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Cycle to work? Who, me?

cycle to work edited
Emma Cowan on December 30, 2013 - 8:12 am in In Depth

Emma Cowan explores why cycling to work simply hasn’t caught on in Belfast, despite the creation of cycle lanes throughout the city.

I frequently spend time in Oxford, where the pedestrian (that’s me) has to be super vigilant at all times for cyclists zooming by, easily getting around the city faster than the cars and buses caught in the one way system. Oxford is cyclist central. More recently, I’ve started spending some time in Bristol and even there, yes, in hilly old Bristol, cyclists abound and astound with their speed and bravery in the face of traffic congestion.

Not so in Belfast, but how bad are we at taking to our bikes compared to other places?. Well, latest figures indicate that, despite one in four adults in NI having access to a bicycle, a mere 0.8% cycle to work compared with 3.3% in the UK. True enough, if you look at Belfast in isolation, the figure rises to 2.1% – not that much less than London, where only 2.5% of commuters cycle to work.

Looking at the bigger picture, however, the facts speak for themselves, we’re just not a cycling nation right now. In Amsterdam, 57% of the residents use a bike on a daily basis, accounting for 38% of traffic in the city. In Copenhagen, 52% of people cycle to work, school or university each day. Even Britain has cycling success stories. In Cambridge, 30% of people commute by bicycle while in Hackney, east London, around 15% of people cycle to work.

Making it happen

It’s not as if there haven’t been concerted efforts to encourage more of us to cycle to work. Cycle lanes have been opened up in line with the Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan, which proposes  building upon the existing network in the BMA and linking in to the NI National Cycle Network to deliver continuous cycle routes between key locations in the wider city area. Indeed, the 2015 plan proposes an overall expenditure of £16.3 million to facilitate cycling to work.

In addition, there is the Government’s Cycle to Work Scheme,  which allows people in Northern Ireland to purchase bicycles tax-free, potentially saving up to 50% on the cost of a bike. To avail of this offer people must purchase the bike through their employer and there are two-way benefits, tax savings for the employee and corresponding NIC savings for the employer plus claiming capital allowances on the expenditure.

So why is Belfast lagging behind? If I take myself as a guinea pig, I know my reasons for not wanting to cycle to work. Would I be safe on the city’s busy roads? How would I deal with the fact that I’d arrive in work red-faced, sweaty and thoroughly inappropriately dressed for a day in the office or at meetings – would my employer provide a shower room and changing facilities? After cycling to work, would I arrive energised for the day or downright exhausted? Such are the ways my mind works and it may be that I’m not in the minority.

Cycling safely

Certainly,  much fewer women than men cycle to work and I’d hazard a guess that wardrobe and fresh make-up are on the agenda for more than me. Indeed, according to a recent report in The Economist, cycling to work is more common amongst young men and affluent young men at that. Cambridge is a wealthy university town full of students; Hackney is the choice London borough for hip young web designers and graphic artists. So it is unsurprising that both have lots of cyclists, points out The Economist.

It appears that there are identifiable factors that encourage or discourage commuting by bicycle. Primary amongst these is safety – 66% of women in Britain believe that our roads are not safe to cycle on. The development of better cycle routes (greenways) that actually separate cyclists from motorists is key to improving perceptions of safety. This is definitely working in Oxford, where as many cycle lanes as possible share footpath space rather than road space. In contrast, many cycle lanes I’ve noticed in Belfast run along the road, with only a white line separating two wheels from four.

There is also safety in numbers, which creates a chicken and egg situation. If more people did cycle to work, safety would increase with numbers. As The Economist points out, in the Netherlands and Denmark, not only is the infrastructure good, the sheer number of cyclists means that there is relative safety and in accidents the law favours cyclists in almost all circumstances, which probably keeps motorists vigilant.

In addition to cycle lanes, parking is, of course, paramount and, while there have been improvements in this regard, Belfast still has a way to go in providing secure parking for the cycling commuter.

What’s the alternative?

Another key factor in encouraging cycling is making it faster, easier, better than alternatives. Cycling increases in areas where traffic congestion is a real issue, slowing motorists down on their journeys, and where public transport is not as fast or as widely available or is relatively expensive. From what I have observed, certainly the traffic congestion issue in Bristol may be a factor encouraging more people to get on their bikes.  While that doesn’t seem to have happened here, it has to be acknowledged  that Metro and Ulsterbus between them provide good connections into and around the city and travelling by bus is relatively comfortable and inexpensive. Even so, more people choose to use their cars to travel to work.

Thirdly, and significantly, it would appear that topography and land use have a part to play and, in this regard, the Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan recognises that cycling will not necessarily be the best form of transport for all of the area and a targeted approach to improving infrastructure is more appropriate than an attempt at a blanket solution.

In Northern Ireland as a whole, 74.2% of commuters travel by car against 6.1% who use public transport and 0.8% who cycle. There is a step change required in both infrastructure and attitudes to effect any significant change.


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