NI Greenways Cycle Path Project Deserves Full Support

A visionary proposal to turn disused railway lines into bicycle trails deserves the full support of the government.

Kilylea Station

There is an entire genre of YouTube movies showcasing conflict between cyclists and motorists. One could spend a month watching the near-misses and altercations, many of them emanating from London, a city in which the percentage of journeys made by bike doubled between 2000 and 2012.

However this growth in cycling pales in comparison to the Netherlands where pedal power accounts for 26 percent of all journeys in most cities. Yet the Dutch have not developed a mountain of bike-versus-car road rage clips, preferring instead to develop a comprehensive network of dedicated infrastructure for safe cycling. Their bike paths are separated entirely from motor vehicle traffic. Bicycles have their own signals, their own intersections, and above all they have priority wherever they cross paths with cars. They are so safe that people of all ages from 8 to 80 use them as a daily means of transportation.

The Dutch do not wear lycra or helmets, nor do they ride carbon fiber racing bikes in order to keep pace with the traffic. They ride sturdy, upright bikes in plain clothes and cruise along at such a relaxed pace that there is no need for a shower at their destination. People in business suits come out of the office after a day’s work, hop on an ordinary bike, and casually ride home. Cycling is common, normal, and unremarkable. Train stations and city centers abound with massive parking facilities with racks containing thousands of bicycles.

Contrast this with other countries where a “bike lane” is a strip of paint at the side of a busy road and is constantly invaded by vehicles. Despite an organized movement by cyclists to politely ask drivers to move their vehicles out of San Francisco’s unprotected bike lanes, many such lanes remain essentially useless to people on bikes because they are blocked by cars and trucks.

Cities like Belfast and Dublin suffer from the same problem. The Department of Environment has gone to great lengths to paint bike lanes on Belfast’s streets, but again many of them remain under-utilized since they offer no protection to riders who are forced into traffic by motor vehicles invading the bike lanes. The Dutch have shown that the only way to keep motor vehicles out of bike lanes is with total physical separation.

The experience in cities like Belfast and Dublin is that where bike lanes are poorly designed, such as forcing riders to yield at all side roads in some places and throwing them into the path of turning vehicles in others, the few cyclists still brave enough to venture onto the road do not use said lanes. However when they are built to Dutch standards the number of cyclists using them increases dramatically. This is because the number one deterrent to cycling is safety. People in Ireland are reticent about riding bikes in large numbers because of a not-unjustified perception that it is too dangerous.

However there are people who are setting out to change this by building a Dutch style network of segregated paths designed by cyclists for cyclists. This is the NI Greenways project, an ambitious effort to turn disused railway lines into bike paths, spearheaded by Jonathan Hobbs, a cycling enthusiast.

In the 1960s, a time when the car was seen as the way of the future and the train seen as obsolete, the British government made a spectacularly short-sighted decision to close thousands of train stations and hundreds of branch lines. Ireland suffered terribly. Railways in the north were all but obliterated, leaving a gaping hole in the northwest of Ireland’s network, particularly in rural areas west of the Bann.

Today one can look at the Google satellite view and trace the remnants of old railways connecting such places as Armagh and Enniskillen. On the ground it becomes even clearer since many of the old rights-of-way remain, the platforms and abandoned stations crumbling as grass grows where the tracks once lay.

The NI Greenways project seeks to emulate the success of a campaign by Sustrans, a charity that uses volunteer labor to convert disused railways in Britain to beautiful and hugely popular cycle tracks. From small beginnings on a single 15-mile route connecting Bristol and Bath, a 14,000-mile national cycle network has spread across Britain thanks in part to lottery funding.

The NI Greenways project is still young, but has scored a few successes, such as the 9-mile Belfast to Comber greenway which opened in 2008, following the route of the old Belfast and County Down Railway. It has become immensely popular with locals. However it is still early days in a project that promises so much. Projects like the greenways deserve the full force of funding from the transportation budget, not table scraps from the lottery, a funding source that was designed for “nice-to-have” but non-essential good causes. A comprehensive bicycle network in and between towns, built to Dutch safety standards, would be heavily used and could transform the environment. Thousands of loud, dangerous, and polluting motorized journeys would be eliminated, freeing up roads for those who absolutely need to drive on them.

The public health benefits would be legion as people rediscover the joys of active transportation, deaths and injuries would be reduced, and children would regain the freedom to move around their neighborhoods independently. This should be a core government objective, not treated as a feel-good side project.

For more information about the NI Greenways project, visit www.nigreenways.com.