Cycling investment and the DUP Deal

So the confidence and supply deal is done and the DUP have brought home the bacon – £1.5 billion for Northern Ireland in exchange for propping up Theresa May’s minority government. And a whack of cash is listed under infrastructure, but will active travel continue to live off scraps, or can this critical policy area move from the fringes to the mainstream?

Part of the financial package has been specifically earmarked for “infrastructure development” to be delivered by the Department for Infrastructure (DfI):

“The UK government will allocate £200m per year for two years and with sufficient flexibility as to the choice of project to ensure the Executive is able to deliver the York Street Interchange Project and other priorities.”
UK government financial support for Northern Ireland (GOV.UK)

Transport-wise, eyes will be lighting up thinking of the big-ticket road and rail possibilities. Setting aside the £120m–£165m York Street Interchange, which will take up a big chunk of the cash, off the top of my head the priorities might be:

  • A5 and A6 road projects into the west of the province
  • Widening the Sydenham bypass east of Belfast
  • Newry Southern Relief Road
  • M1/A1 Sprucefield Bypass
  • Transport Hubs in Belfast and Derry~Londonderry
  • Rail links to our three international airports
  • Upgrading the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise rail service, with possible electrification

Over on Slugger O’Toole, Andy Boal gives a realistic assessment of how the £400m in chips may fall on a road-and-rail blinkered transport investment strategy. For a long list of roads projects in early planning or likely to evolve following this announcement, you’d do well to consult the excellent NI Roads site. For rail options check out the consultation paper on the Railway Investment Prioritisation Strategy from 2014.

Undoubtedly some of these projects will now progress quickly with additional investment available, and dormant road schemes will have the dust blown off.

What is less certain, as always, is where active travel fits in.

With a few exceptions, active travel hasn’t featured in the headline discussions of where to spend the windfall. Why would it? Investment in walking and cycling has always been the poor relation of the high-prestige ribbon-cutting road projects. And yet the mood music seems to have changed in the last few years.

Belfast regularly features as one of the worst cities for congestion in the UK and Europe – and our politicians and planners seem to be accepting that building roads isn’t going to solve that problem.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the York Street Interchange – and it’s clearly going ahead – while it may smooth traffic flow around the city, it certainly won’t solve Belfast’s systemic congestion. There are simply too many people driving too many cars through too small a space in the city.

The last Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard put this clarity to the front of policy discussion – talking of the stark choice between demolishing rows of houses on our arterial streets to widen roads for cars or investing in public and active travel to move more people.

A £90m investment in Belfast Rapid Transit will see a genuine alternative to private motoring debut in the city by September 2018, as long as sense prevails through the maddening stupidity of the taxis in bus lanes issue.

Yet cycling investment still, stubbornly, has not advanced as hoped.

 

To make everyday cycling a viable option for people in Belfast, in other urban centres and along potential greenway corridors, the Executive needs to be putting around £20 million a year, every year, into active travel.

It doesn’t even come close at the moment, despite the constant chorus of support.

In two successive Assembly elections in 2016 and 2017, The Election Cycle campaign run by Cycling UK, Sustrans and Bikefast saw around three quarters of returned MLAs pledging their support to fund cycling at this level.

The incoming Minister will have the numbers in the Assembly to back them – but will they have  personal, party and Executive colleagues’ commitment?

Of course, there is still one more critical deal to be done – getting that Executive up and running after a six month hiatus. While the numbers say the next Infrastructure Minister is likely to be from either the DUP or Sinn Féin, any of the five main parties could conceivably take the portfolio depending on decisions about forming an opposition.

The DUP Deal has whipped the media into a frenzy looking at infrastructure shopping lists as if hundreds of millions of pounds is burning a hole in our pocket. There are some projects such as the traffic-free Gasworks Bridge which are shovel-ready and should be part of the windfall discussions.

But, in general terms the £400m infrastructure boost is a distraction for cycling. We shouldn’t be chasing it.

Cycling and active travel has long suffered from being seen as an area suited to short-term boosts, holding out for crumbs from monitoring rounds or dedicated projects. What we need is a carved-out place within the annual DfI budget, capital and resource, which allows for long-term planning.

What the DUP Deal does do is free up pressures on that annual budget, taking some big-ticket items off the table and allowing a realistic discussion on the level at which consistent annual funding for cycling should be set.

