The Devil’s in the detail

A reluctance to capture and share fine-grained active travel data suits the culture of inertia at the Department for Infrastructure


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In December 2020 the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) tweeted about the rise in patronage of the Comber Greenway during the initial months of the coronavirus crisis. Usage had risen 75% between April and November that year, and for the first time we were even given a broad modal split of 55% cycling and 45% walking.

Tweet from the Department for Infrastructure on Comber Greenway usage increase during coronavirus

Like any of the few positive crumbs on active travel brushed our way over the years, this was gobbled up – delighting local users, politicians, campaigners while providing a much-needed public relations win for DfI.

The story was made possible by a set of data counters installed at key points on the Comber Greenway which provides DfI Active Travel staff with a live daily count of usage. This is a rich insight into active travel habits which could be made available through the Open Data NI platform to allow public access for any number of innovative uses, but so far hasn’t been.

Unfortunately it’s the only such set of counters confirmed to be operated by DfI. This wasn’t always the case. As late as 2016 a network of cycle counters was in operation around the country in more than 60 locations. This allowed the Department for Regional Development (DRD), DfI’s predecessor, to understand high level cycling trends along rural routes, greenway paths and in dense urban areas such as Belfast and Derry.

DfI cycle counter box visible to the side of the Stranmillis Embankment cycleway

Cycle counter box visible to the side of Belfast’s Stranmillis Embankment cycleway

The availability of such data is the backbone of a city, region or country which is serious about active travel investment and growth. The sad tagline in the last NI Cycle Usage Report (2011-2016, not available online) says “In 2016 the equipment was removed due to its age and unreliability” – not replaced or upgraded.

DRD cycle counter locations

The raw data for these counters is available on Open Data NI

The problem of no live data has been shown in the recent rise in objections to the temporary “pop-up” cycleways on Dublin Road, Grosvenor Road and Donegall Road in Belfast. It’s understandable that DfI didn’t have time to capture specific data on these streets before rolling out experimental infrastructure aimed at making journeys to our main hospital sites safer in the teeth of a health emergency. (Clap for our NHS heroes, but let’s object to safer journey to work options?)

But DfI doesn’t have any background data on cycling levels in the area. This means they’re unable to say “cycling has risen by X percentage since the cycleways were installed”. No objective measure of change is possible, leaving DfI to referee subjective dualling opinions supporting and opposing the lanes, where the regular claim that “no-one uses them” must by nature be given equal weight to views in support.

When it comes to targeted investment in active travel backed up by strong evidence of use, we’re almost flying blind.

No accountability without live counting ability

There is a maddening quirk at the heart of any drive in Northern Ireland to get more people travelling actively, which is a key outcome contained within the Programme for Government (PfG).

The Travel Survey for Northern Ireland (TSNI) In-depth Report 2017-2019 was published by DfI in July this year. It contains data on total journeys, length and mode – used to underpin the measures for progress within the Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland in 2015 and the PfG.

As usual, the levels of cycling have flatlined against the three measures in the Bicycle Strategy. This is no shock given there has been virtually no cycle route development in the last five years.

Cycling journeys under a mile:

Cycling journeys in NI less than 1 mile, 2019

Cycling journeys between 1 and 2 miles:

Cycling journeys in NI between 1 and 2 miles, 2019

Cycling journeys between 2 and 5 miles:

Cycling journeys in NI between 2 and 5 miles, 2019

See Bikefast’s full NI cycling policy dashboard  with latest budget and journey figures against targets.

The TSNI is published on an annual basis (split into a headline report, and an in-depth report where this fine-detailed cycling data is contained) amalgamating three years of data to ensure quality. Crucially the in-depth portion is typically released 12 months after the last of those three years, eg the 2012-2014 report was published in December 2015. This has slipped further in recent years as DfI drifted without a Minister, and then coronavirus affecting timescales. The last 3 reports were published 13, 14 and now 18 months after their final year of data collection.

One curious effect of this is that accountability slips neatly past the Minister responsible for their time period. If next year’s 2018-2020 report lands in July, that would be 2 months after the scheduled 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly election, when a successor Infrastructure Minister is likely to be in post.

Current Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon started her term in January 2020, meaning there will be no data released on active travel levels during her tenure released while she’s in post – hence there will be no direct scrutiny possible on her record, for example by the statutory Assembly Infrastructure Committee.

List of NI Infrastructure Ministers against their impact on the TSNI report

List of NI Infrastructure Ministers against their impact on the TSNI report

It will be July 2024 until the next Minister has a partial, evidenced track record to stand over, and July 2027 until Nichola Mallon’s term completely falls off the TSNI – which is two months after the election scheduled to end the next Assembly five year term.

This is not, of course, by design of this Minister or any other, but no Minister has been able to be held directly responsible while in post for their failure to grow active travel since Danny Kennedy (three reports covering parts of his term were released between Dec 2012 and Dec 2014).

This situation is undoubtedly politically comfortable for each Minister and corporately handy for their Department. Asking pressing questions about this year’s report (showing flat-lining cycling levels) can be simply countered by saying “this was under a previous Minister, and during my term we have done A, B, C..” as if that is concrete proof that the dial is being moved. And when active travel levels (inevitably) remain stagnant in future years, the next Minister reviewing the 2018-2020 or 2019-2021 reports can again bat scrutiny away by saying “this was under Nichola Mallon’s stewardship, but we are doing D, E, F..

“Now is the time for a reset, a refocus and a renewed effort to make change happen” (Nichola Mallon)

One month before the latest TSNI report landed, Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon launched a new policy document called “Planning for the Future of Transport – Time for Change“, which is about “refocusing and reprioritising the aims of the Department for Infrastructure to meet the needs of new and emerging challenges facing our communities“.

“Advances in data science, artificial intelligence and sensing technology have increased the speed of transport innovation. If we can grasp opportunities now and take the bold and necessary steps, we will deliver what is needed for more effective transport systems which lead to better health, environmental and societal outcomes.”

In discussions with the Minister and staff over the last 18 months, it has been made clear that DfI’s resource budget (staffing, bandwidth to progress projects, etc) is squeezed, while the capital budget (investing in building things) is up for grabs.

Installing a live counter network would primarily fall under a capital commitment, meaning there is nothing holding DfI back.

It wouldn’t be a major photo opportunity for the Minister, but it would leave a strategic legacy in a number of ways:

  • holding all future Ministers to account
  • giving DfI staff the evidence base to push forward contentious active travel projects
  • providing a platform for progress against potential climate change targets for modal shift

heb@Wikimedia Commons (mail), CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Some countries have live display counters showing usage at key points, a simple rebut to anyone who thinks any investment in active travel infrastructure is a waste. We’ve called for that type of display to be installed in Belfast and elsewhere, and a handful should be deployed in this project. However there’s a saying in darts that it’s “trebles for show, doubles for dough”, and these are the showy side of data collection and use. A dense network of live daily counters would provide the future backbone so lacking in DfI’s historic delivery of active travel policy.

There is very little time left in the current Assembly mandate, but this project is as easy a slam dunk as a Minister could wish for – a historic precedent (including a previous set of counter locations, many with infrastructure still in situ), a strong policy imperative, a need to get capital out of the door by year end, and the ability to farm out the implementation through DfI’s consultant framework meaning resource isn’t an issue. And finally, it will provide an ongoing stream of good news stories on active travel usage, especially in response to DfI infrastructure projects.

It’s all upside, no downside, aligns perfectly with every policy aim and leaves a legacy – it’s down to you Minister, “take the bold and necessary steps”.

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