The Northern Ireland Assembly witnessed an unprecedented rise of the bicycle onto the political agenda in 2013-14. Even the expected boost from the Giro d’Italia couldn’t mask an emergence of everyday cycling issues being promoted by more politicians than ever before. But could anyone unseat the DUP’s Peter Weir as the 2-time reigning, defending Cycling MLA of the Year?

In September 2013 Stormont was hit by a barrage of cycling questions so fierce and unexpected that it was dubbed Cyclegeddon.

Events moved fast – already an All-party Group on Cycling had been formed; within 5 weeks of the new term more Assembly questions on cycling were asked than in the whole of the previous year; the Transport Minister Danny Kennedy announced the formation of a new Cycling Unit to lead his Cycling Revolution; by the end of the year a remarkable 324 Assembly Questions (Written, Oral, Topical and supplementary) had been asked; and one MLA rose through the ranks to focus minds on everyday cycling issues, almost single-handedly creating Cyclegeddon and in the process landing a knock-out blow to claim the title of..

Cycling MLA of the Year 2014: Daithí McKay (Sinn Féin)

Daithí McKay

Daithí spoke to @nigreenways about his win:

“It’s a great honour to receive this award especially given the fact that this has been the year that the Assembly really did wake up to cycling. I only took up cycling again in August 2013 when I bought a £180 Viking and I was immediately bitten by the bug. After a few weeks I noticed a reduction in stress, an increase in productivity, more energy, less weight and more money in my pocket!

NI_Assembly_cycling_Q_year“What I like most about cycling is that it represents a solution to so many of our problems – an ever worsening state of public health, transport and congestion, mental health and stress, increasing fuel overheads. We have so much potential to realise in terms of cycling and there is a huge demand for it that we can release if we deal with safety and the perception of safety.

“Cycling is now firmly on the political agenda and there is an onus on all elected representatives to ensure that we firstly ‘understand’ cycling and secondly deliver proper infrastructure. A proper cycling strategy with proper funding will deliver better health outcomes and we all need to contribute to a greater public understanding of that fact.”

The sustained level of badgering Ministers is worth repeating. Daithí’s total of 127 cycling questions is an average of 3 per week during the Assembly term; it’s more questions than the rest of the top 10 Cycling MLAs of the Year combined. It’s also a 3-figure increase on Peter Weir’s winning totals in the last 2 years (23 and 27).


That long tail is also impressive – 2 years ago just 28 of our 108 MLAs asked a question about cycling. This year’s total of 53 MLAs means almost half of our political representatives have joined the swelling peloton.

Daithí McKay’s efforts pushed Sinn Féin into top spot among the political parties, rising from the oblivion of just a single question 2 years ago. Steven Agnew continues to ensure the Green Party punches well above its weight, while there were notably no questions about cycling from NI21, TUV, UKIP or Independent MLAs. Read more about NI parties’ cycling policies in Election Cycle.


DRD naturally took the brunt of Cyclegeddon as the Department which leads on road infrastructure, but each of the 12 Northern Ireland Government Departments featured in the list, with even the Assembly Commission being pestered about implementing the Cycle to Work Scheme at Stormont.

A little less cycle promotion, a little more action please..

Cycling promotion has arguably been the primary focus in NI over the last decade, save for some fantastic focused government investment in facilities like the Comber Greenway. But with increasing recognition that physical changes will be needed to deliver the cycling revolution, questions on infrastructure nudged into the lead in 2013-14. Pat Ramsey’s 20mph Bill provoked a series of questions and the forthcoming Belfast Bike Hire scheme kept MLAs interested through the year.


The split between questions on sport cycling and everyday cycling was encouraging, especially in the year when the Giro d’Italia rolled through Northern Ireland – MLAs had plenty of questions to ask on the Giro, from criticism of the route to seeking detailed plans for the legacy.


More than just questions

A full Assembly debate on the Giro d’Italia and legacy in April naturally hovered around future sporting opportunities and tourism benefits, but a series of MLAs brought the focus back to everyday cycling and #space4cycling in their contributions.

“That this Assembly recognises that the Giro d’Italia is one of the biggest events in the international sporting calendar; warmly welcomes it to Northern Ireland; acknowledges the significance and magnitude of being chosen to host the Grande Partenza; understands the benefits to be obtained in terms of the economy, tourism, cultural exchange and education, promotion of a healthy lifestyle, and worldwide publicity for Northern Ireland; and calls on the Executive to take all necessary steps to maximise the potential to be gained through such a prestigious event, and to allocate adequate resources for the delivery of a suitable Giro legacy plan to include improved provision and infrastructure for schools, commuting, leisure, tourist and sporting cycling in Northern Ireland.”
Read the full text of the debate on the NI Assembly website.

