Taking back the Square, part 2

Three years ago I blogged on the consultation for the redevelopment of Shaftesbury Square, launched by the then Department of Social Development, now Department for Communities.

The plans mentioned the poor provision for cyclists travelling across the Square from North to South. It did not mention cyclists being unable to cross the Square from Donegall Road to Donegall Pass. No mention either of the Belfast Bikes hire stations in Botanic Avenue or Bradbury Place.

My blog post was picked up by the design company, GM Design Associates. My comments would be passed on to Billy Robinson, the project lead, who is a “keen cyclist”.

You then think in the intervening years, with Belfast Bikes establishing themselves into the streetscape, 2 Ciclovia events, increasing numbers of people on bikes crossing the Square daily for commuting, shopping or leisure, the plans under the aegis of a keen cyclist would move away from providing for cars to something more pleasing, more people friendly, more human scale.

So, what has changed?

The words remain good, though I have to take issue with the insertion of “most foolhardy” in the description of cyclists who currently use the Square.

How exceptionally hostile and hazardous is it?

Mapped are all collisions involving cyclists between 1998 and 2015. This reveals that lower Botanic Ave, site of the Belfast Bikes hire station, is a very hazardous place.

The hot spots for cycling collisions, besides the bottom end of Botanic Avenue are on the corner of Donegall Road and Shaftesbury Square;

outside the former Northern Bank on the corner of Bradbury Place;

and at the point where the lane entering Botanic Avenue and Donegall Pass meet:

The plans would only address the latter, as the plans are summarised best as the removal of the Botanic Avenue slip lane to make a larger public space.

At the end of my blog I scribbled a plan of how the plans could be improved. I was still maintaining the Great Victoria Street and Dublin Road gyratory.

We now have had 2 Ciclovia events, showing the potential benefit of pedestrianising Botanic Avenue and Dublin Road, and the excellent route Dublin Road would make as the primary access into the heart of Belfast, continuing along Bedford Street.

Over the years Belfast’s Golden Mile along Great Victoria Street has withered and is now only found in people’s memories and sepia tinted photographs. However, a lot of nightlife, pubs, restaurants and cafés are now along the axis of Dublin Road, Botanic Avenue and Bradbury Place.

The Department for Communities plans should look beyond the Square and move through traffic away from Dublin Road and Botanic Avenue.

Removing through traffic from Dublin Road will result in Great Victoria Street becoming two way, with a much simplified junction with Donegall Pass and Donegall Road. If Botanic Avenue were pedestrianised the junction would be far simpler still.

Great Victoria Street has ample space to accommodate 2 bus lanes, 2 general traffic lanes and cycle paths. If the Department for Infrastructure can give up its obsession with on-street parking.

Walking into a nightmare

The biggest problem with the Department’s plans is turning Shaftesbury Square into a shared space. This would require a massive reduction in traffic volume. The plans only mention a reduction in vehicle speed.

The plans set out 10 transport goals:

So let’s see how this has been translated into the plan.

No dedicated cycle route through the Square. No bus stop bypasses. A shared space, where up to 3000 vehicles an hour cars jostle for room to move. More car parking is included in an area where there is already no shortage of spaces.

This is not going to improve the place for pedestrians or cyclists. People with impaired vision or mobility will struggle to move safely across a space without clearly demarcated spaces for vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists.

Building crumbling infrastructure

It is not as if this idea has not been tried before. And failed.

Here is Frideswide Square in Oxford:

Read about damage here: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-36214992 or here: http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/14727336.More_cracks_and_damage_at_Frideswide_Square_just_days_after_it_reopened/

And concerns from cyclists: https://aseasyasridingabike.wordpress.com/2014/11/12/squeezing-out-cycling-with-two-tier-provision/

And visually impaired people: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-37560744

It was nominated for a prize. Mortifying.

Exhibition Road in London is often cited as a successful design, but I felt the central car space acts as a barrier to crossing the road, with pedestrians pushed together against the facades of the museum buildings:

Shared Space for the Fittest and Strongest

Closer to home, in Lisburn, Joanna Toner won a court case over the use of low kerbs in the town centre shared space development. “[Joanna] stated that previously she could walk around Lisburn city centre without difficulty, accompanied by her guide dog or using a white cane.” But no longer. The shared space has destroyed her independence and confidence.

Lord Holmes called for a moratorium on shared space schemes.

With the large volume of traffic on Shaftesbury Square the definition of shared space is pushed beyond its limit.

LTN 1-11 (link above) talks of a threshold of 100 vehicle movements an hour at which point the space becomes a road to be crossed, rather than a truly shared space. None of the arms of Shaftesbury Square are anywhere near that figure. Donegall Pass with 400 vehicle movements is the least busy but still 4 times the threshold.

In the GM Design plan the roads will remain roads to be crossed, and pedestrians will remain pushed to the edges of the Square, near the buildings.

How does a blind person negotiate with 50 vehicles a minute in crossing the Square? How will an 8 year old cycle safely across this space with around 70 buses per hour?

Traffic volume needs to be reduced dramatically before we start dreaming of turning Shaftesbury Square into a space for events. Simply putting a 20mph speed limit sign up and putting down nice slabs of stone is not going to achieve very much.

Inspiration from elsewhere

Haarlemmerplein, Amsterdam. Mark Wagenbuur did a little portrait of Haarlemmerplein in Amsterdam. Its redevelopment was controversial, with the design changing from a historically inaccurate pond to a water feature similar to the one at Belfast Custom House Square.

The take home message there is the rerouting of the main flow of traffic away from Haarlemmerdijk, across the square to Haarlemmer Houttuinen, just to the north. Removing the main flow of traffic enabled a more human scale square. Somewhere to chat and to spend time and money.

Similarly, Times Square, New York. Snøhetta, the designers, boldly pedestrianised Broadway between 42nd and 47th Street, removing a flow of traffic across Times Square.

The Department for Communities was inspired by Times Square, but GM Design Associates were not bold enough to remove any traffic flows across Shaftesbury Square.

Conversation

Noise pollution is a serious problem in Shaftesbury Square.

The dark blue splodge on the map above is where average daytime noise levels exceed 75dB. This is uncomfortably loud. People have to shout to make themselves heard.

One of the startling features of Dutch rush hours and cities is the lack of road noise. Staying in a B&B just off Amsterdam’s Vijzelgracht, the only clue that rush hour was in full swing was the ringing of tram bells and the sound of people chatting as they rode by on their bikes.

A street café is unimaginable in Shaftesbury Square unless road noise is reduced. Electric cars will reduce engine noise, but the equally noisy rumble of tyre noise and wind resistance remains.

Air Quality

These are NOx-emissions apportioned per vehicle type. We can now add that cars (especially diesels) are now known to be far more polluting than thought when Belfast City Council drew up its Air Quality Action Plan. Without drastic action Belfast air quality will fail to improve and annually 300 people will still die prematurely because of air pollution caused by traffic.

With these plans pedestrians and cyclists on Shaftesbury Square will continue to breathe in noxious fumes because no effort has been made to reduce through traffic.

Belfast Rapid Transit stunts development of arterial cycling routes

I am all for Rapid Transit. What I question about its implementation in Belfast is it being introduced without taking space from cars and removing space for cycle paths. In the consultation the Department for Infrastructure glibly dismissed cyclists’ concerns. I queried this with the Department and was told cyclists could use the bus lanes. As pointed out in the BRT consultation responses. And that was it. The Department for Infrastructure Cycling Unit shrugged its shoulders and Sustrans was happy with that.

In East Belfast a dogged campaign saved the Comber Greenway from being turned into a fast bus track. The route was put on the main Newtownards Road. Cyclists can use the parallel Comber Greenway.

In West Belfast the BRT goes up the Falls Road, Andersonstown Road and terminates on the Stewartstown Road. No alternative cycle route is available, though the Department for Infrastructure insists cyclists can use the paths through Bog Meadows instead.

That is perhaps fine for fit people on conventional bicycles, but everyone else will struggle.

The plan’s transport goals have the BRT at the apex of Belfast’s transport hierarchy.

The plans do not remove general traffic lanes to accommodate the dedicated bus lanes. And in the plans, despite having dedicated cycle tracks as a transport goal, no dedicated cycle tracks are included.

Unless GM Design Associates Billy Robinson, the foolhardy keen cyclist, doesn’t mind sharing with buses. And thinks a bus lane is a cycle lane.

I get tired trotting out this graph from Sustrans Belfast Bike Life report. Bus lanes you can cycle in are the least encouraging for getting more people to cycle.

Improving the design

Times Square, New York, shows how we can improve the presented plans. Dublin Road and Botanic Avenue need to be pedestrianised, with a two way cycle track along the entire length.

Donegall Pass is dead-ended for vehicle traffic at its junction with Botanic Avenue. Great Victoria Street becomes two way from Bruce Street to Bradbury Place. Great Victoria Street will have inward and outbound bus lanes, a general traffic lane in each direction and cycle tracks. The bus lanes and cycle tracks are continued up Bradbury Place. The cycle tracks flow behind the bus stops. On-street parking is removed entirely, leaving a only couple of loading bays and a taxi rank.

And if we really must continue to provide car parking…

In Leiden at the Lammermarkt an underground car park was built, leaving space on the surface for events. If Belfast were really ambitious it could do something similar. It has to be balanced by removing more surface parking in the city centre, so encouraging drivers not to take cars into the city centre.

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A Green Barrier to Cycling

Geraldine McAteer, the Sinn Fein councillor for Balmoral invited people to attend a Belfast City Council consultation on replacing the green steel barriers on Finaghy Road North railway bridge.

I went along to see what was planned. Would it address any of the problems around Finaghy Road North: the rush hour congestion; the lack of cycle infrastructure; the poor access to Finaghy railway halt; the dangerous junctions of Finaghy Road North with Diamond Gardens and Orchardville Avenue.

To cut a long blog short. No, these plans concerned themselves only with the look of the bridge:

There was a choice of cladding for the bridge sides, paving slabs or tarmac and lighting options.

Early in the day people expressed a clear preference for sides that allowed people to see the trains, and didn’t offer a blank canvas to graffiti “artists”.

Also, people wished to have the bridge reinforced with a containment kerb and rail. This is understandable. The local environment, with a high traffic volume is threatening.

Squeeze

One, unintended, consequence of a containment kerb and rail is the narrowing of footpath space. Some of the path width will be recouped from removing the green barrier. Narrowing will be bad for pedestrians and cyclists.

The road itself is very narrow and doesn’t allow cyclists easy filtering past the queue of traffic. Most cyclists will continue to use the footpath, but with less space, more conflict seems inevitable.

Great Heck

After the Great Heck Rail Crash in 2001 railway bridges across the UK were assessed for safety. The crash near Selby was caused by a sleep deprived driver plunging his Land Rover and trailer, loaded with a Renault 21, off the M62 onto the East Coast Main Line. The southbound early morning Intercity service from Newcastle to King’s Cross hit the Land Rover and was pushed into the path of a freight train travelling in the opposite direction. 10 people died and 82 were injured.

The bridge at Finaghy was identified as in need of most upgrading in Northern Ireland.

Very soon after the “upgrade” local politicians called for the “ugliest bridge in Ireland” to be improved. We can only hope the current consultation is the beginning of the end for the green walls of Finaghy.

Budget

There is no budget for major, meaningful improvements. The current consultation is simply looking at replacing the green containment wall with a prettier arrangement.

No plans exist to making the bridge safe for cycling. Many cyclists choose the footpath rather than go on the road. The bridge approaches and nearby junctions are outside the project’s remit.

The footpath is not much better; the area is blighted with pavement parking and dog dirt.

Unaddressed problems

  • Finaghy and Andersonstown are car-centred neighbourhoods
  • Finaghy halt is accessed through a pub car park;
  • Access to the station for people using mobility aids, prams and bicycles is circuitous;
  • There are steep steps leading up to the road;
  • There is no footpath on both sides of the road;
  • There is no protection for cyclists;
  • Drivers make walking from the station hazardous at the junctions of Finaghy Road North and Diamond Gardens and Orchardville Avenue (below)
  • Finaghy Road North is used by through traffic; it is a favoured route for taxi drivers to and from Belfast International Airport to south and east Belfast.

