What is the Department for Infrastructure doing for cycling in Northern Ireland?

The DfI is responsible for all of Northern Irelands' road network
Andrew McClean, engagement officer for Northern Ireland, outlines Cycling UK's attempts to obtain answers from the Department for Infrastructure on a catalogue of unanswered questions on behalf of our members and people who cycle across Northern Ireland

The focus of Cycling UK's correspondence has been on five key areas crucial to developing and improving cycling for everyone across Northern Ireland. The charity has rated these the same ‘Red Amber Green’ rating as it did with the Scottish government’s delivery of their plans. As you will see, there is still a sea of red, and we are floundering behind our neighbours.



10% Spend on Active Travel 

The Northern Ireland Climate Change Act was voted through in early 2022, receiving Queens Assent on 6 June 2022. 

Part of the Act stated “The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) must develop sectoral plans for transport which set a minimum spend on active travel from the overall transport budgets of 10%."

The interim Minister for DfI, John O’Dowd confirmed this as a commitment in law, but we are yet to see a shred of evidence that DfI is developing the plans, or, more importantly, whether they are engaging with Active Travel groups and charities on how these plans will best work.

The DfI have confirmed, however, that they are bound by the same timetable as DAERA (Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs), to have these plans in place by December 2023, so we will continue to push for progress updates.



GB Highway Code Changes

If a darker shade of red were available, this would get it. The GB Highway Code changes adopted in 2022 were ground-breaking in their recognition of a ‘Hierarchy of Users’, protecting the most vulnerable and the new laws surrounding junctions. 

Minister O’Dowd had the power to adopt these changes to NI (as has historically been the norm), but was briefed against doing so by civil servants who want to wait for further GB Highway Code changes so they can all be adopted at once. Now without a Minister in place these changes cannot be finalised, although there is nothing stopping DfI beginning the scoping work and consultation on this, but they are yet to do so.



Belfast Bicycle Network (BBN)

We would love to have made this Amber, but the complete failure to deliver on what would have been North Belfast’s first and only segregated cycle path has been a clear indication of the intent and timescale DfI intend to move forward with.  Following two consultations the Limestone/Cavehill Road cycle lane had diggers on the ground in early 2022 only to have them pulled away due to a community campaign (we must stress - unlike the media did, this was only a small part of the community). 

The project then went through a further consultation in March 2022 where an official noted ‘Nothing we have heard here today should stop us moving forward with the lane’. The consultation was presented to the Minister over the summer and the quite incredible decision was made to go back for a further, fourth consultation, quite what new information they expect to find out is beyond us. The consultation was promised for ‘Autumn 2022’ but as of yet it hasn’t materialised nor is it threatening to.

The fact that this is in Phase one of the Belfast Bicycle Network Delivery Plan, on a very achievable urban road shows that DfI can't seem to stand strong in the face of any criticism. This was the closest we got to a Phase one scheme being rolled out, and we are no further than we were two years ago.



Active Travel Act 

During the election, we asked candidates to sign up to 3 pledges, one of which was to introduce an Active Travel Bill to the Assembly in order to enshrine targets for increasing the share of journeys by walking, wheeling and cycling, into law. Over 50% of the elected MLAs signed the pledge, including Minister O’Dowd. 

When we offered our help and expertise in beginning the consultation on the Bill however, we were told that “the Minister’s commitment is to consider taking forward legislation to support active travel, not to an Active Travel Act per se”. Well we have the receipts Minister, and the pledge is crystal clear.



Careless driving and Fixed Penalty Notice Rules

This consultation closed in January 2022, a year on we have no new rules on the books, however there has been some progress. The rules did receive Ministerial approval and “officials are now working with PSNI to ensure that they are operationally ready for implementation”, expected to be in place by “Spring 2023”.