Getting people travelling actively in large numbers over short distances must be at the heart of the next Executive. Few other investments bring such strong and varied paybacks in terms of combating congestion, improving public health, tackling fuel and income poverty, making more liveable urban environments, and straying into major economic payback in tourism spend and employment when we extend to building greenways.

The next Minister, with three quarters of the Assembly wanting £10 per head annual cycling investment – remarkable cross-party political backing – can begin the active travel revolution on day one. The DUP Deal makes things easier but don’t get distracted expecting it to transform cycling – ongoing mainstream government investment is the real goal and if it doesn’t happen now, it never will.


New Infrastructure Minister’s first 100 days

With the extra spending powers open to the Department for Infrastructure, it will be a popular portfolio when (if?) D’Hondt is run to decide the shape of the new Executive. It’s now or never for cycling and active travel, so here is Bikefast’s view on five priorities for the new Minister’s first 100 days by which we can gauge their seriousness.

Additional staff for a shrinking Cycling Unit

One of the key moves to embed cycling within our centralised transport planning was the creation of a Cycling Unit in late 2013. While from the outside other regions have looked on with envy, the sad truth is that the potential of this Unit is being squandered.

Since its creation, staffing levels have been gradually run down..

..while at the same time extra-curricular responsibilities have been piled on. The Cycling Unit official title is now “The Cycling and Inland Waterways Unit”, and based on the branding on the DfI website looks likely to be renamed the Active Travel Unit in the near future. It’s classic civil service “death by a thousand cuts”.

Strong Ministerial support is needed for this group and its core aims – embedding the bicycle within everyday transport planning and usage – with enough staff to allow them to create plans, deliver on schemes and drive forward the Cycling Revolution™.

Go-ahead for the Gasworks Bridge

This is a perfect fit for the windfall from the DUP Deal – it’s shovel-ready, with planning permission secured, and just needs a £7m capital injection. It’s the lynchpin of the (draft) Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, creating a range of new active travel journey options for Belfast, many away from roads altogether.

This is a bellwether project – if you see this confirmed in the first 100 days, you’ll know the Executive is deadly serious about delivery on active travel.

Prioritise a revision of the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan

The Belfast Bicycle Network Plan was launched in the teeth of the 2017 Assembly Election, and uncertainty over future government has somewhat stalled the subsequent consultation process.

Two clear issues which the public fed back need to be quickly addressed by a Minister confident in their vision for combating congestion in our city:

The new Minister will have the clout to steer a revised document down the difficult road which officials have been reluctant to tread. A new five year vision, which isn’t afraid to tackle vehicle hegemony, is a must in the short term – along with cycling funding mainstreamed in the DfI budget at around £7.5m per annum from 2018-19 onwards.

Launch the Greenways Capital Grants Programme

The Strategic Plan for Greenways was launched in November 2016 by Minister Hazzard. It’s a 25 year vision to create 1,000km of greenways across the region, with a suggested £150m price tag – less than the York Street Interchange but who’s comparing? 😉

The wheels are in motion on getting local councils to create feasibility studies and business plans through a DfI small grants competition.

The next phase is making capital available to match council-funded investment to actually start building the individual projects.

Ideally this should start high at around £5m a year available from 2018-19 onwards, when it’s possible the first projects could be ready to break ground. This needs to be a consistent annual capital budget line of around £3m stretching to 2040, but kick-starting it with a small lump sum from the DUP Deal would be a good sign of intent.

“3-five-10” plan unveiled

The tenure of Chris Hazzard at DfI was shaping up to be of great interest for active travel, before the Assembly collapsed in January 2017. One of the plans being worked on in the background was called “3-five-10”, aimed at prioritising investment and planning for:

  • walking for journeys up to 3km
  • cycling for journeys up to 5km
  • public transport for journeys up to 10km

Bikefast reckons “2-five-10” would be a much better fit, but this plan has the potential to shake up the current obesogenic status quo where the car dominates across those distances.

At present though all we have is a press release and no meat on the bones. Whoever takes up the Infrastructure portfolio should get this strategy out to consultation asap to allow spending across the department (in this time of accelerated work) to be informed and directed by it.

Enough is enough – taxis in bus lanes

Bikefast have called on the Department for infrastructure to take the long view on sustainable transport and protect our vital infrastructure from knee-jerk, un-evidenced decisions to hobble Belfast’s transit systems solely to benefit private taxi firms.

