Note: This article was finished Friday, the 13th of May, and any development regarding the post-elections since then will not feature below.
Elections are over and a new cycle will begin shortly. At the time of writing the elected representatives are still discussing the programme of government (PfG) and the UUP has confirmed they will go into opposition.
What started during the last term of the assembly was a good start towards improving the modal share of cycling. The creation of a cycling unit within the Department of Regional Development (DRD), which produced a report with the vision and goals for cycling in Northern Ireland. This has been topped with the work on the East-West cycle path that has been started and that phase 1 of it has been completed. Last, the Belfast Bikes project has been a great success achieving the impressive amount of 200,000 journeys in just over a year.
So, a summary of what’s been achieved towards cycling fits in one paragraph. That doesn’t sound so promising, does it? Well, if you made the effort then you could probably put everything in one sentence, so that’s not what is really relevant. The kick-off has been given and people are adhering to a new way of travelling to and through the city, with an increase in cycling commutes into Belfast.
What can we expect for the next five years?
The first noticeable change is the readjustment of department with the former DRD to be re-branded into Department for Infrastructure (DfI), whose functions will include the ones from the previous departments with a few other ones. The cycling unit should remain under the helm of DfI and hopefully additional budget will be attributed for their work.
Parties & Candidates
From the parties elected, only Sinn Féin and TUV (that seems to be against) do not mention active travel in their party manifesto. This is a good development relative to previous elections as Bikefast showed.
Additionally, and through a junction effort from Bikefast, SustransNI and We Are Cycling UK organisations it was possible to know the intentions for 74% of the candidates towards three proposals that would greatly improve active travel in Northern Ireland. Overall figures show that more than 2/3 of the assembly support the following proposals:
- Commit to investment of at least £10 per person per year for cycling
- Development of traffic-free greenways
- Introduction of an Active Travel Act
The first thing we can expect is the continuation and completion of the East-West protected cycle path during 2016/2017. Funds have been allocated to this project so there shouldn’t be impediments to the conclusion of this project that should transform commuting/travel into and around Belfast by bicycle into a more enjoyable and safe experience.
The other project that has already received green light is the Lagan Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge. This project should revitalize the connection between East/South Belfast and the city centre through the Gasworks area and vice-versa towards the Ormeau Park. However, for this project funds have not been allocated and, as such the start of the work is dependant on it.
Belfast Bikes project is the first big showcase in favour of cycling. People adhered to it, even with a less favourable environment to cycle within Belfast and it shows there are little impediments to do it in journeys across the city. The next phase of the project includes additional stations at 3 hospitals and around West Belfast. Hopefully the project continues its successful trend and additional stations are created near more residential areas to encourage more commutes into the city by bicycle.
Connswater Greenway is another impressive project that is currently in Phase 2 (last phase of the project and scheduled to be finished by December 2016). It is a 9km trail that connects East Belfast to almost the city centre and Victoria Park and aims to increase pedestrian and cycling users in the area. Once ready, there should be a link between the greenway and the phase 4 of the East-West protected cycle path. The investment of £40 million, funded by Big Lottery Fund, Belfast City Council and the Department for Social Development, is likely to yield a very good return of investment as there are already people using the greenway.
Design Phase Projects
The Linen Quarter project, which has been the motivation to start the blog, is going towards a car friendly way. The last document available of the project, from the last planning committee meeting, continues to insist on a delusional idea of shared space (which in itself is proven to be dangerous to the most vulnerable users) that is more like car dominant space. Two way streets where there is absolutely no need, probably with an absurd amount of on street parking spaces to be kept. Creating an attractive and vibrant environment also attracts businesses and investors and it provides more interest for more people to dwell in the area. If this plan is to go ahead, is also with some sadness that I see the beginning of a direct and safe link for cycling between the city centre and the Queen’s University to crumble.
The York Street Interchange is another big project that should start during this term. The initial design is incredibly disappointing towards active travel and does not provide safe space for cycling in both directions. This has been the subject of a public consultation where some of the issues were recognised and corrected, e.g. provide bus stop bypasses, but the most dangerous places (junctions) seem to be much less protected.
Other project that might start to see daylight is Sailortown. The area around the docks is currently underdeveloped – only Belfast Harbour has provided one new building there and is constructing a second one – and it should receive some attention during the next term, following the recent release of a draft for its development. The proposal is much more friendly towards vulnerable users and it’s a breath of fresh air relative to the previous major projects.
Another flagship project will be the NI Greenways. Scope has started with the government funding the best design projects that are submitted by councils, by providing a total amount of £164,000 to get 4 projects with fully evaluated project ready for assessment and another 4 with concept design and business case prepared. Though the first project to be drawn might be disconnected from each other and the existing cycling infrastructure this is a very important step as it can increase tourism rates in the areas and, eventually and depending on demand, the missing links will be connected.
The City Centre Regeneration Investment Strategy, under the helm of Belfast City Council, recognises there are issues with cycling within the city centre. The strategy is looking to regenerate certain areas of the city that are underdeveloped (and include the Linen Quarter and Sailortown) and that would benefit with an investment – council or otherwise – in order to bring people and business to dwell and establish in those areas.
Most of the projects mentioned are near and around Belfast, which is normal given a large part of the population lives nearby. However, it is expected that other councils follow suit with proposals that should help increase the levels of active travel. Residential areas, tourism spots and commuting roads are some natural choices for eligibility on the regeneration of spaces towards active travel.
These are interesting times for cycling in Northern Ireland as so many regeneration schemes are happening and some of them are taking into account the benefits of active travel. However, we have seen that government fails to meet their own commitments and as such it is possible that some of the projects mentioned might fall short of initial goals.
Nonetheless, end users and campaigners need to continue what is being done so far by pushing for the best option possible towards active travel with local authorities and government. Hopefully, new cycling developments will also show that once the safe and direct infrastructure is built people will use it – a lot!