Green Party candidate for Titanic, Gregor Claus looked at cycling in Belfast ahead of the Giro d’Italia.
With the Giro D’Italia coming to town it seems appropriate to examine current state of cycling in Belfast and how it can be improved to capitalise on the momentum generated by the Giro.
First off I should clarify that I am not opposed to motorists in the slightest, but am nonetheless interested in making cycling a viable alternative for at the very least city dwellers for a number of reasons;
1. Belfast is currently the most traffic congested city in the UK , meaning that an increase in cycling could help reduce pressure on crowded roads, especially at peak times.
2. And this congestion is creating, as in other UK cities, air pollution well above European targets. This negatively impacts the general health of the city population and especially certain vulnerable groups where it can take two years off their life expectancy.
3. Cycling can be the fastest mode of transport within a city with some basic infrastructure changes. It will also help address the issues around car parking in the city centre, thus saving commuters time and money.
4. The UK is set to miss its own climate emissions targets, unless basic behaviour of the government and public changes.
Given all this it seems a good idea to take stock of what can be done to get more people on bikes not just for recreation but daily transport/commuting.
So what is cycling in Belfast like right now?
Currently cycling in Belfast depends on two main things;
1. Where in the city do you live?
2. How much risk to life and limb are you willing to take?
If, like myself, you are lucky enough to live in close proximity to one of the three main separated cycle paths (depending how you count you can come up with more, but for me only the Lagan towpath, and the Connswater and Comber Greenways really qualify) cycling on a daily basis for your commute to work is easy, enjoyable and fairly safe.
If however -like the majority of people in Belfast- you do not, or if that particular cycle path is going the wrong direction for a commute to work, you have to decide if you are willing to brave the risks of on-the-road cycling.
If you have not cycled on the roads of Belfast you might wonder if it really is as dangerous as many people think, given the many painted cycle lanes that you might see along some main roads. However, while these lanes charitably can be described as well intentioned they do not provide safe cycling spaces;
When they are not being parked upon, they are disjointed and have a tendency to stop in the most awkward possible places, often adding elements or dangers that would not be there if there were no cycle lanes at all (see NI Greenways for examples).
There are nonetheless a growing number of cyclists on the roads, but the question is, if most people (especially those not doing it for sport but convenient travel) would feel comfortable to face the above mentioned issues on a daily basis. And the answer is undoubtedly ‘no’, they do not feel safe.
So what would be needed to make cycling attractive not just for the enthusiasts, but for the average city dweller?
The highest priority item for this would have to be a continuous network of off-road cycle paths/Greenways that at the very least connect each part of Belfast to the centre and interconnect in a sensible fashion to make easy, safe and fast city commuting an option for more just the lucky few. The discrepancy in current cycling rates across Belfast this point is illustrated by the Greenways and Lagan towpath which have already approximately twice as high cycle commuter rate compared with the rest of Belfast.
The second point would be to encourage appropriate and secure cycle parking spaces. If the city is to cater for not just the odd cyclists but a significant percentage (above 5% in all of Belfast) of daily commutes more than the odd flock of 3-4 big, space-intensive, cycle stands need to be created across the city. This means looking at space efficient mass cycle stands -prevalent in other nations- to be erected, especially in front of businesses, offices, cinemas and leisure spaces, transport hubs (both bus and train) and city institutions. One of the few positive examples of good cycle parking can be seen below (hidden away beside the Ulster Hall):
Next on the list would be widespread early age (primary school) cycle safety education to normalise the idea of cycling for coming generations and give them the confidence to feel safe on a bike as well as knowing traffic rules and help encourage cycling as a family leisure activity.
Last but not least a project like the for 2015 planned cycle hire scheme may encourage people to cycle who do not want to invest in a bicycle, don’t have space for one or do not know how to maintain one. Further this type of scheme may be a good starting point for the large number of cycle tourists from the continent who would love to explore Northern Ireland on two wheels but currently lack options to do so. It should, however, be stressed that a hire scheme without sufficient general cycling infrastructure is likely to fail, as people who hire bicycles (tourists excluded) are likely not the bike enthusiasts keen on road bound cycling.
On the left, what might at first appear like a road, is an off-road two lane cycle path, with a tram station intersection on the bridge above and numerous cycle stands to allow easy access to public transport. Just to the left outside the picture is a bike hire station strategically well situated to give access to both the high quality cycle path and the tram line.
Of course all of these suggestions will cost money and require planners to fully consider the existence of people who are not motorists, but given the clear issues and the potential benefits to general public health, well-being and the economy through tourism there seem to be no good reasons not to invest in cycling infrastructure.