As work begins on a new protected cycle lane in the heart of Belfast (Middlepath Street), one mum from the east of the city, Kelly Hargie hails the multiple benefits of cycling and good infrastructure.
Since moving to Belfast eight years ago I’ve been cycling regularly to get around the city. During that time I’ve experienced the good, bad and ugly aspects of being a cyclist in this city. Last summer while cycling with my family on the Lagan Towpath we overheard a lady say ‘I really hate cyclists’ as we went by.
We were in single-file, me at the front, my husband at the back with the three kids in-between. We were on the left-hand side of the path, cycling at a slow, steady pace. We were communicating with the kids, encouraging them to slow down when necessary, to look out for dogs not on leads, to be considerate towards pedestrians and generally educating them to be courteous. When I looked around I could tell by the looks on my kids’ faces that they’d heard the words.
I stopped to explain to the lady that we weren’t "cyclists", just ordinary people who just happened to be on bicycles. Simply a family out for a bike-ride on a summer’s day on a shared path. We were astonished at such a bitter attitude. We weren’t speeding, heads down, ignoring other users of the path. It made me realise that there’s a long way to go in changing people’s opinions of people on bicycles and this is something that both people who cycle and non-bicycle-riders need to work on.
Another time, I was shouted at by a man while on the morning school run. He squared up to me, while my youngest was seated on the back of my bicycle. I lost my balance and almost fell onto the road. He was angry because I had rung my bell to alert him to our presence on the footpath and to give him time to move across slightly so that we could pass safely.
That was an ugly experience and I was shaken for a long while afterwards. I was annoyed at his anger and the way he spoke to me in front of my children. I was a mum trying to get her three kids to school on time and get some exercise at the same time. That’s difficult enough without encountering such aggression. It could easily have deterred me from cycling. Thankfully it didn’t.
Protected cycle lanes would make cycling easier and safer
Would a protected cycle lane have changed this situation? Possibly. The Belfast Bike Life report found the overwhelming majority of people in Belfast support protected cycle lanes. Life would be so much easier if Belfast had a cycle network that allowed people to travel safely. I’ve seen first-hand in the Netherlands how fantastic towns can be when each mode of transport has its own designated space. Cars on roads, pedestrians on footpaths, bicycles in bike-lanes. Yet, it doesn’t divide people, only the modes of transport.
If anything, I witnessed a sense of respect and a city flowing harmoniously. People who drive, also cycle. People who cycle, also walk. So there is an understanding of what it is like to be on a bicycle or on foot trying to get around. People are able to enjoy all modes of transport, because the city is built in such a way that allows them to.
Despite some improvements here, with the Connswater Community Greenway and some city centre cycle lanes, it’s still fairly difficult to move safely around the city on a bicycle, especially with children in tow! Maybe more people would cycle with their kids or commute by bicycle if there was adequate infrastructure which meant the journey would be safe and hassle-free.
Provision of cycle lanes, may also help increase the number of women cycling in Belfast. Currently, only 30% of the people that regularly cycle in Belfast are female, according to Bike Life. Why is that? I would guess that the main thing that stops people getting on their bicycles is the lack of safe cycling space.
I’ve talked with mums at the school and they have told me it would just be too much like hard work to try and get kids to school by bicycle because they would have to negotiate roads, go up and down kerbs and would generally just feel like they are getting in the way. I think this is really sad and my conversations tell me that more people would love to get out cycling with their kids if only it was a little easier!
Health, communities and business benefits from cycling
Imagine the health benefits too if more people were able to regularly cycle. It would alleviate so much pressure on the already stretched NHS as it deals with an obesity crisis and the consequences of inactive, unhealthy lifestyles. Long-term, it could save money if funds were invested now in a safer cycle network.
Communities would also benefit from having a decent cycle network. I’ve met lots of new people and have fallen in love with my local area through getting out and about on my bicycle. The social aspect of individuals and families out on bicycles is certainly an attraction and active families in turn means active communities which are overall healthier and happier.
In the past eight years I have come to love my daily cycles, even if it’s just nipping to the shop for some milk or doing the school run. I’m noticing recently more city-style bikes, like those you would see in Amsterdam or Copenhagen, with baskets on the front packed with groceries. That indicates that people want to cycle in this city, not just for sport or exercise, but in their daily routine. And why wouldn’t they?
Belfast has so much to see and do, so much to enjoy. The tourism industry and the local economy would reap financial reward if people were encouraged to experience the city by bicycle. The recent Ciclovia event in Belfast showed how people visiting the city on bike could support local traders, with coffee shops and cafes jam-packed during the event.
By choosing to experience my city by bicycle, I avoid queues of traffic which keeps down stress levels and there’s something about having handle bars in front of me rather than a steering wheel that enables me to tune into my surroundings, to appreciate my environment and to engage with the people I share this city with.