Belfast Telegraph

It is time we invested in moving people, not cars, through Belfast

Pollution from traffic is literally killing us... we need to urgently rethink how we travel in built-up urban areas

Traffic during rush-hour on Great Victoria Street in Belfast
Traffic during rush-hour on Great Victoria Street in Belfast
Cycle lane
Kennedy Way

By Anne Madden

Four out of five people in Belfast want protected cycle lanes - even if it means less space for other traffic. This was one of the findings of an independent survey by ICM for the Bike Life 2017 report. Even among people who never cycle, the overwhelming majority support the provision of segregated cycle lanes, physically separated from traffic and pedestrians.

The Belfast Telegraph's own online poll tallied with this finding. The results, however, have shaken some feathers in tailpipes because it doesn't chime with the assumption that the public always want more space for cars.

Recent coverage has also highlighted a disturbing animosity towards people who cycle - the most extreme displayed on the Nolan Live TV show, on November 15, when commentator George Hook demonised all cyclists as Nazis.

On BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback, on November 14, Fionola Meredith had described cyclists as evangelists and in her Belfast Telegraph column, on November 17, she accused cycling advocates of "brainwashing" people, contending that cycle lanes will cause more congestion.

The Bike Life report, produced by the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) and Sustrans, the walking and cycling charity, shows Belfast residents understand that more space for cycling, alongside walking and public transport, instead of additional space for cars, can benefit congestion, air quality and health.

I understand drivers are frustrated. They bought the dream often portrayed in car ads of jumping into their shiny metal box and sailing uninhibited along empty roads, usually a scenic cliff path in California. According to Fionola, she "nips and weaves, purrs and roars" in her little black Alfa Romeo. Really, in rush-hour Belfast?

Most of us know the reality for drivers is being stuck in a traffic crawl on the Ormeau Road or Sandyknowes roundabout. I know this because, like many cyclists, I also drive a car, walk and take public transport.

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Fionola dismisses the public's views, claiming they reflect the "morally correct thing to say". It is, rather, a rational, evidence-based argument that cycling is a more efficient use of road space.

The general public understands that we can't all be driving our Alfa Romeos into the city at the same time. As the Bike Life report demonstrates, a four metre-wide road lane can move 800-1,100 people in cars per hour, compared to 5,000-10,000 people on bikes.

The most efficient use of space is by bus, which can move 8,000-12,000 passengers. It is high time we invested in moving people, not cars through our city.

While just 5% of Belfast residents currently cycle to work, this takes nearly 7,000 cars off the city's roads daily. If all these cars joined the morning rush-hour, the traffic jam would extend a further 21 miles. Fionola should rejoice that so many of us opt to cycle into Belfast.

No one is evangelising that everyone should give up their cars and get on bikes for every journey. But we need to rethink how we travel in built-up urban areas, where pollution from traffic is - literally - killing us.

Almost half the journeys we make in Belfast are less than two miles (DfI Annual Travel Survey). Before the Assembly's collapse, Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard had announced his 'three-five-10' plan to encourage the public to walk, or cycle, shorter journeys (three to five miles) and leave driving their cars for longer distances.

Improving cycling infrastructure would enable people to commute to work. It would create safe routes to schools allowing children to walk, or cycle, themselves, thus reducing rush-hour congestion (as many as one in four cars is doing the school run). Imagine if our roads were always as quiet as they are in July and August, when schools are off?

We know people in Belfast want to start cycling, or cycle more (54% according to Bike Life), and the main motivation to get on their bikes is for health reasons.

Belfast recently participated in another Sustrans EU-funded survey, along with four other European countries, which found health was the main factor motivating people to begin cycling, but safety concerns and poor infrastructure were the main barriers.

People who commute by bike reduce their risk of premature death by as much as 41% (from major illnesses - heart disease, cancer and stroke: British Medical Journal). If there was a pill with this impact GPs would be prescribing it.

The health benefits of active travel far outweigh the risk of being a cycling casualty on our roads. But in order to get more people out of their cars and on to bikes, we need to build safe, segregated cycle lanes. In particular, more women would cycle in Belfast if they felt safer (a ratio of 70:30 cycle in Belfast).

It is no coincidence that some of the most liveable cities in the world have segregated cycling infrastructure - Amsterdam, New York and Copenhagen. Today, 41% of people in Copenhagen (which has a similar climate to ours) cycle to work, or education daily and, despite having built more than 230 miles of segregated cycle lanes, this takes up just 7% of road space.

The DfI could greatly increase the amount of protected cycle lanes in Belfast (we currently have just 2.5 miles) without dramatically reducing space for cars. In other words, Fionola and George, there's nothing to be afraid of.

Active travel is vastly underfunded. The 2015 Belfast Bike Life survey found Belfast people want £25 per head spent on cycling. The current spend is around £6 - one of the lowest in the UK.

We would like to see a major commitment to deliver the Belfast Bicycle Network of £15m over the next five years. This is a fraction of the £170m investment at the York Street Interchange, which will lead to limited improvement in road efficiency.

If we build roads, we nurture cars and congestion. But if we build cycle lanes, we'll nurture people and prosperous, healthy, more liveable cities.

  • Anne Madden is Sustrans policy and communications manager in Northern Ireland. For more information, go to:

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