Monday, 27 February 2012

Connecting Places Mini Series: Bicycling Belfast: Part 1: Debunking the Myth

In this series, Connecting Places, we explore the spaces, places and sustainable transport systems in Belfast and beyond, with an aim to generate critical debate on the design of our towns and cities.
Series curated by Aaron Coulter

For background info on Bicycling Belfast click here.

Part 1: Debunking the Myth
“As a result of varying levels of congestion, topography and land-use, a blanket citywide approach to providing a cycle network is unlikely to be appropriate in Belfast.” 
Bicycling Belfast
(Credit: Aaron Coulter)
In a country where 65% of all trips taken are under 5 miles in distance, and in a city where up to 70% of inhabitants in some inner city areas do not have access to a car, can we really say that cycling should have no significant future in Belfast? What if we take an more analytical approach to the somewhat subjective claims put forward by DRD? Does Belfast have what it takes to become a ‘cycling city’, or are there too many obstacles in the way? 

Modal Share in NI
(Credit: Aaron Coulter)

Given these statistics it is hard to imagine why our modal share of cycling is so low, with cycling making up less than 1% of commuter trips, compared to a UK average of 3% and around 40% in cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Is this due to congestion, topography, climate and land use? Or are there other factors at play that could help us understand why modal share is so low?


Our climate is probably the first factor that comes to mind regarding poor cycling levels in Belfast. Yes it rains in Belfast, there is no denying it. However, when we look comparatively at other European cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen and compare the total number of days of rain per year (day of rain = > 0.1mm precipitation) and cycling’s modal share we can see that, despite common assumptions, it would appear that climate actually has little impact on overall numbers cycling. 

Days of Rain/Modal Share
(Credit: Aaron Coulter)

Obviously, when compared to Belfast, both Amsterdam and Copenhagen have a very strong cycling culture, strengthened and reinforced by world class infrastructure (which will be discussed in detail later in this series) but the main point to take from this is that when cycling is made the easiest, most efficient method of getting from ‘a to b’ then climate really has little negative impact.

Even in the depth of winter cycling is still number one choice in Copenhagen.
(Credit: Copenhagenize Consulting)

Land use

This is perhaps the most rational of the arguments against the introduction of widespread cycling infrastructure in the city. Belfast suffers from a lack of population density. A myriad of factors including an inability to reinvent the city’s workforce quickly enough in the post war era, years of poor planning which emphasised suburban housing typologies as well as the lasting effects of ‘the troubles‘ has left our city centre almost entirely void of life after 5pm, left us with a struggling public transport service and almost entirely dependent on the private car. In terms of density our city’s development has been unquestionably unsustainable by all modern measures. 

Belfast's Density Profile - An International Perspective
(Credit: Aaron Coulter)

Our preference for low density development means that, for the most part, we are heavily segregated (in terms of land use) with clearly identifiable boundaries between housing and commercial areas, often defined and reinforced by large scale roads networks - a visual reminder of our dependencies on the car.

However, despite years of urban sprawl, Belfast is still a relatively compact city. 15 minutes of cycling (at an average speed of 12mph) gets you quite far and especially during peak traffic hours I have found that it is the quickest and cheapest form of door to door transport.

Belfast - A compact city
(Credit: Aaron Coulter)

Belfast - A bicycle scaled city
(Credit: Aaron Coulter)

In practice, due to Belfast’s relatively small footprint, the fact that we have strictly defined land use patterns (influenced by that low residential density) is not really an issue when it comes to the performance and efficiency of the bicycle. As demonstrated by the map below, the vast majority of Belfast's inhabitants enjoy the highest levels of access to services in Northern Ireland. Naturally, increasing residential density and levels of land use mix, as has been the aim of many planning policies over the years, will improve overall viability of cycling, but currently - perceived ‘distance’ from amenities is not a valid excuse.

Belfast - High Access to Services
(Credit: NISRA NIMDM Edit: Aaron Coulter)
We only need look to London, a city characterised by its sprawl, to see an example of how to improve the viability of cycling in low density density developments. Through ‘Cycle Superhighways' the City is improving safe and efficient access to the city centre from the suburbs.


Belfast - Bordered by hills
(Credit: Sinus Sister)

While the settlement of Belfast is certainly defined by hills at its boundaries, within the city itself there is a relatively small difference in gradients, and certainly not enough to reason not investing in cycling infrastructure. Yes there are some exceptions such as the Antrim Road and Holywood Road, but even at this, these are not exactly Alpe d’Heuz and are frequented by bicycle users.

Particularly when we compare Belfast to cities like San Francisco, famed for it’s hills, we see that we still have a far lower modal share of cycling. When we consider that within that 20/30 minute boundary of the City Centre the ground is mostly flat, is our topography a credible reason not to invest?


A2 Bangor Bound - Tuesday 21st Feb 1740
(Credit: Aaron Coulter)

According to a report published by NI Assembly in August 2011, titled 'Transport Governance and the Management of Car Dependency in Belfast', Belfast is the third most congested city in the UK and ranks within the top ten most congested cities in Europe. 

This is hardly surprising given that our response to congestion has always been to build more roads, despite evidence supporting the contrary - that building more roads only encourages car use and increases congestion (more info here and here). We only need look to the Westlink to see this effect in action where, during rush hour, bottlenecks are still commonplace. Again, Roads Service aim to solve this problem through building more roads and investing in the development of the York Street Interchange. We need to reduce our levels of congestion, but is this somewhat backwards development going to be the answer, or yet another short/medium term solution for a long term problem - Belfast’s unsustainable dependency on the private car?

