At the beginning of the month KH Chartered Consulting, a firm of road planning and building, tweeted the below, drawing attention to the lack of cycling journeys (based on Strava heat map) in the area west of Cookstown ans east of Strabane.
The heat map of cycle journeys in Northern Ireland shows a clear gap in the quadrangle Cookstown, Maghera, Strabane and Omagh , which I will refer from here on as the Cycling Journey Gap (CJG).
This area sees little cycling activity when compared with the remaining areas of Northern Ireland. So, what are the key phenomenons that cause this disparity between the CJG and the other areas, namely the most urbanized Great Belfast area?
The CJG is one of the areas in Northern Ireland with one of the lowest population density in Northern Ireland, according to data obtained from National Statistics surveyed in 2010.
If there are no people how will there be cycling journeys?
Sounds like an obvious question, but we also need to consider that the heat map only measures absolute number of journeys, which comparing areas with lower population density with higher ones the cycling journeys will naturally be well below in count.
However, there are other areas with a similar low density in population but with higher cycling journey according to heat map, namely Enniskillen and Omagh.The cause of this seems to be related with infrastructure conditions and subjective safety of the road network.
The road network in the CJG area is composed mostly by rural roads, while Omagh and Enniskillen are towns and have a more urbanized road network. As identified by the thedetail.tv the major part of the fatal accidents occur in rural roads by a large margin.
Of all the 129 fatal collisions recorded across Northern Ireland over the two year period, 74% took place on rural roads where there are speed limits of over 40mph. There was only one fatal crash on a motorway.
The CJG area is composed mostly by rural roads to connect villages and as data suggests they are less safe to travel through.
This combined with the lack of people living in the area and the lack of towns there is not much to compel people to cycle through the CJG area. But the last obstacle to cycling journeys in the area is geography.
The CJG area includes the Sperrin Mountains, which reaches 678m altitude at its highest peak at Sawel Mountain. The uphill difficulties are typical of such terrain and are certainly challenging for cycling with light gear, it is even more difficult.
However, even with a challenging terrain to build, if possible, the Sperrins have some beautiful places to visit that with easier access by bycicle could lead to extra tourism revenue.
Current and Proposed Infrastructure
In the area the only space for cycling is not on-road but within the Davagh Forest, which has multiple trails for mountain biking/cyclo-cross, with the longest being circa 15 km.
About proposed infrastructure only the Northern Ireland Greenways proposal goes near the area. It is a project with the goal of connecting most towns and villages of Northern Ireland, for a very good ratio cost/value. However, as you can see in the image below the CJG area is covered through its east, south and west perimeters by the Greenways proposal (missing the north of the CJG area). This proposal is mostly based on the former railways lines, which also notes that the CJG area was not attractive for investment for train lines.
CJG Final Considerations
A tweet is just a tweet and helps to raise discussion about possible improvements on anything. In this case we need to look at the bigger picture and identify if people are really needing for cycling development in the area or not. So, based on the above, we can conclude that the CJG area is a place that:
- Is not currently chosen by people to cycle through (with an hostile environment to cycling being common everywhere in the country);
- Population density is low in the area, which means access-wise, there will be few people requiring it;
- Area discarded by other means of transportation;
- There are no significant towns to connect through.
- Challenging terrain in the Sperrins.
The evidence above goes against focusing and prioritising an area which cycling users are not choosing for their travel journeys.
I would love to have accessibility to every part of Northern Ireland by bicycle, but currently with the low initial investment that is being committed by Stormont and the councils the focus should be on the areas that cycling is being chosen by people as an activity or mode of transport that they are using. In other words, this means to focus in areas with greater number of cycling journeys and with higher population density.
However, if money is available to create/improve space for cycling within CJG area I don’t see any impediment and would be very happy to see the area in itself flourish with cycling journeys.
Strava heat map is a way to identify nests of high levels of cycling chosen by people with the current hostile environment to the practice of this activity. The areas are in line with the high density populated areas (as expected) and range from Ballycastle/Coleraine up North, Newcastle/Strangford down South, Greater Belfast/Ards peninsula at east and Armagh at west with spots at Derry, Omagh, Enniskilen and Newry.
So, as people are starting to adopt this “old” activity of cycling, our goals for Northern Ireland should be to create a distributed network that would reach major town and villages (Greenways proposal) and to provide a more connected network of routes to empower people to cycle anywhere safely and securely in the most dense areas.