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

20140225_131228 Train

“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.)

I really do hope I am wrong about my next statement: the Giro won’t bring a lasting legacy for cycling. It won’t normalise cycling. It won’t make cycling any more accessible or raise cycling’s modal share. It won’t address the fact that in Belfast male cyclists outnumber female cyclists by 6 to 1.

The Giro will reinforce cycling’s image as male-dominated, fast and furious, hot and sweaty, clad in lycra. Local shops cater very well for this market.

The real game changer -I believe- will be the NSL-run public bike hire, which will have 300 bicycles available from 30 docking stations in the first phase.

The system will roll out in the autumn of 2014 and be operational in the spring of 2015. Once it is up and running people will see cyclists in normal clothes, shopping, sightseeing or using bikes to get to or from work. They won’t have helmets or hi-viz.

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For the first time in Belfast people will see “fietsers”, bicycle users, in great numbers. And seeing people using bikes casually will, I hope, encourage more people to dust off their bikes, pump up the tyres and use their bicycle for day to day transport.

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Via @byebyethecheese, a bicycle user

And then these new bicycle users discover that their road racing bike isn’t up to the job of commuting, shopping and taking children to school. It lacks any kind of commuting necessity: lights, hub dynamo, an integral lock, a stand, mudguards, a luggage rack with straps, an enclosed chain, a comfy saddle or swept back handle bars. All included when you buy the bike. They want something like this:

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@nigreenways' bike

And if they have children they might want one of these:

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But then they find buying one of these great machines is almost impossible in Northern Ireland. We went to Greenaer in Dublin, after trying one out in Amsterdam.

Belfast is crying out for a shop that sells normal bikes. Or an existing shop to take the plunge and cater for these new bicycle users. I’d like to see a shop that isn’t into carbon fibre, energy gels or lycra. I’d love to talk to a salesperson who isn’t fussed that including a lock will add a couple of gram to the overall weight; who isn’t surprised you cycle your new bike home; and knows not to take off the wheel to fix a puncture. A bike shop that sells practical rain gear.

Every silver lining…

The main problems I foresee with the Scheme are:

Taxis being allowed into bus lanes. In the absence of decent cycling infrastructure Belfast cyclists must make do with bus lanes. The relative safety the bus lanes offer will be shattered as this video from Dublin shows.

The lack of cycling infrastructure. I already mentioned making do with bus lanes. I posted the following a while back. How do similar sized Belfast and Utrecht compare with regards to cycling infrastructure. It’s actually embarrassing. Belfast city councillors, DRD staff from the cycling unit, “cycling” minister Danny Kennedy need to go to Utrecht and see how it’s done properly.

And of course in the year of the Giro and the introduction of the hire scheme the NCN9 past the Waterfront Hall is closed without offering cyclists and pedestrians adequate alternatives.

Finally, will the hire scheme address the gender imbalance? Evidence from London says it won’t significantly alter. In London 4/5ths of Boris Bike users are male. Nigreenways tackles the issue of cycling equality, or lack of it.

Addressing road safety by building cycle tracks separated from motor transport, countering cycling’s MAMIL reputation and changing cycling from a leisure activity to a form of every day transport will be far bigger factors in persuading women to use bicycles. And increase numbers of bicycle users overall.

It is somewhat ironic that women do not use bicycles these days, because it was the bicycle that gave women in the late 1800s the freedom to travel and spread radical ideas like emancipation and universal suffrage.

Utrecht doesn’t have a Bike Hire Scheme but Seville does. And having also constructed 80 miles of cycle tracks the number of cycle journeys in the Spanish city went from 5000 to 72000 a day; an increase in modal share from 0.5 to ~7%. One worries that Spain’s new helmet laws will dent these figures, but many municipalities including Seville have chosen to ignore mandatory helmets and merely recommend their use.

As a major tourist destination Belfast is ideally placed to repeat Seville’s succesful scheme, provided DRD’s plans for a city-wide network of cycle lanes and paths are realised.

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