Northern Ireland draft Bicycle Strategy: fine words, but targets and funding still needed

View of Stormont, Northern Ireland
The Strategy aims to make cycling "accessible, attractive, safe and desirable"
The aims of the draft Northern Ireland Bicycle Strategy are generally admirable. However it will need to be followed by a Delivery Plan which sets challenging but achievable targets, and provides serious funding, if the Strategy's "fine words" are to be turned into reality.

The draft Strategy has been issued by the Northern Ireland Department for Regional Development (DRD), whose remit includes transport.  It has been drawn up by the DRD's newly created Cycling Unit, who clearly have their hearts in the right place.

The document is symptomatic of a growing political impetus "to establish a cycling culture in Northern Ireland" (to quote the Strategy's introduction). The late Tom McClelland, formerly CTC's lead volunteer representative in Northern Ireland, played a huge part in generating that momentum.  It was at his instigation that the NI Assembly held an inquiry earlier this year, to which CTC gave evidence.

The draft Strategy itself is simply a statement of intent - and the intentions are generally good.  The detail will follow in a Bicycle Strategy Delivery Plan, to be drawn up once the Strategy has been adopted.

There are three proposed strands (or 'pillars') to the strategy: Build, Support and Promote. The balance makes sense. Simply 'promoting' cycling (i.e. encouraging people to cycle using our current hostile roads and junctions) is not in itself going to deliver a mass cycling culture.

The Plan will need to be genuinely ambitious about the rate of growth in cycle use - with the funding to match - if it is to meet its stated aim to achieve a cycling culture in Northern Ireland.

Roger Geffen, Campaigns & Policy Director

However Dutch and Danish cycling experts are equally clear that other supporting measures - such as wider action on road safety, and the positive promotion of cycling for specific 'target groups' - are important too.  Indeed there is growing evidence that  promotional activity (e.g. in schools or workplaces) is most effective when targeted in areas where infrastructure improvements are also being made.  The link needs to be made explicit in the Strategy.

The Strategy also needs to be more positive about 20mph schemes, and the opportunities to secure cycling improvements when carrying out planned road maintenance. Resurfacing work is obviously valuable in its own right for improving cycling conditions - and is vastly preferable to patching up potholes!  But it should also be seen as a cost-effective opportunity to carry out cycle-friendly redesigns of the road layout.

One other key weakness is the inclusion of a table of different types of cyclists: fast commuters, experienced utility cyclists, inexperienced utility cyclists, children and users of specialised equipment. So far so good, but the Strategy needs to say that cycle provision in any given location should aim to meet all of their needs.  For instance, is not acceptable to provide only for the fast commuters on the direct main roads, leaving everyone else to make more tortuous journeys using poorly connected back-streets.

Still, the real test of the DRD's commitment to cycling will be the Delivery Plan, and particularly what targets and funding it contains.

In terms of funding, CTC believes DRD should match the ambitions of the UK Parliamentary 'Get Britain Cycling' report.  It called for an initial cycling budget of at least £10 per person annually, rising to £20 as cycle use increases.

As for ambition, we think it regrettable that the draft Strategy explicitly rejects the idea of "an arbitrary Northern Ireland wide target for the percentage of people cycling by a nominal date".  Instead it proposes "Specific city wide or local area targets through our 'masterplanning approach".

Local targets would certainly be useful, particularly if DRD intends to get the ball rolling with targeted pilots in specific areas, as it builds up its own organisational capacity and skills to deliver cycle-friendly improvements to a high standard.  However this should not be an excuse for failing to set a challenging national ambition.  Cycle use in Northern Ireland stands at 0.7% of journeys, which is pitifully low even by UK standards, not to mention those of our continental neighbours. The Plan will need to be genuinely ambitious about the rate of growth in cycle use - with the funding to match - if "a cycling culture is to be achieved in Northern Ireland".

CTC's full response to the consultation on the draft can be downloaded below.