— Measures so-far welcomed by political and business figures.
— Scale of change needed yet to sink in to public consciousness – campaigner.
Trialing the pedestrianisation of streets, widening footpaths, pop up cycle lanes and quiet streets are being promised in Northern Ireland as part of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s post-lockdown action plan, following similar action from cities across the world.
The Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said that in a “dark time” that she wants to “seize the opportunity to make changes now to underpin a green recovery and improve public health now and for the future”.
Minister Mallon said: “Since my appointment as Minister for Infrastructure, I made a commitment to deliver sustainable infrastructure that will transform our communities today and for the generations behind us. The changes I am making are innovative and creative. We are now living in a new normal and part of that is ensuring we create more opportunities for active travel, with more safe routes for walking and cycling. Some of the changes we will make have not been tested before. They may not all work, but we have an opportunity now to try new things and to learn from them. I will not let pursuit of perfection be the enemy of the good.”
The pedestrianisation of Hill Street and Gordon Street in Belfast and temporary pavement widening in Belfast’s Linen Quarter are planned to be among the “first steps”.
“This will facilitate social distancing and prepare for increased use of our streets as lockdown restrictions are relaxed,” said Minister Mallon. “My officials are liaising closely with local councils to see how similar initiatives can be rolled out across the North.”
“Work will also begin in Derry to create extra space for people using the riverfront and in the weeks ahead, working closely with Derry City and Strabane District Council and other stakeholders, we will develop plans to reduce the traffic and improve conditions for pedestrians within the City Walls as businesses begin to reopen. We are also working with Newry, Mourne and Down District Council on quick and innovative solutions in Newry that not only promotes active travel but supports our communities facing new challenges and our new way of life, as we adjust to our new normal,” said Mallon.
She said that work is underway by her Department to establish a walking and cycling advisory group with representatives from a wide range of public and voluntary sector organisations. Which Mallon said would be “critical in ensuring that we find the right solutions in the right places, to support our communities”.
“In the coming weeks I will announce plans for pop up cycle lanes and quiet streets across Northern Ireland. At a time where there are constraints on public transport, I want to make it easier for people to choose to cycle,” said Minister Mallon.
Mallon said she is particularly keen to improve links to our hospitals to help those frontline healthcare workers and at ways communities, particularly those in disadvantaged inner city communities, can be supported.
She added: “My Department will be flexible and responsive but it will not be afraid to try new approaches.”
First moves welcomed by political and business figures
Colum Eastwood, SDLP leader and MP for Foyle, said: “[I am] delighted our Infrastructure Ministe Nichola Mallon has announced plans to increase pedestrian space on our riverfront and reduce traffic within the City Walls. This is a welcome effort to create a cleaner, greener and healthier society.”
Referring to Hill St and Gordon St, Niall Ó Donnghaile, a Sinn Fein Senator, said: “I have said for some time now, certainly since my days on Belfast City Council, that it makes absolute sense to pedestrianise this area – means it’ll be safer for people, including drivers put under so much stress trying to navigate it, particularly on weekend evenings.”
Chris Lyttle, an Alliance MLA for East Belfast, said: “I welcome long overdue and basic actions to make streets safer in Belfast but the opportunity to deliver significant reallocation of road space for cycling must be taken.”
Simon Hamilton, chief executive of Belfast Chamber, a business group, said: “Sensible measures by Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon to create more space for pedestrians and cyclists in Belfast city centre as we deal with COVID 19 and need for social distancing. Businesses keen to work with Minister on future reshaping of the city”
Network of cycleways needed says cycling campaigner
Jonathan Hobbs, the campaigner behind Northern Ireland Greenways and everyday cycling website Bikefast.org, said: “Minister Nichola Mallon has moved quickly and decisively to give social distancing and active travel a high priority as we begin to discuss a recovery path out of lockdown. These quick wins over the next few weeks – pavement widening, pedestrianisation, pop-up cycle lanes and area traffic calming – will be swiftly followed by a comprehensive longer term plan.”
“I don’t think the scale of interventions required has yet sunk in to the public consciousness,” said Hobbs. “Most small businesses will have to implement a queue outside to reopen safely, and our pedestrian space, especially on arterial roads, just isn’t wide enough. This requires roadspace, as does the network of cycleways which will be needed to ensure our towns and cities don’t grind to a halt under the sheer weight of cars.”
“Key workers, NHS staff all need safe alternatives right now, and as more people begin to travel to reopening workplaces and amenities in the coming months, we need to enable a wider shift to the bicycle. The appointment of a Walking and Cycling Champion within government is a great move, and the support of an advisory group from across government, councils, third sector organisations, business groups and active travel campaigners can ensure delivery of innovative, targeted interventions with wide base of public support,” he said.
Hobbs added: “The coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy, but the general public has experienced and embraced different pace of life under lockdown, and I think there’s a genuine appetite to ensure the places we live, work and eventually socialise and play are better on the other side.”