Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Building more cycle lanes no way to reduce traffic chaos, it will just make things worse

For Fionola Meredith, the car will always trump the bike, and she's not afraid to say so

I have a terrible confession to make. I love my car, and I love driving it. It's a little black Alfa Romeo, a real beauty. The way it nips and weaves, purrs and roars - these are all things that give me great pleasure. Yes, I'm basically Jeremy Clarkson with lipstick.

But it's becoming less and less socially acceptable to speak in praise of driving, or to talk about how much you like certain cars. A vocal pro-cycling lobby, increasingly abetted by the authorities, is slowly brainwashing us into believing that getting on your bike is the morally superior, environmentally pure, infinitely more desirable way to get from A to B.

It seems that we are being trained to regard our cars as rather embarrassing encumbrances which, in a better, cleaner world we would be glad to renounce. We're learning to condemn ourselves as selfish and lazy simply for driving them.

At least, that's the only way I can account for the results of a new survey by Bike Life, "the UK's biggest assessment of cycling in cities".

It claims that four out of five people in Belfast - 81% - want more protected bike routes to make cycling safer, even when this could mean less space for other road traffic.

This is despite the fact that only 5% of Belfast residents usually cycle to and from work. Some of them will be walking or getting the bus, which is fine, but we know that a heck of a lot drive their cars into the city every day.

So why would they say they support a system that actually cuts down on space for cars to drive?

I suspect it's because they think they should. It's the 'right', morally correct thing to say: cars are bad, bikes are good. And, of course, we'd all like cyclists to be safer, wouldn't we?

Another finding from the 1,100 people surveyed in Belfast is that 65% say they would cycle more if segregated on-road cycle routes - where cyclists are protected from other traffic by kerbs and bollards - were created.

Yes, I'm sure they would aspire to that for the good of their health or the planet in much the same way I aspire to spreading less butter on my toast - nice idea, but it ain't necessarily going to happen.

Look at our cold, grey, rain-soaked climate. On a dark, sleety morning in February are you really going to deny yourself the relative warmth of the car or bus and embrace the face-freezing misery of biking it to work instead?

And then there's the enormous cost of remodelling the road system of the entire city in order to accommodate the needs of cyclists. Can we afford the investment?

Sustrans, the walking and cycling charity that produced Belfast Bike Life 2017, in partnership with the Department for Infrastructure - there's that official imprimatur I was talking about - is calling for £25 a head in Belfast to make the plan a reality.

That works out at about £8.75m, according to an impromptu sum by William Crawley, who led a discussion about this issue on Radio Ulster's Talkback programme.

Let's just say that implementing the scheme would mean taking a very large and costly punt on the promises of those people who claim they definitely would cycle if only there was a proper system in place.

Unlike some cycling refuseniks, I'm not advocating the removal of our existing cycle lanes, which could definitely do with improvement. In my view Belfast is a very dangerous city to be a cyclist. I'm just not convinced we can justify a total overhaul in favour of the bike over the car.

Obviously, cycling is better for your body than passively sitting at the wheel.

Sustrans quotes Mary Black of the Public Health Agency, who says: "Being more physically active can reduce your risk of developing chronic conditions, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, respiratory conditions and dementia.

"It also improves sleep, helps maintain a healthy weight and reduces stress and anxiety."

Undeniably true, Mary, but not if you find yourself and your bike squished beneath the wheels of a van.

I'd stick to the (relative) safety of the car if I were you.

And then there's the law of unintended consequences. If you slash away at the remaining space left for cars to drive in - already substantially eroded by bus lanes - aren't you at risk of creating more congestion, not less? Longer queues of stationary traffic belching out more fumes?

For me the wicked, beautiful car will always win over the bike. And I refuse to be shamed for saying so.

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