Earlier this year a group of Belfast’s biggest private taxi firms somehow secured the opening of some Belfast’s bus lanes to their vehicles, a “remarkable” lobbying effort which threatened to “sabotage the Belfast Rapid Transit system” a year before it launched, and threatened to kill off cycling levels.

Between 4,000 and 5,000 of their vehicles. (In truth not even DfI knows this figure, which is a huge issue in itself.)

At a stroke this made taxis the majority users of these sustainable transport lanes. Everyone else got four days’ notice; no chance to consult or object; no oversight from the (dissolved) Northern Ireland Assembly.

The plan had been to roll this out as a trial for six months, likely to drift into a permanent arrangement as the controversy died down.  At the 11th hour Bikefast and Sustrans convinced Minister Hazzard to cut that trial down to 12 weeks. Good to their word, the Department ended the trial in mid-May and Belfast’s bus passengers and thousands who cycle every day breathed easier.

Now the Department wants your views on the trial and the policy, as if it wasn’t made clear enough already with a widespread negative backlash. People aren’t daft – they know adding thousands of taxis to bus lanes is a case of “how much worse will the experience for cycling be”, “how much slower will the buses run” and “how much of a reduction in safety and journey times is acceptable to the Department”?

What the Department hasn’t done is launch a full consultation – this call for views isn’t even listed on their Consultations page. In 2012 a proper consultation on the same issue (with different legislation provoking it) found 86% of people disagreed with handing our bus lanes over to private taxis.

That figure still stands.

However, the big business private taxi lobby will keep chipping away at this issue until they impose their will on everyone else. So you need to make your voice heard on why public transport journey times should be paramount in Belfast transit planning and why cycling safety is so crucial to you.

And the Department need to closely examine the process of this rapidly (and quietly) developing policy. The next Minister can decide whatever they want and civil servants will have to follow – that’s a Minister’s prerogative. But the Department has a responsibility to ensure that public funds are managed with propriety and duly safeguarded.

To that, the £90m of public money poured into making Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) a success is clearly at stake. On the most basic level, can the Department honestly stand over a trial designed to measure the impact of this policy on BRT, which was conducted without BRT operating?

Can the Department stand confidently over this policy without the benefit of full party political donation transparency in Northern Ireland?

Is the Department prepared to swallow the insulting tone of the private taxi lobby – that taxis in bus lanes somehow lanced the boil of congestion, that private taxis are the “fourth emergency service”, and that “hundreds of jobs” are at stake when big taxi firms have in fact been expanding their business in the last few years?

Are the Department (or the public for that matter) happy to be treated like fools?

Is the Department confident to stand over data from a trial which clearly wasn’t fully designed ahead of time and wasn’t fit for purpose?

Questions went unanswered until a week into the trial, and even then in face-to-face meetings it was clear that the trial had been dumped in the lap of officials with so short notice as to render the whole exercise almost useless – no baseline data shared, no information on the scale of monitoring, no measurement criteria or success/failure bounds, and (truly shocking) some random monitoring of social media for incidents and attitudes included to boot.

The trial was a shambles because of the political direction – fair play to the Department’s honest hard work to make a good fist of it, but the whole thing should be discarded.

The only reasonable way forward, whatever your view on the policy, is to address the massive research deficit exposed by the botched attempt of a narrow interest group to pull the rug out from under sustainable transport.

This will need to stretch beyond the introduction of BRT next year to allow for that service to establish and thrive. This policy direction also signals an urgent need to begin the construction of the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan so that cycling can be taken out of arguments about bus lanes.

The research which needs to be conducted includes:

  • How many taxis of all categories actually operate in Belfast (including Uber) and how has this number changed annually since the introduction of bus lanes?
  • How many taxis use diesel fuel?
  • What verifiable impact on private taxi employment have bus lanes had since they were introduced (distinct from other economic factors)?
  • What verifiable impact will bus lanes have on private taxi employment in the future (distinct from other economic factors)?
  • Will prioritising private hire motor vehicles actually improve air quality in Belfast?
  • How will this potential policy change affect levels of investment in wheelchair accessible taxis and taxibus services, and linked employment?
  • Will shifting an unknown number of private hire vehicles into bus lanes reduce the number of vehicles in general traffic lanes or lead to an overall net gain through induced demand?
  • A wide survey of health care users to determine the modal access to service points – i.e. what percentage of people every day travel by public transport, private car, different classes of taxis, walking and cycling?
  • A survey of bus passenger attitudes (and Bus Rapid Transit attitudes, once launched and bedded in) to bus lane access to determine their informed view on the journey speed and reliability issues.
  • What impact will this change have on fragile cycling levels while the Belfast Bicycle Network remains unconstructed?
  • An evaluation of safety perception and outcomes for the vulnerable users of bus lanes, those on bicycles and motorcycles.
  • What is the economic case for allowing one private service industry (taxis) free utilisation of a public utility (bus lanes) over other critical private service industries (logistics, deliveries)?
  • Survey of people who cycle and monitor journeys in bus lanes.
  • Carry out a general safety audit for the mix of vehicles in bus lanes.

Freeze the current bus lane access arrangement for the next five years (Buses, Class B and D taxis only, bicycles, motorcycles), let BRT bed in, build the initial cycling network and then carry out proper real-world studies.

Make public investment in sustainable transport your priority, don’t just hand the keys over to private interests.

Anything short of proper, independently researched evidence being used to direct policy, anything short of a full public consultation, anything short of rigorous fact checking of wild lobbying claims, anything short of fully evaluating the impact of this change within the context of Belfast congestion and the long-term future of city transport, and we’re left to conclude that those with “remarkable political clout“, beyond the current reach of scrutiny, can alter public policy to suit their interests over the greater good.

And shame on all of us if we let that overrule evidence-based policy making.

There is a fine balance in bus lanes right now which is continuing to support the growth of cycling and promises to support a fantastic new Rapid Transit system. People are responding to former Minister Chris Hazzard’s call for us to concentrate on moving people, not cars.

Don’t put that at risk for the sake of narrow commercial interests. When it comes to the volume of vehicles in our bus lanes, enough is enough.


What can you do?

Bikefast has partnered with Cycling UK and Sustrans to respond to the DfI trial – read our joint response here.

Read the Sustrans blog post on the case for no more taxis in Belfast’s bus lanes.

Send your views directly to the Department for Infrastructure here.

The deadline is 16th June 2017.

You can also use Cycling UK’s form to easily respond to DfI’s call for views here.

More reading

05 May 2017 – Belfast bus lane taxi trial ends (but attack on sustainable transport limps on)

20 Mar 2017 – Bus lane taxis “impede other road users, increase journey times” says.. Infrastructure Department

04 Apr 2017 – Push to keep taxis in Belfast bus lanes backfires (Irishcycle.com)

03 Apr 2017 – Belfast taxi postcard campaign in tatters

27 Feb 2017 –  DfI: Taxis in bus lanes trial will not default into a permanent arrangement

19 Feb 2017 – Survival guide to 84 days of taxis in Belfast bus lanes

18 Feb 2017 – Department declines to answer questions ahead of taxis in bus lanes “trial”

08 Oct 2014 – Reform and revolution | Taxis in bus lanes

06 Oct 2014 – Rapid transit? | Taxis in bus lanes

01 Oct 2014 – Wall of steel | Taxis in bus lanes

26 Sep 2014 – 4,000+ taxis in Belfast | Taxis in bus lanes

23 Sep 2014 – Perspective | Taxis in bus lanes

22 Sep 2014 – Fightback | Taxis in bus lanes

21 Mar 2013 – What value in the perception of cycling safety?

21 Feb 2013 – All Taxis in Bus Lanes – Why I Am Opposed (niroads.com)

07 Feb 2013 – DRD determined to halt Belfast cycling progress?

18 Sep 2012 – NI Greenways response to taxis in bus lanes consultation

05 Sep 2012 – Taxis in bus lanes a backward step for cycling

Hume Dunlop Bridge waiting for an Executive

The 18th of May marks the birth of the modern bicycle right here in Belfast.

In 1889 Willie Hume of the Belfast Cruisers Cycling Club proved the superiority of a safety bicycle fitted with pneumatic tyres developed in the city by John Boyd Dunlop. The ubiquitous penny farthing racer became obsolete and cycling changed forever.

In 2017, everyday cycling in Belfast is waiting for a re-formed Executive to green-light a traffic-free bridge linking the city centre with the south-east of the city. Within a stone’s throw of our city’s unique and pivotal cycling history, Bikefast today calls for it to be officially named the Hume Dunlop Bridge.