Pavement parking consultation

This consultation closed in March 2022, since then there has been zero progress, DfI report the “responses are still being analysed” and they hope to “make it public later this calendar year”. The lack of anything is shameful for a consultation with just over 1000 responses, and a change that will save lives and make a major difference to people walking, wheeling and cycling. Yet again we see the Department failing to give any priority to the safety of people not inside a motor vehicle.



Comber Greenway Lights

There has been progress here, though greatly delayed and terribly communicated. The original date given for the completion of the Greenway lighting was August 2022. Now we are being told that they could be switched on by March 2023, seven months later and right when the evenings start to get brighter all on their own.


Looking back through nearly a year of correspondence with so little to show really gives a clear impression of what we are up against. An absent Assembly, an indifferent department in disarray, and a lack of accountability on the delivery of basic projects and legislation.

These letters are a shameful measure of progress and show a department that seems dead set against encouraging people to choose to walk, wheel and cycle. They show that we need a system change, not an internal restructuring of DfI, but a change in who moves forward with local projects and who controls local streets, if DfI aren't prepared to use the power and resource they have for progress they should allow others to do so.

The Correspondence (most recent is first)

Below you will find a summary of the key points from each letter, you can also see the full letter by clicking on the numbered heading and date. The correspondence is presented below beginning with the most recent and working backwards historically. All future correspondence will be summarised and added to the top as and when it is received.

Key terms used in correspondence:

PSNI – the Police Service of Northern Ireland

Active Travel – any form of travel using physical effort to move e.g. Walking, wheeling and cycling

APG on Cycling – the All Party Group on Cycling, consisting of MLAs, Sustrans, Cycling Ulster, Cycling UK and individual stakeholders. The group discusses progress and proposals for cycling in Northern Ireland, communicating this with the Department for Infrastructure and other relevant bodies.

  1. DfI response to Cycling UK – 06/02/23

  • 10% Active Travel Spend - “The DfI is leading on transport sector input to the development of the Climate Action Plan in keeping with the timetable that has been set by DAERA.”
  • “Unfortunately, an exact date for switch on for the Comber Greenway is not available at this time, however if all works proceed as expected the Greenway lighting should be operational by end of February or early March 2023”
  • Pavement Parking Consultation – “We do not at present have a timescale for the completion of this work but hope to be in a position to make it public later this calendar year.”
  • Belfast Bicycle Network – “The Department is currently considering taking on a greater role in the delivery of greenways going forward. This is not expected to have any impact on the Belfast Cycling Network Delivery Plan. However, funding of this and other programmes will of course be subject to future budget settlements.”
  1. Cycling UK letter to DfI – 17/01/23

  • 10% spend on Active Travel – “We note that former DAERA Minister Edwin Poots has stated that the department must “lay the first Climate Action Plan before the Assembly by the end of 2023”. Can we expect the Department for Infrastructure to follow a similar timetable and have a completed Action Plan this year to present to the Assembly?”
  • Comber Greenway lighting - “The lighting is to this date still not turned on, meaning that people cycling and walking on the greenway have been doing so in pitch black and icy conditions for most of the dark winter nights. The original completion date was given as August 2022, and until the lights are switched on the work is not complete. Can you please give us the date the lights will be turned on? Can you also please explain the decision to delay the installation at the busiest part of the greenway (i.e. the section closest to Belfast (Beersbridge to North Road).”
  • Belfast Bicycle Network – “While we appreciate the Department is considering taking on a greater role in the delivery of greenways, we are concerned there will therefore be less resource and priority given to on street, separated cycle lanes, more appropriate to urban settings”
  1. DfI response to Cycling UK – 19/12/22

  • 10% Active Travel spend - “The Department is progressing work to quantify the transport budget and the allocation to walking and cycling in accordance with the legislation. As such we are not currently in a position to share figures.”

