Talking cycling to Northern Ireland’s politicians, planners and the public
Huge respect to Tom McClelland, Cycling UK’s lead regional volunteer campaigner, for arranging such a full schedule at very short notice.
Tom and I were joined throughout the day by Mai-Britt Kristensen from the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, and by Mike McKillen from Cyclist.ie, the federation of cycle campaign groups in the Irish Republic.
Having travelled to Belfast by the night ferry, I met Mai-Britt at her hotel over breakfast. We had little time to chat though, before Tom arrived to whisk us up to Stormont, picking up Mike on the way. Stormont is a fabulously impressive building, as many Cycling UK members will remember from when Cycling UK held its annual dinner there 4 years ago.
Our first meeting was with Alex Attwood MLA, Minister for Environment, whose responsibilities somewhat curiously include road safety education, but not engineering or enforcement. He is looking to boost cycle training in Northern Ireland, and is currently reviewing arrangements for training and testing drivers. He was keen to hear our thoughts on how cycle awareness training, and perhaps even actual cycle training, could be incorporated into the process. He listened really attentively to what Mai-Britt had to say about the benefits of getting children started on bikes at a very young age – Danish children are introduced to cycling games on pedal-free balance-bikes to develop their cycling control and balance skills, before they reach the age of 2!
We then headed back downstairs for a session with the Assembly’s Regional Development Committee. They are the back-bench scrutiny committee overseeing the work of the Department for Regional Development (DRD), whose remit includes transport. However, we first sat through a session in which the Committee gave Regional Development minister Danny Kennedy MLA a serious grilling over his proposals to increase the fines for illegal parking. It was depressing that most of the Committee seemed primarily concerned not to upset their constituents, even when they are breaking the law. Nobody pointed out the hazards which illegal parking poses to cyclists.
I have to say that the majority of the Committee members were rather less excited when it came to talking about cycling. However, some of them did ask some intelligent and supportive questions, and put out some positive tweets afterwards.
Because of the discussion on illegal parking, we were now running late for our next engagement. However, the bike ride to get there was one to savour. Firstly, we had the swooping descent of the hill down from Stormont, on our bone-shaking Bromptons! We then followed part of the Comber Greenway, a Sustrans-converted disused railway which provides a really high-quality direct link into the city centre. Peeling off it (using what is apparently the only wheeling ramp in Northern Ireland), we rejoined the busy road network, providing Mai-Britt with something of an eye-opener. She got to see not only the woeful lack of cycle provision on Belfast’s wide main roads, but also some dreadful driving, showing complete disregard for our safety as cyclists.
We arrived at Lisnasharragh Primary School half an hour after Minister Danny Kennedy, who was getting a much more positive reception from the school pupils, after his earlier grilling by the Assembly! His speech ended pretty much as we arrived, and Mai-Britt had no time to pause for breath before being asked to talk to the pupils about cycling in Denmark. She said that there were lots more cyclists on the roads in Denmark, and that they have much better cycle tracks! Still, Sustrans’s local BikeIt project co-ordinator Beth Harding is clearly doing a fantastic job with the Lisnasharragh pupils – over 50% of them had cycled in that day, and over 20% do so regularly – that’s over 10 times the national average for primary schools. Mai-Britt congratulated them, urged them to carry on cycling, and to encourage their parents to do likewise.
The only disappointment was that Danny Kennedy had to leave almost as soon as we arrived, so we barely had time for more than a polite handshake. Never mind: our next stop was to give a presentation to about 20 officials from his department (and a few from the Department of the Environment), arranged as part of the programme to mark Bike Week in Northern Ireland. You can see the presentations given by Mai-Britt, Mike and myself. They seemed to be very well received.
We then had a bit of time for a quick catch-up with Sustrans’s Northern Ireland Manager Steven Patterson. Tom, Steven and I collaborated successfully - together with Barry Flood (Cycling UK Councillor for Northern Ireland) - to avert the threat of a helmet law in Northern Ireland 18 months ago. The challenge we now face is hopefully a more positive one, namely to build support for a back-bench Bill to promote 20mph speed limits, being brought forward later this year by Conal McDevitt MLA.
Our final engagement was a public meeting, chaired by Conal. Over 30 people turned up, a mix of Cycling UK members, Friends of the Earth members and other cyclists. After Mai-Britt, Mike and I had presented our perspectives as visitors, we then heard plenty from our lively audience about the challenges facing cyclists in Northern Ireland!
A persistent theme throughout the day was the need for joined-up Government (no surprise there then!). Whether it’s encouraging people to cycle, or promoting safer traffic conditions and driver behaviour - or whether it’s respecting lower speed limits or preventing illegal parking in cycle lanes - there is a constant need for synergy between the '3 E’s': engineering, encouragement and enforcement. In Northern Ireland, these sit in 3 different departments. We clearly need to speak to people from the Justice Department next time!
Mike, like Tom, is a volunteer who puts in amazing amounts of energy into promoting cycling in the Irish Republic. He and fellow members of the Dublin Cycling Campaign are organising a conference tomorrow evening (22 June) on growing participation in cycling and closing the gender gap. If you’re in the area, do pop along.