Solutions

1930s

This part of Belfast does not see much cycling. The 2011 Census shows the share for cycling at around 1% – about Northern Ireland average, but below areas to the northeast, closer to the city centre.

Few children cycle to school; the majority of primary school age children are brought by car. And all because the car is given priority.

Any solutions for this bridge should put the interests of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport above that of car drivers.

Changing the environment

Despite there being 3 primary schools, 3 secondary schools, a health centre and library within walking distance to Finaghy cross roads, the light sequence massively favours cars. In a 3 minute light sequence only one phase of 20 seconds are allocated to pedestrians. This is not quite enough to cross diagonally. Though some try:

The nearby side streets are rat runs and they should be bunged:

With BRT coming to the northern end of Finaghy Road North, more should be done to dissuade residents in the area reaching for their car keys when they need to go out. Stopping rat running and inappropriate through traffic will increase road safety in the area, which will enable people to walk to the train or bus, to work and school.

Incentives need to be offered to residents to discover for themselves how good and convenient public transport or cycling can be for them. Most people reach for their car keys, because the other options are simply not familiar to them.

Solutions – Cycling

The Belfast Bicycle Network Plan reaches Finaghy Road North by way of the private school grounds belonging to Malone College and Cranmore Integrated Primary School (red on the map below). Which is strange, because the school gates close when the last member of staff leaves in the afternoon. During the day visitors to the grounds using the back gate at Musgrave Park are buzzed in.

A better solution here is to take the network cycle path along the railway straight to the station (green on the map below). The railway embankment and grounds are wide enough to accommodate a path. I suspect at some stage there were sidings here.

Finaghy Road should have cycle tracks running its entire length. It would enable more pupils cycling to school. The principal of Cranmore IPS welcomes more pupils coming to school on foot or by bike, but the road environment simply makes it impossible.

A solution for the look of the bridge should be sufficiently flexible to allow for the construction of cycle tracks at a later date.

Solutions – station access

What is amazing is that the bridge over the railway never had a footpath on both sides, as this view of Finaghy Lane in the 1930s shows.

However there was an access to the railway down a set of stairs on the south side. It appears the land immediately below and beside the bridge is still owned by Translink and gives access to the station forecourt via an arch. Why can this lane off Ardmore Avenue not be used for vehicle access to the station, rather than crossing the pub car park?

Giving the station its own access might stop this kind of thing happening:

Solutions – Pedestrian access

The station is currently reached by steps from the road level down to the platforms. For people using mobility aids, prams and bicycles there is a detour to a ground level path leading to the southbound platform and the halt’s forecourt.

Not having a footpath on both sides of this urban distributor road is not acceptable; it discriminates against those who have difficulty crossing roads. The lack of a footpath adds to the bridge being perceived as a barrier.

Simply because a footpath was not there in the 1930s is not a good enough reason to not have it there 80 years later. The area has changed beyond recognition.

Pedestrian walkways can be added to each side of the bridge with ramps leading straight down to platform level on both sides of the road and railway line.

Conclusion

The replacement of the ugly green barriers is long overdue. It detracts from the area and makes the walking and cycling environment even more hostile.

Narrowing the footpath to install containment kerbs will increase conflict between pedestrians and cyclists.

None of the areas traffic problems are addressed and no budget is available to put pedestrians, cyclists and public transport first.

Greenway Lessons

We spent our summer holiday in Mayo, just north of Newport. The Great Western Greenway runs a short distance from the holiday home. We were separated from it by the busy N59. The Great Western Greenway deserves to be copied by county councils across Ireland, but it should not be a simple case of copy and paste. It can be improved.

Abandoned railways abandon cyclists

Controversial.

The path itself cannot be faulted. Using the railway infrastructure allows for a quick and cheap way to create a traffic free cycling route between places. Beeching, Benson and others blessed us with a wide network of potential Greenways. Like the former Sligo, Leitrim and North Counties Railway near Manorhamilton:

However. A big however. A railway is designed not to interact with local roads. It threads its way through the landscape separate from the grid of roads and streets. The landscape of Ireland is littered with arches and tunnels, taking railways over and under rivers, roads and hills. This creates separation between the Greenway and the land it passes through.

Burrishoole road bridge, now part of the Greenway

The consequence is that people will cycle the Greenway end to end, but not interact much with the area in between.

Mayo County Council has tried to overcome this by introducing short loops on local (restricted access) roads to encourage people to visit sights and places of interest within a short distance from the Greenway. These loops are signposted and well worth their while. The obvious jumping off point for these loops are former level crossings, or where farmers created access tracks to the fields using the old railway bed.

View from Rockfleet Castle, accessible from the Greenway using a signposted loop

Some of these loops cross the N59, or require people to walk or cycle a short distance along the 100km/h main road. A road with no pavement or cycle paths. The only safe way for us to cross was to put our 10 year old on the back and her bike on the front of my bike. Not everyone has the bike to do that.

It is not sufficient to create a Greenway and not do anything about the main roads in the vicinity. These need to be designed so an 8 year old or and 80 year old can make it across safely.

NIMBY

On Twitter I have had an exchange with a Maghery resident about a proposal to put a walking and cycling bridge across the Bann near its mouth with Lough Neagh.

They fear that the building of a bridge will increase vandalism, spoil scenery and bring hordes of tourists to peek into their houses. So far so “Not in my back yard”.

Greenway planners need to get resident buy in by clearly setting out Greenway benefit to them. They need resident involvement in design process, and allow a meaningful consultation. Many development schemes get mired in reviews and court cases, resulting in delays, simply because the consultation process was not used to give local residents a proper voice.

Sometimes residents have a point about not wanting a Greenway on their land. At Derradda on the Newport to Mulranny section the Greenway takes an unexpected detour. It first veers off the embankment, then follows local access roads, returning to the original line via a newly built path.

The red line in the map above goes through a homeowner’s garden.

The homeowner’s objections can be understood. Not every one wants a public path yards from their property.

What it also shows is that for Greenway building authorities need not gain 100% landowner buy in. Adjacent roads can be used, if cyclists can be safely given space there. It also means a Greenway can be built, before all landowners are on board with the idea. Seeing it in practice, showing the economic potential realised, might persuade people to allow access at a later date.

In many cases local roads near the old railway line only serve to give access to properties and fields.

Realistically, roads will need to be used because the railway land was in many cases sold off. This is especially the case in towns.

Rural greenways, urban no-ways

Historical map, (c) OSI

The Midland and Great Western Railway ceased operations relatively recently. The last train trundled along the line in 1970. Just north of Newport town the railway was completely dismantled, and the N59 was partly realigned and is now where the railway was. At Burrishoole the present N59 bridges the sea inlet to the tidal Furnace Lough where the railway used to be. The old road now serves as the Greenway.

I’m not entirely persuaded that the strip of paint will keep my family safe from an errant driver on this 80km/h road.

On the edge of Newport the railway line crossed the Mulranny road.

Arch being demolished, early ’70s

Only the remnant of the arch stands today opposite Kelly’s car dealer’s. The railway line itself was built on. A small house stands where the platform of Newport station ended. The station’s goods store is a place of worship.

It is easy to miss the entrance to the Greenway, which is situated at the corner of a gravel layby. Homemade signs direct cyclists to the path. Despite this local initiative bicycle users can be seen riding the main road beyond. Mayo County Council could do more to make the path entrance more obvious.

Most cyclists use the pavement between the end of the Greenway and the town centre. There is no cycle infrastructure at all in Newport itself. The Greenway continues towards Westport beyond the town; again cyclists use the pavement to bridge the gap between the Greenway and the town.

It seems that Mayo County Council values car parking more than providing a safe, continuous cycle path through Newport town centre.

With the acres of tarmac available on either side of the Newport River bridge more can be done.

The old railway bridge is not easily accessible for cycling, with stepped access. An odd arrangement, because it is the obvious alternative crossing point to the road bridge a little further downstream.

The railway line used to go through two tunnels south of Newport. I guess it was too costly to restore these and run the Greenway through them.

A common mistake

The Comber Greenway similarly ends at the edge of Comber town where the A22 has taken the place of the old Belfast & County Down Railway line. Cyclists have to use the Old Belfast Road and narrow, congested Castle Street and Mill Street to reach Comber town square.

A better solution in Comber is to route all motorised vehicles coming from Dundonald and the Glen Road (via Glen Link) down the A22 to the Killinchy Street roundabout. Make Railway Street one way Dundonald bound from Lime Grove to reduce rat-running. Block off the Old Belfast Road junction with the A22 and make the route from there to Comber town square a cycle priority street, banning access to motor vehicles at the A22 viaduct.

Removing through traffic from Castle Street and Mill Street will enhance the shopping experience; currently shoppers have very little room, with pavements barely wide enough for a pram. Castle Street could see motor vehicles removed entirely, with access maintained through Bridge Street Link.

Comber’s cycle streets could look like this:

It is for the people and traders of Newport and Comber to decide whether to bring the Greenway and its many users into the town centre safely, or continue to live with streets completely dominated by motor vehicles.

Michelle McIlveen as Transport minister had great ambition for the Comber Greenway to be a Cycle Superhighway, but how can it be a fully developed transport link if cyclists are abandoned at the edge of town?

Conclusion

The Great Western Greenway is a good template for Greenways across Ireland. The benefits are clear, adding millions to the local economy. From Waterford to Sligo, Leitrim and North Counties old railways are being transformed.

More thought should be given to drawing the Greenway into town centres. Simply painting a line on a road and sticking a bicycle motif down will not do. Such as this example from Westport.

Poor cycle lane design, along the R335 in Westport

In Northern Ireland proposals and plans for hundreds of kilometres of Greenways are in development. The lack of an Executive should not hold up local planning and design proposals.

However, some day soon a Minister will have to allocate budget to these plans and allow these paths to be built.

Out of despair…

I dedicate this post to David Catherwood, Stevie Lynch and Gavin Moore. I pray their deaths will not be in vain.

It is hard to find the right tone after the tragic events on 11 July 2017. Gavin Moore, a well-known member of North Down Cycling Club, died when a driver collided with him on the Ards to Bangor dual carriageway. My sympathies are with his partner and children.

At the same time I feel anger. Anger that in the space of one year three cyclists have died on North Down roads. Two on the A21, one on the A2. I’m angry that these deaths will soon be forgotten about by all but the immediate family.

On 19 July 2016 – A2, near Cultra, David Catherwood:

On 6 October 2016 – on A21, near Conlig, Stevie Lynch:

On 11 July 2017 – on A21, near Conlig, Gavin Moore:

It is for the authorities to establish how these three people died.

And in June 2017 a cyclist was injured on the A21 at the Newtownards Road roundabout on Bangor’s ring road.

What the these roads have in common is their near complete lack of designated cycle infrastructure.

The number of collisions involving cyclists across Bangor is sobering. Each dot represents someone whose trip out on a bicycle took an unexpected and unwelcome turn. Most, thankfully, resulted not much more than a grazed knee, or a broken bike, however for some that collision left them with life-long changes.

North Down MLA, Steven Agnew sees the need for better cycle infrastructure:

And perhaps in response the Department for Infrastructure built this:

(Co. Down Spectator, via Facebook)

UUP MLA Alan Chambers saw the funny side:

This kind of infrastructure is not going to enable 8 to 80 cycling, not even if the bicycle motifs and arrows are put the right way around.

It is totally unacceptable to have cyclists share road space with fast motor traffic travelling at 50 to 70mph. At these speeds an error by any road user can have serious consequences. At such speeds a collision with a pedestrian or cyclist will always result in death or serious injury. It is nothing short of a miracle that some walked away physically uninjured from the collision on Tuesday, 11 July.

