Big data surprises

It has been quite the week for data.

The Belfast Health and Social Care Trust have launched their annual Staff Travel Survey. Last year’s results are available in the Trust’s Travel Plan. It reveals that 9% of staff cycle to work:

The official figures for Belfast indicate cycling is somewhere between 3 and 5%, with cycling across Northern Ireland at 1% stubbornly refusing to move out of the statistical noise (i.e., the margin of error in the stats is greater than the reported number) in the past decade.

The 2018 staff travel survey shows the number of cycling commuters are at least double the city’s average.

This has big consequences for Belfast. The Trust is responsible for 1/3 of Belfast traffic. And how Trust staff travel has a real effect on congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions.

The targets for 2020 are mind-boggling:

The Trust are aiming for a 16% overall drop in car use, from 71% to 55%. The Transport staff I spoke to were confident they will achieve this, but we await the details on how. It is clear the Trust are betting on car share and increasing the number of bus commuters.

Surprising counts

Dublin does an annual cordon count, but Belfast doesn’t. I wanted to find out what the numbers of cyclists are on our roads, just to see if the chatter about increasing numbers is justified.

My methodology was simple. In a 20 minute period, count all traffic, both ways, and categorise into cyclists, buses and other traffic. I chose 4 locations I could reach by 08:30. I used the Thing Counter App, and set a 20 minute timer.

Obviously, there are flaws. They are not on the same day of the week and weather forecasts could have influenced the numbers on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. Heavy showers were forecast for those days, whereas Friday was forecast as a fine, sunny day. The 20 minute time interval is also relatively short and the chosen time is skewed heavily towards those cycling to work.

For Lisburn Road the go to figure has been 1 to 3% depending on location; 7% for inner south east Belfast.

How did it pan out?

  • Lisburn Road, north of the junction with Marlborough Park: 15 cyclists; 19 buses; 361 other motor vehicles. 15/380: 3.9%
  • Lisburn Road, south of the junction with Elmwood Avenue: 23, 19, 464, 23/506: 4.5%
  • University Road, south of the junction with Elmwood Avenue: 21, 9, 537, 21/567: 3.7%
  • Ormeau Road, junction with Stranmillis Embankment: 116, 20, 474, 116/610: 19.0%

The Ormeau Road was the only location with school children cycling. And perhaps that is not a surprise, given it is also the only location of the 4 with safe designated space for cycling: the junction is where the Towpath crosses Ormeau Road.

Money

Money for cycling infrastructure is always treated as an extra; something to be considered separately from the big hitting road building projects.

Utrecht commissioned a report to see if the multimillion Euro investment in cycling was worth it. In the Bruto Utrechts Fietsproduct report published in 2017 the municipality reckons the benefit to Utrecht is €250,100,000 per year. No, I did not add a few zeros for a laugh.

And who in the community benefits most? Drivers. For each Euro benefit, 72 cents is benefiting drivers in reduced congestion and increased reliability on the road network. The next biggest benefit is reduced absence in the workplace through sickness: 11 cents.

Cycling, the report states, benefits society by €0.50 per km cycled.

So, far from a frivolous extra for weekend leisure cyclists, putting cycling front and centre in road planning makes financial sense. We all benefit.

Conclusion

The take home message for Department for Infrastructure is simple: build cycleways along Ormeau Road; take the Towpath underneath the bridge, along the water’s edge, just like is done a little upstream at Governor’s Bridge.

Enabling cycling like this will, ironically, benefit drivers, through reducing congestion.

Ormeau Road is one of the most congested roads in the UK outside London. Whatever Department for Infrastructure have tried until now is not working.

Gather numbers. Department for Infrastructure won’t budget for cycling, because the gathered statistics are too poor to show areas with high cycling uptake. The existing figures need to be updated, and budget allocated accordingly.

It will be worth it.

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