Jake O'Kane: Build safe infrastructure for cycling and I guarantee it will be used

Riding a bike in Belfast in the 1980s was as dangerous as walking down the Shankill with a Tricolour draped around your neck. Sadly, little has changed

A Dutch bike park – an extensive and safe cycle network makes bikes the principal mode of transport for many people in The Netherlands
Jake O'Kane

YOU can be forgiven for having missed Bike Week, which took place from June 6-14. This annual event attempts to promote the benefits of cycling for both our personal health and that of the environment. To mark the week, Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon announced details of pop-up cycle lanes in Belfast in her aim to deliver a sustainable infrastructure.

With the general public remaining cautious of using public transport due to Covid-19, many have been turning to cycling in numbers not seen for 30 years. Across Europe, demand has been so great it has led to a shortage of new bicycles for sale.

As in other cities such as Leicester, Bristol, Manchester and Newcastle, traffic cones have overnight turned Belfast traffic lanes into cordoned-off pop-up cycle lanes to help facilitate nurses and other key workers cycling to work.

As Ms Mallon rightly points out, "The Covid crisis has created an opportunity for us all to take a closer look at how we travel and consider how we can do things better moving forward". But this isn’t the first such declaration from a Northern Ireland infrastructure minister.

Chris Hazzard’s Draft Bicycle Network Consultation in 2017 announced itself as, “a key step towards creating a coherent network… of well-connected, comfortable and convenient high quality cycle routes [which] will make cycling a more attractive option for shorter journeys up to around five kilometres”. A laudable ambition, sadly never achieved. Instead of the high-quality cycle routes promised, magical cycle lanes were created which disappeared as cyclists travelled along them.

Another problem is the lack of accountability for drivers who wilfully drive on or block the lanes. While any transgression of bus lanes results in an immediate penalty, clearly marked bike lanes are casually disregarded by motorists with no fear of similar punishment.

The Netherlands' cycle network has segregated lanes, its own traffic lights and cyclists have priority at roundabouts

In short, ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes are not the answer to our transportation problems. If we are ever to move from four wheels to two in Northern Ireland, then a serious programme of building permanent bike lanes is essential. And once such lanes are built, any impediment of them by other road users must be properly policed.

How cyclists are viewed by other road users also must change. For too long, cyclists have been seen as a nuisance, a hindrance, slowing motorists who view themselves as having the sole right to travel our roads.

To cycle in Belfast is to take your life in your hands, and I speak from personal experience. For most of my 20s, cycling was my sole mode of transportation due to my being in low-paid employment and unable to cover the costs of running a car.

Even though I always tried to make myself as visible as possible with lights and reflective clothing, I invariably felt invisible while cycling. Cars pulled out in front of me from side roads and HGV drivers almost forced me off the road by passing perilously close. Riding a bike in Belfast in the 1980s was as dangerous as walking down the Shankill with a Tricolour draped around your neck.

Sadly, little has changed and proof of this is demonstrated by the number of white painted ‘ghost bikes’ across Northern Ireland which act as memorials to cyclists who’ve lost their lives.

Yet it need not be like this. For five years, my family holidayed in the Netherlands, hiring bikes on which we carried our then very young children. During our stay, not a day passed when we didn’t cycle, taking both long and short trips, and not once did I feel vulnerable or in danger. The reason for this is simple – in the Netherlands, bikes take precedence; the roads are built for cyclists not motorists, and it works; there are no ‘ghost bikes’ at the sides of Dutch roads.

The convergence of Covid-19 and global warming may finally be enough to nudge us towards a similar solution. The days of the combustion engine are numbered and one glaring alternative has been with us for over 100 years, the humble bicycle. When you consider the vast majority of journeys in cities are of less than three miles, the wasteful impracticality of car travel is glaringly obvious.

So I wish Ms Mallon well, but I would urge her to take the next necessary step and transform her ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes into permanent ones. Build a safe cycle infrastructure and I guarantee it will be used. It has long been promised but never delivered, and now, in the middle of a pandemic, is needed as never before.

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