(I will leave aside the A2 for this post. I hope to revisit it in the future.)

A Cycle Priority Street for Conlig

Before the A21 dual carriageway was completed in 1976 Bangor to Newtownards traffic went through Conlig village. The old road is still there as the Old Bangor Road and Main Street. It only gives access to the village. Conlig has 2 buses an hour in each direction.

Both motor vehicle access points from the bypass to Conlig have seen collisions with cyclists and are not safe. An alternative is needed.

The old road begins here and ends here, separated from the bypass by fences, but allowing pedestrian access in both cases. Widening access and building a short stretch of cycle path would allow cyclists access to the old road from the bypass.

The village main road currently has a 30mph speed limit, which is enforced by speed cushions. The presence of traffic calming suggests that speeding is an issue in the village. However, it is not a road with a high traffic volume.

The village environment can be improved and cyclists’ lives be saved by changing Main Street to a cycle priority street. 

Here is a cycle priority route in Utrecht, NL:

Overtaking is discouraged by including a cobbled centre median, forcing motorists to slow to cycling pace. The road itself only gives access to adjacent properties and through traffic is routed elsewhere. And the area is a 30km/h (20mph) zone.

Another example is this “fietsstraat” in Lent, near Nijmegen, NL. It is also a bus route. 

(www.verkeerinbeeld.nl)

A Cycle Priority Street cannot live in isolation. It is pointless to protect cyclists and at each end throw them in front of cars as bumper fodder.

At the Bangor end a short bidirectional path would need to be be built to take cyclists to the cycle priority street beginning. But there is also the generously laid-out Rathgael Road and Newtownards Road roundabouts. Both need to have protection for cyclists added. This can be achieved within the footprint of the current roundabouts.

And in Newtownards at the Donaghadee Road roundabout a similar pattern emerges. 

The A21’s generous lane widths, verges and median can be better used to provide designated cycle paths on either side of the road. The paths must be bidirectional to reduce the need for cyclists to cross the road. From Bangor the bidirectional path on the eastern side can be ended at the Green Road junction, allowing cycle access to the light industrial zone and government offices east of the A21. For onward travel the bicycle user can switch to the route through the village.

In Newtownards there is less space available, so a road diet of reducing the northbound from 2 to 1 running lane may be necessary to accommodate safe space for cycling.

At Conlig improvement can be made for the junction with Green Road. The best solution is to take pedestrians and cyclists over, or below, the main road into the village. The current arrangement of staggered pedestrian crossings and lights is not ideal. Until there is money found for a bridge or tunnel, the crossings will need to be adapted to allow bicycle users across the A21 and into Conlig village, via Green Lane.

Conclusion

3 fatal road traffic collisions involving cyclists, 2 at Conlig on the A21, should spur the authorities into action and make budget available to build infrastructure that will prevent more deaths in North Down.

  • Conlig village Main Street and Old Bangor Road could become a cycle priority street, taking cyclists off the main A21 carriageway. 
  • Short stretches of bidirectional paths will need to be constructed to connect the cycle priority street to Bangor and Newtownards. 
  • On the eastern side a bidirectional path can be built between Bangor’s ring road and Green Road, to reduce the need for bicycle users to cross the main carriageway.
  • The pedestrian crossing at the Green Road junction needs to improved.
  • The three main roundabouts on the A21 need to see protected space for cycling.

    Mid and East Antrim Cycling Routes Masterplan

    When I first arrived in Northern Ireland in 1992 I took my 3-speed Dutch bike on a trip from Belfast to Larne along the A2 on a sunny August Bank Holiday. It wasn’t until I reached Eden on the outskirts of Carrickfergus on the way back I encountered another cyclist: a venerable man on a well-maintained classic road racing bike. We looked at each other as if we had encountered an alien from another planet. We nodded by way of greeting and went on our way.

    On the back of their Local Development Plan, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council have presented their Cycling Routes Masterplan. You can get a copy by emailing Lynda Foy at the council.

    Lisburn and Castlereagh hid their Community Greenway plans in the lengthy Local Development Plan. Their plans were a giant step forward, but still well short of enabling a modal shift towards cycling. 

    Belfast also has a Network plan, but it should be ripped up and redrawn. It is half a plan. And the best half was mysteriously left out.

    Mid and East Antrim Borough Council have asked Sustrans to help develop their plans and it shows. At first glance the networks proposed for Ballymena, Carrickfergus and Larne are a true network of paths, reaching into neighbourhoods and connecting with key destinations: schools, railway stations, shops and businesses.

    The plan also reaches out beyond town limits with a number of Greenways across the council area. The maps rather optimistically mention existing cycle paths along the A26 and A8. 

    Sustrans authorship also shows itself in the reluctance to move away from shared use paths and more forcefully claim space for cycling on the towns’ main thoroughfares.

    A change of climate

    East Antrim is of course the constituency of Sammy Wilson MP, infamous for his climate change denial and nudity, who claimed that Northern Ireland’s climate and topography don’t lend themselves to cycling.

    It is satisfying then to see that this plan is the best of the three I have looked at. Imagine a steady stream of Larne residents pedalling past Wilson’s constituency office. These plans can make it so. Alas, the plans do not include a path along the length of Larne’s Main Street, but let’s hope Mid and East Antrim find the money to put a bike hangar, or public pump and repair station right in front of Wilson’s office.

    The plan does not contain many words, but instead showcases areas of opportunity and areas for improvement. The numbers on the town maps correspond to action points.

    Timescale

    The timescale for these plans is a leisurely 10 years. That is too long. It should be 5 years at most. We are facing an acute obesity crisis in UK and Ireland because of inactivity. 0% of school children cycle to school and we will fail them and their generation if we do not act. We cannot afford to let these plans drag on for a decade.


    None of the planned routes require large capital outlay. There are no iconic bridges to be built. These plans involve mostly retro-fitting paths to wide roads, and updating existing infrastructure. Many of the fixes such as cutting back vegetation can possibly be achieved within existing budgets.

    Even if there were need for an underpass, it wouldn’t take very long to build:


    Safety

    If there is serious money to be spent for the benefit of bicycle users it should be to make safe the borough’s junctions and roundabouts. What is missing from the plan is an inventory of dangerous junctions and roundabouts and actions to mitigate for the danger.

    This junction in Ballymena was the scene of a fatal collision involving a cyclist and a bus. The proposals don’t appear to address this junction other than with some paint creating an on-road route.

    Instead cyclists are to be ushered through a side street.

    As with the Belfast plan, these plans stand or fall by their offering cyclists a direct safe coherent route of consistent quality from anywhere in town to any destination. Or, if you don’t create a safe cycling environment you will not see an increased uptake of cycling.

    Opportunities

    The areas of opportunity identified are the very wide roads in the towns. 

    That is the Galgorm Road, where lane width far exceeds car width. The lane should be no wider than the bus. This would give acres of space either side for cycle paths and bus stop bypasses. Like so:

    Bike paths can be installed quickly without impeding existing traffic flows and at the same time prioritise bus services over cars. A pity therefore that giving up parking spaces and space on main roads for bike lanes is a battle these plans mostly avoid.

    Case 1, Ballymena:

    There is an obvious northeast to southwest diagonal route possible through the town centre. Note how the purple line doesn’t cross the town centre. Instead the bicycle user is routed away from the heart of the town and instead sent through a riverside park. It is a missed opportunity. Perhaps the roads here are too narrow to include cycle infrastructure. 

    Definitely no room for cycling here. 

    Case 2, Carrickfergus:

    Carrickfergus railway station is in the wrong place. It should be at the North Road bridge. This situation cannot be helped. However the back entrance is accessible on traffic free paths from North Road. You would think consequently that at the Sustrans NI HQ the North Road would see the first cycle route drawn alongside it. On the map North Road (yellow) runs from top to bottom with the railway station a red dot at the bottom of the map.

    North Road is perhaps a narrow lane. And putting in a cycle path alongside would need homeowners to give up their gardens. 

    Again, absolutely no room for cycling here.

    Best Practice

    There is no point in looking to Utrecht for inspiration on how we could change these good plans into excellent plans. Utrecht has spent in excess of €180 million in 4 years on cycling infrastructure. But the video makes a couple of good points.

    The Dutch cycle network doesn’t live in isolation. It is enabled (increasingly controversially) by a road and motorway network designed to keep motor traffic out of towns. It is aided by a ruthlessly efficient public transport network. It is underpinned by a philosophy of sustainable safety, enabling all age all ability cycling. It puts pedestrians and cyclists first. And these principles can be applied on a small scale. In Co. Antrim.

    Despite Copenhagen once again crowning itself the world’s cycling capital we have to look to small Dutch towns instead to understand how it all hangs together. On a small scale. In Venray

    At this point I usually bring up the larger city of Venlo 15 miles south. Mostly because I grew up there, though I was born in Horst halfway between the two. Venray, however, is by far the most bicycle friendly town in Limburg. It has a higher than Dutch average modal share for cycling. In many ways Venray can be compared to Mid and East Antrim’s three main towns. It has a rural catchment area with similar economic circumstances and a socially conservative political scene.

    In Venray they protect cyclists where needed:

    And keep out cars where they are not needed:

    And Venray has a large bicycle storage area near its station. A station, like Carrickfergus Station, built in the wrong place.

    Outlined in red are the covered bike racks. And they are always full to bursting with bikes as they are at every Dutch railway station. The storage area is not guarded but some bike lockers are available for added security. OV-Fiets hire bikes are also available.

    And obviously the station can be reached on designated cycle lanes:

    Venray has a lively cycling culture. It is justly proud of its annual 4 day bicycle tour festival at the end of July.

    Commuters

    Carrickfergus, Ballymena and Larne are firmly in Belfast’s commuter belt and many brave the horror of traffic on the M2 and M5 to access places of employment in the city. There is a rail service to these towns, but it could be much better. One train an hour to and from Ballymena is not good enough. 

    And that 26 mile train journey should not take 50 minutes and cost £13. The same journey is 35 minutes by car. The aim should be to offer at least two trains an hour taking no more than 35 minutes. There is no point in encouraging a bike-train solution to car commuting misery if the train bit is so costly in time and money.

    For comparison the diesel train service from Venlo to Cuijk is 28 miles, takes 37 minutes and has a frequency of 30 minutes. It costs €9.62 for a single journey. The Dutch government has pledged money so the line will be electrified and partially doubled to allow an increase in frequency and introduce intercity services. Additional stations could also be added at some point in the future, though for now a station at Grubbenvorst is shelved.

    As with Dutch trains there is little room for bicycles, and not at all in rush hour, unless it is a folding bike.

    To increase bike-train or bike-bus as a commuter mode and start relieving congestion on Belfast’s northern approaches cycle storage at stations and principal bus stops needs to be built and expanded.

    Bike lockers could be placed at unmanned halts and at bus stops, in addition to increasing racks at manned stations and using double deck bike racks as found at many Dutch stations. Or Cambridge, or Sutton:

    Hire bikes

    Bicycle hire should be made available at Carrickfergus, Ballymena and Larne stations. Visitors to the towns could then arrive by bus or rail and continue to their destination by bike.

    In conclusion

    These plans represent a real change for people in Mid and East Antrim. For many cycling to school, shops or work cycling can become a realistic alternative to taking the car. The proposed paths amount to a fairly coherent network. Many key destinations are made accessible for bicycle users, and some (but not all) main roads will get designated cycle space. 

    The plan itself admits there could be linking and new routes added. The lack of a spine to the networks in Ballymena and Carrickfergus will need to be addressed to ensure directness isn’t compromised. Forcing cyclists on an unnecessary detour is a central failing of the Belfast Network Plan; Mid and East Antrim need not make the same mistake.

    Another aim is to make bike-train or bike-bus a realistic alternative for commuters to Belfast. The plan includes installing extra racks at bus and railway stations. Bike lockers could be used at less secure unmanned halts and principal bus stops.

