By Dr Agustina Martire, senior lecturer in Architecture at Queen’s University
Road sharing has recently taken over social media platforms. Angry claims for more bus lanes, less bus lanes, more car lanes, better junctions, better roads, more cycle lanes, more shared space, more segregated space, all voices on a virtual road rage that have little influence on policy change. We might take a moment to reflect and look at the big picture.
Most people would support sustainable development, but it is difficult to change the status quo, especially in a city where car is king. What we need in Belfast is a long term strategy to make people comfortable with the idea that you can safely and quickly get to where you need to go without a private car; and an adequate infrastructure of housing and transport to support that.
The 20th century saw the complete transformation of urban streets from places of slow movement and chance encounter, of paced everyday life, to car filled, loud and polluted paths to reach a destination. The house as a machine for living, suburbanisation, the streets in the sky, and towers in the park transformed everyday street life beyond recognition. But the beginning of the new century has brought change to cities around the world, and Covid-19 has been a further catalyst of these changes. New cycle lanes, shared spaces, wider footpaths and parklets (on-street parking spaces turned into flexible outdoor space) have taken over traditionally car-filled cities such as Milan, Madrid, Paris or Barcelona, while smaller, more cycle friendly cities such as Malmö or Utrecht have continued their long tradition of healthier and slower ways of moving through the city. Belfast has not lived up to this global transformation, with walking and cycling infrastructure still an afterthought.
In May 2020 Minister for Infrastructure Nichola Mallon made a series of promises to deliver healthier, cleaner and greener communities. This included a walking and cycling champion within the department to restructure road spaces ‘changing forever the way we live’. So far, we have seen little change. Only two pop up cycle lanes have been delivered in Belfast: Dublin Road and Grosvenor Road, and neither of them are linked to a coherent network. Air pollution is back to levels pre-Covid and the amount of people walking and cycling to work has reduced even further to 25 percent of people in Belfast walking to work and less than two percent cycling.
Moreover, the promised investment in cycling for 2021-2022 is only 2.3 percent of the budget of the Department for Infrastructure. The walking and cycling champion has only one day a week to dedicate to the role, and there is no team available to make sure that the transformations will actually happen. On other terms, 21 new train carriages have been provided for the Translink train network, but none of them have cycling storage, while it is still not allowed to travel in trains with a bike before 9.30am, negating the best possible active travel transport combination of train and cycle. The York Street Interchange still stays as a possible project, when it should be scrapped, as they have done in Wales, along with any other unsustainable and unhealthy road extension project.
A new announcement of £11 million to be committed to active travel in NI, and £3 million to Belfast walking and cycling infrastructure is welcome, but the devil is in the detail. It is yet to be seen how that budget will be spent, and how much of it will really be allocated to walking and cycling. England has spent an annual average of £8.45 per person on cycling infrastructure outside London in the last five years, Scotland £21.05 per person and Wales £23.80 per person. If £14 million are to be spent in Northern Ireland over five years, that makes £7.39 per person per year.
Words and aspirations are fantastic but encouragement is just not good enough. Cycling and walking must be enabled through infrastructure that is well designed for safety and comfort. To quote the title of a recent meeting about housing: ‘the status quo is not an option’, and we need to crack on.
• Thanks to the fellow activists who provided much of the data and reflections in this article.
• Agustina is an urbanist and urban activist. She leads the StreetSpace project, a research and teaching project that investigates everyday streets, their histories and experiences and their potential to become truly inclusive and accessible places. She is an advocate for spatial justice and inclusive cities in her roles as acting chair of SaveCQ, steering board member of Sailortown Regeneration and advisor to Participation and the Practice of Rights.