Thoughts with Anna: Is NI Assembly’s Obsession With Cycle Lanes Ableist/Classist?

This blog post is mainly aimed at the NI politicians who talk about cycle lanes like they are the solution to all our problems as a city. I am not against cycle lane infrastructure in itself, but this is basically useless without addressing the main problem. Some Green Party politicians in particular may relate to this more than others:

Thoughts With Anna’ series, post two.

Politicians in Northern Ireland are completely and utterly obsessed with cycle lanes. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for more cycle lanes and if there was a bike rack to safely store my bike at school, I would ride my bike a lot more. However, this is one of the only solutions given when the topic of climate action is raised. Maybe I’m too radical, but cycle lanes won’t ‘solve’ the climate crisis. We also have to stop emitting. When you say this to an NI Politician, they usually say something along the lines of, ‘If there’s adequate cycle lanes then people will drive less and therefore emissions will be reduced.’ Some will even add onto the end of that, ‘We have a personal responsibility to each do our own bit to tackle climate change.’ Let’s deconstruct this, shall we?

I live on one of the most congested roads in Belfast, and it has cycle lanes already. Just because cycle lanes are available, it doesn’t mean they will be used. Especially when cars are framed as being quicker and more convenient, and not everyone has enough money to buy a bike. Also, we shouldn’t rely on individuals making lifestyle changes when (although these small steps can be good) they distract from the main problem. Our economic and political systems are built on oppression, exploitation etc. It’s simply not possible to achieve climate justice without system change. The leaders in NI’s fixation on individual change further reinforces the greenwashing myth forced on us by multinational corporations. 

This tirelessly repeated concept in our country veers very closely into ableism, classism and individual change. This may sound extreme, however if you break it down into wee bits, its pretty obvious:


‘Discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.’ Merriam Webster definition. 

‘Unfair treatment of people because they have a disability.’ Cambridge dictionary definition. 

It is ableist for us to presume that everyone has the capacity and ability to ride a bike, and this constant discussion about how more people should be cycling to save the planet guilt trips people who can’t. We need to stop blaming the individual for not living a completely carbon neutral life when 71% of global emissions come from just 100 companies. The emission reduction from a few extra bikes on the road is good and every little bit helps, but it’s a very dangerous lie to ourselves to assume we can just ‘solve’ the climate crisis through individual change. It’s a very dangerous lie because it lulls us into a false sense of security that there’s an easy way out of this. There isn’t. According to the IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change) it will take, ‘unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.’ Drawing lines of paint on a road hardly qualifies. Regardless of all of this, it is ableist in itself that disabled people are rarely included in discussions around cycling. 


‘Prejudice or discrimination based on class.’ Merriam Webster definition. 

‘The belief that people from certain social or economic backgrounds are superior to others.’ Collins Dictionary definition. 

It is classist to presume that:

  • Everyone can afford to ride a bike,
  • Everyone can choose which job they do, (i.e. one that’s close enough to cycle to),
  • Everyone has been taught how to ride a bike or has the resources to pay for a course to learn.

Even if people were to buy a bike somehow, the next problem is storage. If you live in a flat or a hostel, it’s unlikely you have got a place to store your bike. Working class people are not the problem when it comes to the climate crisis, yet they are often the ones being blamed and shamed for it. The people in power, the multinational corporations and the rich are the biggest emitters, not your average person, so the rich (whether rich in power or money) need to stop pushing the blame onto anyone but themselves. It’s also the working class who will be affected the most by the climate crisis. They won’t be the ones who can easily afford to repair flood damages to their houses, for example. 

The government, businesses and people in power have a responsibility to decarbonise our country in an equitable, inclusive and sustainable way. 

Only putting a few lines of paint on the roads is simply not good enough. For this to genuinely have an impact, we also need to:

  • Make the roads safer to ride on,
  • Teach kids how to ride bikes in school as a part of the curriculum,
  • Make bikes more affordable for everybody/ free for people eligible for free school meals.

(And no, those rental bikes don’t count and as they are only accessible right in the city centre and are expensive. You also have to pay by card and a lot of low paying jobs are cash-in-hand, and you have to be 18 to open your own bank account. On top of this, they are sponsored by Coca-Cola who are incredibly damaging to the planet.) These are just a few suggestions on how to make this idea more feasible, however I am not qualified nor is it my responsibility to give this kind of advice. Promoting cycling moves from individual change to systemic change when the step is made from promoting cycling more to providing infrastructure so people can cycle more. The cycle-lanes-will-save-us concept is harmful, exclusive and a lie. 

Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland, has the second highest air pollution levels in the United Kingdom, with 1 in 24 deaths per year being attributed to it. Last year 178 deaths in Belfast were directly linked to our illegal levels of air pollution. Cycle lanes will not fix this problem single handedly, yet it seems to be the only thing talked about. We need multiple plans of action being implemented simultaneously. We need a complete overhaul of our current political system, true social justice and science based education to name a few things. Real climate justice cannot be achieved in the North of Ireland when not all of the politicians in the most voted for political party even ‘believe’ climate change exists and not even the Green Party are radical enough. 

Moreover, it is usually presumed that people have adequate roads to cycle on. Rural places are not made for cycling, are you going to redo the entire road system? Having climate justice means uplifting everybody, not just those living in the city. Climate action should not only be reserved for Belfast. 

As previously stated, I am not against cycle lanes, but I am against it being the main area of discussion from politicians around the climate crisis. Bicycles on their own are an act of individual change and adequate cycling infrastructure is necessary for it to not be ableist or classist.  Cycle lanes are one very small element and although they would reduce emissions slightly, it needs to be done alongside more drastic changes. I have a lot more thoughts around the nuances of this fit in just one blog post, however, but these is a very summarised view of my opinions. 

Maybe 20 or 30 years ago, implementing cycle lanes properly could have been possible and helpful but the reality is we have used up all of our time. They can still be implemented but it must be done properly and it must not be the only thing done in terms of climate action. Everything is intersectional so without tackling the root cause then cycle lanes are effectively useless. We do not have time anymore for small individual changes. We only have time to rapidly decarbonise NI before 2030 and keep going into negative figures while ensuring equity. That is a massive, unrealistic sounding need. It is daunting, scary and life altering. But at this stage, we don’t have the luxury of choice. Young people have been sacrificing their education for over a year in NI to raise awareness of this. We are mature enough to face the climate crisis head on. Are you?

To conclude,

Aim- to stop emissions so we don’t go extinct and bring entire ecosystems down with us.

Solution- stop emitting while ensuring equity.

Reality- ThAt FlAg HuRt My FeElInGs lets deal with this instead of doing our job.

Please consider donating to help me fulfil my dreams, thank you ->

Published by Anna Kernahan

I’m a youth climate justice activist from Ireland

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