    A major block to developing bike-train are the poor railway connections to Belfast. The trains are too infrequent and slow and tickets too expensive. Significant investment in more rolling stock is needed to expand to a 30-minute frequency. Additionally, the continued use of diesel trains can no longer be justified. Electrification of NI’s rail network should be pursued as a priority.

    The plan does not set clear targets for cycling uptake. And as a result it is difficult to gauge how these plans will cope with 5, 10 or 30% modal share. What modal share is the council aiming for? The plans should say and the paths should be built to accommodate that level of cycling.

    Using shared paths is already causing problems in Belfast where cycling sits at 3-5%, so where possible they should be avoided. If shared paths need a Sustrans initiative to avoid conflict the shared path has outgrown its capacity to accommodate the volume of users with divergent needs.

    Finally, the biggest and darkest cloud. Unfortunately roads and transport are not controlled by councils. Instead roads are administered by the Department for Infrastructure. They are very reluctant to shift road space towards accommodating more bicycle users. The council’s Cycling Routes Masterplan could very well fall victim to Departmental inertia and lack of cooperation.

    Lisburn: Changing Gear at Last?

    Lisburn City and Castlereagh Council recently published its Preferred Options Paper for the Local Development Plan. The paper and it’s appendices contain a wealth of local information. It shows the direction in which the Council is heading. Some of this was foreshadowed in the Masterplan: the inexplicable decision to turn Lisburn Station into a Park and Ride halt, for instance. Another was the failure to recognise cycling as a grown-up transport option

    The Masterplan is slowly being implemented. Those markers of civic progress, new pavements, novelty streetlights, shared space and obstacles to the visually impaired are appearing in Lisburn centre.

    Cycling goodness
    The local plan contains numerous mentions of cycling and greenways.

    In response to the woefully inadequate cycling provision and the lack of proposals in any of the previous plans for meaningful cycle infrastructure in Lisburn I drew some lines on a map where I thought cycle paths could go in the built up area.

    Then the BMAP of 2015 and subsequent Local Development Plan were published and I discovered my dreams and the official vision were not much different. I suppose there are only so many permutations realistically possible.

    In addition to these Community Greenways the new development area to the southwest of Lisburn will be accessible through traffic free cycling and walking routes.

    What is different about my dreams and their plans is how these paths will look. Lisburn And Castlereagh worryingly talk about walking and cycling in the same breath, as if they are the same thing. And therefore one solution will suit both kinds of road users. And their solution is Community Greenways.

    I highlighted the poor suitability of the Community Greenways for cycling before, using the Lagan Valley Regional Park to Whiterock route as an example. This meandering footpath appears to have been quietly dropped in favour of an orbital route following the A55 Belfast ring road.

    Belfast’s proposed bicycle network

    A blank slate

    Lisburn is blessed with having a nearly completely blank slate when it comes to cycling. There are (segregated) shared use paths along the Lagan and beside Prince William Road and Knockmore Road. In the wider Lisburn and Castlereagh Council area there is also the Dundonald section of the Comber Greenway. And that is, disappointingly, all.

    Segregated cycling beside Prince William Road

    As they say in the Netherlands: a good beginning is half the work done. Lisburn can put itself ahead of local authorities elsewhere in Northern Ireland by taking what good there is an extending it into a full network across the urban centres in the council area with space designated for walking and separate space designated for cycling.

    Silver bullet

    Cycling is recognised in the Development Plan as a key tool to help achieve its six strategic objectives: Enabling Sustainable Communities and Delivery of New Homes; Driving Sustainable Economic Growth; Growing our City, Town Centres, Retailing and Offices; Promoting Sustainable Tourism, Open Space and Recreation; Supporting Sustainable Transport and Other Infrastructure; Protecting and Enhancing the Built and Natural Environment.

    Enabling Sustainable Communities and Delivery of New Homes

    There is something contradictory about this objective. The highlighted housing plans in Lisburn West and Carryduff all add to urban sprawl, which induces car dependency and reduces sustainability. Only a few opportunities currently exist to add to Lisburn town centre housing, but encouragingly is not discounted completely. It is crucial these edge of town developments are fully accessible by public transport and have paths to enable cycling and walking. It is crucial sustainable transport is designed into the area’s plans, and not added as an afterthought. 

    The paths for the Lisburn southwesterly expansion follow the river Lagan and skirt the development along the M1 and the Halftown Road. A person using these paths doesn’t find entering Lisburn town centre any easier, because it has a formidable barrier of fast-flowing roads to the west and south: Thiepval Road, Governor’s Road, Laganbank Road and Queen’s Road. 

    To develop Lisburn in a southwesterly direction more needs to be done to allow cyclists and walkers safely across this torrent of traffic. The current beg-button crossings are inadequate for pedestrians. There is little to help the cyclist. 

    Pedestrians waiting to be allowed across

    Shattered Dreams

    Where this ideal of sutainability often falls down is translating them from a lofty planning statement to eventual execution. The Woodbrook development off the Ballinderry Road should serve as a reminder of this, where the economic downturn thwarted NI’s “first eco-village”.

    The plans for development of housing, or indeed transport infrastructure should be robust enough that in a round of cost-cutting sustainability is not the first casualty.

    Supporting Sustainable Transport and Other Infrastructure

    Lisburn: Opportunity to grow sustainable travel

    Sustainable travel solution doesn’t just mean finding solutions for work and school related journeys. It also means making the shopping centres accessible for cycling. The new Lisburn West development is only a Motorway’s width away from the Sprucefield shopping complex. It may as well be on another planet. There are existing underpasses which could easily see cycle and footpaths added and so increase accessibility from Lisburn.

    The town’s healthcare facilities have very poor cycle parking provision, and though there is traffic-free access to Lagan Valley Hospital from the Lagan Towpath more needs to done to allow safe cycling and walking across the nearby Laganbank Road/Hillsborough Road junction. Walking from Lisburn centre (for instance from the bus station) to Lagan Valley Hospital requires three separate beg-button crossings to cross the Laganbank Road. The refuges are very narrow; with railings added it forms a tight squeeze for parents with double prams, people using mobility aids, or cyclists too scared to use the main carriageway.

    Changing Car Culture

    To change its citizens’ travel habits the authorities need to address central failings in its current road infrastructure. It is too car-centred. Nothing in these plans reduces this car-centredness. Lisburn is too easily accessible by car, and it’s retail core is slowly being strangled to death by its noose of roads surrounding it.

    Encouragement of sustainable travel is doomed to fail if the current road network makes the decision to go by car too easy. The Plan should enable sustainable travel by building safe designated walking and cycling routes, investing in public transport by (for instance) increasing frequency and density of the network of bus routes. At the same time the use of cars should be actively reduced, by making fewer town centre parking spaces available and removing road space for cars in favour of more sustainable modes of travel.

    The council continues with its inexplicable intention to promote and use Lisburn Railway Station as a Park and Ride facility. This is inviting traffic into the town centre, but the drivers then go off to Belfast and spend their time and (more importantly) money there. To improve Lisburn centre in terms of congestion, air quality and land use it surely is better to remove this unnecessary traffic to Lisburn West/Knockmore?

    Cross-Cutting Themes

    The Local Development Plan contains a number of “Cross-Cutting Themes”, which are addressed within each objective: Promoting Equality of Opportunity; Enhancing Quality of Life; Strengthening Communities; Supporting Economic Development; Sustaining a Living and Working Countryside; Supporting Good Design and Quality Places; Protecting and Promoting the Natural Environment; Supporting Infrastructure; Climate Change.

    Promoting Equality of Opportunity

    Rural areas outside Belfast suffer from having very poor connections to centres of employment, schools or amenities such as shops and health centres. The rural areas of Lisburn and Castlereagh are no different, with bus timetables restricted to a few buses a day, aimed primarily at the school run.

    People who live in these public transport deserts are reliant on private cars for every journey. Therefore this Development Plan will need to address the needs of people who do not drive, or have easy access to a car.

    Enabling people to cycle to local amenities should be one of the ways to increase equality of opportunity. Practically, this could be assisting people to buy electric assisted bicycles, having a lease scheme. Secure bike stands at principal bus stops and rail halts will help encourage bike-bus or bike-train as a viable alternative to the car.

    Supporting Infrastructure

    Planned Community Greenways on southeastern fringe of Belfast

    Former Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard provided a boost for cycling in committing to the building of Greenways. Lisburn and Castlereagh has committed to the Carryduff Greenway project, but the path is not mentioned in this Plan. The Greenway will run from the Cairnshill Park and Ride to the Lough Moss Centre in Carryduff. It would be good to see this path included.

    Northern Ireland used to have an extensive network of local railways, which due to their lack of profitability were closed in the ’50s. The Benson Report closed nearly all the remaining lines, leaving the minimalist network we have today. Lisburn and Castlereagh saw the loss of the line to Comber (which became the Comber Greenway) and the line to Dromore and Banbridge, which was largely bulldozed to make way for the A1.

    The A1 is a route of strategic importance, but totally unsuitable as a cycling route, because it is a dual carriageway expressway. Thought should be given to developing the remnants of the Knockmore to Banbridge line into a Greenway as an alternative to the A1. Certainly in removing the bottleneck around Sprucefield space for cycling should be designed into the plans from the outset to enable cycling access from Lisburn to Sprucefield and on to Hillsborough and beyond.

    Dromore railway viaduct (Brian McElherron)

    Many important A-roads slice through Lisburn and Castlereagh, fanning out from the urban sprawl of Greater Belfast. These roads have a dreadful road safety record: in the past 4 years 3 cyclists have been killed on Lisburn and Castlereagh roads. 

    To safeguard cyclists and pedestrians all the A-roads should have designated cycle and footpaths beside them, or running closely parallel. Many of these A-roads have hard shoulders and wide verges, so installation of safe designated cycle paths should not impact on road space or landscape.

    A26 near Glenavy (Google)

    Addition of safe cycle infrastructure will enable people living in the coutryside to cycle instead of drive, to have better access to bus stops, railway halts and nearby villages and amenities. Using an e-bike will increase the range of amenities people can access without having to use a car.

    Accessibility

    The appendices include maps with travel times for walking, cycling and driving to Lisburn, Forestside, Moira and Carryduff.

    Here, for instance is the cycle map for Lisburn, showing that the entire built up area can be traversed within a leisurely 30 minute ride. 

    Electrically assisted bicycles would greatly increase the distance people of average fitness can cover by bicycle especially in the rolling countryside to the south of Lisburn.

    A similar analysis for public transport appears to be unavailable in the Plan. This raises the question if beyond the urban area public transport is too sparse to be an alternative to car travel. Investment to increase bus and train frequency is much needed.

    Enhancing Quality of Life

    In the news recently we learnt of the health benefits of cycling. The burden of inactivity on society and the NHS is measured in billions of pounds per year. It is money we can ill afford to spend. Incorporating and enabling cycling into our urban designs will help people to get and remain healthy.

    Air pollution is an acute crisis that is killing 1000s of people across the UK prematurely every year. The prevalence of diesel engines and car manufacturers cheating emissions data means we can no longer simply encourage more traffic by building more roads and adding to Greater Belfast’s sprawl. Sprawl encourages car use as people choose or are forced to live far away from their place of work, schools or town centres.

    Lisburn has spread and will continue to spread, according to these plans. However, in common with many town and city centres Lisburn’s core is not populated densely at all. Measures should be taken to rationalise the town centre car parks into a couple of multi-storeys and reusing the surface sites for economically more profitable use and housing.

    Also the large tract of land owned by the MoD to the north of Lisburn’s centre should be carved up for housing and business, before more greenfield sites are developed.

    Supporting Economic Development

    One of the great fallacies held in our society is that driving a car is adding to our economy. The money raised through taxes does not cover the outlay needed to enable driving at current levels. More and more people are suggesting road pricing can no longer be avoided. We are paying in our health and environmental budgets for the damage done to our health, environment and society by the utter car-centredness of 20th Century urban development in Northern Ireland.