The Regional Development Committee even got in on the cycling surge by visiting the Great Western Greenway in Mayo and launching its own Inquiry into the benefits of cycling to the economy.

A review of the last year must finish by mentioning the one MLA most responsible for this swirling vortex of cycling issues, the Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy. From creating the Cycling Unit (which has recently launched a draft Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland) to visiting Copenhagen and Malmö on cycling study tours, to hosting cycling events and even taking part on Ride on Belfast – the Minister has continued to take the early steps to fulfil his pledge to create a cycling revolution in Northern Ireland.

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Yes, but what were they all asking?

Over 300 questions were asked, but Ministers’ answers are not usually a font of great insight or shocking revelation – that’s the nature of how the system works. But a few nuggets of interesting information could be unearthed. If you want more detail, you can download the full ‘2013-14 Assembly Questions on Cycling’ dataset (XLSX, 166K).

On the restriction of bicycles on trains before 9.30am..

“On very early trains and on contra-commute trains, i.e. trains operating out of Belfast in the mornings, Translink do already regularly carry passengers with bicycles. This is done at the Conductor’s discretion and Conductors have been briefed to accept cycles where capacity permits, i.e. no expectation of standing passengers in the cycle area. However the majority of trains to Belfast operating before 08:00 are already carrying significant numbers of passengers. For information there are no travel restrictions placed on the number of folding bicycles which may be carried on trains. These may be carried at any time, including prior to the normal 09.30 restriction.”
DRD Minister Danny Kennedy answering AQW 25264/11-15 Daithí McKay (also AQW 26579/11-15 Steven Agnew and AQW 34587/11-15 Daithi McKay)

On cycle-specific lights at junctions..

There are no cycle filter lights currently installed on my Department’s road network. [However..] I am aware the Department for Transport has issued a site-specific authorisation for the use of eye-level cycle traffic lights at Bow Roundabout in London for a trial period. My officials will review the outcome of the trial before making recommendations on their use here.”
DRD Minister Danny Kennedy answering AQW 28890/11-15 and AQW 29558/11-15 Daithí McKay

On missing the point of why 50% of people cycling over Belfast’s Albert Bridge use the footway (objective v subjective safety)..

“The bus lane / cycle facility on the Albertbridge Road, approaching the Albert Bridge, was provided in 1996 to accommodate buses, cyclists and taxis approaching the city centre. The merge arrangement, provided at the end of the bus lane, where the road narrows for the Albert Bridge, is a common layout which operates at other locations in Belfast and elsewhere. Collision records, provided by the PSNI, for this location are monitored, as part of the normal collision data gathering exercise. Over the last five years records show there have been no reported injury collisions at this merge location, involving cyclists.”
DRD Minister Danny Kennedy answering AQW 27035/11-15 Daithí McKay

On the budget allocated to cycling over the last 10 years..


“The recently established Cycling Unit, will seek to coordinate and promote the work being taken forward in relation to cycling and as such, spend on this activity is expected to increase in future years.”
DRD Minister Danny Kennedy answering AQW 26785/11-15 Steven Agnew

On the world famous #BinLane..

“Traffic Attendants patrol Upper Arthur Street several times each day and during the twelve month period to 30 September 2013, six Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs) were issued for contraventions in the cycle lane. However, I understand a further 631 vehicles were recorded but drove away before a PCN could be issued. It is also not clear whether these offences can be attributed to parking in the cycle lane as this information is not recorded.
With regard to bins blocking cycle lanes, this has been reported to Roads Service on a number of occasions. Where a bin has been presented for collection and has obstructed the cycle lane, any complaint will be investigated to establish ownership. My officials have, in the past, spoken to the relevant owners and advised them of their responsibility to ensure that the bin is not placed in the cycle lane, and that once it have been emptied by the collection service, it should be removed from the street immediately after. Where ownership has not been established or where owners have failed to cooperate with my officials, these bins have, with the assistance of Belfast City Council, been removed.”
DRD Minister Danny Kennedy answering AQW 26728/11-15 Daithí McKay

On cycling levels in deprived areas [good idea for a blog post that]..

