The Stormont Assembly Infrastructure Committee, a new beginning for active travel……again

Getting ready for a group ride around Belfast City centre
Cycling UK’s Northern Ireland Advocacy Lead, Andrew McClean watched the June Infrastructure Committee, which focused almost exclusively on active travel. He summarises the highlights, lowlights and our thoughts towards the various announcements and changes from the Department for Infrastructure

The Assembly Infrastructure Committee took place during Bike Week 2024, with over two hours dedicated to Active Travel. Evidence was given by; Colin Hutchinson - Director of DfI (Department for Infrastructure) Major Projects and Active Travel, Peter McParland – Head of Active Travel at DfI, and the walking and cycling charity, Sustrans.

Overall thoughts

It was good to see the committee place a real focus on active travel; this makes sense given the sheer number of recent questions from MLAs across the Assembly to Minister O’Dowd regarding Active Travel, there is a genuine political will to start seeing changes in how we travel. We would like to see the committee revisit this focus again in 2024 with evidence from some non-government funded active travel organisations alongside DfI and Sustrans.

Evidence from the Department for Infrastructure

A new beginning…again

The DfI started their statement by outlining the restructure within the department and the major increase of personnel, resource and delivery powers to the active travel unit, stating ‘we really are at the start of a journey here’. 

Our thoughts

Given there has been 20 years of ‘active travel/cycling plans’ with next to no delivery it wouldn’t be overly cynical to assume the next 20 years will see more of the same.  To quote a longstanding active travel campaigner, ‘if you need a report written, go to DfI, but don’t expect delivery’.  There are, however, reasons to be more optimistic for the next few years with several schemes (admittedly concentrated in Belfast) due not just for proposal, but delivery by the end of the financial year.  We will be keeping a close eye on them and reporting their progress.

The 10% Spend on active travel from the NI Climate Act

The big answer we have all been waiting for is ‘what does 10% of the transport budget actually amount to?’ and was a big focus of questions to DfI from committee members. Colin Hutchinson (Director of Major Projects and Procurement) told us that there is a document about to go to the Minister outlining their interpretations of the (admittedly vague) wording contained in the NI Climate Act.  Regardless of the number however, we can be sure that the eventual amount will be multiples of the current spend.

Our thoughts

Here we would feel cautiously optimistic, there is no real need at this point to get into the nitty gritty of what the 10% actually represents.  Regardless of the number it will take a decade for the department to achieve a spending increase of this level. What we need to see are the end of year accounts showing a major step-up year on year and a look at what it has been spent on (there may be some loose definitions of ‘active travel’ within the figures). The fact that the Department and Minister have continually referred to the 10% figure shows they are, rhetorically at least, taking it seriously.

Concerns over strained budgets

There was concern both from DfI and committee members on where this money will come from and what other schemes and delivery will need to be cut.

Our thoughts

This is a valid concern given the budget constraints across Departments; however, NI is already so far behind other countries in terms of our allocation of the transport budget that there really should be only one direction of travel.  Active travel needs to be seen as a multipronged solution to traffic calming, climate mitigation, public health and transport independence - in this context any increase is a drop in the ocean when compared with the cost of failing to enable walking wheeling and cycling.

How do the Department decide which active travel schemes go ahead?

In the past, active travel schemes would compete directly for funding with traffic calming and road safety schemes, meaning they more often than not missed out due to perceived lack of benefits. There is now ringfenced funding for active travel, so schemes (footpaths/bike lanes etc.) will be up against only other active travel schemes when it comes to allocating funds.

Our thoughts

This is good news, but we would like to see it go even further with active travel being seen as a traffic calming solution in itself, the best way to reduce congestion is to get as many people to switch from private vehicles as possible. Building wider roads and better junctions will always be a sticking plaster on what are fairly terrifying traffic increase projections across the UK.  We know the solutions; we need to enable people to use them.


If you live in the Belfast area or commute in it seems you are likely to see some relatively significant improvements over the next 3-5 years for cycling at least. More generally the Department is still at the very early stages of delivery across NI we are yet to see the NI Active Travel Plan, but this will set out the departments targets for delivery, which, for active travel at least, they (at least so far) generally tend to miss.

Other points to note: 

  • There has been a change in the procurement procedure which should make delivery more streamlined.
  • Committed funding for the Lagan gasworks bridge.
  • There will be a focus on safer schools, both with behaviour change and infrastructure, with 3 pilot schemes for school streets in the works.
  • They would like to see the Sustrans led Active Schools Travel Programme expanded (this is despite threatening to cut the programme in 2023 and then only part funding it in response to a Cycling UK/Sustrans campaign)
  • Capital spending has seen an increase, but resource spending will at best stay at the same level.
  • There are encouraging signs from the lighting of the comber greenway with initial evaluations showing increased use over the darker months.
  • The gritting of greenways isn’t going to happen over winter – only 20% of roads are gritted and if DfI were to grit active travel infrastructure they would priotitise town centres with heavy footfall.
  • The definition of active travel is that it involves physical activity – public transport is not included “at this point in time”.