Northern Ireland’s Transport Minister Danny Kennedy hopes a significant chunk of his legacy in office will be his “cycling revolution”. Yet taxi reform being brought forward by Environment Minister Mark H Durkan threatens to destroy cycling levels in Belfast, by giving vast numbers of taxis priority over bicycles in rush hour. Their gain will be our loss, but what if our government is betting everything on the wrong horse?

What isn’t widely known is the steep decline in taxi usage over the last 10 years, in parallel to exceptional cycling growth – which is set to propel the importance of the bicycle up alongside and above the taxi sector in key areas of Belfast transport.

Belfast taxis saw a sharp 24% decline in commuting patronage between 2001 and 2011 – even in West Belfast where the taxi sector is dominated by cheap, flexible and socially-cohesive taxi bus services. In every area of the city cycle commuting increased – most notably in South and East Belfast, where bus lanes are virtually empty of permitted taxis during rush hours.


If the taxi decline and cycling increase are indicative of a more general trend in Belfast, cycle commuting looks on course to overtake taxi commuting by the 2021 Census. Admittedly it’s a leap to project forward from just 4 data points, but the irony will be lost on no-one that the ‘cross-over’ year happens to be 2015 – when all taxis are due to be let into bus lanes..


Commuting to/from work might be a narrow look at overall transport usage, but it’s actually very pertinent to this issue, as Belfast bus lanes naturally target only rush hour periods when commuting (along with the school run) creates the greatest congestion.

Sharp and spiralling decline in taxi use?

So is there an underlying decline in the importance of the taxi sector in NI and, if so, why give taxis privileged access to bus lanes at the expense of thriving cycling levels, which relies heavily on bicycle users’ perception of safety?

Maybe the projection above isn’t such a leap if we look at journey trends from DRD’s own annual Travel Survey for Northern Ireland. Taxi journeys have slumped over the 13 years of the survey, from a high of 21 per person per year (pppy) between 2000 and 2005, down to just 12 in 2011-13.  Average distance travelled similarly has dipped from 78 miles pppy in 2001-03 to just 53 in 2011-13. Meanwhile cycling shows sustained growth in almost every count since 2007 – the pre-cursor to our Minister’s ‘cycling revolution’.


The last graph on Belfast average distance travelled is even more interesting. Taxi travel at 94 miles pppy in 2010-12 is the lowest figure since the survey began. The prominent peak just happened to coincide with Belfast’s opulent property boom of the mid 2000s, followed by a sharp decline tracking the bust years and continuing austerity; draw your own conclusions.

And in this period of falling demand for taxis in Northern Ireland, what has been happening to supply? It turns out, there has been a massive expansion in the number of taxis in Northern Ireland. Between 2003-04 and 2010 there was a 55% increase in the number of taxi vehicles licensed to be on our roads.


I wonder if DOE knows how many of those additional taxis licensed since 2003-04 were registered as Public Hire outside Belfast (white plates) but actually cruise around the city’s street operating out of private hire depots?

We want more people to travel in Belfast by bus, with impressive investment backing this aim up. Already in Belfast, more people are cycling more often and further than ever before – this is worth building upon. At the same sime, there are more taxis chasing fewer passengers than ever before. Why on earth should this declining sector become the dominant user of bus lanes?

So why redefine bus lanes?

In the Rapid Transit | Taxis in bus lanes article we saw how DRD defines the purpose of bus lanes, which can become quite complex given the different types of vehicles allowed. I think it can be boiled down to two simple reasons for granting access to groups of vehicles – to promote a particularly beneficial transport mode and for increasing the safety of vulnerable road users.

Promotion – when prioritising vehicles capable of carrying more passengers than a typical car (buses, taxi buses and many wheelchair accessible taxis) there are clear benefits to society in reduced congestion, more efficient mass transport, reduced land demand in the city centre for parking – among others. Wheelchair accesible taxis also give disabled customers greater flexibility in travel options, and bus lane access can even be seen as some small mitigation against the increased purchase costs by a taxi driver, encouraging beneficial investment.

Safety –  by some distance, bicycle and motorcycle users are at greatest risk of being involved in a collision leading to serious injury or death. Bus lanes afford two-wheeled users some calm road space within hectic rush hours. Indeed, the choice to cycle or not is in a large part dictated by the perception of safety, something unlikely to put many people off driving or riding as a passenger in a bus or taxi.


Bicycles sit neatly in the middle of this spectrum, almost the perfect bus lane users. This space is actively used to encourage more cycling in Belfast, and safety needs are catered for by relatively empty space in the busiest periods on our roads.

The question for both Mark H Durkan and Danny Kennedy is simple – where do you see 4,000+ (mostly saloon car) taxis fitting into this picture?

Is anyone calling for a ‘taxi revolution’?

