Belfast bikes: Time to move up a gear in city's pedal power
The Belfast Bike Share Scheme means there are now more bicycles on the streets than ever before. But we're still a long way from being a cycle-friendly city. Copenhagen could just hold the key to a revolution in how we treat our cyclists, says Gordon Clarke.
There are more bikes than ever on the streets of Belfast - and not just men in Lycra. The Belfast Bike Share Scheme has been a great success and is set to expand. In October, the city will celebrate its first Ciclovia event - where cyclists are given the freedom of the streets by closing a route between Botanic Gardens and the City Hall to car traffic.
So, are we witnessing a cycling revolution in Belfast? Or does more need to be done to embed a true bicycle culture in the city?
Sustrans is a UK-wide charity enabling people to travel by foot, bike or public transport for more of our daily journeys. We work with families, communities, employers, policy-makers and partner organisations so that people are able to choose healthier, cleaner and cheaper journeys, with better places and spaces to move through and live in.
Encouraging more people to get on their bikes, or travel actively, has significant health, environmental and economic benefits.
Active travel is essential to tackle obesity and important for improving physical and mental health in general. All four chief medical officers across the UK agree that "the easiest and most acceptable forms of physical activity are those that can be incorporated into everyday life. Examples include walking, or cycling, instead of travelling by car, bus or train".
Active travel helps reduce congestion, improves air quality and makes urban spaces more pleasant places to shop, work and live in. Priorities for government in Northern Ireland should focus on how economic growth can be underpinned by a wellbeing strategy.
Active travel can help deliver both. It benefits both employers and employees through reductions in sick leave, increased productivity and encourages access to employment.
If the number of people cycling to work in Belfast was trebled, that alone could contribute an additional £3m annually in economic benefits, including healthcare savings.
Sustrans has already been making great strides to promote a cycling culture. If you want a revolution, you begin with young people.
Sustrans Active School Travel Programme, funded by the Department for Regional Development (DRD) and the Public Health Agency (PHA), is working in 191 schools to encourage pupils to walk, or cycle, to school. In the first year of the programme, we saw an increase in the numbers walking or cycling and a corresponding reduction in those driven to school.
Of course, Sustrans is working with just a fifth of the schools in Northern Ireland, so it is vital the programme is extended to reduce the overall number of children being driven to school.
A major barrier to people cycling is safety and so Sustrans has been working with the Freight Transport Association to develop a safe urban driving course for HGV drivers. This accredited course includes lorry drivers getting on bikes to see the road from a cyclist's perspective. We have recently created a cycling skills unit to train a wide range of people and organisations to gain on-road cycling experience.
Sustrans has also been working with a number of large employers in Belfast through the Leading The Way programme, funded by the PHA, to encourage staff to use public transport, walk or cycle to work.
This has involved engaging with staff in travel plans and incentives to help them leave their cars at home.
There are many challenges to getting people to try cycling. These can be summed up in four categories: safety fears, bike ownership; image of cycling and the weather. Sustrans will issue a full manifesto for active travel in Northern Ireland, but we have set out the key actions we believe will make Belfast a true cycling city:
• Create an urban network of safe cycle routes in the city by joining up the existing network and developing new routes with innovative design solutions at junctions and roundabouts;
• Invest in safe routes to schools and local community cycling networks to encourage active travel for shorter journeys;
• Provide adequate, secure bike parking in the city;
• Provide cycling links to and appropriate bike facilities at public transport nodes such as railway stations, Park & Ride and key stops alongside the new Belfast Bus Rapid Transit scheme to encourage multi-modal journeys.
Education & behaviour change
• Provide National Standard Levels 1 and 2 on-road cycle training for every P6 pupil (9/10-year-old);
• Provide on-road cycle training, National Standard (Levels 1-3), for existing and new cyclists to improve confidence and ensure higher standards of cycling behaviour and road sharing. This would support people considering using the Belfast Bike Share Scheme;
• Provide cyclist awareness courses for key groups of drivers - HGV/LGV; bus; taxi drivers;
• Increase work with schools, workplaces and communities to promote the benefits of active travel and properly implement active travel plans.
• As many as 61% of households in Belfast do not own a bike. Increase bike ownership and use by promoting the Cycle to Work scheme and introduce a new scheme for the low-paid, or unemployed, to access bikes and, therefore, address inequalities;
• Promote and market bike recycling schemes and bike pools at education and employment locations.
• Introduce 20mph as the default city-wide speed limit (with main arterial routes remaining at 30mph);
• Introduce an Active Travel Bill that embeds active travel in the statutory planning process.
• Develop a competition with the University of Ulster Art College to design practical, cool clothing to tackle the negative image surrounding cycling and Lycra.
There's not a lot we can do about the weather, but it seems perception of poor conditions are what puts many people off getting on their bikes.
Certainly, the weather is no worse than Copenhagen, which has among the highest levels of cycling in the world and regularly tops polls for one of the world's best cities to live in.
In the long term, we would like to see Belfast follow the example of the Danish capital. Every two years the city carries out a bicycle account, or survey. Belfast has been picked as one of seven UK cities for a similar citizens' survey of cycling in the city, called Bike Life, which is aimed at boosting the bike as a mode of transport.
Sustrans is working with the DRD and will publish the Bike Life Report in October and a follow-up survey in 2017.
This will give the most accurate assessment to date of cycling in Belfast and will act as a tool to inform and improve investment.
In the Belfast Metropolitan Area, Sustrans recommends additional expenditure of £6m annually to deliver a true cycling revolution.
We are a long way from matching Copenhagen... but the journey has just begun.
- Gordon Clarke is director of Sustrans Northern Ireland