Published: 20th APRIL 2020

Sustrans in Northern Ireland's response to the Energy Strategy call for evidence

We welcome the opportunity to provide evidence to the Department for the Economy’s Energy Strategy. As a charity that works to make it easier to walk and cycle we are responding to the chapter on Energy and Transport which is our area of knowledge.

Question 31: What role should active travel have in the decarbonisation of the transport sector and what should the government do to support this?

Transport is the largest sector emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and private vehicle use, especially car use, make up the bulk of transport emissions.

If the UK is to meet its own legal obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and more importantly help ensure global temperatures do not rise above 1.5 degrees we need to rapidly decarbonise transport.

Whilst a rapid transition to electric vehicles is vital if we are to be successful, modelling also suggests we need to reduce private vehicle use by approximately 60% by 2032.

This will require a radical and rapid change in UK transport policy to get people out of their cars.

Walking, cycling and public transport must be made more attractive to people than driving.

This is likely to include significant investment in sustainable transport modes and large reductions in road funding.

Fiscal levers to make public transport cheaper and driving more expensive, alongside traffic restraint measures in cities and towns to reduce car use are also likely to be important.

All of these measures need to be undertaken fairly ensuring people’s lives and transport choices improve, especially where transport alternatives to the car are currently absent.

A transition to electric vehicles is vital but not enough

Government policy supports a long-term transition to electric vehicles.

The UK Government has recently committed to stopping sales of conventional petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles by 2040 with a new ambition currently being consulted on for 2035.

The Government’s Road to Zero strategy sets actions and a roadmap to get there including a target of 50% of the vehicle fleet to be electric by 2030.

Independent modelling, by Transport for Quality of Life, suggests if 50% of vehicles are electric by 2030 (the Government’s current target), car mileage would have to decrease by 60% overall to meet the UK Government’s fifth carbon budget.

Even if 100% of vehicles were electric by 2030 we would still need to reduce mileage by 20% in order for emissions to not exceed our carbon budget.

This means it is highly likely that the UK Government will have to rapidly reduce car use whilst simultaneously supporting a rapid transition to electric vehicles if we are to avert the worst impacts of the Climate Crisis and keep global warming lower than 1.5 degrees.

Electric vehicles are also significantly more expensive than conventional cars.

This may compound existing inequalities in society and could lead to greater transport poverty.

Significant issues also exist in embedded emissions of new car production and the ethical sourcing, sustainability and disposal of finite minerals used in batteries.

The need to reduce motor vehicle use

We can no longer ignore transport if we are to meet the UK’s fifth carbon budget by 2032.

In fact, because transport policy has failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to date, we now need a radical transformation in transport planning and investment priorities.

Transport policy should seek to reduce private motor vehicle use (individual and commercial) in the UK by approximately 60%, following the best evidence available, to ensure our transport system plays its role in helping to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

This should aim to reduce private motor vehicle use across the UK by making walking, cycling and public transport cheaper, faster, safer, and more convenient than driving.

The UK Government’s new Decarbonising Transport Plan announced this week supports this aim and presents a vision where:

“Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.”

2.0 What role should active travel have in decarbonising transport?

Active travel has a very important role to decarbonise the transport sector.

Transport now accounts for 23% of Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, of which the main sources are petrol and diesel cars.

Overall NI’s emissions between 1990 and 2017 fell by 18% but transport emissions rose by 30%. That is unsustainable. There is an urgency for all of us and the government to effect this change.

Walking and cycling are emissions-free means of getting around.

If we can flip the statistics so that the majority of all journeys are by foot or cycle then we can make a serious dent in GHG (greenhouse gas).

The current reality is that 70% of all journeys in Northern Ireland are by the private car, just 1% by cycling and this statistic has flat-lined for the past decade.

Despite efforts to promote cycling we are only seeing small increases and in areas where safer infrastructure exists e.g. east Belfast.

The Government must do a lot more to encourage cycling both through behaviour change programmes and building safe infrastructure as in other countries.

Our towns and cities have been built around cars for decades, prioritising this mode of transport over all others.

