On 27 August 2014 the Department of Regional Development’s Cycling Unit released its draft Bicycle Strategy. The Cycling Unit are open to suggestions and amendments to the document. Contact them at cycling.unit@drdni.gov.uk

Having read it I am fairly positive. There is official recognition that there is a need for proper cycling infrastructure, especially in Belfast and that the current infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired.

They understand that cyclists include people who work, go to school, go shopping, visit their GP or are just going for a “wee ride”. These cyclists are of all ages and abilities.

The current infrastructure is designed for hardened vehicular cyclists who cycle as if they are a car. (They probable even make car noises as they rush about.) There are few concessions to cyclists, and non-cyclists are put off taking up cycling because of their perception cycling on our roads is dangerous. No amount of training, awareness campaigns and patronising safety advice has altered that state of affairs. The percentage share of cyclists remains stubbornly stuck in single figures.

The vision is for a joined up network of high standard cycle routes along arterials, quietways, 20mph zones and greenways. It is recognised that local amenities have to be accessible. There is to be joined-up thinking with buses and trains. These routes will give cyclists confidence they can get from A to B in safety.

All of this will be based on best practice from our neighbours within the UK and Europe.

This is a breath of fresh air.

But.

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This table has raised cyclists’ hackles. On my usual commute I am a very “Fast Commuter”. I know the roads, the lights, most drivers are familiar with me and I with them. You see the same drivers, pedestrians and cyclists at the same time each day. If my journey goes elsewhere, covering unfamiliar routes, I am slower and if I am pulling a trailer or on the Cargobike I go slower still. According to this table I might be classed as an inexperienced leisure cyclist on such trips. What I do want is a confidence-inspiring safe network I can use whatever the circumstance or conditions.

The table has been adapted from the English Department for Transport, published in 2007.

Firstly, if we want to look at best practice we should not look to England 7 years ago. It would better to hold them up as an example of how not to implement a cycling strategy.

Every cyclist has different needs, based on their particular circumstances. And designing a network to meet everyone’s needs is impossible. You’d think.

This is exactly what is being achieved in municipalities across north west Europe. One joined-up network that encourages children to cycle to school, OAPs on e-bikes out for a trip to the shop, commuters and leisure cyclists in lycra or every day clothes. There are no obstacles to people with disabilities, using hand cycles or tricycles using high quality cycle lanes.

Where the document is going, though not explicitly stated in the text, but heavily hinted by the inclusion of the table is the design of a network based on cyclists’ competence. The cyclists’ differing needs will be considered on a scheme by scheme basis. The Cycling Unit will need to clarify this before the final version is released.

If you have a main arterial route, favoured by fast commuters, such as the Lisburn Road, does that mean any proposed schemes will only cater for fast commuters? What about school children on their way to St. Bride’s Primary School travelling the same route?
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So.

The draft is a good start, with room for improvement.

It struck me, as I was cycling from Belfast Health and Social Care Trust’s Knockbracken Healthcare Park towards home that the minor roads I was travelling down were just asking to be explored on foot. The landscape is scenic, forested, fields bounded by hedgerows, clattering streams. Except there is nowhere to walk or get away from car traffic.

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The river to the left is the Carryduff River which wells up in the countryside above the village of the same name and flows rapidly down towards the Lagan at Shaw’s Bridge.
Around Shaw’s Bridge there is an extensive and popular network of tracks maintained by the National Trust.
I asked myself why could we not develop a track to run along the river from Knockbracken down Shaw’s Bridge? Like so:

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Obviously the red line is for illustration purposes only.

There are existing tracks that could be knitted together to form the path. (@KenDeBiker posted the link on Twitter.) The land is owned both privately and by a number of government departments.

Someone, possibly the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) or the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), could take up this idea, do a feasibility study and make it happen in partnership with the local communities, the Rivers Agency, National Trust, Belfast City Council and Lisburn and Castlereagh Council.

In Belfast, the Connswater Community Greenway provides a useful template to follow. Many of its benefits apply here as well.