    By contrast, cycling has been shown to add to the economy, to be of net benefit. The boost to the economy through building of the Great Western Greenway between Westport to Mulranny in Mayo has added in excess of €7.2 million per year to the local economy. 

    Minister Hazzard was right to encourage Greenways, but cycling’s potential is more than income through tourism. Its benefits are also clear through less congestion, boost for local shops, better health and less environmental damage through NOx emissions, climate changing CO2 and noise.

    Sharing the vision – Millmount Village

    The Plan makes a great deal of Millmount Village on the outskirts of Dundonald, adjacent to the congested A22 to Comber and the Comber Greenway.

    It is therefore disappointing that the developer and estate agent pay little attention to sustainable travel. The Comber Greenway, which provides a near total traffic free cycle commute to Comber, East Belfast or Belfast city centre, is only mentioned in relation to leisure. The Comber Greenway runs directly past the site.

    The developer still talks of commuting by car, generously underestimating the time needed to go from Dundonald to the Titanic Quarter. It fails to mention that Titanic Quarter can be reached by a nearly 100% traffic free cycle route.

    Also missing from the advertising is Dundonald Park and Ride, minutes away from the development. It allows people to get to Belfast City Centre destinations by a Belfast Rapid Transit bendy bus.

    Whilst the Council sets out how Millmount is a shift towards sustainability, in reality the choice to drive is put first, with realistic alternatives not even mentioned.

    Conclusion

    The Development Plan makes clear that growth in Lisburn and Castlereagh cannot be maintained using our current transport models based on private car use. The council is right to point towards more sustainable communities, where cycling is a viable alternative to car use.

    The council see that its location on one of this island’s key transport corridors could be better used by developing the land to the southwest of the Lagan. However, the spread of Lisburn should be checked and more efforts should be made to develop economically inactive sites within Lisburn centre, reducing surface car parking and putting in its place quality housing.

    Car use needs to actively reduced by removing town centre parking, increasing accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists to key destinations across the Lisburn area.

    The council see the benefit of rural Greenways, but fail to include the Carryduff Greenway project, or develop plans for the old Knockmore to Banbridge line to create a safe designated route for cycling between Lisburn, Hillsborough, Dromore and onward to Banbridge, Scarva and the Newry Canal Towpath or towards the southeast through Rathfriland, Castlewellan to Newcastle.

    Elsewhere more can be done to increase rural utility cycling by developing the use of e-bikes, providing safe designated tracks along the council’s A-road network, installing secure bike racks at key bus stops and railway halts. Money needs to be poured into increasing bus and train services.

    And finally

    Away from transport, the Lagan supported a large textile industry powered by water mills. It would be good to see water mills return to provide electricity to the communities along its banks.

    The Alternative Belfast Bicycle Network Plan

    The official version is pretty poor. Here’s my alternative.

    Here’s that Department for Infrastructure map again:

    Note the large blank spaces on the map in the south and east of the city. Let’s improve it.

    First we need identify where cyclists currently are. 

    They are in the city’s bus lanes along arterial routes, according to the Department for Infrastructure. One of the interesting things to have come out of the Taxis in bus lanes trial is evidence that cyclists use bus lanes in ever greater numbers:

    NIGreenways:

    The same data also show how taxis in bus lanes depress cycling figures. Cycling is virtually non-existent in West Belfast, with modal share below average for the whole of NI. The unique presence of taxi “buses” are to blame for keeping cycling figures low. 

    Yellow areas: taxi buses have 2nd biggest share of commuting traffic after cars

    Why do cyclists ride in bus lanes? Let’s quote the Department’s network plan: 

    Coherence: cycling infrastructure should form a coherent entity, linking all trip origins and destinations; with a continuous level of provision;

    Directness: routes should be as direct as possible, based on desire lines, since detours and delays will deter use;

    Attractiveness:  routes should be attractive on subjective as well as objective criteria. Lighting, personal safety, aesthetics, noise and integration with the surrounding area are important;

    Safety: designs should minimise the danger for all road users; and

    Comfort: bicycle routes need smooth,well-maintained surfaces, regular sweeping, and gentle gradients. Routes need to be convenient to use and avoid complicated manoeuvres and interruptions.

    In the absence of a safer alternative, the relative safety of bus lanes are a refuge to cyclists. But that misses out that bus lanes are also direct and in the morning peak hours a relatively coherent network. Certainly more coherent than the existing cycle paths.

    Morning (left) and evening bus lane network (NIGreenways)

    In drawing up its bicycle network plan, the Department is ignoring direct routes along arterials, arguing they are used by hardened commuters who will cycle a straight direct route regardless of the level of provision (which is mostly true) and inexperienced or novice cyclists will go out of their way to use a safe off-road alternative (which is not true). In their own words:

    “detours and delays will deter use”

    Humans tire and in Rotterdam as in Belfast cycling numbers drop off sharply after 5-6 miles. Make a route too long and people will use transit or their own car instead.

    Belfast’s Bicycle Network should target people who currently use their car for journeys less than 5 miles. Research in London shows how 50% of car trips there could be cycled instead in 10 minutes or less.

    How people in Belfast get around

    When you compare Rotterdam with Belfast, it immediately becomes apparent Belfast commuters do not use public transit to the same extent. And for shorter distances Belfast commuters do not cycle at all. 

    A similar proportion in both cities walk short distances. The presence of cycling infrastructure does not affect the number of people walking. Consequently, should Belfast build cycling infrastructure then its users will be by and large people who drove before.

    Any strategy to reduce congestion in Belfast will need to encourage more people to use train or bus if their commute is over 5 miles, and convince those within a 5 mile radius of City Hall that cycling is a viable alternative. And that means all residents of Belfast:

    Almost the whole city is less than 5 miles from City Hall

    The network plan as presented by the Department for Infrastructure brings a path to within 400m of the majority of homes in Belfast. The vision recognises the existence of the amenity cyclist. All good. 

    The planned routes then avoid amenities, mostly situated along Belfast’s main roads. Schools are not served well by the plans. Direct routes to the Royal Hospitals along Boucher Road and Grosvenor Road veer away within sight of the destination. This is difficult to comprehend.

    What the Department’s plans clearly lack is directness. With the official plans relying heavily on sharing space with pedestrians, and leaving cyclists to share with motor vehicles along main roads safety is an issue also.

    As illustration for the Department’s skewed priorities:

    Cycling (green) vs. driving; how much quicker again if there were a cycle path beside the Ormeau Road?

    Not all routes in the official plans are bad ideas, and not all bits of the badly chosen routes are useless. All in all, most of it can be retained as a secondary network reaching into the heart of neighbourhoods, giving access to all.

    Cycle Superhighway 

    What I find funny, from a Dutch perspective, is the UK’s obsession with cycle superhighways. Photos and videos of this space age cycle infrastructure in London invariably show what Dutch people call a “fietspad” or even a “fietsstrook”. Fietspaden (cycle paths) and fietsstroken (cycle lanes) can be found in any Dutch village, town and city.

    Snelfietsroutes (cycle superhighways) should be aimed at replacing cars on busy transport corridors. They are born out of the realisation around a third of traffic on congested strategic trunk roads is local traffic, going only a short distance, a distance that can be cycled. 

    The Rijnwaalpad (15.8km) between Arnhem and Nijmegen, alongside the busy A325, sees around 1000 cycle users daily, 50% of which cycle the path’s entire length; 20% of users have bought an e-bike specifically for that commute. And 90% commute all year. 

    Michelle McIlveen, as Minister for Regional Development, went to see the Beuningen to Nijmegen snelfietsroute, and hoped it would be a good template for an upgrade of the Comber Greenway to a cycle superhighway. And it is.

    Other cycle superhighways can be included, using existing paths, but upgraded to suit commuting, reaching beyond the city limits into Belfast’s commuter belt. Paths towards Holywood, Comber, Newtownabbey, Lisburn and Carryduff are viable, though the latter would include a long incline which would deter people on unassisted bicycles.

    In my version of the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan Cyclesuperhighways have been included.

    Community Greenways

    A number of potential routes have been identified across Belfast that could act as Community Greenways. These are contained in the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan 2015. They are shared use paths, although a more in-depth look reveals most routes are not set out with cycling in mind.

    The Department’s plans include some of these, but as they are not designated for cycling, it would be hard to use these to grow cycling into double figures.

    The same goes for the Lagan Towpath. It would be hard to grow this into a major cycling route carrying 4 to 5 times the current number of bicycle users without causing conflict with other path users. 

    To grow cycling, designated cycle tracks need to be put in along arterial routes near to the Greenways and Towpath, with links from the Greenways to feed into the arterial route.

    Copy and paste, replace “London” with “Belfast” and remove anything that costs too much money

    How Belfast gained its plans is roughly following London’s LCDS and ignoring large bits of it. In short, the capital TfL planned its provision around a 400m by 400m grid. This was overlaid on a map and then pushed into place to fit existing roads, streets and cycle paths. These prospective routes are then assessed on safety, functionality, accessibility and a final coherent network is arrived at. One hopes. 

    Like all things copied and pasted from existing GB schemes to NI schemes, some stuff just gets deleted. Isn’t that so, Arlene?

    And what got deleted from the London scheme was putting in cycling provision along main roads, because that brings with it bothersome assessments of safety at junctions and consequently costly remedies to make junctions safe.

    The Belfast plans were perhaps meant to be cheap and cheerful, effectively putting a sign beside an existing footpath, proclaiming it part of the Bicycle Network and so one more box can be ticked.

    That is not good enough.

    London’s experience shows that other than a few flagship routes and a couple of Mini-Hollands there is no coherent network to speak of. “Yet”, I add hopefully.

    Belfast is much smaller, the population size of a typical London borough, but geographically more spread out. Which should make designing a coherent network easier.

    Belfast Rapid Transit

    Over the past year or so in this blog I have pointed out the deadening hand of the Belfast Rapid Transit scheme, stifling development of cycling across the city. In the Department’s plans the Newtownards Road and Falls Road have been abandoned as potential cycle network routes. Worse, the Department wishes to see BRT buses on more main arterial routes, driving a horse and cart through the Bicycle Strategy.

    Most of Belfast’s arterial road grid is configured with 2×2 running lanes, with one lane set aside permanently for parking and a second lane designated partially as bus lane, but also acting as a car park outside peak hours.

    In a city blighted by congestion, it is wasteful designating between 25 and 50% of road capacity to parking cars. Roads are for moving people, not for storing private property.

    The parking space on arterial roads are effectively the Department for Infrastructure reserving space for BRT lanes. A bit like British holidaymakers in Majorca putting their towels on poolside sun loungers at the crack of dawn to annoy Germans.

    Yet, I am in favour of the BRT. I wish to see quality designated cycle infrastructure beside it. And I wish both these modes of transport flourish for the good of Belfast. On our arterial roads that means one thing: restricting car use. Because cars are incredibly inefficient at moving people in urban areas.

    Belfast can have BRT and have cycle paths, but should remove general traffic either partly, or entirely, from routes that should serve to move lots of people, quickly and efficiently. 

    So here is my plan:

    Blue: cycle superhighways; red: designated cycle paths; green: shared space. Black circles: roundabouts with protected space for cycling.

    Should it boil down to a choice between a path along an arterial route or a shared space Greenway through a park, the arterial route should be built first.

    If we are serious about cycling as a transport mode all main arterial routes must be reconfigured. A strip of on street parking or parking laybys must be sacrificed to accommodate cycle paths.

    (BRT) bus lanes should take space from general traffic lanes. And should not enough space remain to accommodate private cars going in both directions, then the route should be made a one way, with a nearby arterial running the other way.

    For example…

    In that case the road layout could be changed like so:

    Road works often give a sense of what space can be spared. This particular stretch of my evening commute is usually an illegal car park. It being coned off created no additional congestion.

    Temporary road works showing where cycle paths can be built

    And I hope the Department for Infrastructure take on board my criticism of their plans so Belfast can see this kind of thing also:

    Slow Road to Lisburn

    It was reported recently Belfast’s Lisburn Road is the most congested road in the UK outside London in the evening rush hour. Similarly, Ormeau Road is one of UK’s most congested roads in the morning.