We only have to observe some of our market towns to see how little space is provided for footpaths and cycling infrastructure, and how overrun public spaces are with traffic and car parking.

Some key facts

  • The annual Travel Survey for NI, produced by DfI, reveals that in Belfast almost half of the journeys we make are less than two miles – that is a 10 to 15-minute cycle or 20-minute walk.
  • Most people in Northern Ireland walk less than half a mile a day.
  • 50% of children live within a mile of their primary school – a very walkable distance – yet the majority are driven to school.
  • There are just 2 miles of protected cycle lanes in Belfast.
  • Less than £2 per head is spent in Northern Ireland on active travel, both walking and cycling – the lowest in the UK.

3.0 Evidence for supporting cycling – Bike Life report

Belfast Bike Life 2019 report, produced by Sustrans in partnership with the Department for Infrastructure, is the biggest survey of cycling in the UK.

We commissioned an independent survey of 1,449 residents aged 16+ in Belfast.

Key statistics:

  • Everyday people cycling in Belfast takes up to 7,500 cars off the road
  • Cycling in Belfast saves 3,800 tonnes of GGE (Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) annually – equivalent to the carbon footprint of 8,200 people flying from Belfast to Tenerife.
  • There is significant appetite in Belfast for cycling. 12% of residents cycle at least once a week and 31% don’t cycle but would like to.

Imagine the difference to our carbon footprint and air quality if we got that 31%, who don’t cycle but say they would like to, on their bikes?

There is huge potential for more cycling in Belfast and car use to be reduced.

The barriers to cycling must be tackled if we are to increase the number of people swopping their cars for bikes. Time and again, the key reason why people don’t cycle or cycle less often is safety.

  • 48% of Belfast residents don’t cycle because they are concerned about safety.
  • Just 36% of residents think Belfast is a good place to cycle.

Solutions are twofold. We build safer infrastructure for cycling e.g. traffic-free greenways and protected cycle lanes.

We can also implement more traffic restraint measures such as:

  • increase cost of car parking
  • taking away on-street car parking, replacing with cycle parking – consider the symbolism of this. Why should cycle parking be on footpaths when it is illegal to cycle on them?
  • reduce through-access to end rat runs, e.g. using planters or bollards to limit access to people walking or cycling.
  • Implement 20mph default speed limit in towns and cities (with main arterial routes remaining at 30mph). Just 7% of all streets in Belfast have 20mph speed limits. Fast traffic puts people off both walking and cycling.
  • Overall we need a carrot and stick approach to reducing car dependency.

There is a strong desire for these measures according to the Bike Life survey.

  • 80% want more traffic-free cycle routes away from roads, e.g. through parks or along waterways
  • 77% want more cycle tracks along roads, physically protected from traffic and pedestrians
  • 67% of residents also support building more protected on-road cycle tracks, even when this would mean less space for other road traffic.

In previous Bike Life surveys residents said they wanted £25 spend per head on cycling in Belfast.

Current spend by DfI on walking and cycling across N. Ireland is around £2/head – the lowest in the UK.

This compares to investment in walking and cycling estimated at £7 per head in England, £25 per head in Scotland and £10 per head in Wales.

Support for greater investment in active travel is not just from Belfast but across the 12 UK cities and urban areas surveyed (17,000 residents).

The majority of people want greater investment in public transport (73%), walking (59%), cycling (58%) and just 42% on driving. 

4.0 What should the government do to support this?

Invest in Behaviour Change programmes

Behaviour change to increase walking and cycling requires much greater investment.

Sustrans runs a number of behaviour change programmes across Northern Ireland in three main settings: schools, workplaces and communities.

The largest programme is the Active School Travel (AST) Programme, funded jointly by the Public Health Agency (PHA) and the Department for Infrastructure (DfI).

It has been proven to have an impact on increasing the number of children walking, cycling or scooting to school and a corresponding fall in numbers being driven.

At the end of the 2018-19 school year, the number of children walking, cycling and scooting to school at participating schools increased from 35% to 53%.