The potential for a Carryduff Riverside path is enormous.

Firstly, it provides a traffic-free link from the A24 Saintfield Road, within easy reach of Cairnshill Park and Ride to Shaw’s Bridge and the Lagan Valley Regional Park. Also, this path would give the community of Purdysburn Village a safe walking and cycling route to the main road and amenities. Local traders and retailers along the route will see opportunities to bring their goods and services to the passing tourists.

The Carryduff River is a wildlife corridor, frequented by badgers, kingfishers, otters, bats, etc. In developing a path the interests of wildlife and the natural environment must be paramount. Rather than running cables to lighting and signs, these should be solar powered, and hooded so artificial light does not disturb the river valley.

On Twitter Steven Patterson of Sustrans mentioned the existing path behind Lough Moss Leisure Centre in Carryduff going towards Purdysburn. My initial idea was not ambitious to include Carryduff, but why not? Link it all up and have a complete off-road path from Carryduff into Belfast. This would encourage commuters and school children from Carryduff to get on their bikes rather than join the very inaptly named rush hour on the A24.

The main obstacle along the route will be crossing the Hospital Road. To start off with a signalled crossing will be needed, similar to the Comber Greenway crossing of the A55 at Knock. A much more elegant solution would be a short tunnel beside the river.

The Belfast Metropolitan 2015 plan mentions a greenway in the area running beside main roads from Cairnshill towards Shaw’s Bridge (link by Geoff Caves). These are useful in encouraging more local active travel, but have little of the tourism potential that a Carryduff Riverside path offers.
Having recognised the need for paths in the area, the Metropolitan Plan can perhaps be modified?

In the meantime go and explore the countryside and lanes in this overlooked corner of Greater Belfast.

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View across Belfast from Ballycoan Road

You won’t be disappointed.

At the Belfast Gasworks a new iconic foot and cycle bridge will span the Lagan providing a traffic-free link from the City Centre to the largest green space in Belfast’s inner city, the Ormeau Park. The potential for this bridge stretches beyond the park and will transform cycle commuting from south east Belfast to the City Centre. The project will cost £3.6-10mln.

Further upstream the refurbished John Luke bridge carries the Lagan Towpath (NCN9) across the river. The refurbishment cost £200k.

At the edge of the city, where Belfast borders Lisburn, a narrow bridge returns the Lagan Towpath to the left bank of the river.

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Very picturesque, you will agree. It has been in place since 1974. It is also highly utilitarian and costs little to maintain. Maintenance is carried out by the Rivers Agency on behalf of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. It was redecked and repainted recently. The bridge has a total length of 12.18m and the span over the Lagan is 11.40m. There are no plans to replace the bridge.

But all is not well in paradise.
The first sign of trouble is a “Cyclists Dismount Before Crossing Bridge”. A portent of infrastructure that isn’t fit for purpose:

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As you draw up the scale of the problem becomes clear:

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The width between parapets is 90cm. This is a problem for those using wheelchairs, trailers and trikes. Some cargobikes also snag on the parapets.

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Paul P tweets:

Our Adventure trailer is 95cm wide. Our Cargobike fits but cannot be pushed across on foot because there is not enough room beside the bike for a person.

There is an alternative route, which takes in either one of two very steep ramps. And these are very slippery in wet or icy weather:

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The steep ramp to the Malone Road

The ramp on the other side of the road bridge, but on the same side as the access opposite Drumbeg church has no footpath going towards Drumbeg.

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The footpath beside the busy Malone Road/Ballyskeagh Road is narrow and poorly maintained, and pedestrians and cyclists must cross the road to access the Towpath entrance opposite the church at Drumbeg. For many it is a hurdle as insurmountable as the footbridge itself.

In short, the footbridge chops the Towpath between Belfast and Lisburn into two unconnected sections for disabled users, parents with double buggies, those pulling trailers or on unconventional bicycles, such as Cargobikes or tricycles.

The recommended minimum width for any footpath path is 1.5m allowing its use by one wheelchair user with one pedestrian beside them. However, this path is a shared use route and the recommended minimum width for those is 3m. Less than 3m is not acceptable in this case because there are side restraints.

