Timescale: Belfast Bicycle Network Plan objection

Belfast’s new cycling network is planned over a leisurely 10 to 25 years IF money is made available – we need to tighten up the timescale and commitment

Belfast Bicycle Network

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“This was one of the keys for our success: the basic network was made in just one year, and the first extension in the next three years.”
Ricardo Marques Sillero

In the third objection article from our Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan analysis series, Bikefast points out that, for a plan so lacking in ambition, a ten-year timescale is far too long.

The Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan was launched in January 2017 at what should have been a quiet beginning to the second year of the new Northern Ireland Executive.

We had a functioning government in Northern Ireland with the most progressive Transport Minister in our history.

Everyday cycling development was in safe hands and the next four years of the Northern Ireland Assembly was promising to deliver, not just talk about, cycling investment.

Then everything changed.

The collapse of the Assembly and Executive is a tale to be told elsewhere, but suddenly the reset button was hit, and we lost Chris Hazzard as Minister. Even more shocking (from a Belfast cycling perspective) the Minister used his final days in office to announce a trial to allow thousands of taxis into Belfast bus lanes – practically the only safe space for cycling ahead of this new Network Plan.

That particular move continues to be resisted, but the timing was galling when set against the 10 to 25 year window of our bicycle strategies – without a word to any cycling groups, the most fundamental change to alternative forms of transport in Belfast happened on FIVE DAYS NOTICE.

Now there’s a timescale money can’t buy.

Another less shocking news item also hit the city in the interim – that Belfast’s congestion continues to be classed among the worst in UK and Europe, if not the world. We’ve become used to it – and yet the default response from business and media is that the private car not getting enough priority in the city. As if bus lanes and cycle infrastructure is the cause congestion, not the sheer volume of vehicles trying to plough through the city at will.

These developments have short and long-term impacts on the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan.

Should ongoing talks manage to resolve the current political impasse, we’ll hit the reset button on a fresh Assembly term likely to extend to a standard five years to 2022. And the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan will be finalised and ready for investment as a new Minister comes into post.

As it stands the poorly planned network of routes is scheduled to be in place by 2027:

“The Belfast Bicycle Network will be phased in over time. The Primary Network, which will serve as a trunk system from the suburbs to the city centre, will be developed over the next ten years – starting in the areas where there is already a higher level of cycling. As this network is rolled out, work will be carried out on the Secondary Network. This will increase network density, improve access to the network and provide more connections to services for local areas.

“The Bicycle Strategy suggests cycling investment of £12.5 million capital per annum within five years (split 2:1 between capital and resource) and £18 million per annum within ten years across the region in order to achieve the ambitions set out in the strategy. Delivering this network is also predicated on funding at that level.”
Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan

The over-arching Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland only plans for the Secondary Network in Belfast (all the critical “last half mile” bits in between the Primary strands) to begin work from 2027 onwards, with a target completion date of 2040.


What we don’t see is any idea of building in a review of the Primary Network, or any action to improve or add routes between years 11 to 25. And even then, the city only has a modest goal of getting to a 12% modal share by 2040.

“This vision sees cycling as an integral part of a transport system that offers a choice of integrated travel modes, emphasising active travel (walking and cycling), public transport and car-sharing. In pursuing the Bicycle Strategy 2015, this vision would mean that in Belfast in 25 years time:

  • People using bicycles would become characteristic of the city; and
  • Over 12% of all daily trips made in the city would be made on the bicycle.”

Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan

So let’s be clear – this is our one shot at getting it right. And there is a pressing need.

Belfast is chronically congested now. The city as a whole and individual streets within are making national headlines for traffic.

These are the warning signs of deteriorating health – a city headed either for drastic surgery to keep the current show on the road, or a drastic change of lifestyle based on active travel and public transport.

10 to 25 years isn’t quick enough to tackle the congestion we see right now.

  • The ticking time bomb of obesity demands faster action.
  • The shame of 0% of children cycling to school demands faster action.
  • The chronic congestion in a small city where only 3% of people feel confident enough to regularly cycle to work demands faster action.

Building a city capable of carrying large numbers of people on bicycles does take time, effort and dogged commitment – the oft-repeated line about being “25 years behind The Netherlands” is both correct and also a millstone around the neck of those looking to start from square one.