“[By awesomely mashing up the NI Travel Survey with Deprivation Measures..] It was found that respondents living in the 20% most deprived areas were less likely to have cycled in the last 12 months than the NI population as a whole. Conversely, respondents living in the 20% least deprived areas were more likely to have cycled in the last 12 months compared to the overall NI population. Looking at the respondents living in the remaining areas, there was no real difference in the proportion of those who had cycled in the last 12 months compared to the NI total.
It must be remembered that levels of cycling in specific areas cannot simply be attributed to the level of deprivation, for example the geography of a location can be a contributory factor as to whether people cycle or not. Levels of cycling may also be impacted where low cost, widely available modes of transport such as black taxi ‘bus’ routes are available.”
DRD Minister Danny Kennedy answering AQW 34855/11-15 Daithí McKay

On the total length of cycle lanes in Northern Ireland..

My Department has currently provided approximately 235 miles of cycle lanes across Northern Ireland.
DRD Minister Danny Kennedy answering AQW 30598/11-15 Alex Easton

On cutting a Belfast city centre residential rat run to motor vehicles..

The closure of Barrack Street, Belfast to through traffic derived from the ‘Belfast On The Move’ strategic review of traffic within Belfast City Centre. Roads Service had previously been aware of local residents’ concerns over the volume and nature of through traffic in this street and took the opportunity to address those concerns within the overall scheme proposal.
Whilst there has been no formal assessment carried out on the specific benefits of the closure of Barrack Street, it is considered the stopping-up has returned the area to being a residential street for the benefit of all those who live there.”
DRD Minister Danny Kennedy answering AQW 29509/11-15 Daithí McKay

On recognising the value of investing in cycling/walking at tourism hubs..

“[DRD has] a very extensive scheme proposal that will provide a footpath/cycle path extending for approximately 3.5km from Bushmills to The Aird. However, given the potentially high costs involved, any scheme delivery will need to be carried out in stages.
My officials are currently developing the stage proposal from The Aird to The Causeway, which is significant stretching for approximately 1.5km. The scheme will require the acquisition of a large tract of land. My officials have already met with one of the principal landowners, The National Trust, and will be arranging to meet with other landowners over the coming months.
Subject to the availability of funding and successful acquisition of the necessary land, I am hopeful this scheme will be able to be considered for inclusion in a works programme in the near future.”
DRD Minister Danny Kennedy answering AQW 34316/11-15 Robin Swann

All Assembly questions data sourced from the excellent Northern Ireland Assembly AIMS Portal. See the Open Northern Ireland Assembly Licence.

Some remarkable facts and new developments are worth noting as cycling continues to benefit from a fair wind at the Northern Ireland Assembly.

20% of MLAs are now directly involved in cycling matters

This fact should be celebrated for, whatever individual politicians’ and parties’ views and policies, 22 of the 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) are working through various issues to do with everyday cycling.


Continue reading “The political wheel keeps on turning”

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”

Cyclists’ concerns of increasing road danger and wasted public investment due to illegal parking were put to the Regional Development Committee at Stormont this week. The Committee has a statutory oversight and scrutiny role for matters relating to roads, infrastructure and transport in Northern Ireland. Despite presenting clear evidence of the problem, and conclusions on the causes, the briefing on the Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes report was given short shrift, and harsh treatment.

Reproduced under Creative Commons licence from niassembly

Presented on behalf of the survey participants, the “10 minute presentation” was cut short at 6 minutes (the previous presenter ran to nearly 14 minutes, unchallenged). The first comment from Committee Chair Jimmy Spratt set a bizarre and disappointing tone:

“I often see cyclists, at traffic lights, and what have you, going through red traffic lights, and what have you, so, very often cyclists don’t exactly endear themselves to other members of the public in terms of road usage, and I have to say that that happens on a fairly regular basis. We take the points that you make in relation to parking and stuff like that…”

Listen for yourself, and to the response (File 5, 04:45 onwards)

Following criticism of not being an organisation (beware private individuals engaging in the political process) questions moved back to more constructive areas of road safety and parking warden deployment.

Roads Service officials were next up in front of the Committee to respond to the issues raised by the report, and received a series of very tough questions. Yet Belfast commuter cyclists may be interested to note that neither cycling nor cycle lanes were specifically raised in questioning. The issue of the day was the concerns of Lisburn Road traders and the impact of priority patrolling there – so cycling got a little lost.

What was of relevance to the survey was a Roads Service response to Jimmy Spratt’s welcome idea of equal coverage of parking wardens across Belfast:

“If we go to a road and there’s no traffic problems there, there’s no point in us wasting resources putting them there, if there’s no difficulty”.

So Roads Service don’t consider cyclists’ problems to be traffic problems, and don’t care that the report highlights we are facing difficulty each night, all across Belfast. Belfast cyclists are not motorised traffic and therefore don’t count.

Belfast commuter cyclists are fully aware, each day, of how valued they are on our roads – we see this in lack of infrastructure, dangerous junctions, and blocked cycle lanes. If Roads Service and the Department for Regional Development, and disappointingly the Committee which scrutinises their work, are not open to these concerns, where do we go?

