Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Connecting Places Mini Series: Bicycling Belfast: Part 2: An International Perspective

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 previous posts from this series click here 

Part 2: An International Perspective

Broadly speaking, cycling cities can be split into two categories - ‘traditional’ cycling cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam and then those who have recently taken up the challenge to improve cycling conditions such as New York, London and Dublin (among many others). In this article we will be asking ‘What can Belfast learn from these cities?’

(Credit: Blue Granola)

Copenhagen: ‘Bicycle Culture 2.0’

Contrary to popular belief, Copenhagen was not always a cycling city. Like modern day Belfast, Copenhagen suffered significantly from car congestion in the post war period and it was only in the 1960’s that the decision was taken that something had to be done. In the 50 years since, the City Authority has invested significantly in bringing the city back to a ‘human scale’ through not only developing world class cycling infrastructure but also by opening up the city to its citizens with new public spaces carved out from the once car dominated landscape.

The first of these areas was Strøget, the main shopping street in Copenhagen. Since pedestrianisation of the street it is estimated that it is used by three times as many people with the number of pedestrians rising 35% in the first year alone.

Størget 1960 - Car Dominated
(Credit: Project for Public Spaces)
Størget 2005 - People Dominated
(Credit: Project for Public Spaces)
This way of thinking - and more importantly, acting - has played a significant part in Copenhagen continually being ranked amongst the most livable cities in the world. 

While in Belfast we seek to provide more and more car infrastructure in an effort to reduce congestion, Copenhagen has been systematically reducing it through incremental changes such as removing 2% of city centre car parking each year. Changes such as these are unnoticeable in short term but in the long term can make significant difference to the urban landscape.

Around 38% of Copenhageners travel to work by bicycle and the city has an aim to increase this to 50% by 2015. This success is due, in part, to two factors; a well structured network of cycle infrastructure and an emergence of a mainstream cultural shift, centred upon the bicycle.

'Normal People on Normal Bikes. A bike-geek free zone'
(Credit: Flickr Mikael Colville-Anderson)
Cycle lanes in Copenhagen are, for the most part, segregated from cars and pedestrians via two methods. The first can be described as a soft boundary, with the use of painted cycle lanes, particularly around junctions, acting as a visual cue to drivers to be aware of cyclists. The second method remodels the traditional configuration of the street and sees curbs and parked cars acting as the barrier to protect cyclists from moving car traffic, rather than bicycles protecting cars.

Physical Separation from cars and pedestrians
(Credit: Living Lightly)
Parked Cars protecting cycle lane
(Credit: The Age)

However, cycle infrastructure in Copenhagen is not simply about cycle lanes. As demonstrated in the short video below new techniques have been adopted that give as much priority as possible to the bike. For instance, investment has been made in cycle specific traffic lights, not only giving cyclists a head start at the lights, but also ensuring momentum is maintained through the  ‘green wave’ which allows cyclists to travel from the suburbs into the city without needing to stop at junctions. Currently around €20 per person per year is spent on cycling infrastructure in Copenhagen, with this figure rising for bigger projects, compared to less than £1 in Belfast.

'Copenhagen Bike Paths - An Example to all Cities'

As the efficiency of cycling has been realised and as modal share continues to increase in Copenhagen, so too does cycling safety. Architect and Urban Designer, Jan Gehl, equates the volume of cycling traffic as one of the most significant safety factors for making bicycle systems safe due to a self reinforcing pattern whereby the more bicycles that are on the road the more car drivers will be looking out for them ('Cities for People', p187). Importantly, in many areas outside of the main thoroughfares, where car traffic is too insignificant to justify cycle specific infrastructure, 20mph limits are enforced, making streets safer for both pedestrians and cyclists alike.   

Christmas Tree Shopping in Copenhagen
(Credit: Copenhagenize)

For the population of Copenhagen the bicycle is not an environmental choice, nor is it a matter of health (although these are both positive externalities), quite simply it is the easiest, most efficient choice for door to door transport (even when buying a christmas tree!). When cities are designed so that the sustainable option is the easiest then making that choice becomes a mainstream action. This is why cycling has been so successful in Copenhagen.

  • Copenhagen was not always a cycling city
  • Long term Government support and investment critical to success
  • Infrastructure acts as a catalyst for positive cultural change 
  • Bike as an everyday tool, not solely for enthusiasts 
  • Designing to a Human scale increases 'livability'
  • Made sustainable choice the easiest to take

New York City

Recently, NYC has begun to fast track the Copenhagen model in recognition of the benefits that increased transport diversity has had for the Danish Capital. As with Copenhagen, NYC are not only improving cycle infrastructure but are also opening up spaces previously dedicated to the car and giving them back to pedestrians through initiatives such as 'Sustainable Streets' and the 'Public Plaza' program.

In 2008, NYC’s Department of Transport (DOT) Strategic Plan laid out the goal of doubling bicycle commuting between 2007 and 2015 and tripling it by 2020. The City reached the goal of doubling bicycle commuting in 2011, a year early. 