Are we actively encouraging people to make more taxi journeys in Belfast? If so, the evidence shows a clear trend in the opposite direction. Is there an obvious need to increase safety for taxi drivers or passengers, above any other user? Hardly, and certainly no arguments on this point featured in the DRD consultation on taxis in bus lanes.

Even worse, letting 4,000+ taxis dominate bus lanes impacts on all other users’ benefits as shown above – increased competition reduces the attractiveness of bus transport and risks the £100m public investment in Bus Rapid Transit; any chance to use bus lane access as a tool to increase the supply of wheelchair accessible taxi vehicles is lost; historic taxi bus routes risk being drowned out of existence; and the obvious reduction in safety for vulnerable users will hit the ‘cycling revolution’ hard.

Mark H Durkan’s immediate predecessor as Environment Minister realised the damaging side-effects of taxi reform on bus lanes and (late in the day) began the process of working on a resolution to the benefit of bus passengers, taxi bus patrons, wheelchair users and cyclists:

At the moment, the only taxis that can use bus lanes are public hire (the black taxis) and I’ve written to the DRD Minister saying to him I think (whilst that’s his decision) I think that’s the way things should go; that only public hire (black taxis) should be allowed use the bus lanes in order to ensure .. that Belfast keeps on the move. If you’ve a bus lane that ends up with all sorts of taxis using it, then you defeat the purpose of Belfast on the Move, which is the .. DRD strategy to try to keep the city moving..

Alex Attwood (former) DOE Minister, May 2013 [from 4:13]

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In the year since taxi reform was paused, DOE have rolled back on this position – why? In face-to-face meetings I’ve had with DRD officials over the last 18 months the message has been clear – DOE’s taxi reform is giving DRD a ‘hospital pass’, forcing a change which the ‘Transport’ Department has no great desire to implement. The unintended consequences of levelling the playing field for all taxis is an end to the fine balance among current bus lanes users – a once-in-a-lifetime irreversible decision to benefit a taxi sector in apparent decline, at great cost to growing sustainable transport.

Of course taxis are, and will remain, an important component of the overall transport system in Belfast and Northern Ireland. But the overall contribution of the taxi has reduced, while the bus and bicycle have gone from strength to strength.

The challenge is now for Environment Minister Mark H Durkan to work with the Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy to find a better way forward – for the greater good.

Northern Ireland’s much heralded Cycling Revolution™ is going to need some great promotion to become a reality. Step forward our Department of the Environment (DOE), where local road safety promotion sits in isolation from the road builders (and revolutionary vanguard) over at the Department for Regional Development (DRD).

Recently DOE launched their first ever cycling safety video Respect everyone’s journey. It was a reasonable first effort, notwithstanding plenty of valid criticism. At least they wisely stayed away from the schlock-horror of their usual road safety adverts (see the international viral “hit” Shame on You).


A follow-up cycling video has been uploaded to YouTube, which shows how far DOE has slipped in just 3 months, and manages to perfectly capture how poor the cycling conditions and expectations are in Northern Ireland:


Comments on YouTube are (wisely) switched off, but the video has already attracted scorn and ridicule on social media.

Here’s 10 of the top reasons why it’s so bad, in no particular order:

#1 That target audience?

It’s difficult to see who the video is trying to patronise reach. But on closer inspection..

“Cycling’s a great way to get around .. but that doesn’t mean you can forget about hazards, or who you share the space with .. we all have to respect everyone’s journey, whether you’re on the road, or in a cycle lane”

So it’s those death-wish cyclists with no regard for the rules of the road, who put themselves and others in danger, and generally don’t give a damn about respect – they’re the target audience. I reckon DOE’s instinct that a twee instructional video will make them think again is spot on.

#2 Image quality

As with DOE’s previous video, I’m already struggling to see cycling as normal because of the awful music. Simple Minds behind the scenes – indeed. And Chris and Erin seem dressed and ready to appear in a James Bond opening title sequence rather than going for a cycle, because NO-ONE DRESSES FOR CYCLING LIKE THAT. EVER.

Hiya DOE, here’s a modern image of cycling in Belfast, ironically taken the same day your video was published:


#3 Cycle tracks

Using the Stranmillis Embankment is an interesting choice. It’s by far and away the best on-road cycling space in Belfast, and was only just beaten into 2nd place by Derry’s Peace Bridge as NI’s best cycling infrastructure in the 2013 Fréd Awards.

It’s also wholly unrepresentative of the typical cycling experience here. In fact, there are just 3 separate cycle tracks in Belfast, totally just 2.5km in length. Making a video to explain how to use a cycle track (and generally how to interact with other humans) is overkill.

The Giro d’Italia passed along here in May 2014, but just weeks before the event, DRD’s Roads Service introduced another user to compete with cyclists – a variable message sign (and they got mildly arsey when people complained). Share the road indeed!


