Throughout February, we’re getting people from all over Northern Ireland to contribute personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.

There are still a few spots left to fill so get in touch!

Robert Stewart

I work in the centre of Belfast and have cycled to work daily for about 4 years. My direct route would take me along one of the arterial routes into the city centre but I choose to take a more circuitous route, doubling the distance travelled to approximately 5 miles in each direction. The extra distance justifies dressing up in lycra and, when the weather demands it, waterproof clothing and elicits a slightly smug sense of well being from having had some physical exertion in the course of each working day. I enjoy my daily cycle to work and choose cycling as my regular form of exercise.

To be clear, I may have a beard, like Volvos and read Scandinavian fiction but I am not a hipster cycling obsessive. I am an ordinary person who cycles a bit. In work, however, I am “The Cyclist”: the only one of 50 or 60 staff who cycles to work every day. I am an oddity because I arrive into work in my cycling friendly attire and then get changed. I am a bit nuts because I cycle in the rain / wind / cold / dark / winter / traffic.

In many ways, Belfast should be an ideal city for the cycling commuter. It’s fairly flat, it’s relatively small and the weather really is temperate, in spite of what you may think. The network of cycle lanes is growing and there are even some traffic free cycle routes. Commuting by bicycle should be an attractive option for many people but a recent Department of Infrastructure survey stated that in 2015/16 only 2% of participants regularly cycled to work. Given the cost of public transport and the city’s well documented congestion problems it is surprising that so few commuters choose to cycle.

Despite this, cycling as a recreational sport has really taken off in the last few years. The number of cycling clubs has grown and there are noticeably more groups of cyclists in brightly coloured cycling gear on our roads, especially at weekends. This is not necessarily a universally popular development, particularly with rural road users, but it is indicative of the popularity of the sport. “Sportives” are now quite common throughout Northern Ireland, offering the challenge of an organised event, sometimes over closed roads. The Gran Fondo attracts thousands of participants from home and abroad and is one of the top events of its type in the UK. This is all very positive but may not inspire someone to commute to work on a bike. Indeed, using a bike as everyday transport is a very different proposition, not least because you don’t have to use a feather weight road bike, dress as if you are about to tackle the next stage in the Tour de France (unless you want to of course), or sit upon a saddle resembling a kitchen implement.

For the average person to consider using a bike as an alternative to public transport or a private car, cycling has to move from being a viewed predominantly as a sporting activity to a being a realistic mode of travel for most people. For this to happen, it must be perceived as a safe, convenient and hassle free alternative to using public transport or a private car. In my experience the majority view is that you “take your life in your hands” if you cycle in or around the city and this is a major disincentive for those who are either new to cycling or lacking in confidence. While this is not entirely true, there is little doubt that cycling on the roads in Belfast is not for the faint hearted. Cycle lanes often peter out in the middle of junctions, are non-existent, or are part of footpaths or bus lanes. To make matters worse, taxis have just been granted access to the bus lanes. Other road users are often hostile, usually for no apparent reason. And then there is the weather: it will rain at some point on approximately 40% of days in Belfast which, for some, is a deal breaker. If people are to consider using a bike as everyday transport in the city, there must be investment in a cohesive cycling infrastructure providing safe, dedicated cycle lanes.

The efforts of Sustrans, Bikefast and the Department for Infrastructure Cycling Unit should be applauded but, as ever, it is for those in government to decide where and how public funds should be invested. At the time of the last Westminster election, I sent an email to each of the candidates in my constituency asking for details of their party’s cycling policy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only the Green Party replied. For most of our political representatives, locally, in the assembly or in Westminster, cycling infrastructure does not even creep on to the bottom of their list of priorities.

Most people are aware of the positive effects of regular exercise but a healthier population reduces demand on the health service both now and in the longer term. Cycling, while not for everyone, has major benefits both for public health and the environment. Reducing the amount of vehicle traffic in the city not only reduces congestion and pollution, it leads to a more pleasant environment for all. This is common sense, but is supported by robust evidence gathered in cities who have already invested in cycling. As we face another election, I will again be asking my local candidates for their party’s cycling policies. I’m not optimistic that anything has changed.

Robert Stewart grew up in Bangor but now lives in Belfast.

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Photo Credit: Brendan Harkin