Rosalind Skillen: Our roads are warzones for cyclists - we need radical cultural change

National Bike Month must be more than a shiny 31-day campaign

The handlebar view of a male bike courier in New York City going past cars on both sides in a traffic jam during rush hour.
Northern Ireland has a long way to go to build up its cycling infrastrucure (GibsonPictures/Getty Images)

May is National Bike Month, a celebration of cycling and its many benefits. The theme of Bike Week is ‘Cycling is for Everyone’ and in the spirit of inclusivity, there are events encouraging people to get out on two wheels.

However, cycling is clearly not for everyone. In this country, it is for the brave hearted. It’s not about whether you are seasoned in the saddle: the streets are downright dangerous.

On roads that are effectively warzones, the sheer size of cars is already intimidating to a cyclist, and many car users underestimate how vulnerable it makes them feel when they come too close or tailgate, anxious to overtake.

The incredibly sad death of 22-year-old cyclist Greta Price-Martin in a collision in Dún Laoghaire last month shone yet another light on the dire state of road safety across Ireland. The question is how many more cyclists will die before we see a proper roll-out of active travel infrastructure.

The benefits of active travel are well-versed. Walking or wheeling could transform how people move across urban spaces by improving health outcomes and contributing to achieving net zero targets.

Properly investing in active travel infrastructure is an opportunity to build more accessible communities designed around the needs of people rather than cars. It is also an opportunity to reimagine our spaces as cleaner and safer, with less air pollution from toxic car fumes.

A male bicycle courier rides against traffic in the bike lane in New York City during rush hour.
Many people want to cycle our streets, but feel unable to do so safely (GibsonPictures/Getty Images)

In Northern Ireland, many people want to cycle our streets but are unable to do so safely. Poorly designated infrastructure, like narrow or non-existent bike lanes, forces cyclists to share the road with cars very closely, increasing the likelihood of accidents. Meanwhile, the Department for Infrastructure has talked the talk about a Bicycle Strategy Delivery Plan, but we’ve seen very little delivery.

The plan has the ambition for 20% of all journeys less than 1 mile to be cycled by 2025. This is nothing more than that – ambition, and the Belfast Delivery Plan which targets the primary network in Belfast, to be built by 2025, still hasn’t started.

There have been some incremental, snail-paced changes, like work to the Forth Meadow Greenway in west Belfast and getting lighting on a section of the Comber Greenway, but nothing to crow about. There have been almost no changes to our cycle infrastructure for decades now, and without a concrete timeline for building, it looks like the network will remain poor and disconnected well into next decade too.

There are no positive signals that the Infrastructure Minister, John O’Dowd, sees active travel as a priority, having taken some of the extra £8.1 million for road repairs from the budget for active travel grants.

According to the minister, this pot of funding, offered to councils to develop walking and cycling infrastructure, was re-allocated as there wasn’t as much uptake for the scheme as anticipated. Could this funding not have been re-purposed in a way that still reflects the needs of active travel, like a school cycle scheme or a bike repair programme?

In the absence of proper active travel infrastructure that will take some time to build, another short-term intervention from Stormont would be to adopt changes made to the Highway Code making the roads safer for people cycling and walking in England, Scotland, and Wales.

These updates included guidance for people driving on giving more than 1.5m space when overtaking cyclists and the establishment of a hierarchy of road users, with the most vulnerable road users, like cyclists or walkers, at the top.

In this country, cycling is for the brave hearted. It’s not about whether you are seasoned in the saddle: the roads are downright dangerous

The Northern Irish branch of the charity, Cycling UK, has been pushing the department to adopt the UK updates to the Highway Code since 2022. Stormont has now committed to run a local consultation, but again, with no clear time frame.

National Bike Month must be more than a shiny 31-day campaign. At the core of the campaign sits a recognition that we need to make the roads safer for people cycling and walking.

It is the government’s responsibility not only to support people to travel by bicycle, but crucially, to keep us safe. If not, I fear we will see little change in the rate of cyclist casualties in the next 10 years.