Following on from a Facebook post where cyclists were informed of road works on Albertbridge Road to facilitate the Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) bus system, I queried what improvement this represented for Belfast cyclists.
BRT team responded stating that no space could be spared for cyclists, but omitted to say that local residents can still use the existing parking bays along the road. In short, space cannot be spared because drivers need it to store their cars.
The plans are available here.
Cyclists in East Belfast can look forward to a painted cycle lane running not quite the length of Albertbridge Road from Templemore Avenue to Newtownards Road. A couple of Advanced Stop Lines and that is it.
City bound cyclists can use the rapid transit bus lane.
I put in a request to the Department of Infrastructure where I asked the following:
- The terms and references of the initial BRT consultation pertaining the impact on cycling along BRT routes;
- A summary of the assessed impact of BRT on cycling as part of the consultation;
- Whether contact was sought with cycling stakeholders (for instance, Sustrans, British Cycling or Cycling UK) regarding cycling specific design and implementation of the BRT scheme;
- Whether the impact on cycling has been reassessed since the consultation exercises given the increase in numbers of cyclists, the building of the BBNP, and the implementation of the Belfast Bikes hire scheme – the date(s) and outcome(s) of any review(s);
- The length and location of all segregated cycleways, mandatory cycle lanes and shared use paths along BRT routes (planned and realised). Segregation may be achieved by, for instance, wands, planters, armadillos and/or kerbs. Advisory cycle lanes and shared use bus lanes should not be counted;
- The number of bicycle parking spaces at BRT halts and terminals (planned and realised.
Here is their response:
I welcome the BRT. I think it will change the commuting habits of people in East Belfast and North Down. With the Comber Greenway running parallel to the BRT route it can provide a good alternative route for cyclists who do not wish to share bus lanes with rapid buses.
Sustrans, in their BikeLife Survey found that of all options to increase cycling uptake sharing bus lanes was the least favoured option. Physically separating cyclists from motor traffic was the most favoured option.
Sustrans BikeLife Belfast
Indeed, segregated cycling infrastructure is the Department of Infrastructure’s vision for cycling. It is a pity that the vision is not being implemented.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we won’t get a urban cycling network overnight. However, as each brick of the BRT is put in place, the less space remains for cycling along Albertbridge Road.
The Mythical Mystery Tour
The Comber Greenway stops abruptly at Holywood Arches. The junction is named after the railway arch which took the Belfast and County Down Railway over the busy Newtownards Road.
Holywood Arches, Old Belfast (Facebook)
The route, theoretically, continues onwards over the Connswater, through Ballymacarret, across Dee Street, to Titanic Railway halt, across the M3 and there joins the Sydenham Road cycleway. And then you have still a mile to go to the city centre.
The above route is not the most direct way into the City Centre. It is not encouraging people from Ballyhackamore, Knock, King’s Road, Tullycarnet and Dundonald to get cycling, especially to destinations to the South and West of the City Centre.
The direct route goes along the Albertbridge Road, across the Albert Bridge, East Bridge Street and from there into Belfast City Centre.
It speaks volumes that Andrew Grieve from the Cycling Unit chose the Albertbridge Road route for his race against a motorist from the Holywood Road area into town, not the scenic route past Samson and Goliath, the Titanic Quarter and the Odyssee.
From a cycling perspective nothing will change for Andrew as he cycles to work.
And that is bad.
What is good is that work is about to start on the Eastern section of the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan from the City Centre to Titanic halt. This will at least cut out the dog leg through Belfast’s mythical quarter, but will still leave cyclists who need to be south and west of the City Centre with a lengthy detour.
The BRT has blazed ahead, with the approval of Sustrans, without considering cycling as a serious transport option.
The Department of Infrastructure BRT project team always presumed that cyclists can be lumped together with rapid buses. The original BRT consultation report mentions that consultation responders asked how bus lanes would benefit cyclists. The department’s response is that cyclists can use bus lanes. Which is in my view is not sufficient in answering the questions raised during the consultation, or my FoI request.
It leaves the impression cycling was not considered at all. The 12 bicycle parking spaces at the Dundonald Terminus are really adding insult to injury. The lack of bus stop bypasses in the entire plan is totally ignoring best practice on combining cycling and public transport.
The latest figures put cycling commuting levels in Belfast at 3%, but we know from the 2011 Census levels in South and East are above 5%. This has been achieved without much investment in infrastructure.
To lift cycling uptake higher we need to see segregated cycling routes along our arterial roads, where people need to go to work, to school or college and to shop. Cycling routes should not be put down glass-strewn, poorly lit alleys.
The plans for the BRT along Albertbridge Road are lazy, perfunctory. The parking bays are maintained on Albertbridge Road, even expanded. Cyclists get a painted lane countrybound, but no bus stop bypasses.
There is no protection at the Templemore junction where two eastbound traffic lanes merge and cyclists are expected to jostle for space with motorists.
There is no protection for cyclists at the Newtownards Road junction. Motorists still get their slip road to avoid the lights. Can this space not be better used for a segregated cycle path?
In the latest road safety report NI cyclists are more likely to get injured than car occupants. The blame for the crash lies with the other road user in 2/3 of cases. And in 3/4 of those careless driving is the root cause. This design should protect vulnerable road users and it fails.
Every design should be put through a review and be scored on safety. Without protection cyclists are still endangered at junctions. Paint won’t stop a careless driver straying into a cycle lane.
The plans should also be scored on their efficiency. I doubt these plans increase or improve the flow of buses. At Templemore Avenue and Newtownards Road junctions the bus lane still stops short of the junction in favour of an extra car lane.
The BRT is meant to shift car commuters towards public transport. An important victory was won when the preferred route was announced as the Newtownards Road. This meant the Comber Greenway was saved for active travel.
However, at every turn in the implentation of the project the BRT team have bent over backwards to give cars the same amount of road space as they were given before. This is a doomed exercise. BRT will not succeed without removing car traffic. And the only way to reduce car traffic is to remove their road space.
Should we, cyclists, rejoice at getting a piece of tarmac painted green, with a cute bicycle motif?
Those days are over. If Belfast is really serious about cycling these plans would have been radically different.
What if countrybound traffic was directed up Short Strand and then up Newtownards Road and citybound traffic down the Albertbridge Road?
Countrybound (green); citybound (red)
The current configuration of pavement, parking, 4 motor traffic lanes, parking, pavement could become pavement, cycle path, parking, bus lane in, general traffic lane, bus lane out, parking, cycle path and pavement.
We must bear in mind that urban roads should be optimised to move people, not cars. Cars are incredibly inefficient in urban environments. They take up too much space and most of the time they sit still. Parked somewhere.
Where to look for best practice?
One cannot help but peek at Utrecht where they found space for rapid transit buses, whilst giving cyclists, cars and parked cars their own space. Buses have pride of place in the middle of the road. Cars (if allowed) are reduced to one lane with a parking strip protecting the bicycle paths.
They got their priorities straight for the 21st Century when Belfast, despite Belfast on the Move, is still worshipping at the altar of King Car.