We are going nowhere fast in drive for better transport
The Executive needs a more innovative and sustainable approach to transport policy, argues Steven Patterson
Northern Ireland aspires to be world-class in many things. But there's one policy area where we're left trailing behind our European counterparts and that's transport.
The Campaign for Better Transport has just published a report which ranks Belfast a very poor 12th out of 13 European cities on transport - only Rome is rated more car-dependent than Belfast.
The report says Belfast rated particularly poorly on high usage of cars for commuting, low take-up of public transport and costly fares.
It's the second report in recent months to highlight the city's transport problems - a recent congestion 'league table' rated Belfast as the 12th most-congested city in Europe.
Indeed, this pattern of car-dependency runs right across Northern Ireland. Three-quarters of all journeys across the province are made by car or van, compared to 63% in Britain. We also have much lower levels of bus and rail use, along with cycling and walking.
This is bad news for our economy; congestion is estimated to be costing us £250m a year. It's also bad news for our environment; road transport is the largest source of CO2 emissions in Northern Ireland.
It may come as something of a surprise, then, that the Northern Ireland Executive intends to spend 85% of its planned capital transport investment over the next four years on roads, with just 15% left for more sustainable forms of travel.
Indeed, nearly half - £675m - of its capital budget for transport is to go on just one road scheme, the controversial A5 upgrade.
We at Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, are convinced that there are more sustainable solutions along the A5 corridor and are disappointed that those haven't been properly explored.
Now is the time for the Executive to revisit its transport spending plans and to find urgently needed funds for public transport initiatives, such as the long-awaited upgrade of the Londonderry to Coleraine railway line and for maintaining our existing roads.
What we need is a reality-check. A third of all journeys in Northern Ireland could be walked or cycled with ease because they're under two miles in length. Yet, people are hopping into their cars for around half those journeys.
We also have to remember that 40% of Belfast households don't actually have a car. A quarter of households across Northern Ireland are in the same position. What use to them is this vast expenditure on roads?
There are many measures which the Executive could take - not least greater public transport subsidies which would allow Translink to lower its fares to the sort of levels more commonly seen in Europe.
But Sustrans is also asking the Executive to take one concrete step to reduce congestion and improve children's health: we want its Programme for Government (PfG) to include targets for higher levels of cycling and walking to school.
Only a third of primary school pupils here walk or cycle to school, compared to half their counterparts in Great Britain.
While England and the Republic of Ireland have forged ahead with well-resourced, active school travel initiatives, there's been a lack of a coherent, properly funded approach to the issue in Northern Ireland.
There's no reason why Northern Ireland couldn't have a world-class travel system to be proud of.
All that's required is the political will to prioritise a more innovative approach to transport, rather than continuing to plough huge sums into road-building.