This time it will be different..
The 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly election will take us through the first five years of the 25-year Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland.
Sixteen years ago we had a shiny new cycling strategy launched by the Northern Ireland Executive but serious consistent investment never backed it up and the vision failed. This time it has to be different.
So this one’s for you, party policy folk. Place these two priorities into your party’s manifesto – and negotiate hard for inclusion in the Programme for Government – and the new Strategy will deliver on its realistic vision.
1) Lock in annual cycling investment between £10 and £25 per head of population to achieve:
- Belfast 10% cycle to work levels by 2020 (currently 5%).
- Cycling to represent 6% of all journeys across NI by 2025 (currently 1%).
- Raise current cycle to school levels from >1% to a healthy figure which doesn’t shame us.
A dedicated cycling budget is not profligate spending – it’s investing for demonstrable returns in better health outcomes (physical and mental), more independence for our children, increased tourism income, support for local independent traders, reduced congestion, stronger communities and a better environment.
Cycling return on investment offers unparalleled value for money in tight fiscal circumstances.
The Netherlands invests €0.5bn per year in cycling, generating a 60:1 ROI *just* in health benefits https://t.co/fDNqrGuRwZ
— GB Cycling Embassy (@GBCycleEmbassy) February 3, 2016
The Westminster All Party Cycling Group’s Get Britain Cycling report recommended a £10 annual investment per head of population. Several local political parties were represented in the chamber when a motion in support of the findings was passed unopposed.
This £10 figure is the consensus minimum for cycling investment. Belfast residents actually want cycling investment of £25 per head of population, to match that of the Netherlands. That’s remarkable.
Investment is not gambling with votes; this is populist policy.
It’s a drop in the ocean of the new Department for Infrastructure’s £757m annual capital and resource budget – approximately £420 per head of population. And we haven’t even scratched the surface on co-ordinated investment from other departments with a strong interest in realising cycling’s health benefits, rural regeneration and tourism potential.
“New money” doesn’t need to be found, priorities only need to be slightly adjusted. I believe local politicians and parties are smart enough to the benefits of cycling that I can spare the hard sales pitch – Sustrans’ manifesto does an excellent job of detailing the benefits.
But this point is critical – invest now, invest correctly, or we wait another generation. It’s that simple.
Let’s be bold with our vision: Make Belfast the best cycling city in these islands, and make Northern Ireland the top cycling region.
2) Begin to create a 600+ mile greenway network across the country by:
- Starting construction of a “greenway spine” linking Belfast and Derry~Londonderry (to be detailed in a DRD Greenway Strategy ahead of the election).
- Creating an investment pot for local councils to access and drive “off-spine” projects in the short term.
- Working with the Irish Government to create an All-Island Greenway Strategy to access European funding.
We have over 600 miles of former railways silently winding their way through our countryside. The Comber Greenway, Newtownabbey Way, Loughshore Path, Newry Canal, Foyle greenways demonstrate the societal benefits of creating walking and cycling space.
The Great Western Greenway, which so impressed the Assembly Regional Development Committee, is a 42km rural greenway built in County Mayo for around €8m. It has revitalised the area bringing in hordes of overseas tourists, supporting local employment and wealth creation and returning over €7m to the local economy each year.
Think about that return on investment.
Greenways could extend to every corner of the country, linking most of our top tourist attractions like the Giant’s Causeway, Marble Arch Caves, the Mourne Mountains, Lough Neagh, Titanic Quarter, the Dark Hedges, the Glens of Antrim, the Fermanagh Lakelands and the Sperrins. And it’s almost all rural investment – for every town and village in-between benefits from a signature leisure tourism project, with tens of thousands of new visitor journeys generated.
We can build this network in full and across the border within the 25 years of the Bicycle Strategy if greenway investment (alone) is locked at around £10m per year (within the total cycling budget as above).
This long-term project – if started now – can set Northern Ireland apart. We only have a small handful of traffic-free greenways, but frankly we are missing a trick. Tens of thousands of miles of high quality cycle routes like Eurovelo cover the continent, serving the desire of people from around the world for epic cycling holidays.
Fáilte Ireland research estimates that 11.5 million people in Germany alone would be interested in a long-distance cycling holiday to Ireland. The market is waiting, we just lack the product to sell. And our economy desperately needs this external boost.
Let’s be bold with our vision: Make Northern Ireland Europe’s #1 destination for long-distance, long-stay cycling holidays.
It’s up to you now..
The last Assembly period saw meaningful progress for cycling as a distinct and valuable transport form in Northern Ireland. Out on the streets of villages, towns and cities the bicycle is back, through a combination of political will, government support and the general public being smart to the benefits.
Remember these three key points if you’re tempted to dismiss cycling investment:
Cycling levels are rising sharply across the country.
Confidence levels are high for forthcoming investment.
People – not just “cyclists” – want to see our roads and streets made safer for cycling.
These next five years will simply make or break the Bicycle Strategy. Either history repeats and we go nowhere, or we start to pedal forward.MLAs have debated cycling investment in the Assembly and you can see for yourself how positive they were about the future.
Continue with the occasional crumb of investment, and the Strategy dies. Give the Cycling Unit and Councils a consistent and reasonable budget to plan ahead and deliver and we can achieve something special.
It will be unforgivable if all of the supportive words and deeds of the last Assembly do not crystallise into Programme for Government targets and outcomes.