With this in mind, the date for Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes 2 will be the week of 5th November 2012 – bigger, better, and a louder voice? Let’s see what we can do..

That briefing in full

You can also listen to the cut short briefing on the NI Assembly website (file 4, 26:00 onwards)

Thank you Chairperson, and I’d like to thank the Committee for the invitation to present this briefing today.

By way of explaining the origins of the survey, I’ll start with a little background on the NI Greenways blog. I started compiling it in April this year as a way of highlighting opportunities to open around 600 miles of disused former railways across the province, in the model of the Comber Greenway. My intention is to raise local awareness by mapping these potential traffic-free walking and cycling paths for commuting, leisure and tourism, and as a resource for Northern Ireland to combat our worsening obesity problems.

As a commuter cyclist in Belfast for over 10 years, the social media connections I made through this blog brought me to discussion on the daily issues people face cycling to work on our roads. Alongside criticisms of lack of quality infrastructure, and general physical dangers, the major gripe was around cycle lanes in Belfast being blocked by parked vehicles.

My own route has what’s termed as an advisory cycle lane running for 800m, yet every night during urban clearway operation it is blocked by anything from 10 to 30 vehicles. In June I raised a complaint with Roads Service, but received a less than encouraging response. In the 12 months to April, just 11 Penalty Charge Notices were issued on the affected section of my commuting route. To my experience, and as the survey would later bear out, this is the level of illegal parking per night. Roads Service informed me that records are not kept of deployment of patrols per road, leading to obvious questions about how they evaluate the level of illegal parking across the city, and therefore the effectiveness of patrol deployment.

The idea for a city-wide survey came from Mark Tully, a lecturer in Public Health at Queen’s University, who unfortunately cannot be here today due to a prior commitment.

Put simply, we could draw on the time and experience of commuter cyclists to record the number of illegally parked vehicles in cycle lanes, and bus lanes, during their morning and evening commutes. Safety was paramount and volunteers were encouraged to mentally note the figures, and jot them down at the end of their journey. Volunteers were also reminded not to challenge or single out people who were illegally parked, to avoid any unhelpful confrontation or aggravation. Some participants also took cycle camera video recordings both as evidence of the accuracy of figures, but also to allow our unique point of view to be experienced, and some footage is available to view through the blog.

We set the survey for 5 working days on the week beginning 23rd July, and managed to get 9 volunteers. It should be noted that 4 of the participants were female, not a bad percentage for the survey, given that 2001 census figures put female cyclists at just 0.2% of all commuters in Belfast.

At least one arterial route in each geographic quarter of the city was covered.

After analysis by the team at Queens, the results for 69 qualifying journeys were released in the report which you all have a copy of. For a typical journey in Belfast, a cyclist will face 5 illegally parked vehicles blocking restricted lanes, or 4.5 for every kilometre of the city’s cycle and bus lanes. The worst performing route was the Springfield / Grosvenor Road corridor, with 26 vehicles illegally blocking cyclists on a typical journey.

Evening journeys were worse than mornings – typically 6.2 per km or 7 per journey during evening rush hour against 2.9 per km or 4 per journey in the morning. It’s difficult to draw conclusions about this difference, but some of the factors at work may be more shopping trips to local stores on the way home, better driver understanding of bus lane rules, and driver confusion over the operation of the relatively new phenomenon of advisory cycle lanes on urban clearways.

The survey puts clear evidence of this problem into the hands of frustrated commuters – it’s not just another grumble about our roads which can be easily dismissed.

Why does any of this matter? The frustration of commuter cyclists is not due to any sense of entitlement to this road space but rather from the perception and experience of increased road danger which illegally parked vehicles create. Cyclists have to filter in and out of general traffic unnecessarily – the Committee will understand this is about to become a source of increased danger as we approach the winter months and dark journeys home.  Each parked vehicle is a potential door opening accident risk. Road sides which should be clear have illegal visual obstacles increasing the risk of crossing pedestrians coming into conflict with other road users. As we’re the slowest road users, mixing with general traffic leads to pressure on cyclists and many dangerous overtakes by equally, and perhaps understandably, frustrated motorists.

Recently released PSNI road casualty figures show a jump in cyclists killed or seriously injured in Northern Ireland, 49 in each of the last two years against a baseline measure of 28. Looking at the trends for all road casualties, road safety has significantly improved in Northern Ireland over the past 10 years, with casualties for drivers, passengers, pedestrians and motorcyclists all down. Cyclists are the only group to with an upward trend in casualties, a worrying and underreported development.