At the same time, the number of pupils being driven to school fell from 58% to 41%.

Despite the success of this programme, the Travel Survey for Northern Ireland shows that in the past five years the number of children being driven to school rose from 59% to 67%.

According to DfI’s Travel to School research, half (50%) of primary school pupils lived 0-1 miles from the school. For more than half (54%) of these pupils, the main mode of travel to school was the car.

The AST programme, which has been running for more than five years, has proven to be effective but it can only take on 60 new schools each year.

On an average year, we are working with just 22% of primary schools.

In order to make a dent in these statistics, the programme needs to expand and include an infrastructure element to build the footpaths and cycle lanes necessary to enable safe journeys to school.

Build Belfast Bicycle Network

The Department for Infrastructure consulted on a Belfast Bicycle Network Plan three years ago.

We are still waiting on a final version of this. Main concerns expressed by respondents were the lack of direct routes for cycling – providing infrastructure where people want to go.

Funding should be allocated to develop a joined up network across the city, with protected cycle-lanes where required.

This should be ring-fenced money to ensure the network is completed.

The Department should appoint a dedicated delivery team with a time schedule, approximately 5 years to make this happen.

The Network was estimated in 2017 to cost £20 million.

Link this to developing Active Travel Hubs across the city to sign-post people to cycling routes and offer led walks, cycle training, bike maintenance and skills required to encourage people to walk and cycle.

Specifically we have asks for Hubs in the city centre, possibly Cathedral Gardens; at the new Belfast Transport Hub; Whiterock and Colin Town in west Belfast and continue the successful Hub at CS Lewis Square.

A similar model is earmarked for new Transport Hub in Derry~Londonderry.

Develop a Greenway network for Northern Ireland linking to the Republic

Fund and fully develop an implementation plan for the Strategic Plan for Greenways which will need the collaboration of different government departments including DAERA, Dept for the Economy (Tourism).

This has been costed by DfI at £150m and would see a whole network of greenways, for less than the cost of the York Street Interchange project.

The benefits this would bring to Northern Ireland are immense, in terms of health, environment, economy, and rural regeneration.

We want everyone to have equal access to the natural environment.

A greenways network that links towns and cities to green and blue space around them and provides direct, safe and attractive traffic-free walking and cycling routes, planned by the local community will help to achieve this.

This aligns with our vision for the National Cycle Network set out in Sustrans’ Paths for Everyone report.

Active Travel Bill

Plan for the future by introducing an Active Travel Bill into the statutory planning process.

This would incorporate active travel provision in land-use planning and new developments.

The Welsh Assembly introduced this Act a number of years ago.


Introduce legislation to bring e-bike regulations into line with the rest of the UK and Europe.

Currently, e-bike users need to tax and insure bikes through the DVLNI as if they were motorbikes.

This is an additional barrier to getting people cycling and we know e-bikes are particularly appealing to older people, those less able and residents in hillier areas.

The Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon announced earlier this year her intention to pass this law which we welcomed.

E-bikes also open up opportunities for more goods to be transported using cargo bikes – a greener form of transport.

Extend bus lane network and retain for sustainable transport only

Ensure bus lanes remain corridors for sustainable modes of transport only, such as buses and bicycles.

Given the lack of protected cycle lanes, bus lanes are vital infrastructure for people cycling.

There is a strong taxi lobby pushing to have access for all Class A private hire taxis to use bus lanes. They are not public transport.

There are already many classes of taxis permitted into bus lanes e.g. black taxis and disability accessible cabs.

In Dublin, private taxis are regarded as a major safety hazard for people cycling.


We believe now is the time to take action to help people to reduce car use.

This will take ambitious leadership and radical changes in planning and transport policy and investment but is achievable.

This will require changes that make walking, cycling and public transport more attractive to people than driving.

We need up to a 60% reduction in car use by 2030 if the UK is to deliver its fair share of global carbon reduction.

There is a lot to do in the next decade to achieve this. We hope we have provided the evidence and some ideas on how this is achievable.


Read more about our policy and influencing work in Northern Ireland

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