Take a dander around Belfast today and little evidence remains of the exploits of John Boyd Dunlop and Willie Hume. A blue plaque on May Street marks the spot where Dunlop, a Scottish-born veterinary surgeon, invented the first practical application of a pneumatic tyre to help his son ride a bicycle on Belfast’s cobbled streets – and then developed it into a commercial product.

Willie Hume, club cycling racer from East Belfast, took a punt on Dunlop’s safety bicycle fitted with his unique tyres and raced it on 18th May 1889 at the North of Ireland Cricket Club grounds. Hume won four races out of four that day, causing a stir and proving the superiority of the safety bicycle and “sausage tyre” which would go on to revolutionise cycling.

The site is now a housing development on the Lower Ormeau Road, where a special plaque was erected for the Giro d’Italia which passed by in 2014.

Just 400m north of the site of this unique moment in history lies the Gasworks Junction on the Laganside traffic-free path. This section of the National Cycle Network links Belfast city centre with a traffic-free route stretching around 20 miles between Newtownabbey to the north and Lisburn to the south.

A gap of a mile between the Albert and Ormeau road bridges could be reduced by this dedicated active travel bridge which would create amazing linkages and journey options across the city:

The Lagan Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge will be a twin pylon stayed bridge spanning 140m across the River Lagan from the Gasworks site to the indoor Tennis Centre and Ozone Complex.  The width of the bridge at 5.0m will accommodate both pedestrians and cyclists and improve linkages between communities from both sides of the River Lagan.  It will also improve transport linkages to the City Centre for pedestrians and cyclists and accessibility to leisure facilities and parks for local communities and commuters.  It will encourage sustainability by enabling people to choose healthier cleaner forms of transport and improve road safety to provide an alternative traffic free route.
Department for Infrastructure

The Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, in whatever form it emerges from consultation, has the Hume Dunlop Bridge at its heart. Not surprisingly given the existing route infrastructure, this is the gravitational centre of everyday cycling in the city with the highest peak flows in Belfast.

A Hume Dunlop Bridge would undoubtedly begin to multiply the numbers cycling in this area for a range of purposes – commuting, utility, shopping, leisure and so on.

It passed planning (just) last year and is effectively shovel-ready. It needs between £7m to £9m of capital to realise this transformative project for The Markets and Lower Ravenhill. Without a working government in Northern Ireland it remains a stalled project.

To kick-start the delivery phase of the Cycling Revolution in Belfast, this pivotal bridge must be one of the first items in the new Infrastructure Minister’s inbox.

And what better way to provide a lasting, physical tribute to the events of 1889 than naming it the Hume Dunlop Bridge?

Happy Hume Dunlop Day!

Daft signs bring cyclists and TransportNI into disrepute

Work is ongoing to loosen the belt on vehicle traffic in Belfast around Donegall Quay, which is taking away a major crossing point for two months. That’s bad enough for prioritising active travel in the city, but now our Transport Department’s executive arm TransportNI (TNI) has gone a step further by adding CYCLISTS PLEASE DISMOUNT signs.. for no obvious or stated reason.

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A clear cycle lane.. except for the CYCLISTS PLEASE DISMOUNT sign

Bikefast was contacted over the weekend by people cycling along Donegall Quay who were confused by the new sign. It’s a minor irritant that TNI whips out these signs whenever road works come within a stone’s throw of any cycling infrastructure. But there’s a bigger issue – they usually end up creating conflict and confusion in a situation which doesn’t need it. This is a classic case.

We’ve walked and cycled around the site and can’t fathom a purpose beyond ticking a box.

One sign sits on the eastern end of Queen’s Bridge, requesting that CYCLISTS PLEASE DISMOUNT at a shared pedestrian/cycling crossing and at the start of a wide shared, but delineated, footway across the bridge. Also, National Cycle Network Route 99. Say no more.

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On the western bank, the sign sits on the marked cycle space on the shared footway. The bridge and its western approach appear to be closed to cycling. But why? And is that even the case, with no information on site or online as to the purpose.

There are five possible movements here where cycling is otherwise permitted:

towards the Obel tower (shared pavement, marked cycleway)..

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over the Big Fish square towards the quayside path (shared)..

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across the road to Custom House Square (shared pedestrian/cycling crossing)..

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onto the Lagan Weir Bridge (shared)..