Much of this was due to the completion of the Departments ambitious goal of creating 200 bike lane miles in three years, as part of the wider complete streets initiative. In it’s first year, under the tagline ‘if you build them, bikes will come’, 90 miles of new bicycle lanes, contributed to an unprecedented 35% single-year increase in bicycle commuting between 2008-09.

NYC DOT explains Bike Lanes in the Big Apple
(Credit: Streetfilms)

To support implementation, NYC's DOT have developed a Street Design Manual, acting as a framework for delivering appropriate cycling routes and choosing what infrastructure is needed according to various factors including scale of road and levels of traffic, making it easier for projects to  incorporate good design. 

Learning from Copenhagen - Protected Bike Lanes
(Credit: WWBPA)
One key characteristic of this initiative has been the willingness of the NYC DOT to engage in low cost experimentation, testing out alternatives and tweaking designs before fully committing to long term infrastructural investment. Not only has this been the case for cycling infrastructure but also with the aforementioned invitation to its citizens to repopulate public spaces in the city.

In large part the success of this ‘fast track’ model has been made possible through the strong leadership shown by individuals such as Janette Sadik-Khan, without whom the success of the initiative would be questionable. These leaders have been unafraid of tackling political sensitive issues, as shown through the Prospect Park West case where some residents disagreed with the introduction of a segregated bike lane due to the removal of a lane previously dedicated to the car.

  • Set ambitious but realistic targets
  • These targets are only useful if investment follows
  • Strong Leadership again critical
  • Experiment before costly investment
  • Invite people back to the city


Dublin is a highly relevant case study when viewed in the context of Belfast. Out of the three short international comparisons within this article it shares most similarities with Belfast, such as climate and culture - two of the most significant reasons for poor investment in Belfast. Dublin, however, has seen a 74% increase in the numbers of cyclists coming into the city between 2004-2011 and was voted within the top ten most cycle friendly cities of 2011 by Copenhagenize Consulting.

Yet again infrastructure has played a huge role in this shift towards the bike. The much anticipated completion of the Canals Route, connecting canals to the North and South of the city, will provide bicycle users in the city with dedicated cycle lanes throughout the route and also sees the testing of new bicycle specific lights at junctions.

Experimentation and innovation in the Irish Capital
(Source: Youtube)

The Dublin Bike Share (DBS) scheme has also had a significant impact with regards increasing levels of cycling. After it's inception in September 2009, DBS reached its 3 millionth mark, ahead of schedule, in December 2011There are currently 44 stations and 550 bikes within the network with over 37,500 long term subscribers to date and it is one of the most successful bike share rental schemes in the world. With such success it is unsurprising that there are plans to expand the scheme by tenfold over the next several years.

Dublin Bike Share
(Credit: SPUR)
The scheme costs €10 for a one year subscription and gives the user a free 30mins of use with each rental, after which a nominal charge is made. This pricing structure encourages the public to use the bikes for shorter journeys, free of charge, in an effort to tackle the problem of short distance car use.

Dublin Bike Share Map
(Credit: DBS)

Once again, strong leadership and government backing has been required. A highly progressive Lord Mayor in the form of Andrew Montague has had a major impact on how cycling is viewed in Dublin and the city is the only Irish Local Authority to employ a cycling officer, who's job was saved by public demand at the end of last year following threat from the Council to no longer fund the position.

However, it is not only leadership from Government level that has proven successful here, groups such as the Dublin Cycling Campaign, an independent voluntary lobby group, have played a significant role in the betterment of Dublin's cycling infrastructure since the 1990's.

More trips everyday on bikes than Luas
(Credit: Dublin Observer)
One final point regarding Dublin comes in light of recent discussions on the introduction of a Bus Rapid Transit scheme to Belfast. A recent Tweet from Dublin's Lord Mayor, Cllr Andrew Montague, testifies to just how successful cycling has become in the Irish capital,
'There's more trips every day on bikes in Dublin than on the Luas. We've invested over a billion into the Luas, a few million on bikes' 
— Cllr Andrew Montague (@MayorMontague) February 5, 2012
Perhaps closer attention should be paid to our Irish neighbour and how they have invested their money.