And then that shocking decsion to tip the balance in Belfast away from cycling and public transport and into the hands of private profit in the form of taxi companies.

Bus lanes are the backbone of the current cycling network in Belfast, even as unsatisfactory as they are. And whether or not taxis in bus lanes is pitched as a trial, the sense is of a Department and taxi lobby walking hand-in-hand towards a permanent arrangement despite what any data or evidence of harm is showing.

So with the rug pulled from under the fragile cycling revolution in Belfast, an immediate move to begin creating widespead dedicated cycling routes is imperative.

How soon can a city realistcally create this scale of network? There is an example of a super-charged jump-start.

Seville built a similar sized bolt-on cycling network within two years, and grew cycling modal share from >1% (less than Belfast’s today) to 9% within four years. It took will and a “get on with it” attitude that Belfast and the Department for Infrastructure have shown flickering signs of.

“Back in 2005 Jose Garcia Cebrian, head of urban planning and housing at Seville city council, believed that with the right infrastructure the bicycle could solve Seville’s traffic congestion problems. Cebrian noted, however, that for any scheme to be a success cycle lanes had to form a joined-up network that people would really use.

“Since 2006 Seville has increased the number cycling journeys daily from under 5000 to a whopping 72,000 per day. This happened largely due to a 80-mile Dutch-style network of well-connected cycle tracks and a 2,500-bike hire scheme, all put in place by politicians determined to encourage cycle journeys over motor traffic.

“The figures certainly stack up in terms of investment return: the €32m cycle network carries 72,000 cyclists on weekdays compared with the city’s underground system, which cost €600 million and carries 40,000 people daily.”
London Cycling Campaign

“What is noticeable is both [cyclists’] variety and the ordinariness. The variety comes from the riders themselves – a seemingly equal gender split, with ages going from children to people well into their 70s.

“The ordinariness comes in their approach. These are not the UK-style traffic-battling gladiators. Seville’s cyclists mainly ride upright old clunkers and wear everyday clothes.

“The overall sense is of cycling not as a pursuit, or a sport but, in the Dutch style, a deeply everyday activity, little more than a more efficient means of walking.”
How Seville transformed itself into the cycling capital of southern Europe, Guardian

Seville hasn’t got the gold-standard design framework of The Netherlands, but they have propagated the numbers to justify going that way. Belfast has neither right now, and still may not have by 2027 if we build too slowly in the wrong areas.

Put it another way – Seville managed to achieve a 9% modal share in four years, a little under what Belfast is targeting a quarter of a century from now.

So what can Belfast do?

Bikefast believes we need to change that leisurely ten-year timescale to match our overall ambition to become a world-leading cycling city and to begin to treat our chronic congestion now.

An incremental increase in annual funding which aims to reach £10 per head of population by the end of ten years is out of date. Bikefast has twice in 10 months gained the backing of almost two-thirds of elected MLAs to set that funding level NOW.

That’s a green light to aggressively pursue that commitment as soon as the Assembly is back up and running. From there it’s down to whether the Department and the Cycling Unit can deliver with that backing. And they should not be a barrier.

We believe there needs to be a front-loading of capital investment in the Belfast Bicycle Network now. The plan should be to get a high percentage of the network built within the five-year timescale of the next Assembly.

This sets a natural review period as one Minister finishes their term, allowing another to take the network on to the next level – learning the lessons and adapting to changing conditions.

Yes it will take 10, 15, 25, 40 years to get this network built, maintained, improved, extended – we’re embarking on a long-term commitment. But the best approach to starting is a shock treatment – the softly-softly approach is guaranteed to attract organised resistance from the usual quarters and the added risk of dust building up on the longer term plans.

The current timescale is too monolithic for a dynamic changing city. Once we have a better plan in place, going along arterial streets and backed by a better methodology, we should devise a timescale with more defined stages – quicker in the most crucial aspects, regular and clear review points.

There are children being born in 2017 who won’t have a completed, safe cycling network to ride from home to school and back at the conclusion of this initial network plan. We owe it to them and to everyone in our car-throttled city to get on with it now.

For more information on Bikefast’s full response to the Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan consultation see the following articles:

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