'Decarbonisation of Road Transport in Northern Ireland': Committee Report

Part of Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 29th November 2021.

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Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin 3:45 pm, 29th November 2021

I support the motion, as Sinn Féin's spokesperson on transport. I pay tribute, as others have, to the departmental officials and the research team who put a tremendous amount of work into this important report. The report is very timely as we have just had COP26. It is clear to all that the climate crisis is no longer in the distant future: it is upon us and it must be tackled imminently. Failure to do so will harm our communities and the future generations, and we all have a part to play.

As others have said, our most common methods of transport account for 23% of emissions in the North. Those emissions are linked to a range of medical conditions, and there is no doubt that air pollution is a serious public health issue. It is inevitable that we must transform the way that we travel and work towards cleaner and greener transport, but to do that we need to have the adequate infrastructure in place. One key way of moving towards reducing emissions is to ensure that we have a high-quality public transport system in place and encourage more people to use public transport as part of their daily lives by improving accessibility to it, thereby reducing reliance on the private car.

My constituency has a vast rural area, and one of the main barriers to using public transport for people who live in rural communities is the lack of connectivity to the nearby towns and cities. That results in many having no choice but to rely on their car and, subsequently, contributing to the challenging situation in which we find ourselves as regards emissions and the climate crisis. There needs to be an overhaul of our bus and rail network by cutting journey times and increasing services. That should include improving the Belfast to Dublin rail service, which is used by many commuters and could be used by more if it was more frequent. Similarly, we must see the urgent reinstatement of the hourly stop in Newry by the Belfast to Dublin bus services, which is an important route for people who travel to and from Dublin Airport. That has been a huge loss, particularly as we approach the Christmas period, when many people will be returning home to Ireland for the first time in two years to be with their families and friends. Those people will have no choice but to travel to and from the airport by car due to the lack of capacity in the current service. If we are serious about decarbonising the road transport system, we need to show greater efficiency and effectiveness in the current service provision and ensure that there are no unnecessary gaps in the public transport system.

Similarly, active travel must play a key role in any forthcoming green transport policy. We are acutely aware of the huge benefits that walking and cycling bring to the health and well-being of society on an individual basis and environmentally. Although many people are keen to engage in more active travel, there are simply too many barriers to prevent them from doing so. Safety for pedestrians and cyclists must be paramount, and we must not just pay lip service to that well-known fact. Just last week, we saw World Day of Remembrance for Road Victims, which acts as a significant reminder of the very high number of people, including many pedestrians and cyclists, who have, sadly, lost their lives on our roads. Although that is not always directly linked to the infrastructure, it is imperative that better and safer infrastructure is in place to reduce the number of people who are seriously injured or killed on our roads and encourage and enable more people to take up active travel.

Across my constituency of Newry and Armagh, there are many keen walking and cycling enthusiasts who are increasingly frustrated by the lack of appropriate active-travel infrastructure to enable them to utilise their preferred mode of transport. We need more footpaths and cycle lanes for proper connectivity to our town centres and key facilities, particularly in rural communities, which are severely lacking in both. I welcome the blue-green infrastructure fund, which has been very successful in helping to address that.

Street lighting is also an important factor. As the Minister will know, one example that I raised recently was in relation to the Bog Road in Forkhill, which is the main connecting route between Peadar Ó'Dornín's GAA club and Forkhill Community Centre. Current policies make that location ineligible for street lighting, despite the high numbers of pedestrians, particularly young people, who are going to and coming from the facilities every day.

It will contradict everything that we are discussing today if we do not take on board the important elements that need to be in place for all ages to take up active travel and to do so confidently. Encouraging uptake of active travel must be from the earliest stage possible, as it will require a cultural shift. That can be demonstrated by the findings of the young persons' behaviour and attitudes survey on travelling to and from school published in 2020. The survey indicated that only 3% of students in the North cycle to their school, despite living less than 3 km from it. That is in stark contrast to the findings of European studies on the same topic that have shown that approximately one-third of students cycle to and from school.