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

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

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

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

The Weather Underground

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

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

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

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


The Gathering

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

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

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

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


The Grand Départ

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



On The Open Road

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



Selfie On Belfast

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


City Hall and well-earned grub

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

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


The Media

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

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


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


The Aftermath

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

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

Diarmuid is a teacher at Grosvenor Grammar School in Belfast, a father of 3 and a wheelchair user for nearly 30 years. He talks about how handcycling has revolutionised his daily routine to the point where he’s sold his own car. His unique experience of travelling around Belfast challenges many myths about cycling as a viable form of transport, for people of all abilities..

While in university in 1984 I suffered a spinal injury in a hill walking accident. I was at university preparing to go into teaching, so I was lucky that after taking a year out the adjustments I had to make in life didn’t throw me off my career path. I’ve been teaching in Grosvenor Grammar School in Belfast for about 20 years now. It’s really encouraging to see Grosvenor trying to get a cycle to work scheme organised for the staff.

Diarmuid - Why I Cycle

Continue reading “Diarmuid: Why I Cycle”

As part of Bike Week, local people who cycle our streets share their stories, fears and hopes. Tony, originally for Omagh but a long-time resident in Glengormley, is one of the Pro Vice-Chancellors at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), looking after planning, staffing and external affairs for the University. He explains his passion for cycling for transport and leisure..

I’ve been cycling for about a decade, and own a touring bike, a mountain bike and a road bike. I use the road bike most of the time, but occasionally take the mountain bike for a spin around Cavehill. I have 4 daughters, 2 of whom cycle fairly regularly, though one has been curtailed since her bike was stolen. Apart from the bicycle I use a motorbike – I’ve never driven a car and have no plans to start.

Tony - Why I Cycle

Continue reading “Tony: Why I Cycle”

As part of Bike Week, local people who cycle our streets share their stories, fears and hopes. Kelly from Belfast gives her experience of cycling the school run with her children and how, despite less than ideal routes and road conditions, cycling has simply become part of life..

I own a couple of bikes – my old faithful mountain bike which I’ve had for a long time, and last year my husband bought me a ‘Real Classic’ bike for my birthday. It’s a modern bike with a vintage styling and I love it. It’s a thing of beauty as well as being practical. I have a child carrier on the back for my youngest son, and he adores it. It also has a basket on the front which makes it really handy for trips to the shops. I’ve cycled for fun since I was a child, but have cycled as a means of transport since my university days, 12 years ago.

Kelly - Why I Cycle

My main cycle route tends to be to the school and back. My oldest two children, who are 7 and 5, ride their own bikes and I take my 3-year old on my bike. We are fairly fortunate in that we don’t have too many roads to cross, but because we are cycling at busy times of the day we tend to stick to the footpaths as it’s just far too dangerous for me to take them on the roads. There’s no way I could cycle safely myself and supervise them on the road at the same time.

The kids love it

As I’m sure is the case for most families, life is busy, so getting time to exercise outside of the day to day routine is tricky, so we made a decision a while ago to try to stay fit and healthy as a family. I see the school run cycle as a form of exercise for me and the kids but it is also something we really enjoy. We get a lot of enjoyment from being outdoors together and I believe they are learning valuable skills on road safety and physical well-being during our cycles.

We tend to cycle for leisure at the weekends and during summer holidays too. It’s a free activity during a long summer break, which is always a bonus and the kids love it. Even if it’s just a cycle to the local park for a play, we always feel great after a bike ride and less guilty when we stop for ice cream!

We do have a car – I wouldn’t expect the kids to cycle to school in the rain, as they would have to sit in school all day with wet clothes, but if it’s dry, we are out on the bikes. We will even cycle to the shops if we are only getting a few items. They love getting to lock up their bikes at the bike racks – it’s all part of the adventure for them!

For the most part our cycling is enjoyable, and something I think we will always endeavour to do. People always smile when they see the kids out on their bikes with me, and my own bike has been a great source of admiration for the other mothers at school. I’ve even seen a few other mums cycling over the past few weeks as the weather has improved and I think that’s great.

I am wary of road cycling

I did have one ‘run-in’ with a pedestrian on the morning school run. He was walking his 3 dogs and one of my sons rang his bell to alert him that we were on the footpath behind him. The man turned abruptly and shouted at me and the kids that we should be on the road and not cycling on the footpath. The children were very upset to see their mum being shouted at and I felt very intimidated but did try to explain that there was no way I could cycle on the road with children so young. There are no cycle lanes around the school and the area is very busy with traffic. The irony was that as he was busy shouting at me, one of his dogs ran onto the road and the traffic had to halt. So in actual fact he was the one causing bother. I hope he had a pooper-scooper now there’s a real issue on our streets!

As the children get older, I know I will have to educate them on cycling safely on the roads. I am wary of road cycling myself though, as so many of the cities cycle lanes are blocked with parked cars. I also have a few friends who cycle as a means of transport much more than I do and when I hear some of their horror stories – bins blocking city centre cycle lanes, aggressive bus drivers, oblivious car drivers almost squashing them – it puts me off a little I must admit.

Cycle lanes should always be kept clear

At the moment, my cycling is limited to a very small area. Mainly because my children are so young and can’t go too far, but also because I am apprehensive about negotiating roads. If we want a longer cycle we tend to put the bikes in the car and drive to a cycle path and then we can cycle with a bit more ease, although sometimes our slow pace irks the more adept cyclists. That doesn’t really bother me, the way I see it, we all have to start somewhere and build on our abilities.

I suppose one thing that might be useful is to educate drivers when they are learning on how to be more aware of cyclists and how to be respectful of all road-users. Drivers can often think they have more right to be on the road, and on other occasions they are completely oblivious to the bike that is alongside them. Cycle lanes should always be kept clear, and I do feel that this should be policed in some way, particularly in city centre areas where it is so busy.

Overall I would say that cycling is just a part of life for us. I hope that as the kids grow up they will continue to have a passion for cycling because of what they have experienced in childhood. It would be great to see more families out and about cycling and to know that it was something families could do together safely in their own towns.

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.