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along the footway around onto Queen Elizabeth Bridge (shared pavement, marked cycleway)..

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Should CYCLISTS PLEASE DISMOUNT going in these directions? None of these options are in any way blocked by the crossing works (over 100m away from both signs) or have any restriction in space, other than the CYCLISTS PLEASE DISMOUNT sign themselves.

Which is a farcical situation – having to dismount effectively just in order to accommodate a CYCLISTS PLEASE DISMOUNT sign.

The problem for TNI, if they care to consider it for more than 10 seconds, is that it brings both themselves and those cycling in the area into disrepute.

Without clear instructions on which movements require a dismount – or an obvious or stated reason for it – TNI look foolish for putting the signs in place.

Secondly people who are legitimately cycling in the area face the wrath of those who can rightly point to a sign telling them to get off and walk.

What about those cycling on the road here? Will drivers erroneously assume they shouldn’t be cycling on the road after passing a CYCLISTS PLEASE DISMOUNT sign? Plenty of drivers get unnecessarily worked up about these things..

The other question is what exactly is the position of the National Cycle Network which this sign seems to eradicate. Sustrans have a role in maintaining it; were they consulted?

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You’d hope the days of road engineers deploying road signs just for the sake of it were over. But this is Belfast and anything is possible..

This is all ridiculously small fry and nothing to get too worked up about. But it’s such a daft placement in an ocean of perfectly legitimate and safe cycling space, shared with pedestrians, that TNI need to clarify what they were thinking. We’re still waiting for a return phone call.

Most important though – they must get rid of these CYCLISTS PLEASE DISMOUNT signs before they do their reputation any more damage. Vehicle movements around the works appear to have been nicely protected – actually journeys will be faster without the crossing which will reduce pedestrian and cycling options until mid-May.

But why go to the trouble of a putting in a much-needed temporary controlled crossing point when a CYCLISTS PLEASE DISMOUNT sign will do instead?

Survival guide to 84 days of taxis in Belfast bus lanes

The Department of Infrastructure (DfI) made a shocking, behind-closed-doors decision to allow all taxis into Belfast bus lanes from Monday 20th February. This is being pitched as a “trial” for 12 weeks, ostensibly to gather data before Bus Rapid Transit is introduced, but is feared will be the foot in the door for a permanent arrangement at the end of the 84 day trial. Continue reading “Survival guide to 84 days of taxis in Belfast bus lanes”

Is anywhere safe from the lycra louts? Northern Ireland, actually.

“Is ANYWHERE safe from the lycra louts? They’ve got cycle lanes galore. But now they’re on pavements and jumping lights – and mowing down pedestrians”

Thus began Brendan O’Neill’s polemic in the Daily Mail on the 7th February 2017, piggy-backing Department for Transport (DfT) figures on collisions between pedestrians and cyclists in Great Britain.

It was a thinly-veiled excuse to launch a remarkable tirade filled with unrelated hackneyed clichés about the cyclist menace. How much filler? A heroic 35 paragraphs out of 42 bore no reference to the data. Road.cc was scathing of the column:

“A follow-up piece today on the Daily Mail’s website written by Brendan O’Neill .. uses those figures published yesterday for a verbal assault on cyclists that, even by the newspaper’s standards, is as vitriolic in its rhetoric as it is ignorant of the facts.”

O’Neill even managed to deconstruct the central theme of his own piece – the DfT data showing an average of one pedestrian / cyclist collision a day in GB during 2015:

“No doubt, the upward spike in cyclists careering into walkers is partly down to there being more people on bikes.”

O’Neill didn’t need the DfT data as an excuse to write this piece – he’s a professional columnist (and journalist and editor of Spiked Online) paid to impart controversial opinion in order to attract clicks.

Typical local scene of calm and safe interactions between people in motion

Sitting here in Northern Ireland, listening to the crickets chirping while tumbleweeds roll down the Stranmillis Embankment cycle track, one might be a little baffled by this pedestrian vs cyclist vs motorist war in GB. Is there really a rising menace posed by “smug eco-warriors” in here NI, and what did that particular dickish soundbite have to do with collisions anyway?

Luckily BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme lept into the breach to provide a platform for debate between Brendan O’Neill and smug eco-warrior Green Party candidate Tanya Jones.

A fair and balanced debate, with some of the dafter points challenged by William Crawley and a platform given to someone to defend cycling.