#4 “A good tip is to try and avoid the busiest times on your route; it’ll make your journey quicker, and smoother.”

According to DOE, cycling is not something you should be doing during rush hour; grow up and get a car for that, kids. It’s not like anyone would want to cycle to work, or to the shops in the morning, or hop on the bike for a 9am appointment etc.

If you’re daft enough to try it, expect a slow, rough journey. Hmm. Now you mention it, that’s a scarily accurate representation of cycling in Belfast’s rush hour. Finally some feckin’ honesty and insight – chapeau!

#5 Promoting shambolic infrastructure

At 3.42 and 4.35 I became convinced that the video was a scalpel-sharp piece of satire – you got me DOE! It’s one thing that the Ormeau Road Bus Shelter and University contra-flow lane were voted in the top 5 worst pieces of infrastructure in the 2013 Fréd Awards (beaten only by a dinosaur tail – true story), but quite another for the government to then think it appropriate to use them in a cycling promotion video.

Plonking a bus shelter in the middle of a shared use path is a nightmare for everyone using the space, more so for families with children or elderly people walking around the back. Don’t tell us how to navigate crap design, tell DRD how to redesign it!

This is also NI’s first attempt on video to promote the contra-flow cycle lane concept, or at least DRD’s awfully executed attempt. If you need to use the phrases “But the danger is..” and “This is where you really need to be on high alert..” you’re admitting it’s dangerous crap, so just get rid of it!


#6 Those reflectors

While being thoroughly patronised by this video, I knew I’d have to admit that DOE had all their facts sewn up, that their advice was legally watertight and all information presented would be factually correct. Every scene shows someone cycling in daylight hours, not between sunset and sunrise. So it’s safe to assume when Erin says ‘by law, you must have a red rear reflector and amber pedal reflectors” that means not just when the sun’s gone down, right?

#7 “Bus lanes are there .. to make your journey smoother and faster, but because they’re shared with buses, permitted taxis and motorbikes, they can be extremely busy”

Damn right bus lanes are busy – by January 2015 DOE will create a single tier taxi system which will force the number of taxis in Belfast bus lanes up from 500 to around 4,000. Good idea to gloss over the destruction of cycling subjective safety at rush hour (hiya point #4).


#8 “Before you make any move .. always look around you, especially behind, and give a signal if necessary”


..says Erin at 4.20. Meanwhile, back in the mists of time at 4.10, the girl in the video makes a ridiculous move without signalling her intent to the Renault Clio. All happy smiles and waves in the video; try that in the real world, and there’s more chance she’d end up in A+E.


#9 “By the way, footpaths (as the name suggests) are for feet”

Can you say ‘Equality Impact Assessment’? Wheelchair users and those on mobility scooters might have a few things to say about your interpretation here, DOE. While riding on many footways is illegal (footway or footpath – check those legals again) and generally frowned upon (never mind slower, bumpier and probably more dangerous) it’s a symptom of poor infrastructure – people are scared away from traffic, and want to cycle in what seems like a safer place. Build better routes and more protected cycling space, then people will simply choose the better alternative.

#10 “Respect other road users, because we all share the same space”

This is exactly the problem. The whole video is one long excuse for bad infrastructure, glossing over decades of under-investment in cycling. Countries with the highest cycling levels separate cycling as a transport mode distinct from motor vehicles and pedestrians, or unravels (high quality) cycling routes from the the busiest roads altogether.

DOE admits (whether knowingly or not) that trying to ride a bike around Belfast is made difficult and dangerous because cycling is not properly catered for, because we have to compete with cars, lorries, buses, taxis – and then offers up some random methods for coping, to varying degrees of usefulness.

* * * * *

Really, this only scratches the surface of the things which are obviously wrong with this video, and the swathes of underlying assumptions and daft language which other ‘road users’ are not subject to, like:

It’s a truly ill-advised piece of nonsense which does nothing to advance cycling promotion in Northern Ireland. Perhaps it’s time for DOE to fully hand over the reigns on this function to DRD’s Cycling Unit, who (from personal experience) actually know a thing or two about urban cycling.


Any politician will tell you they’re concerned about road safety, the environment and health, or can point to their party manifesto for clear policies on cycling issues. But what are your MLAs actually doing about improving cycling in Northern Ireland? We’ve compiled and analysed the 78 cycling related Assembly Questions asked since the last election.

Cycling up at Stormont

So you use a bike to get between home and work in Northern Ireland, or maybe pop to the shops with a basket on your handlebars. You’re frustrated by a lack of cycle lanes, or no bike parking facilities, or think the roads are too dangerous. You can’t take your bike onto the train in the morning so you end up driving to work instead. What do you do about it?

Continue reading “Cycling on the agenda at the Northern Ireland Assembly”