Opportunities for change

The near complete closure of the country has had a profound effect on us all. The Belfast Chamber reports closure of all but 6% of businesses in Belfast, towns across the province are likely to be similar. As the reopening strategy begins in a few weeks, there is an opportunity to effect changes which would never have been possible before. The Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) commissioned a UK-based YouGov survey, which identified that only 9% of people want life to return exactly as normal.

Changing how we move

Our outdoor spaces and how we live our lives will be restructured as social distancing becomes the norm for the foreseeable future. The number of people cycling to work is currently low (6%), however as the lockdown took hold more people were getting on their bikes as an alternative mode of transport to buses. Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon, announced this week that she was appointing a ‘walking and cycling Champion’. Speaking about the role in the Assembly, she said: “Our champion will ensure that we deliver our commitment to increase the percentage of journeys made by walking and cycling.  Inspiring our communities, restructuring our spaces, changing forever the way we live – and changing it for the better.

“I want to increase the space available for people who want to walk and cycle by extending pavements, pedestrianising streets and introducing pop up cycle lanes. I have already identified some parts of Belfast City Centre and Derry City that can be transformed in this way and I intend to work with councils to identify more areas across the North as a matter of urgency. Changing how we use our spaces will transform communities right across Northern Ireland – creatively change lives – enable social distancing and encourage health and mental wellbeing.”

There have been calls to put Belfast on a ‘road diet’, using this time of lighter traffic flows to restructure roads and pavements, enabling better social distancing and reducing the number of cars travelling through the city centre. This morning [15th May 2020] the Department for Infrastructure announced that streets within the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast would be pedestrianised as a trial, while pavements in the Linen Quarter would be widened to enable social distancing measures. Pop-up cycle lanes and ‘quiet streets’ are next on the agenda, all helping to create cycling infrastructure and rethink how we travel through our towns and cities.

It seems the desire to get on our bikes exists with audiences too, with Google trends showing an upward trajectory for the terms ‘cycling’ and ‘bike’, reaching their highest points in the last 12 months in May 2020.

The Belfast Bike hire scheme is currently suspended due to the crisis, however similar schemes in Dublin are experiencing a huge surge. Bleeper Bikes reported a 258% increase in new user registrations for the scheme and a whopping 383% increase in bike rides in the Fingal region of Dublin during April. If the bold plans do go ahead, it’ll be hard to see them reversed in the future, especially if uptake is there.

From an Out of Home perspective, it’s reassuring to see that audiences are keen to get on the move, and the travel time saved by the daily commute has been channelled into exercise for many of us. Additionally, different modes of transport through our towns and cities provides an opportunity to deliver contextual and relevant content across a network of Digital screens to a more fluid audience.