As discussed within Connecting Places BRT post, providing alternatives to the car, such as public transit, if given significant priority and monetary backing, could have an influential role in reducing congestion in our city, and so too could cycling. 

The short video below shows how small changes in levels of car use can have significant impact on flows of traffic. Not only is better cycling infrastructure in the city in the interests of those who want to cycle but it is also in the interests of motorists. If we created infrastructure to get people out of cars and cars off the roads not only will we have fewer emissions, healthier citizens and all those other associated benefits of active travel, but those who need to travel by car will benefit from quicker travel times.

The power of small scale change in transport
(Credit: GOOD)

However, alternative solutions to ‘building roads’ are unlikely unless we can move beyond the silo nature of our government departments. Roads Service main priority always has been to facilitate the movements of the car and it will continue to do what it does best, build roads. 

As such, we need to bring Transport Planning in Northern Ireland into the 21st Century and in line with other top cities through introduction of a more balanced perspective on planning, transport and urban design, or, as politicians here refer to it, more ‘joined up thinking’.

Using congestion as a reason not to invest in bicycle infrastructure is, at best, backwards. The ultimatum is clear - either the city maintains the status quo and continues to build more and more inter urban roads, exacerbating current car dependencies, or else we actively go about getting people out of cars, which, to my mind, is the only sustainable way to improve efficiency of movement in Belfast.

Investment and Governance

Money well spent?
(Credit: Aaron Coulter)
As will be discussed in tomorrow’s post, which will look at how cities around the world have increased levels of cycling, progressive governance, strong leadership and well structured investment play a critical role.

In 2010 Transport Minister Conor Murphy announced that the cycling budget would be cut by 98% from £450,000 to £8,000 while at the same time roads budget would increase 51% to £250 million (Belfast Telegraph).

As highlighted within Des McKibbin's report on The Management of Car Dependency in Belfast, and demonstrated by the aforementioned allocation of funds, we have been paying lip service to sustainable transport alternatives for too long with everyone engaging in the rhetoric, but not backing it with appropriate levels of investment.

In Copenhagen roughly €20 per person per year is spent on cycling infrastructure. In Belfast this figure is less than £1. Tomorrow and on Wednesday we will be investigating just how far this money goes, both in Copenhagen and in Belfast.

The politically sensitive nature of making changes to our roads in preference of any other form of transport other than the car will continue to hamper the long term success of moving towards more sustainable means of transportation. 


In reality, it isn’t congestion, topography or landuse that makes the introduction of a cycling network in Belfast ‘inappropriate’, it's the realisation that space usually dedicated to the car will have to be sacrificed and that money (although relatively small sums) will have to be spent on investing in good quality cycling infrastructure.

There is the potential for significant change to be made in Belfast in how we travel in and around the city and cycling could have a large role to play within this change, but only if appropriate investment is made in well designed infrastructure.

In tomorrow's post we will look at how other cities around the world have facilitated this change and what Belfast can learn from them.

Share your views...

What is the biggest deterrent to increased levels of cycling in Belfast? Is enough being done to tackle congestion on our roads or are we turning a blind eye to the problem? Could providing better cycling infrastructure give big benefits for drivers and cyclists alike?

Continue the conversation with Aaron on Twitter #bicyclingbelfast (top tweets will feature in a last of series blog post, remember to use hashtag #bicyclingbelfast)


cranbourn said...

I am a regular cyclist and feel that little regard is given to cyclists. Cars do not notice us, cycling lanes are parked in and usually littered with glass. There needs to be more involvement and understanding across the board and more parking for bikes. More cycle lanes goes without saying- just look at the amount of use the comber greenway gets.

Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron said...

Thanks for your comment.

Yes a lot is needed and to my mind cycle lanes are only one part of the solution. Will be discussing Belfast in full tomorrow and would be really interested to hear your views on what works and what doesn't when it comes to cycling infrastructure here.


mikecro said...

This series provides a superb analysis of cycling in Belfast. I try to regularly commute from carrick to east Belfast. Cycling between jordanstown and carrick is the silent victim of the stalled A2 upgrade with absolutely no provision for cycle lanes and very congested roads full of irate drivers. I actually had to stop cycling all the way home in the evening purely on the grounds of personal safety. I now stop at lough shore and get a lift or a train instead.
Anyway my main comment is that white lines at the roadside are the poor mans cycle lane. The path alongside the M2 or more tracks like the comber greenway is the type of investment that is really needed since motorists in the main refuse to share the road with anything other than more cars.

Craig said...

Very true: Belfast is compact & flat. The Antrim Rd is a very steady gradient, and the short climbs to the West of the city are rewarded with no effort to go the other direction :)

I ride a fixed gear for the ease of use, and once you're used to it, there's only really Craigantlet hill and the Upper Hightown that would cause problems (and they're entirely avoidable unless you're seeking an extreme workout).

Aaron said...

Thanks for your comment Mike.

Yes there is no doubt about it - when cycle lanes are only demarcated with a white line and more often than not used as car parking, it really has to be questioned why they were installed in the first instance.

The Comber Greenway is great, however, infrastructure like this and the Lagan can only be provided in so many places, similarly with segregated cycle lanes such as those seen in Copenhagen. This is mainly due to the small scale nature of many of the roads in Belfast. Some degree of innovative thinking is needed to make cycling safe in Belfast.

All of these things will be discussed in tomorrow's post looking specifically at the infrastructure here.

Look forward to reading more of your comments then.