If progress continues, Northern Ireland’s cycling revolution “will be hard to stop”

Northern Ireland wants to promote the bicycle as a mode of transport for everyday journeys, or at least that’s the goal contained in a new policy launched this week — Changing Gear: A Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland.

Local news headlines echoed that goal this week, such as “25-year bike strategy aims to turn Northern Ireland into ‘cycling society’” from the Belfast Telegraph; and “Plan to make north a ‘cycling society’” from The Irish News.

The Northern Ireland government minister responsible for the plan, Danny Kennedy MLA, writes in its forward: “I want everyone in Northern Ireland to experience the joy of using the bicycle. I intend to ensure that Northern Ireland continues to move forward and achieve its own cycling revolution.”

One of the key requirements for a two-wheeled revolution is strong political commitment. Cycling campaigners believe Kennedy, minister for regional development, is a man with such commitment. However, shortly after he launched Changing Gear on Tuesday, his party, the Ulster Unionist Party, announced that they were planning a withdraw from powersharing over claims that the Provisional IRA still exists, in one form or another.

As happened in the Republic’s capital with its DublinBikes public bicycle rental scheme, campaigners think Belfast Bikes are starting to change people’s attitude to cycling. The Belfast scheme opened at the end of April to much fanfare and subscribers have gone on to clock up over 70,000 rentals in its first four months.

Jonathan Hobbs, a campaigner who runs the NI Greenways blog and related social media accounts, said: “The response has been overwhelmingly positive – there is genuine affection in the city for our new transport option. The numbers are encouraging, a fast growing base of thousands of subscribers and really positive stories encouraging council to look to a quick expansion of the scheme.”

QuoteHe says that the expansion will be first to the Titanic Quarter and Queens University, as a top-up to the initial phase, and then a second phase to grow the scheme outward from the city centre in all directions might be put to the city council later this year.

Hobbs adds: “It’s the one thing most people ask – when are Belfast Bikes expanding? I think we’ll see users and journeys rocket once expansion takes place. With safer route development being rolled out in parallel, we’ll hopefully be stuck in a positive feedback loop for everyone’s confidence to use bicycles in the city and bottom-up activism to push for better facilities.”

The scheme now has 3,000 annual subscribers (2,817), and had 1,500 casual three-day subscribers in first 4 months.

Hobbs points out that a lot is happening in relating to cycling at the moment. New bicycle routes in Belfast are in pre-consultation, the strategy was launched, and a Belfast Cycling Masterplan is in its final stages.

He said that the strategy has been well-received so-far: “The reception so far has been very positive – even radio phone-in shows have struggled to fill the anti-cycling positions with anyone of conviction or capable of reasoned argument. The Cycling Unit demonstrated in this first major act that they are open to constructive suggestions to alter policy and design, and will make changes where needed.”

Some of the elements of the draft strategy, which attracted criticism from campaigners, have been dropped in the final version. Hobbs says this leaves “A clear vision of the work needed over the next 25 years to create the conditions for cycling to thrive in Northern Ireland.”

But will the strategy make a difference? “The strategy itself won’t make the difference. Our last strategy, delivered by (now) First Minister Peter Robinson in 2000, was full of positive words and intent – yet over 15 years hasn’t moved us on to any significant degree,” Hobbs said.

“The lesson to be learnt is that political will needs to be sustained through the life of the Strategy, political parties and MLAs need to agree to fund cycling development. In short, the pressure must be maintained over 25 years. One worry is the Strategy anticipates spending on cycling at £10 per head of population by 2025 – even if that can be secured through the Executive, this falls far short of Netherlands-level spending. It may be difficult to break through this artificially-created ceiling.”

Is there cross-party buy-in? “It’s fair to say that Danny Kennedy has been the most progressive Transport Minister Northern Ireland has ever seen. Cycling wouldn’t be seen as a big vote winner, and his Ulster Unionist Party didn’t include cycling in its Assembly manifesto, so this golden period for cycling in Northern Ireland couldn’t have been predicted. All the main political parties are involved in the Assembly All-Party Group on Cycling, and many MLAs are personally and politically bought in to the vision of enabling cycling to flourish.”

With the UUP’s imminent withdrawal from the power-sharing structures, it’s unclear if they will have such support from the next minister. Hobbs said: “The launch of the Bicycle Strategy may turn out to be the last major piece of work for Danny Kennedy, and a fitting legacy to leave. The DRD Cycling Unit is in place, funding secured for this financial year, and more plans on the way. Will the next Minister and his or her team fight for cycling in the same way? We’re completely in the dark, so there is obvious concern.”

If the revolution is starting, it’s doing so from a low base but making good progress. The numbers of commuters by bike in Belfast jumped 60% in the last Census in 2011, then bicycle users still only accounted for 2.1% of commuters and less again across Northern Ireland. The boom in cycling, however, did not stop there. Official figures from a travel survey show that between 2011 and 2013 cycling increased again — putting Belfast at 4%  of modal share of all journeys. Although the share is just 1% for the whole of Northern Ireland.

Elsewhere, Dublin was at nearly 8% in 2011 and is estimated to have reached 10%, but in the Netherlands it is common for bicycle traffic to account for 40% of all trips. Where is Belfast and Northern Ireland heading to?

Is Hobbs hopeful of a bicycle revolution? “We have all the ingredients in place – a Strategy, a delivery team working across government departments, ambitious plans being created with open collaboration, cycling levels rising year on year – we just need the right chef to bring it all together in the crucial first 5-year Assembly term. If that Minister is personally committed to delivery, and the capital investment follows in a consistent way, the revolution will be hard to stop.”

Movement towards two-wheels is happening, but time will tell if that can amount to a revolution.

CORRECTION: The article originally stated: “The numbers of people cycling to work and education seems to have increased since 2011, but official statistics have yet to catch up.” This is not the case, there are updated statistics and these are now included above.

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