  • Bike share highly successful
  • Cycle infrastructure cheap when compared to costly Luas/BRT.
  • Well organised and active local leadership at ground level
  • Irish Climate is not a significant deterrent to increasing levels of cycling


6 things Belfast can learn...
  • Leadership - All three studies have shown that leadership, both at government level as well as local level, is a major contributing factor to the success of cycling initiatives.
  • Money - It costs money to provide safe and well designed infrastructure, however this money is insignificant when compared to road building and schemes like BRT and Luas
  • Experimentation - Open mindedness towards experimentation before major investment from government and roads service could save money and increase design quality and output
  • Targets - we need to set ambitious, but realisable, targets for cycling. However, these are only useful if we try hard to meet them
  • The easiest choice - making it as easy as possible for people to get on their bikes, cycle to work, the shops or entertainment venues takes the work out of promoting 'sustainability'
  • Marketing - No one wants to be lectured by an eco warrior. Making cycling the easiest choice through safe infrastructure allows cycling to be marketed in a way that sees a move away from hi vis jackets and lycra towards an understanding that cycling 'chic' has a far greater appeal.
The benefits of increasing levels of cycling are well known and documented throughout various government publications in Northern Ireland. What sets these three cities apart is that they have been acting on this information and have invested in improving cycling infrastructure, in a well thought out and coherent manner. However, Belfast is not a lost cause, far from it, and in tomorrow's post we will look at our City's infrastructure and see just how we compare.

Share your views...

Do you have experience of cycling in other cities? How does it compare to Belfast? What other factors play a role in increasing cycling levels? Comment and let us know!

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


Will said...

Further to this, the trains in Copenhagen are spacious and wide with entire carriages fitted with bike ramps - so cyclists are encouraged to take their bikes onto the trains and buses

Craig said...

Love the idea of the 'green wave'!
Realising that the cost vs effectiveness is far greater than other transport initiatives should make it a no-brainer for those deciding the spend.

NICI_Chair said...

Hi Aaron.

This is a fantastic piece of work.
Very well done, and I'll be encouraging other NICI members to have a look, and people I know from Sustrans, CTC and Belfast Friends of the Earth who are all active in cycle campaigning and lobbying in NI, particularly Belfast.

You do however paint perhaps a too gloomy picture of Belfast, particularly compared to Dublin. Its difficult to know what the modal share in Belfast is, but its probably rather more than 0.6%. The NI Travel Survey suggests that for NI, on average people make 6 cycling trips per year, out of 905 trips in total, making the NI average 0.7%. Belfast is almost cerrtainly higher than that - the Travel Survey indicates that the level of cycle commuting is 3% in Belfast (up from 1% a few years ago) compared to 1% in rest of NI.
Automated cycle counts on roads in Belfast suggest that cycling has more than doubled in Belfast in the last 10 years. A doubling of cycling levels in 10 years isn't that bad.
There are 2 problems to this of course:
1. Its from a very low level.
2. Cycling has gone down slighly outside of Belfast, leaving the overall NI figure flat.

Whatever the modal share currently is, Belfast is certainly not a cycling city, i.e. one where virtually anyone, men or women, children or the elderly, can get about safely by bike. This is a stricter test than you suggest of course, which would be passed by Copenhagen, and virtually anywhere in the Netherlands, but definitely not by London, New York or Dublin.
Other cities in Europe, with a similar size to Belfast and which I've visited myself, that would also probably pass would be Bremen, Strasbourg, Ghent and Malmo. In the US, where I haven't been, Portland stands out for its strong cycling growth in a society which like NI is massively pro-car.

Keep up the good work,

Roy White,
Northern Ireland Cycling Initiative

Aaron said...

Hi Will, thanks for the comment.

Yes there is a high level of integration between different transport modes in Copenhagen, especially when compared to Belfast.

The real benefit of this is that it provides a real alternative to the private car, the main attraction of which is door to door transport. Combining public transit and the bicycle can provide the same 'door to door' access, only far more sustainably.

Also, as an aside from this - something that I forgot to mention in the post - if you look at the pictures and videos of the people cycling in Copenhagen you notice the wide ranging demographic compared to those who cycle in Belfast. In Copenhagen everyone cycles - young, old, fat, thin, men, women, children. Here it is mostly middle aged men (generalising).

Providing safe cycle routes improves access for all and gives people choice in how they move about the city.


Aaron said...

Hi Roy,

Apologies I only noticed your comment yesterday, we were writing at the same time it seems!

Yes I was aware that Belfast did have higher figures than NI, but trying to find these figures proved to be something of a task, despite various correspondence with Travel Survey NI!

Interesting to note the doubling over the last ten years, but as you point out, the figures were fairly low to begin with. Although if we saw a doubling of cyclists with fairly minimal improvements to our roads it may give some indication of the potential increase with higher levels of investment.

I'm aware my choice of case studies is not perhaps orthodox, Copenhagen aside. I should maybe have outlined my reasoning for choosing them. Firstly I've cycled the streets in all so felt comfortable writing about them.

Copenhagen is the natural choice and is often discussed in various policy documents here. However, at a policy level it is easy to dismiss this study due to the perception that Copenhagen has always had a strong cycling culture and that it would never work in Belfast. However, as I've pointed out this culture has only really emerged over the last 40-50 years, when Government decided to start investing properly.

NYC and Dublin, whilst certainly not 'cycling cities' as you describe are at least making the effort to raise standards of safety for cyclists, learning from Copenhagen but with the realisation that they don't have 50 years to wait.

Hope that clears up my choices a bit!

Thanks for reading and passing the series on,