Business makes case for more cycling provision in Northern Ireland

Cycling UK engagement officer Andrew McClean took members of the All Party Group on Cycling panel to a cycling tour of Belfast
Northern Ireland’s All Party Group on Cycling met yesterday to discuss the economic and social cases for cycling. Engagement officer Andrew McClean, who undertakes the Secretariat for the group, reports from the meeting

In the face of almost 18 months without a Stormont Assembly, and scant evidence there will be one any time soon, Cycling UK is still holding public bodies to account and ensuring cycling remains on the agenda through the All-Party Group on Cycling.

Yesterday’s meeting brought together leading names from the across the business sector. Tech, education, the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and the Linen Quarter Business Improvement District all discussed what they are doing to encourage people to travel actively to work, and more importantly, what public bodies need to do to support this.

A range of topics from housing density, public transport, traffic enforcement and parking levies were covered from a business and economic viewpoint.

Shifting mindsets

We heard that attitudes towards active travel across the business sector have been rapidly changing. There is a realisation that the ways people get to and from work have to change – there’s also a realisation of the benefits to individuals, businesses and wider society of doing so.

However, as Chris McCracken from The Linen Quarter Business Improvement District noted: “There are some retailers who are misinformed about customers coming by car even in areas where most were arriving by bike, walking or public transport. We need more research and better communication of the data to change these mindsets.”

Caroline Bloomfield pointed out, much to the agreement of the panel, that: “There is often resistance to changes that encourage active travel, but the evidence shows that six months after implementation, the majority would not want it changed back.”

Others agreed that we need to try things out for 6 to 12 months and be prepared to rethink if it hasn’t worked. The more examples we have of active travel schemes working, the easier it is to win the hearts and minds of local communities and businesses across the country.

In the absence of a functioning government in Northern Ireland, it’s heartening to hear so many business leaders talking passionately about what they’re doing to remove barriers to cycling

Sarah McMonagle, Cycling UK’s director of external affairs

What businesses are doing to encourage cycling

Version 1 is a great example of what businesses are doing on site: installing safe covered cycle parking, improving shower facilities and installing lockers and drying racks. Facilities manger Paulette Pinkerton said that the company is “trying to get people to think of cycling as a means of transport”.

Queen’s University Belfast has a bike hub on site, with bike mechanics, bike rental and reasonably priced secondhand cycles for sale. The Linen Quarter is supporting all its businesses to become accredited Cycle Friendly Employers, while Sustrans is supporting employers from across NI, delivering a Workplace Active Travel Programme which has led to a proven modal shift from car journeys to active travel.

The consensus was that businesses in general are doing what they can. However, as Simon Hamilton from the Belfast Chamber of Commerce pointed out: “None of that is a substitute for getting the infrastructure right.” This point was repeated often throughout the discussion.

Carrot and stick

Members of the audience were quick to argue that both businesses and public bodies seem comfortable supporting people to walk, cycle and use public transport, but are not as bold when it comes to making it harder to drive and park when going to work.

However, John McCann from Queen’s University pointed out “you have to pay for our car park, but there’s nothing we can do about the free on -street parking across the road – we need a joined-up approach to tackling this”.

Chris McCracken added “car park taxes could be an instrument to reduce car journeys, but the public sector needs to set an example as it has the biggest car parks”.

Sarah McMonagle, Cycling UK’s director of external affairs, attended the event and commented: “In the absence of a functioning government in Northern Ireland, it’s heartening to hear so many business leaders talking passionately about what they’re doing to remove barriers to cycling.

“We need the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) to meet them in the middle and start delivering on a connected, safe cycle network in Belfast and beyond. The DfI’s recent decision in response to calls from Cycling UK to introduce bolt-down barriers to make cycle lanes in Belfast inaccessible to cars is a good step in the right direction.”