For £200k we can have a bridge with an acceptable width, identical to the John Luke Bridge. It’s time DCAL, Rivers Agency, Sustrans and or Belfast and Lisburn Councils find the money and replace it.

Information about the footbridge was kindly provided by Denise Stewart from DCAL Inland Waterways.

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In the past 12 months I have passed this spot just outside Enniskillen four times. And every single time I am amazed, incredulous at the sight. A nice wide cycle path ends abruptly. At a fence. Well, not quite. The cycle path turns into an unshared footpath and then dead ends at the fence. So, by law, the cyclist must dismount to cross the road and then continue in the company of cars, HGV and farm machinery towards Irvinestown or Kesh.

You never heard an engineer going, “and at this point the M62 stops, drivers must get out and push their cars down the farm track and continue driving on the bank of the Manchester Ship Canal.”

Why do cyclists have to put up with so much rubbish infrastructure?

PS

@Falcon7012 tweets this

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Jon Farrelly adds historical detail:
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To get the Cargobike on to the Towpath widening of the chicane at the village is required. Yes… erm… well.

Anyway:

https://vine.co/v/MUOhrt6VL3p

At the tail end of 2013 the Department of Regional Development started a trial to relax Urban Clearway restrictions on the main routes from the south of Belfast into the city centre. Car parking was to be allowed countrybound in the morning, and citybound in the evening. The reason for the change was to encourage local trade.

The Urban Clearway restrictions are in force citybound between 7:30 and 9:30, countrybound between 16:30 and 18:00.

So how is the trial going? Friday, 23 May 2014, 8:56. Lisburn Road citybound:

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Oh look! They got a ticket! But that doesn’t deter others.

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And why are they there?

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The driver kept the engine running and had the car in reverse gear.

You can view that whole sequence here.

Further down the road:

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Full marks to Lynas for keeping the bus lane clear. Zero marks for obstructing pedestrians. Not as if pedestrians can go on the road to bypass the HGV:

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200 metres down the road:

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We can’t forget taxi drivers:

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And our daily bread:

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Is this encouraging our local economy? Or is it inconveniencing public transport and endangering cyclists?

This trial was to run for 6 months and ends next week, at the end of May 2014. It has been a resounding failure. No doubt DRD will reinstate the previous restrictions…

Update 17 July 2014:

Chris Murphy reports that the original 6 month trial has been extended for another 6 months from the end of May 2014.

NIGreenways offers a study tour looking at the worst of Belfast’s cycling infrastructure. The Guardian included the “Spider’s Web” from Belfast’s Harbour Estate in their list of the world’s worst cycle lanes.

Reporting on the Giro, Dutch cycle racing pundit Gio Lippens said of Belfast:

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He used “fietsen” – every day bicycle use, not “wielrennen” – road racing. Is he right?

NIGreenways lists the worst. I want to highlight what is good about cycling infrastructure in Belfast. Let’s celebrate:

1. Stranmillis Embankment;

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2. Upper Arthur Street / Alfred Street;

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3. Park Road;

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4. Victoria Street;

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5. Barrack Street (a notorious rat run closed off, kept permeable for cyclists);

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6. Castle Street (not the ASL, but the contraflow lane);

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7. Belvoir Drive (a pinch point, with bicycle bypasses either side);

Belvoir Drive

8. Saintfield Road (cyclists on shared use path are given own lane and priority over traffic on side road – apologies for the shaky picture);

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9. Translink trains

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“So what”, I hear you say, “a bike on a train…” It’s the strap holding the bike upright. These are the little things that make cycling in and around Belfast better.

All of the above can be improved. There are plenty of things wrong with what I have shown. But it’s a start, all of this wasn’t here when I arrived in the early ’90s. Let’s encourage our politicians and the Department of Regional Development to keep going and put in more good cycling infrastructure.

(The Lagan Towpath, Comber Greenway, Sam Thompson Bridge and so on are excluded because they are all shared use.)

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