Just last week one of the survey participants was involved in a road collision with a car crossing a cycle lane through stationary traffic in Belfast. If they had been driving a car, this would have been a minor prang with insurance details swapped – it landed the cyclist in A+E and wrote off their main form of transport – luckily and importantly, no lasting damage was done to the cyclist. We are among the most vulnerable road users, and taking steps to eliminate a fairly straightforward problem such as illegal parking can make a big difference to the experience and safety of cycling in Belfast.

What should concern the Committee, and all road users in Belfast, is that cycle lanes which are blocked every day at rush hour represent wasted public investment. We have notional targets to increase cycling levels in Northern Ireland, yet when paint is put down to mark out a city cycle network, regardless of how fractured and inadequate it remains in reality, cyclists are unable to use it. It fails to provide the separation of transport modes it sets out to achieve, fails to improve safety for all road users – in fact does the exact opposite while this problem persists. And crucially fails to properly sell the benefits of an alternative, yet viable form of commuter transport in our small city.

To put Northern Ireland’s cycling under-investment levels into perspective, in 2010-11 just 0.16% of Roads Service budget was put into cycling measures,


or 18p per head of population. Compare this against The Netherlands where €30 per head is spent. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison to make – on another day I’ll make a forceful argument about increasing our spending on cycling – but how can we start that debate when our 18p is going down the pan?

The survey group contacted Minister Kennedy to highlight the report, and we received a letter from Roads Service, and Committee members should have a copy in their briefing papers. The resounding verdict from participants was that the response was inadequate given the nature of the issue raised. To receive an, albeit informal survey report, yet backed by analysis from Queen’s University, and to respond with five long paragraphs explaining what a cycle lane is, felt somewhat patronising. [Read that response in full here]

Indeed the letter became a little surreal when Roads Service stated that cycle lanes mean “cyclists effectively have their own road space. This makes cycling safer, and at times of congestion, allows cyclists to make time savings”. This is quite an absurd statement given the report which prompted the response. There was no acceptance that illegal parking is a major problem for cyclists, or that Roads Service bears some responsibility for ineffective enforcement.

What was encouraging from the response are the changes proposed under the new contract with NSL, which Committee members have heard about from Ciarán de Búrca and the Minister in the past few weeks. The new protocol and associated awareness campaign should go some way to tackling illegal parking. The new tow and clamp policy, while potentially seeming like another stick to beat Belfast motorists with, will probably sharpen minds in the short term. These and other measures are to be welcomed as evidence of proactive traffic management. But, there is still one major worry running through from my initial complaint, to the survey, to the official response, and the new NSL contract.

That is resourcing, and deployment – Roads Service steer clear of this point in correspondence, yet it is at the heart of the problem.

Where parking wardens do not patrol, illegal parking will take place. As a prime example, I took to the Cregagh Road during the survey week, along with an onboard video camera. My typical journey across that week had 9.5 illegally parked vehicles, except for Wednesday when there were just 3. The reason? Two NSL parking wardens patrolling the road. I doubt they needed to issue many tickets, but the mere presence of high visibility enforcement was enough to practically clear the road.

So, new towing trucks to move illegally parked vehicles – great. How many trucks? How will they be deployed? Will the current priority system remain in place, with constant patrolling of the Lisburn Road, and sporadic to no coverage elsewhere? The committee heard from Lisburn Road Traders last week, and I’ll add this one point to their criticisms – having 27% of all Northern Ireland’s clearway related tickets, on just one Belfast Road, is actually a damning indictment of the spread of enforcement across our city, especially given that it’s an arterial route supported by both the railway and motorway network.

Will there be more than the current 1 or 2 car-based warden teams, and 4 or 5 teams on foot, for a city of around 20 main road corridors? Will Road Service commit to providing a better level of service across the whole of the city, or will the status quo remain? Certainly since my original complaint in June, and 11 weeks since the survey report, my rush hour journey has not had a clear cycle lane on one evening – not one.

To conclude, all available evidence shows that cycling levels are rapidly rising in Belfast. Roads Service’s own figures from Belfast cycle counter locations show a 152% increase in cycle usage from 2000 to 2010. The DRD Travel Survey for Belfast commuters showed an increase in people declaring a bicycle as their ‘usual’ form of transport from 1% 2000-2002 to 3% 2008-2010. We now number in the thousands during rush hour across the Belfast, and if good, safe infrastructure can be maintained and promoted, people will choose to make the switch to the bike.

The volunteers, and other commuter cyclists who’ve supported us since the report, will monitor progress on this issue very closely. I appreciate the Committee’s time this morning.