census figures

There are some comparability issues with the 2001 Census – more information can be downloaded from the NISRA website (PDF).

More detailed Travel to Work data will be released over the next 18 months. This will allow a more detailed look at cycling modal share increases over typical commuting journey ranges. 

Safer roads were on the agenda at Stomont on Monday 19th November 2012. Questions to the Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy included the topics of Conall McDevitt’s forthcoming Private Members’ Bill on 20mph zones, and a subject currently close to the heart of the NI Greenways blog, illegal parking in cycle lanes.

Excerpts from the Official Report of Assembly Business:

Judith Cochrane, Alliance MLA for Belfast East - Parliamentary copyright: image is reproduced with the permission of Northern Ireland Assembly CommissionMrs Cochrane asked the Minister for Regional Development what action his Department is taking to address illegal parking in cycle lanes. (AQO 2876/11-15)

Mr Kennedy: I want to begin by saying that I fully appreciate the concerns and frustration of cyclists caused by vehicles that park in cycle lanes during their operational hours. Motorists should be mindful and considerate towards cyclists when using our roads and should not park illegally in cycle lanes.

Roads Service has advised that a traffic attendant can issue a penalty charge notice to a vehicle that is parked on a mandatory cycle lane. However, a penalty charge notice cannot be issued to a vehicle that is parked on an advisory cycle lane, unless other parking restrictions apply; for example, clearway restrictions or bus lanes. When a traffic attendant observes a vehicle parked in a cycle lane in contravention of a restriction, the appropriate enforcement action will be taken.

NI Greenways comment: While welcoming the question, this answer does little to address what Belfast cyclists see as a persistent problem which still isn’t being “tackled” with focus or priority. A July survey by commuter cyclists showed that for every km of restricted lane in Belfast there are 4.5 vehicles illegally parked during rush hour. Advisory cycle lanes with urban clearway restrictions are the dominant form of cycle space in Belfast, with mandatory lanes few and far between, with no recurring reports of illegal parking problems. Refusing to recognise a special problem in some areas of the city means the issue can continue to be largely ignored.

Mrs Cochrane: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he also give us an update on the parking enforcement awareness programme that was due to commence on 30 October?

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member. Obviously, the Department encourages cycling. We are committed to providing safer roads for the growing number of cyclists and pedestrians. We have done that through a range of measures such as road safety engineering, traffic calming and the enhancement of the pedestrian and cycling network. All these initiatives, including those brought forward by Travelwise, are key elements of the sustainable travel options involving cycling and its promotion.

Conall McDevitt, SDLP MLA for Belfast South - Parliamentary copyright: image is reproduced with the permission of Northern Ireland Assembly CommissionMr McDevitt: I thank the Minister for his ongoing commitment to cycling. Given that it is the beginning of road safety week, will the Minister indicate to the House whether he is willing to strongly consider the merits of introducing 20 mph zones on a statutory basis or to support the private Member’s Bill due before the House in the coming months that will do so?

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. I know that he is a keen and very active cyclist. I am aware of the private Members’ Bill and of the representations made by those in favour of introducing 20 mph schemes. Although I am not opposed to such schemes, the issue seems to be one of enforcement: how such limits are to be enforced, whether the PSNI can commit the necessary resources and whether responsible motorists and vehicle users will be prepared to accept the restrictions that are placed upon them. That is an ongoing discussion that I am having with my officials, and we will see what emerges.

NI Greenways comment: The level of commitment from MLAs to seeing this important measure gaining passage through the Assembly remains uncertain. The issue of enforcement is one that pops up time and again in 20mph zones debates, and is dealt with along with other weak arguments against on the 20’s Plenty For Us website.

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.

Fed up with your cycle route in Belfast being blocked by illegally parked cars? Is your daily commute is made much more dangerous than it should be? Take part in a unique survey to highlight the problem! Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes 2 hits the streets of Belfast on the week beginning Monday 5th November 2012!

Last time..

The original running of Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes was in July this year. Nine volunteers found that a typical rush hour cycling journey in Belfast was blocked five times by illegally parked vehicles, or 4.5 blocks for every kilometre of restricted lanes. One journey even had 36 cars blocking a single cycle lane! The evidence shows right across Belfast, people cycling during rush hour are facing dangerous road conditions.


This was a unique effort of independent civic action between private individuals – people who choose to travel between work and home on a bike – and researchers at the Centre of Excellence for Public Health at Queen’s University Belfast.

The report made it into the press, and following engagement with Belfast councillors, MLAs, Roads Service, the DRD Minister and the Regional Development Committee, the issue got….absolutely nowhere. If you weren’t sure how Northern Ireland’s politicians felt about the problems of cycling as transport, the indifference is very clear to see.

In response to the first survey report, Roads Service maintain that cycle lanes mean rush hour “cyclists effectively have their own road space. This makes cycling safer, and at times of congestion, allows cyclists to make time savings.” Does this match your experience of Belfast’s cycle lanes?

So we must keep the pressure on! It’s November, it’s cold, it may be wet, but many hundreds of commuter cyclists will still be on our roads at rush hour. This time we need to expand the number of volunteers, and the route coverage to see what the problem is like across the whole of Belfast.

More and more people in Belfast are choosing a bicycle as their main form of commuting, and are encountering problems on our roads. Cycling in Northern Ireland is becoming more dangerous. Parked cars on cycle and bus lanes may be just an inconvenience to most road users, but they pose real dangers to cyclists. Let’s pile up the evidence again, and start to shame the authorities into meaningful action.

How to get involved

Join a growing community of Belfast commuter cyclists in this unique research project, and participate in some constructive public action. Send an email to nigreenways AT with your name and usual commuting route. You can download the information pack here, with more detailed instructions and survey sheet:

Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes survey sheet and information

You can help the effort by mentioning to friends or work colleagues who cycle at rush hour, and encourage them to join, Why not print off some copies of the information pack for others? You don’t have to cover every single day of the week, you don’t even have to be on a bike to help out – let’s all do what we can!

Let’s really get Belfast on the move, and help to put an end to illegal parking in cycle lanes!