Project delays:

  • Limestone/Cavehill Road cycle lane – “We have commissioned the design of a permanent cycle lane rather than a pop up. This is taking longer than expected to complete.”
  • Comber Greenway Lighting – “The civil work for the lighting of the Comber Greenway is complete except for the length between Beersbridge Road and North Road, for which we are awaiting the delivery of columns. Eight NIE mini pillar power supplies have still to be provided and we are informed these have been programmed to take place Jan/Feb and early March 2023”
  • Fixed Penalty Notice and Careless Driving – “Departmental officials are now working with PSNI to ensure that they are operationally ready for implementation. The new arrangements are expected to be in place by Spring 2023”
  • Belfast Bicycle Network – “The Department is currently considering taking on a greater role in the delivery of greenways going forward and as a result, a new model for the delivery of active travel schemes across the province is currently being developed.”
  1. Cycling UK letter to DfI – 30/11/22

  • 10% Active Travel Spend – “Given the Act received Queens Assent on the 6 th of June, and the department was aware of the 10% amendment in January, we would have expected a more concrete answer on the timescale for implementation, and what the 10% represents currently as an annual figure.”
  • Repeated request for figures of total transport spending in the last financial year and an estimate for total spending this year.

Delays over multiple projects:

  • Limestone/Cavehill Road Cycle Lane – “Can you please explain why it is taking so long to run a third consultation on an already delayed project, and provide a definitive target date for commencing that consultation rather than referencing a season or time of year?”
  • Comber Greenway lighting – “Another delayed project is the lighting of the Comber Greenway which was originally due to be completed by the end of August”
  • Making the pop-up cycle lanes permanent (and therefore enabling parking restrictions to be enforced).
  • The outcome of the pavement parking consultation.
  • The outcome of the Fixed Penalty Notice consultation - “Can you please provide some timescales for progression and action, because currently the active travel agenda does not appear to figure prominently in departmental priorities?”
  • Belfast Bicycle Network - “Given the size of this project and its potential we would have expected the department to create a ‘Delivery Team’ much like the Glider project. The BBN consultation began in 2017, over five years ago, and we have seen little to no progress since then with no delivery team, almost zero separated cycle paths built, and no legislation to make it safer for people cycling in urban and residential areas of Belfast.” - Pointing out to the department that their own spending plans leave the project 10% short of completion.
  1. DfI (Julie Harrison) response to APG on Cycling (Andrew Muir) – 13/11/22

  • Belfast Bicycle Network – “Once design work is completed, the Department will commence informal consultation with all interested parties before taking the design to formal consultation. In the interim, work will be undertaken to restore the road markings / islands that were removed as part of the pop up cycle lane construction. It is anticipated that formal consultation will take place early 2023.

As part of decisions made on 2022/23 capital allocations, £2m has been allocated for the Belfast Cycle Network. From a spend of around £1 million in 2021/22 it is proposed, subject to budget availability and budget decisions, an annual increase of the order of £2 million each year until the final year of the programme when capital spend could be around £19 million. (Over £90million in total.)”

  • “It is hoped that the lights on the Comber Greenway will be switched on in the coming weeks”
  • 10% Active Travel spend – “The Department is currently working with DAERA and its advisors to establish how this obligation will work in practice as part of the wider approach to the implementation of the Climate Change Act.”
  • “I am unable to give a timescale for the update of the Highway Code at this point.”
  • “‘Shared responsibility’ is a core principle of the Safe System approach to road safety which the draft Road Safety Strategy for NI to 2030 embraces.”

“My understanding is the ‘hierarchy of responsibility’ was introduced as part of the GB Highway Code changes and I am not aware of what other nations have adopted this approach.”