    Belfast also regularly features at or near the top of the table of most congested UK cities.

    Inrix estimate congestion causes £30 billion worth of damage to the UK economy, or nearly £1000 per driver. This seems well over the top. The Telegraph put a more realistic £4.3 billion bill for congestion annually, which works out at around £30 million annually in Greater Belfast.

    (Coincidentally, the cost of 12 monthly rail tickets for travel between Lisburn and Belfast Great Victoria Street is £1000.)

    Inrix, who put together the congestion data make alarming suggestions that without investment in road upgrades Belfast will choke on traffic. But beyond headlines and a call for investment in more and bigger roads, Inrix offer nothing that helps urban planners. At best their figures are an indicator something is not working.

    Local headlines are not any more trustworthy: Belfast Telegraph claim the city’s worsening congestion problem is

    blamed on factors like segregated cycle lanes and poorly-planned roadworks.

    The Lisburn Road between Methodist College in Belfast and Wallace Park in Lisburn which Inrix have crowned most congested outside London has no segregated cycle lanes along the entire stretch of road. None.

    So, it must be those poorly planned road works.

    Or could it be something else? Such as too many people using cars for short urban journeys all at the same time?

    Numbers

    In 2014 16910 cars a day passed the counter at Dunluce Avenue with a maximum of 1310 cars an hour at 5pm countrybound. The morning peak is 1280 citybound. At King’s Hall 19670 cars are counted citybound with a peak of 1670 in the morning. There is no data there for countrybound traffic. At Derriaghy 9710 cars pass the counter daily, with a morning peak citybound of 790, an evening peak of 800. At Lambeg it is busier than Derriaghy with 14750, with peaks of 1310 in the morning and evening.

    Not desperately huge. A principal route between two towns should be able to cope with traffic volume. Many roads have far higher traffic numbers, but cope very well.

    History

    Lisburn Road used to be a toll road which rivalled the older and hillier Malone Road slightly to the east. The toll booth was at what is now Tollgate House in Bradbury Place. In 1858 tolls were abandoned. The Belfast to Lisburn railway runs parallel to the road, crossing over the road at Derriaghy halt.

    Tollgate House on the site of the original toll house (Google)

    Development along the route took off in the late 1800s at the height of the industrial boom and continues to this day with new housing developments encroaching on the last remaining green field between Belfast and Lisburn, used currently as a BMX track.

    The road is home to numerous shops, but especially between King’s Hall and Lisburn residential developments dominate.

    Strategic road?

    The A1 is part of NI’s strategic road network, but only for the section between Sprucefield near Lisburn and the Irish border. Between Belfast and Lisburn the strategic role is reserved for the M1.

    The European Union don’t talk of strategic roads, but of corridors, the total bundle of roads, railways and waterways between two places. Belfast sits at the northwestern end of a corridor stretching, by way of Dublin, across Europe to Marseille on the Mediterranean coast.

    Whilst Brexit need not stand in the way of EU funding of connections between Dublin and the European mainland across England and Wales (similar to EU funding transalpine routes in Switzerland), the EU might not be so willing to provide funding for A1 and M1 upgrades in NI post Brexit, or indeed upgrades in Scotland and the north of England.

    Taking on congestion in Belfast will require serious funding as Inrix suggest. But not solely on our roads as they would like, but across the whole bundle of road and rail connections between central Belfast, suburbs, the commuter belt and beyond. After Brexit it remains to be seen if there is any political will or money to improve Belfast’s transport infrastructure.

    So, yes, the Lisburn Road is strategic but as part of the whole bundle of connections between Lisburn and Belfast. And resolving the congestion problem will need to take into account rail, motorway, local roads and Lagan Towpath.

    Improving the Lisburn Road will mean investing in the entire corridor.


    Local access or car park?

    In 2013 the Department of Regional Development introduced a scheme to improve traffic flow. The Department deemed the tidal parking restrictions a success and traders were happy, because customers could park outside their shop at any time of the day.

    The changes were made permanent in 2014.

    And less than 3 years after the trial started congestion is said to be worst in the UK outside London. I called it a failure even earlier, because of persistent illegal parking.

    TransportNI have yet to make use of their power to tow illegally parked cars. In the meantime enforcement of restrictions by issuing fines is haphazard. The threat of fines is not enough to deter habitual offenders. And obviously a car with a ticket is still causing an obstruction to traffic flow.

    Confused traders

    Traders need their shops to be accessible to customers. They also don’t want to see them sitting in traffic jams, you’d assume.

    Belfast on the Move is a steategy aimed at increasing access to Belfast City Centre. That’s a good thing, no? Belfast Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) have been opposed to Belfast on the Move from the very start. They see the strategy which has delivered a drop in numbers of cars, an increase in number of people accessing the city centre, increase in numbers of public transport users, cyclists and pedestrians, an increase in number of cars parking and people staying longer, an increase in footfall and takings as detrimental to small businesses.

    It stands to reason that any plans to alleviate Lisburn Road congestion by removing cars or even car parking spaces will meet with opposition from trader organisations, despite their trade and the wider economy suffering from economic damage caused by congestion.

    The FSB complain about congestion harming trade and at the same time that Belfast was becoming a “very hostile place to bring your car”. They fail to see that making it easier for drivers to access Belfast, the more congested it becomes.

    Politicians and traders need to learn that plentiful parking does not equal high footfall. Instead, parking is an invitation to drive and increases congestion. Belfast City Council have recognised this in their Parking Strategy.

    Any solutions?

    Before he went rogue, Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard, said:

    “Investing in public transport, walking and cycling must be at the heart of our transport policy.  It is the only way we can address congestion in our key urban centres, enable people and goods to move easily and ensure the north remains an attractive place to live, work, shop, visit and invest.”

    Minister Hazzard announced the Department for Infrastructure’s 3-five-10 strategy. The quote above is from the press release. The strategy’s aim is to increase active travel and public transport and reduce car dependence for short local journeys.

    Part of the Lisburn Road’s problems stem from confusion about its function. The road serves as a through route for Belfast to Lisburn traffic, a road to give access to residential areas and businesses and also acts as a car park.

    It would be better to unravel these roles, decide on the primary function of the A1 route and remove all other traffic to a better suited road or space.

    Congestion beating measures should offer people a choice of means to get to their destination. Ideally, walking, cycling and public transport should be cheaper, faster and more convenient than use of a private vehicle.

    For the Lisburn Road from Black’s Road Park and Ride to Bradbury Place the 3-five-10 strategy to reduce congestion should be employed. 

    Some ideas for improvement:

    • Between Bradbury Place and King’s Hall the road should be transformed to move people, giving clear priority for active travel and public transport.
    • Bus lanes must run continuously from Black’s Road to Shaftesbury Square. Allowing the single traffic lane to splay into two, before merging them again into one soon after, causes congestion.
    • A continuous cycleway must be built along the entire length of road from Belfast to Lisburn.
    • To allow for bus lane and cycleway installation on-road parking must be removed.
    • Reduce the number of interactions at junctions by putting bollards across minor side roads, having more side roads made one way, and banning right turns for all but a handful of junctions.

    • Belfast Bikes should expand further up Lisburn Road with docking stations at 300 to 400m intervals.
    • Capacity at Black’s Road Park and Ride must be increased, with perhaps slip roads from and to the M1 built to serve the Park and Ride only to enable more drivers to leave their cars at the edge of town.
    • An additional railway halt to be built at Black’s Road to allow people to park and continue by rail, but also provide better access to public transport to residents of Black’s Road.
    • Adelaide halt must be made fully accessible for wheelchair bound passengers, mums with prams and train passengers wheeling luggage or bicycles. Currently, footbridges to Lisburn Road and Apollo Road are stepped, not ramped.

      People fear the bath tub effect that closing off or reducing a road’s capacity will inevitably lead to traffic overflowing and causing congestion chaos elsewhere. In practice a significant portion of traffic ceases to exist.

      Cycling

      The Lisburn Road passes through areas with very divergent cycling uptake. From Finaghy down to the city centre cycling commuters make up between 3 and 5% of total traffic. Above Finaghy this rapidly drops to nearly 0%. (2011 census via NIGreenways).

      In order to reduce the number of cars on the road cycling needs to be enabled better in outlying districts. A designated cycleway with priority over side roads running along the Lisburn Road from central Belfast to Lisburn town centre will offer people a choice to leave the car at home.

      Combining a cycleway with meaningful numbers of secure bicycle storage areas at railway halts and principal bus stops will enable people to use various modes for their journeys to suit the journey’s purpose or destination.

      The Lisburn Road also serves as a refuge for bicycle users when the Lagan Towpath is not rideable due to frost or flooding. The lack of lighting along the Towpath also is off-putting to some. The main drawback, however, of the Towpath is its meandering, scenic nature. It adds considerably to time and distance over the direct route to and from work using the Lisburn Road. 

        The bitter pill

        Through traffic should be pushed to the M1 as much as possible. Drivers should be deincentivised from going along the A1 from end to end.

        This could be done by nudging behaviour with information boards showing actual travel times. For instance a sign at Shaftesbury Square could inform drivers going to Finaghy using the Lisburn Road that it would take, for instance, 20 minutes, choosing Donegall Road and M1 could be 15 minutes.

        A way to reduce peak congestion is road pricing. Charge people for using the most congested roads at busiest times and soon they will adapt their behaviour. A city centre car park levy could be used to fund initiatives to strengthen public transport, walking and cycling along the route.

        Let the train take the strain

        It is not sensible to look in isolation at roads, when part of the answer is literally next door, its potential unfulfilled because of chronic underfunding in favour investment in roads.

        Major investment is needed to allow a Metro style railway service between Lisburn across Belfast to Bangor. Instead of at best an half-hourly service, trains should run at 10 minute intervals (or less) and get the commuter from Lisburn to Belfast in less time than it takes to go by car when roads are quiet.

        Electrification may be needed to achieve such levels of service. A useful template are German S-Bahn or Dutch RandstadRail networks of local rapid transit: turn Lisburn-Bangor rail into a LUAS-style light rail, taking it off the main line in places to allow passengers easier access and give priority on the main line for regional and Enterprise services.

        Electrification and phasing out diesel is urgently needed from an environmental perspective. Air pollution and global warming concerns mean continued reliance on diesel is irresponsible. Electrification of the Dublin to Belfast main line must be pushed higher up the political agenda.

        Summary

        The Lisburn Road suffers from chronic congestion, not  simply because of a large number of vehicles, but because many drivers with different purposes use the same stretch of road. The road has many junctions and on-street parking leading to many interactions across lanes of traffic. Bus lanes are inconsistent and poorly enforced. Cycling infrastructure is non existent despite the road going through areas with relatively large numbers of cycle commuters. The adjacent railway is underfunded, and poorly equipped to serve as an alternative.

        To alleviate congestion the Department for Infrastructure’s 3-five-10 strategy needs to be applied and funded to enable greater uptake of walking, cycling and use of bus and rail. The cost could be recouped by introducing road pricing, or a city centre parking levy, or even better, both.

        Belfast Bicycle Network Plan

        The Belfast Bicycle Network Plan is currently out for consultation. Delighted I opened the pdf. And from there on in my mood wavered between anger, despair and hysterical laughing.

        I think these plans are a failure; a failure to capitalise on the momentum for cycling in Belfast; a failure to correct the mistakes in the Alfred Street and Durham Street paths.

        It is as if the people who wrote their vision for the network and those who set out the routes never shared a room, let alone a vision.

        The plans as presented are a waste of time. I am asking the Department for Infrastructure to withdraw it and think how better to design for those who currently daren’t or can’t cycle.

        The document asks 17 questions and I will attempt to answer them.

        Question 1: Do you agree that producing a Bicycle network for Belfast is an important element of developing a more bicycle-friendly city? What timeframe do you think it should cover?

