May is Bike Month!

May is National Bike Month, a celebration of cycling not only as a means of transportation but also as a crucial tool for our health and wellbeing. When you think about places associated with effective cycle infrastructure, it’s the Netherlands or Denmark that spring to mind.

The pace of progress that Northern Ireland has made in regards to active travel has fallen short of expectations. The proposed Belfast Cycle Network would be brilliant for Belfast, but it was produced 10 years ago and there has been limited implementation. Belfast, and other towns and cities in Northern Ireland, have a long way to go if we want them to be places where people feel safe to walk, wheel or cycle. 

The NI Climate Change Act 2022 states that we must develop sectoral plans for transport which set a minimum spend on active travel from the overall transport budgets of 10%. This presents us with a massive opportunity to 

reconsider how we choose to travel – in a way that is healthier, more social, and more environmentally friendly. Cities and towns with connected and well-designed active travel infrastructure are often cleaner, experiencing less pollution and congestion. They’re safer, with reduced likelihood of accidents and collisions, and they create more liveable communities that are designed around the needs of people rather than cars. 

The Walking and Cycling Index produced by Sustrans is the biggest assessment of walking, wheeling and cycling in urban areas in the UK and Ireland. The 2023 report for Northern Ireland finds that participation in walking, wheeling and cycling on a regular basis has decreased from 54% in 2021 to 52% in 2023. The findings in the report also suggest people would like to drive less; 30% of residents want to drive less, yet 38% often use a car because no other transport options are available. The public appetite for active travel is there, the political will is not. 

Everyone benefits when more people walk, wheel and cycle. Sustrans found that walking, wheeling and cycling every day in Belfast takes up to 80,000 cars off the road, which would prevent 707 serious long-term health conditions on an annual basis and save 13,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. It would also create an annual sum of £201.5 million in economic benefit for individuals. Transport for Ireland’s 2024 report also found that active travel strongly facilitates economic development. The 2024 report found the annual economic benefit from walking, wheeling and cycling in the five metropolitan areas (Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick/Shannon and Waterford) each year is over €3 billion. 

With an increasing array of local projects to deliver, it is crucial that the Department of Infrastructure engages with Active Travel groups and charities on how their plans will work going forward. There are many NIRN members working to promote the health, environmental, social, and economic benefits of active travel. Engaging with our members will be beneficial, especially in relation to their trojan work in reuse, repair and bike maintenance which helps to make cycling a more attractive and affordable option. Among others, LifeCycles operate out of Derry rail station refurbishing and reselling bikes as a mode of sustainable, affordable transportation. The repair cafes in our Network also mend pieces from bikes and cycling gear, and local authorities engage communities and provide wrap-around support for our members operating in this space. 

Proper infrastructure and support for walkers and cyclists would see the country transformed. There is no clear public timeline for when the Department will get started on implementing some of their ambitions for active travel in Northern Ireland. We know that when change does happen, our members are well-placed to work with the government to seize this opportunity for people in Northern Ireland. 

For further information on reports referenced:

Sustrans – Belfast Walking and Cycling Index 2023

National Transport Authority – Walking and Cycling Index for Ireland 2023