  1. Letter from Chair of All Party Group on Cycling (MLA Andrew Muir) to DfI Permanent Secretary (Julie Harrison) – 01/11/22

  • Expressing disappointment that neither the Minister or officials were able to attend the APG and only have short notice.
  • “What progress is being made on the 10-year Belfast Cycling Network Plan?”
  • Comber Greenway lights – “what are the timescales for erection of lights and completion of the scheme?”
  • “Climate Change Act 10% of Transport Budget must be spent on walking and cycling. What progress has been made on allocating this?”
  • Request for an update on Highway Code Changes and request for the rationale behind waiting for other further changes to the GB Highway Code before adopting it here.
  • Request for why ‘Shared Responsibility’ is being used in the new Road Safety Strategy as opposed to ‘Hierarchy or responsibility’ used by other nations.
  1. DfI response to Cycling UK – 24/08/22

  • Highway Code changes – No specific response
  • Active Travel Act – “the Minister’s commitment is to consider taking forward legislation to support active travel, not to an Active Travel Act per se”
  • Limestone/Cavehill Cycle Lane – “following initial objections to the construction of Phase 1 of the pop-up Cycle Lane on the Limestone Road, the Minister has asked officials to review the scheme and initiate a new consultation process with residents, local stakeholders and local cycling campaign groups. This will also include the proposal for Cavehill Road between Antrim Road and Westland Road. Officials advise that they hope to be in a position to commence this new consultation this autumn”
  1. Cycling UK letter to DfI – 11/08/22

  • Highway Code changes – pointing out again, that if DfI are waiting for changes to rules on e-scooters and vehicle automation that they will be delaying changes to the code for years, leaving vulnerable road users unprotected in an outdated system of road safety.
  • Active Travel Act – pointing out again that the majority of elected MLAs and parties across the spectrum pledged to introduce an Active Travel Act, including every member of the Ministers’ own party. Outlining the major benefit of an Active Travel Act is that it is relevant across all Assembly departments and would give them a “a clear direction and mandate to consider and improve provision for active travel”
  • Limestone/Cavehill Cycle Lane – Pointing out that the department informed us they would be making a decision by the end of July 2022 and we are still awaiting any update on this.
  1. DfI response to Cycling UK – 08/08/2022

  • Highway Code changes - The Minister will “Agree his Department’s priorities in due course”
  • Active Travel Act – “The Minister is keen to use the existing powers that his Department has to deliver better ‘fit for purpose’ walking and cycling infrastructure.”
  • Climate Change Act – “a first Climate Action Plan setting out how this will be achieved is due by the end of 2023”
  1. Cycling UK letter to DfI – 21/07/22

  • Pointing out the urgency for a decision on the GB Highway Code changes as the interim period for Ministers is coming to an end and this decision sits entirely with Minister O’Dowd.
  • Reminding the Minister that he pledged to introduce an Active Travel Act and that the process needs to be started now as it will inevitably take several years.
  1. DfI response to Cycling UK – 19/07/22

  • The Minister “has to consider the best way to use available resources to meet the needs of all road users”. No answer on progress or timescales.
  • “The Minister has not ruled an Active Travel Bill in or out at this stage”.
  • Limestone/Cavehill Cycle Lane – “The Minister is currently considering this data”
  1. Cycling UK to DfI – 22/06/22

  • Urging DfI to consult and adopt the 2022 GB Highway Code changes as soon as possible as they will make a real difference to vulnerable road users (DfI had informed us in our meeting they wanted to wait for further changes in future years before adopting the recent changes).
  • Pointing out the political will and pledges (including from the Minister himself) to introduce an Active Travel Act in Northern Ireland and pressing the department to begin consulting while offering our support in any consultation process.
  • Requesting a timescale on the progress of the Limestone/Cavehill Road cycle lane consultation, pointing out it is a key part of ‘phase 1’ in the Belfast Bicycle Network Delivery Plan and will be seen as an indicator of the pace for further phases.

Initial meeting with Minister O’Dowd and Department Officials – 09/06/22

  • Cycling UK met Minister O’Dowd during ‘Bike Week 2022’ to discuss Highway Code changes and the election pledges signed up to by over half of elected MLAs, including the Minister, specifically the pledge to introduce an Active Travel Act.
  • The Minister confirmed he has checked if he was able to sign off on the Highway Code changes in his interim role, and that he was.