        The network is crucial in making Belfast more bicycle-friendly. The current infrastructure, or more precisely lack of infrastructure, is a major block to growing the modal share for cycling beyond 5%. The recent growth in cycling has been achieved with next no involvement from government. Very little budget (£1.30 pppa) was allocated and only a few short new cycle tracks were built.

        Belfast cyclists remain overly reliant on bus lanes, shared pavement and advisory cycle lanes. Sustrans in their Bike Life survey found that bus lanes were not considered safe or conducive to cycle more.

        The perceived feeling of insecurity caused by the proximity of large vehicles is not improved by the decision by the outgoing Minister Chris Hazzard to allow private hire vehicles into the city’s Rapid Transit bus lanes.

        B U S spells bicycle. Typical Belfast cycle lane with a taxi in it.

        The network as set out in this document and amended after the consultation should be built within a 5 year timescale. Some quick wins can be achieved by bringing existing provisions included in the new plan up to highest standards. A 10 year timescale is perhaps required only where large capital schemes are involved, for instance to cross the Lagan at the Gasworks.

        A brake on developing cycling in Belfast

        Adoption of this strategy in its current form would push the building of highly necessary paths along arterial roads beyond a 10 year timeframe. This will put a brake on development of cycling in Belfast. 

        It has to be noted Rotterdam (admittedly from a much better starting position) has set itself a 2 year target on delivering a much improved network of paths. Their plan includes improving accessibility across the city core, improving bicycle traffic flow and making safe numerous paths and junctions.

        This strategy must be delivered in a 2 to 5 year timeframe.

        Question 2: Do you agree that these five criteria from the BMTP are still valid for the development of a network for Belfast? If not, what do you consider the criteria should be? Please explain.

        Yes. But.

        Like many estates planned in the latter half of the 20th Century Rathcoole Estate in Newtownabbey is blessed with a considerable network of off-road paths. Most of these are designated footways. These footways are used by cyclists as a safe alternative to a hostile car-centred road environment.

        A major nearby destination is the Abbeycentre shopping complex. It can be reached on foot or by bike using the network of paths without having to use any major roads.

        A number of links exist to the NCN Shore path. With better signposting and fixing crossings on the A2 Shore Road a cyclist can travel from their home in Rathcoole to their employer’s in the Harbour, City Centre or beyond without needing to share with cars on main roads.

        The local network of paths and the way it connects to destinations should be inspiration for the bicycle network across Belfast. It should give door-to-door opportunities for active travel, an alternative to going by car.

        But what about the children?

        In the Netherlands most children cycle to school, preparing for a continuation of a healthy life choice into adult life. They can because infrastructure enables them to cycle, often unaccompanied, without safety concerns. 

        Similarly, libraries, hospitals and health centres should be easily accessible by a network path, enabling service users of all ages access to vital community services.

        NIGreenways has already pointed out the poor overlap between the planned network paths and location of schools. The proportion of children cycling to school is firmly stuck at 0%. This is a scandal, and should be top of politicians’ agendas.

        The planned network doesn’t just miss out schools, it also does not allow direct access to major destinations in the Greater Belfast area. For instance, there is no planned direct link between the new Transport Hub to the Royal Victoria Hospital along Grosvenor Road, instead preferring a detour along the noisy, polluted and people-hostile Westlink.

        Similarly, cyclists from southwest Belfast and Lisburn will face lengthy detours to reach the Belfast City Hospital or the Queen’s University campus using network paths. The plans from the outset sacrifice the core principle of directness.

        The city’s local shopping areas are poorly served by the network. Bicycle lanes have been shown to boost business where they have been installed. It is difficult to see how the network in its proposed form will generate economic benefit for Belfast traders.

        Arterial routes

        What are missing, glaringly, are paths that run along arterial routes, where many Belfast retailers and businesses are found. 

        Currently, Belfast is groaning under the weight of congestion. Belfast’s Lisburn Road is said to be the most congested road in the UK, outside London, in the evening rush hour. Similarly, Ormeau Road is most congested in the morning.

        Previously I set out a few ideas of what can be done on the Lisburn Road to reduce congestion. The Department for Infrastructure introduced the 3-five-10 strategy to enable more to walk, cycle and use public transport. Cycling will not be a credible alternative to car users on the Malone Road or Lisburn Road if the nearest network paths are the Lagan Towpath or along Boucher Road over half a mile away.

        It is my opinion that a designated cycleway with priority over side roads running along the Lisburn Road from central Belfast to Lisburn town centre will offer people a choice to leave the car at home.

        Combine it with meaningful numbers of secure bicycle storage areas at railway halts and principal bus stops will enable people to use various modes for their journeys.

        Other arterial routes will also benefit from having high quality designated cycle paths alongside. 

        It is laudable that a large proportion of Belfast households are designed to be within 400m of a network path. Except that many homes nearby the network do not have easy access.

        Accessibility

        The map is very simplistic and appears to count number of households within 400m of a path. Consider the Comber Greenway. It is built along the old Belfast and Co. Down railway line. It has few access points. The railway line was not meant to interact with local streets much. Properties in, for instance, King’s Park Lane back onto the line, but to access it residents must walk or cycle 640m to the entrance beside Knock police headquarters.

        Similarly, residents in Edenderry at the very southern edge of Belfast, can see the Lagan Towpath from their front step, literally a stone’s throw. But to access it directly with anything other than a lightweight bike is practically impossible due to the stepped bridge across the Lagan and narrow chicane of fencing at the village entrance. It is a 1.2km ride to the next nearest accessible entrance at Shaw’s Bridge.

        It would better to count the households within 400m of an access point that enables bicycle users of all ages and abilities to use the network, and it is my guess that suddenly the map doesn’t look so good.

        Question 3: Do you agree that the development of a Belfast Bicycle network is a key element in giving those who would like to cycle (but currently don’t) the freedom and confidence to do so?

        Yes. The Belfast Bicycle network, if built and maintained to high standard and not compromised to accommodate pedestrians, mopeds and motorcycles, cars, taxis or buses, will provide an environment where those who currently don’t cycle to go out without worry about their personal safety.

        Question 4: Do you agree that the objectives in 3.9 should be applied to the network? If not, what objectives do you think should be set?

        Here are those objectives:

        Firstly, it is good that the objectives concentrate on commuters, amenity and leisure cyclists. We currently see on Belfast roads hard core year round commuters and lycra clad racers. Amenity cyclists are poorly catered for.

        There is no specific mention of age and ability in the objectives. It needs to be clear that the network will be designed to guarantee the safety of children cycling unaccompanied to school and those in the latter stages of life, vulnerable to falls, out for a leisurely ride on an e-bike.

        The network should be accessible and near to all people within Belfast; to people of all ages and abilities, those who currently cycle those who currently daren’t or can’t.

        For amenity cyclists it is necessary the network goes near amenities, such as shops, schools, libraries and health centres. If the path leaves you far from your intended destination is it of any use? It would be good to see the map of routes redrawn to include as many shops, schools, libraries, leisure centres, hospitals and health centres as possible.

        Consistent high quality provision

        What makes cycling in the Netherlands such a pleasure is that the network of paths is of high standard throughout large parts of the country. This standard follows guidelines and design principles set out in the Fietsberaad CROW manual. Vigorously applying the same high standard throughout the Belfast network should ensure cyclists are not left to fend for themselves on 60mph dual carriagewaysroundabouts and junctions.

        Quietways

        In London Quietways have been set out, apparently without much regard for existing traffic volume or taking measures to reduce traffic volume along the route. It leaves bicycle users navigating their way through streets busy with HGVs and along ratruns. 

        Modal filtering, keeping certain vehicle types out of streets where cyclists have priority, must be included to reduce traffic volume and speed in order to make Quietways work.

        Repeating mistakes

        In Hackney streets have been made calm and more liveable through permeable filtering. Walking and cycling in becalmed areas is a joy. Where Hackney fails, and fails badly, is ensuring cyclists’ safety along main traffic corridors. There have been fatalities especially along main roads. Hackney also has a worrying high level of hit and runs.

        Bicycle users, of any kind, are choosing main roads over back streets because they want to traverse an area rapidly to get to their destination, or need to visit amenities along the main road.

        This network plan leaves Belfast in danger of repeating London and Hackney’s mistakes. It potentially sends cyclists down ratruns, along roads where cars dominate and where they are offered little protection.

        Another mistake is the use of coloured paint to mark cycle provision. In London slippery paint has been implicated in the death of a motorcyclist and numerous less serious falls. In the Netherlands coloured tarmac is used:

        The use of the words encourage and promote grates. If the network is consistently of high standard, accessible and attractive to use, encouragement and promotion is superfluous. Make the network a better and cheaper alternative to car use and people will start using it.

        Question 5: Do you agree that the primary network should be based on the concept of arterial and orbital routes?

        Yes. But. 

        Not the arterial routes set out in the plan, but instead following the main traffic or Metro corridors in the city. With modification the network of routes as set out in this document can act as a secondary network reaching into the heart of neighbourhoods.

        Last resort

        Many of the proposed routes follow the Community Greenway footpaths set out in the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (2015). Considerable adaptation and financial commitment is needed to make these Community Greenway routes usable for cyclists. And shared use paths, such as Community Greenways should be a last resort, when no designated space for cycling can be safely fitted in along main arterial roads.

        Belfast bicycle users on the route of the proposed Community Greenway between Shaw’s Bridge and Whiterock

        Question 6: Do you agree that the network should be developed in Primary and Secondary stages as outlined in 3.13? If not, how should it be developed?

        Here are those two stages:

        No. Developing the network in this way is fundamentally wrong. The level of separation should be decided by size, speed and volume of traffic a road is carrying. And in turn the size, speed and volume of traffic is decided by the primary function of a road or street. 

        Trunk roads

        So, Belfast’s A55 ring road, a busy trunk route, should ideally have fully separated bidirectional cycle paths on both sides with grade separated crossings, so ensuring a minimal number of areas of conflict. The current provision is a long way off from this ideal.

        Segregated shared use path, A55 Belfast

        Paint separation on A55, Belfast

        Above is a trunk road, the N273, just south of Venlo in the Netherlands. Having bidirectional paths either side allows cyclists to get to their destination without having to cross the main road. The number of crossing points can be kept to a minimum.

        Local access

        At the other end of the scale, streets that only serve as access to properties can, with traffic calming and a 20mph speed limit enforced by road design make do without any segregation for cycling.

        No cycle path needed here, but still enabling 8-80 cycling

        In the picture above through traffic is kept to the main road in the background. A bidirectional cycle path leads cyclists safely underneath the provincial road. The path connects to the city centre and a cycle superhighway. The street in the foreground only allows motorised vehicles access to adjacent properties and has a 30 km/h (20mph) limit.

        Distributor roads

        Cycle path along Dutch distributor road (Cycling Embassy of Great Britain)

        On these distributor roads designated cycle space is needed, due to traffic volume, traffic speed and presence of HGV.

        Distributor roads allow joining up of local access streets and main trunk roads. They are busier than access roads and are often lined with businesses. They are not meant to carry traffic originating outside the area going to a destination somewhere else outside the area.

        Confusion and delay

        In Belfast these road functions are blurred. Distributor roads act as thoroughfares for regional traffic and vice versa. Worse, across the city quiet residential streets, access streets, are used by commuters to avoid certain junctions. These access streets then take on the role of a distributor or even a trunk road.

        This blurring of functions, mixing traffic users with differing intentions is one of the root causes congestion. It is better to disentangle these functions and so allow for more homogenous traffic flow.

        The primary function of a road, the dimensions, speed and volume of traffic must dictate the level of segregation needed.

        Question 7: Do you agree that we should consider requirements of likely users on a scheme by scheme basis, for example routes which will primarily be used by children on the school journey may be best served as shared track?

        No, design it right

        The entire scheme should offer users an expected level of quality throughout. Dutch experience shows commuters, schoolchildren and leisure cyclists of all ages and abilities can and do use the same paths to reach their destination. And people on roller blades, powerchairs, mobility scooters, etc:

        We don’t offer bespoke roads for certain groups of car drivers. Whether they are business users, commuters, shoppers or going out for a trip to the seaside they all use the same network and expect the same standard of provision throughout.