But what about the fact this was a BBC Radio Ulster talk show being broadcast in Northern Ireland to a Northern Irish audience with a presenter and guest from Northern Ireland, about an issue of rising collisions in Great Britain championed by an English protagonist.

There’s no doubt it was topical, sparked as it was by a national newspaper article of the same day which received plenty of attention for its strident rhetoric.

But this is Northern Ireland. So, you’d imagine the show’s producers might engage in some basic research before broadcast, such as finding the local equivalent data – just in the cause of “informing, educating, engaging” the local audience.

While William Crawley was right to pick out the sense that O’Neill’s fixation on cyclists’ behaviour was verging into assigning everyone on a bicycle with the same personality type, a listener could be forgiven for assuming the topic was about all cyclists in general, whether they be in London or Lurgan.

Without having the local equivalent information to hand, Talkback missed a crucial opportunity to challenge O’Neill’s use of collision data to further his opinions, and to talk about “cyclists’ behaviour” here in Northern Ireland.

Because, over the same time period (2009 to 2015) PSNI Road Collision Statistics show that collisions involving at least one pedestrian and a cyclist ACTUALLY FELL BY 20%. I’ll say that again.

The same data for Northern Ireland showed a 20% drop.

Overall pedestrian casualties have been falling over the last 18 years, and over the seven year period referenced by O’Neill it’s broadly unchanged. Data sourced from the PSNI by Bob Harper has been expertly compiled into a user-friendly chart.

But the 20% drop in NI vs a 50% rise in GB is not even the real story, because it’s almost embarrassing to reference that (factual) percentage change when you look at the bare numbers.

That’s no fancy graphical representation – each dot equals one collision. That’s four collisions last year. I’ll say that again.

That’s one pedestrian / cyclist collision every 3 months.

So when Brendan O’Neill comes on to BBC Radio Ulster hawking his “one collision every day” line it’s wildly irrelevant to Northern Ireland.

Is it the responsibility of the show’s producers to ensure this kind of (factual) information is injected into the debate, or was that solely down to Tanya Jones as the ostensilby pro-cycling guest? That’s not for me to judge.

In light of the Northern Ireland data, would this debate on BBC Radio Ulster have been of any real public interest without Brendan O’Neill’s fiery opinion piece (remember, the opinion of one man)? That’s not for me to judge.

Any road casualty is one too many. There were 787 pedestrian casualties in 2015, with 699 involving a car, 49 involving a goods vehicle and 26 involving a bus or coach. One of the first rules of journalism is “dog bites man isn’t news, but man bites dog is”. While general road safety is picked up by media outlets from time to time, it’s desperately out of kilter for O’Neill’s rant to focus attention on just 0.5% of hundreds of pedestrian casualties.

Imagine beginning a debate on car collisions with a tirade that drivers are “smug, arrogant, puffed-up, little emperors”.

William Crawley handled the debate expertly – and referenced the GB nature of the data -but the audience was left with a huge piece of the jigsaw missing – the local angle.

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Taxi driver unlawfully blocking a cycle lane (file under dog bites man)

O’Neill’s “rant” was even less palatable given that two people died while cycling on London’s streets the day before it was published.

Issues of cycling safety and recklessness are occasionally topical and important debates to have. It should be argued in print, on the internet and across the airwaves. We would all be so lucky to have a skilled and intelligent broadcaster like William Crawley to be the impartial voice in all of these discussions.

But if we’re having that debate here in Northern Ireland, give the audience the facts on the local situation – don’t lazily import in data which is wildly unrepresentative. By the PSNI numbers there is no cyclist menace here. People on bicycles are not “mowing down pedestrians” here. You would be forgiven for thinking the opposite having listened to O’Neill on Talkback.


O’Neill got what he needed out of the appearance – airtime to promote his Daily Mail column and his achingly edgy opinions. The Radio Ulster audience didn’t get what it needed – to be better informed about the reality of the issue here in Northern Ireland.

I’m reminded of Ian Paisley’s first meeting with Martin McGuinness where the Unionist firebrand said to his Republican foe-turned-partner:

“We don’t need Englishmen to rule us. We can do that ourselves.”

Northern Ireland doesn’t need an Englishman bringing his imagined road war over here from Great Britain. We’re getting on fine by ourselves.

(So the stats say.)