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Belfast 'Boris Bikes': City is not in tandem for new era of cycling

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Belfast is to get its own "Boris Bikes" by the spring

Belfast is to get its own "Boris Bikes" by the spring

PA Archive/Press Association Images

Belfast is to get its own "Boris Bikes" by the spring

Belfast is to get its own "Boris Bikes" by the spring. These are solid little bicycles, now commonly seen around Dublin and London, offered for hire to registered users who can pick them up from stations, or collection points, and leave them back at other points close to their destinations.

They are fantastic. Boris Johnson is sure to be immortalised for this one innovation, having given his name to the system. But are they safe?

Barclays Bank was the first sponsor of the Boris Bike system in London, but withdrew over fears that its name would be linked to the deaths of cyclists.

The growth in general cycling in London, mostly people on their own bikes, had produced a sudden spike in accidents, largely caused by lorries whose drivers did not see riders coming up beside them.

July last year saw the first death on a Boris Bike outside Aldgate station in London.

A 20-year-old woman had been struck by a lorry in precisely the kind of accident that doubters about the system had predicted.

Yet the woman had been on a cycle lane, or bicycle superhighway as it was called in London, and an immediate response from political critics of the system damned the superhighway as "no more than a strip of paint on the road".

Caroline Pidgeon, from the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group, said: "London needs to rapidly learn from practices in Denmark and Holland and ensure we have widespread segregated cycling lanes and junctions that are safe for all road-users."

And when the Boris Bike system for Belfast was announced at the Changing Gear conference last week (at which I was a contributor), two experts on the Danish system both said that infrastructure had to be in place before launching major schemes to encourage people onto bicycles in the city.

Klaus Bondam, of the Danish Cyclists Federation, gave an astonishing presentation on the cycling culture in Copenhagen, focusing largely on the extent to which cyclists were protected from other traffic and catered for ­ - even to the extent of litter bins being tilted towards the road, so that cyclists might drop rubbish in them as they cycled past.

He showed images of huge numbers of cyclists commuting in heavy snow in Copenhagen. But he emphasised that infrastructure had to be in place first.

There will always be hardy hobby cyclists, who will be happy in the roads among traffic. There has never been a time when there were no cyclists in Belfast.

But if you want to attract new people to cycling you have to provide the systems that ensure they are safe and feel safe.

And it is new cyclists who matter. We will not see the promised benefits in reduced health costs and pollution if people - who today are unfit - aren't won over to cycling, and if those who think they can get to work faster in their cars don't see a comfortable and safe alternative.

Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy has fantastic ambitions for the transformation of Belfast into a "cycling capital".

He is a bike user himself and he is confident that there are bike users in other parties who will support him.

DUP leader Peter Robinson is a cyclist. So is the DUP's Sammy Douglas. Sinn Fein's Daithi McKay and Conor Murphy and many other MLAs ride bikes and promote the riding of bikes.

They have a vision for a fitter, healthier population in a cleaner and less-cluttered Northern Ireland.

And there are some fantastic opportunities to be capitalised on.

The BBC's Barra Best is currently presenting a series of programmes about walking the old disused railway tracks. These could be cycle lanes for tourists and for weekend breaks.

Some of us find cycling on level ground a little tedious and much prefer a drumlin or two, but we may be in the minority.

These tracks offer enormous tourism development potential, as has been demonstrated in Co Mayo, where the old track from Newport to Achill Island has been developed for walkers and bikes.

We lead the country in towpath provision for bikes. It is still against the law to cycle along the towpaths of canals in the Republic.

We are going to get 30 hubs for Boris Bikes around Belfast. That seems a lot.

The market for these may include students travelling from the Holyland to the University of Ulster campus at York Street. That would be a safe and lovely journey.

But much of Belfast is not yet well provided for by cycle lanes. There are hazards on some of those lanes, too.

There is a two-directional lane along Park Road, but motorists going to and from the recycling centre there seem oblivious to it and near misses are common. There is an irony in one type of ecologically considerate citizen being a threat to another.

Many of our cycle lanes are on footpaths. Well, fewer people walk, so why not?

But pedestrians don't seem to know that they should be keeping to one side of a line and many resent cyclists ringing bells at them urging them to get out of the way.

And cyclists come to expect that it is perfectly normal to use the footpath everywhere. In other parts of the UK the police issue spot fines to bike users doing that.

Cyclists want to be safe and new converts to cycling will, almost by definition, be those who are currently averse to cycling in the city.

What they will not be explicitly told when they are coaxed out onto the road on two wheels is that accidents are inevitable. In Denmark, for all the safeguards, an average of 20 cyclists are killed every year.

London and Dublin introduced Boris Bikes in the certain knowledge that, one day, a client would be killed, most likely by a lorry turning left at a junction.

The cycling champions work on the assumption that the death-toll from cycling will be modest compared to the lives saved.

For countless thousands die every year as a result of their sedentary lifestyles.

You, yes you, sat in your big car, fuming at the congestion around you, you are the one who is really in danger of dying prematurely, with your high blood pressure, your wobbly gut and your blocked arteries. Cycling saves lives on a massive scale. But it costs lives, too. Are we ready for that?

Will we have the infrastructure in place to minimise it by the spring? That was the advice last week from Copenhagen. Are we taking it?

Belfast Telegraph