        Singling out a certain user group and making the cycle provision meet their specific requirements puts other cycling groups at a disadvantage. 

        St. Bride’s Primary School sits in between two major roads in South Belfast. Children from the surrounding area could cycle to school were a safe designated space for cycling provided. The two roads are also very popular with commuters to the nearby Queen’s University campus and Belfast City Hospital. Whose needs prevail?

        The answer is, of course, to design it right and children, commuters, leisure cyclists can all use the same designated bicycle space.

        Again, shared tracks should only be used as a last resort as they are inherently compromised to suit the divergent demands of different groups of road users.

        Question 8: Are there any other kinds of bicycle infrastructure that should be considered? What are they? Do you have any views on which types of infrastructure, if any, should be favoured in developing a network for Belfast?

        The document sets out how the Department will provide for cycling between junctions. It does not set out how cyclists will get across junctions.

        Firstly, any network path should clear priority over traffic on minor streets crossing it. This can be reinforced by making path and the footway beside it continuous.

        Continuous footway and cycle path, London (Cycling Embassy of Great Britain)

        A bus stop bypass is visible in the background. These should be included on all routes where they pass a bus stop.

        At junctions the path should should be set back from the main thoroughfare so that a turning vehicle can wait for cyclists to pass without obstructing the flow of traffic.

        Set back path at junction along N273 in Baarlo, Netherlands

        Currently, where there is provision, it ends before the cyclist gets to a junction or roundabout. At the junction or roundabout cyclists left to fend for themselves. Even on new infrastructure such as the Durham St path, the issue of junctions has been fudged with areas of shared space and strange transition arrangements.

        The Department needs to start providing junctions and roundabouts with in-built protection for cyclists. Belfast City Council, in their response to the Bicycle Strategy, wish to see Dutch roundabouts

        Missing from the plans are grade separated crossings across trunk roads. The plans feature reopening the tunnel on the Abbey Road (an access street) on the Comber Greenway, but do nothing at all on the A55 crossing beside Knock Police HQ. 

        At Broadway roundabout, a major hub for the planned routes, cyclists are forced to make use of 4, sometimes 5 separate button-controlled crossings. 

        For such busy junctions grade separated crossings for pedestrians and cyclists would be best.

        The roundabout’s design team however did not consider people cycling at all. They did not foresee a Belfast Bikes docking station being installed. They did not think cycling could become more important in Belfast. Now it’s built it is hard to see how cycling can be given a safe designated space without major investment. 

        Cyclists are left with poor infrastructure.

        Powerful commentary on the use of shared space below

        At Tillysburn there is an opportunity to do something great to replace the current glass-strewn bear pit. 

        Hovenring, Eindhoven, Netherlands

        Snelbinder cycling bridge, Naaldwijk, Netherlands

        Question 9: Do you support the use of the network requirements as detailed at paragraph 5.1?

        Yes.

        At every stage from planning to implementation to review the guiding principles of the network must remain central and constant. As our city and traffic evolves, so the network must evolve to meet user demand or deal with the challenge of, for instance, autonomous vehicles. The core principles should not be compromised or degraded as the network is built.

        Sadly, the Alfred Street path shows how in the period between design and completion these guiding principles were compromised, allowing motor vehicles to slip between wands and block the lane and not offering enough protection at junctions.

        Question 10: Do you agree with the addition of ‘Adaptability’ as a network requirement? What other requirements would you like to see included?

        Question 11: Do you agree that the routes should be planned and facilities designed with the achievement of increasing numbers of people cycling in mind?

        I’ll answer these as one question.

        Obviously, the network will need to built to accommodate the target volume of cycle traffic. The Bicycle Strategy sets a target of 20% of journeys under 1 mile and 10% of journeys between 1 and 2 miles for cycling.

        How Rotterdammers get around (Bike Portland)

        The targets set for Belfast are puzzling. The share for cycling in Rotterdam peaks at around 3 miles. Belfast’s cycling supposedly peaks below 2 miles. How does this sit with the NI Travel Survey?

        Cycling doesn’t register against walking and driving in Northern Ireland. Digging deeper into data reveals the peak of cycling journeys lies between 2 and 5 miles.

        And the average journey length is 5.1 miles.

        Humans in Rotterdam are not vastly different from those in Northern Ireland. Humans tire and for most walking more than 2 miles, or cycling more than 5 miles requires too much effort.

        The network should not be built for the current 0-5% of people who use bicycles regularly and then adapted to accommodate a greater number in 5 or 10 years time. It should be built to accommodate the target of 20% share from the outset.

        Look at how the cycling provision at Broadway roundabout has become set in concrete, with little room to grow cycling numbers on the far from adequate shared use space.

        If  adaptability is adopted as a core principle it should be so that cycling can grow and not be constrained by keeping the current state where cars utterly dominate Belfast streets. This requires new thinking at Department for Infrastructure, who thus far, even in writing this consultation document, are reluctant to remove road space from cars and redesignate as cycling space.

        Question 12: What are your views on segregation between people who walk, people who cycle and people who drive? What are your views about physical segregation between motorised traffic and non-motorised traffic? Do you agree that there are levels of traffic (footway or carriageway) below which physical segregation is not always necessary – such as quiet routes and residential areas?

        Sustainable Safety

        The underpinning thought of designing roads should be sustainable safety, so that an error by a road user will not have fatal consequences for themselves or others. 

        The second principle is hierarchy of control: where there is a risk, eliminate it; if it cannot be eliminated manage it (in descending order of effectiveness) by substitution, design, laws and education and if after all that a risk remains use personal protective equipment.

        On roads the risk of fatal and serious road traffic collisions is reduced by removing areas where cyclists and cars use the same space. Along busy roads and roads where traffic speed is 30mph or above and environments where there are more than average numbers of HGV separation is needed. This is not optional, it is a must to increase cycling numbers.

        If Belfast eyes a target of 20% share for cycling it will need to consider how this has an impact on current shared use provision. How will the crossing of the Lagan Towpath with the Ormeau Road look with 4-6 times the number of cyclists?

        An underpass will only partly reduce congestion at this point as many, if not most, cyclists use the footpath to cross the bridge. 

        One Path to conflict 

        Already, there are numerous incidents along the Towpath and Comber Greenway. To reduce these Sustrans have introduced the One Path initiative to share the paths. Or to put it in other words: on shared use paths we are already in trouble when cycling has an overall modal share of 3-5%. What will this be like if cycling achieves a 4-fold increase?

        Hierarchy of control dictates that an education exercise won’t be very effective and separating cyclists and pedestrians will work better to avoid conflict.

        Below is a picture of the Ruhr Cycle Superhighway being built near Mülheim in Germany. It shows clear separation between the pedestrian path on the right and the smooth wide tarmac for cyclists on the left.

        Ruhr Radschnellweg 1 under construction at Mülheim (VelocityRuhr)

        As shown before, on quiet residential streets there is no need for separation, provided traffic speed is 20mph or below and traffic volume is low. The best way to achieve good conditions for 8-80 cycling is to consistently stop ratrunning and designing roads to self-enforce a 20mph speed limit.

        Again, calming traffic by road design and clarifying an access street’s purpose by removing ratrunning vehicles is not optional, it’s a necessity to enable 8-80 cycling.

        Question 13: How important is the requirement that ‘routes need to flow’? What kind of signage should be provided? What facilities should be provided?


        The paths should be easily recognisable as cycle paths to stop drivers erring into them. And cyclists will more easily follow a clearly set out trail. This is best done by using coloured tarmac. 

        Wayfinding has to be simple and straightforward with dedicated clearly legible signage. Different routes could have their own colour or theme to improve recognition. 

        Tourists will use these paths so signage should be simple to understand to non-English speakers, perhaps showing amenities as pictograms rather than words.

        Pictograms used at Dutch railway stations

        Additional facilities: increase number of cycle racks along routes, especially near shops, libraries and health centres. The plans recognise the paucity of secure bike racks in Belfast. Bicycle hangars could be placed in inner city neighbourhoods to enable people to securely store their bicycles when their homes have no available cycle storage space. Already mentioned are secure bike lock-ups at bus route termini principal bus stops and railway halts.

        Public bicycle pumps and bicycle repair tools could be placed at various locations for those who need to carry out a quick roadside repair.

        Bicycle counters must be placed at a number of locations to show that the paths are being used and numbers of cyclists are growing.

        Question 14: What is the relative importance between construction of a route and its maintenance? What other guiding principles would you suggest? Please explain.

        This is not a question. The built network needs to be maintained. Lights need to work, rain must not cause flooding. Clearing snow and gritting when it’s frosty should be done to prevent falls and enable year round cycling. 

        Question 15: With reference to the appendices please set out your views on the proposed routes. We are interested in the positives or negatives associated with the various sections of the proposed routes.

        Question 16: What are the specific issues that may arise if bicycle infrastructure was constructed along the proposed route?

        Question 17: What other alternative routes are available?

        With so many fundamental errors in these plans it would seem nitpicking to lift out pros and cons within each scheme. However, they asked the question:

        The main positive points:

        • Provided the segregation is up to highest standard and junctions and roundabout offer protection to cyclists a path along Boucher Road connecting the Lisburn Road at Balmoral and the Royal Victoria Hospitals will be of great benefit to staff and service users of the Royal, but also allow better access to the Boucher retail area, home to two bicycle shops.
        • The proposed Route 1 between Holywood and Holywood Exchange to central Belfast will give commuters from Holywood an alternative to the car, but also allow leisure cycling from Belfast to Bangor along the North Down Coastal Path.
        • The A55 route will knit together the current paths of varying standard.

        Even as you start summing up the positives the negatives come crowding to the fore:

        • The near total disregard of main arterial routes, lack of directness and poor connections between residential areas and amenities. Designing for failure.
        • The reliance on sharing space with pedestrians on almost every proposed route. Designing for conflict.
        • The lack of grade separated crossings across Belfast’s Outer Ring. Designing for death.

        What do these routes look like in winter, after 7pm, or before dawn? Many routes pass through gates which are shut as early as 4:30pm. Are path users to be abandoned, with literally nowhere to go? 

        And you do wonder at what stage of the night and however many cups of coffee it seemed like a good idea to send cyclists up a road with an 19% incline:

        Profile of Beechill Road (Route 4 East)

        Middlepath Street bicycle path consultation

        The Department for Infrastructure is consulting on their proposal for a cycle path along Middlepath Street. On Bikefast Jonathan has done an excellent analysis of the plans.

        One area where the current plans are a let down is the use of shared space to feed the path through the limited span of the Bangor railway line.

        This could be an area of conflict between cyclists and pedestrians. I do not think enough has been done to resolve the issue. 

        Across Belfast shared space has been used to fudge areas of conflict. We see it at both ends of the Alfred/Arthur Street cycle path and at either end of Durham Street.
        Will the Department use coloured tarmac, signs or lines to nudge pedestrians and cyclists to pass without conflict on the dark, narrow footpath?

        I propose a bolder solution. The slip road coming off the M3 starts out as a two lane road.

        Before the signalised junction it splays out to four lanes. These lanes, eventually, split completely at the junction with the Newtownards Road, where the left hand set of lanes peel off.
        What if we only allow the two lanes to splay to three before the Middlepath Street junction and use the space for the cycle path? After the railway bridge sufficient space exists to go to four lanes, the cycle path and a separate footpath by using a strip of the adjacent grassed area.

        Cyclists could go on the road side of the pillars, as viewed in the screenshot above, pedestrians to the right of the pillars.

        This would be bold. Taking space from Middlepath Street will be relatively easy compared to taking space from a Motorway slip road. But what better way to announce to drivers coming off the M3 that on Belfast’s streets they are not the only road users.

        It probably won’t get done at this stage, but there is no harm in suggesting it.