National Commuting Network

On 29 January on Twitter I had a “discussion” with Steven Patterson, from Sustrans NI and Roy White, Chair of NI Cycling Initiative.
It started off with my displeasure at bus’n’bike lanes and ended with me tweeting a link to Richard Ostler’s excellent blog. Richard points out that the National Cycle Network is ill-suited to the every-day commuter, because the NCN takes the least direct route from A to B. Also, it is often poorly surfaced.

It got me thinking about our own NCN9. It runs past our house on the opposite bank of the Lagan. Yet I hardly ever use it to commute to and from work.

In the morning I do the 3.6mile  school run to Finaghy, on the roads via the House of Sport and Musgrave Park Hospital and then go the additional 2.6mile to work, straight down the Lisburn Rd bus’n’bike lane.

I could take the NCN9 for the first mile, but there are two problems. The chicane at the Edenderry access gate is too short for the CargoBike and too narrow for the AT3 trailer and the Gilchrist Bridge at Edenderry is stepped, rather than ramped.

On the way home I have the choice. There are 3 routes:

  • The first is to go the way I came, omitting the loop to my daughter’s school: Lisburn Rd, Balmoral Ave, Malone Rd, Milltown Rd, Ballylesson Rd, Edenderry Rd. This is 4.5 miles, has a total elevation gain of 189ft, and can achieve an average speed of 13.2mph for the route. Total travelling time is 20:36. Wind is a factor going up the Lisburn Rd. The prevailing wind is against me on most days. This route has 2 ASLs: one at the bottom of Jubilee Rd, the second at the Tate’s Avenue junction. There are no cycle lanes, but there is a shared path from the House of Sport to Shaw’s Bridge.
  • The second (my preferred and shortest option) is to go down Elmwood Ave, then up University Rd and the Malone Rd. Then as above. This is 4.1 miles, has a total elevation gain of 217ft; average speed of 13.8mph. Travelling time is 17:59. The route is more sheltered. There are ASLs at Jubilee Rd, University Rd, and 2 on the Malone Rd, no cycle lanes.
  • The third option is NCN9, which starts as the second, but joins the NCN at the first opportunity in Stranmillis. In winter that is at the bottom of Ridgeway St, or in summer opposite Queen’s University’s PEC complex. The seasonal variation is due to Botanic Gardens closing at sunset. The evening commute in winter is in the hours of darkness.

I decided on option 3 and recorded the ride on the Strava Android App.

A quick route description. Leaving work, I take the roads, filtering along lines of near stationary traffic in Elmwood Avenue, University Road and Stranmillis Road. There is a short incline at the start of Stranmillis Road, but then it levels off. The junction with Chlorine Gardens has an advanced stop line. Cars often red light jump out of Chlorine Gardens to join the country bound Stranmillis Road. Beware.

Pass the village and then left, downhill towards the river on Ridgeway Street. The pedestrian crossing across Stranmillis Embankment is on the right hand side of the junction. At the change of lights use the pedestrian crossing to join NCN9 on its only traffic and pedestrian free stretch. It is an actual bi-directional bike lane. In Belfast. Pause for a brief moment and savour it. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the city.

The NCN9 between Belfast and Lisburn is liable to flooding in winter, spring, summer and autumn.

I couldn’t tell you what season it was on 30 January, but the river has recently flooded and at the time of writing water was still standing in the section below Governor’s Bridge. At this point the NCN9 loses its cycling exclusivity. From here on expect to share with pedestrians, joggers, horse riders and other wildlife.

I keep to the pavement at Cutter’s Wharf, preferring not to mingle with the inevitable pile up of taxis at the door of this riverside pub, then across the car parks serving pubs and rowing clubs (also used by couples for romantic trysts; look where you are going, not at the romping in the car with the steamed up windows) and finally onto the Lagan Towpath.

The Towpath is an extremely popular leisure route. On a cold, wet evening there are few people and a steady pace can be kept for the next 1.5miles. On Sunday mornings, or when the sun is out, the path soon fills up with walkers so cyclists are reduced to walking pace. It isn’t gritted when it’s frosty, and it is almost entirely unlit.

I am 6ft, and reasonably strong, so if I were to be attacked I’d have a decent chance of getting away or defending myself. I would counsel against women using the path if out on their own at any time, but especially at night. My wife was manhandled by a runner in daylight hours on the way to work some time ago. I confronted the man, a pensioner with a terrible attitude towards cyclists, and nearly chucked him into the river. But that is another story.

The Towpath is supposed to be a shared use space, but one where pedestrians have right of way over cyclists. At the “red” bridge this message is helpfully reinforced by a “cyclist dismount” sign painted on the path. Few cyclists do. Conflict can arise when walkers pause to play Pooh-sticks, and you are pulling a wide trailer, necessitating the pedestrians to tuck in. I only pray my daughter could not hear the muttered swear words. Imagine, stepping aside to let a child pass.

A ride through green spaces never fails to lift my spirits, so I am flabbergasted why some Towpath users are so grumpy and bad-tempered. To the point of scattering tacks and broken glass to inconvenience cyclists. And remember, using your bell is pointless: the young are listening to their MP3-players, the old are deaf.

We’ve arrived at the Lock Keeper’s Inn, infamous for its connection with the wife of the First Minister. Where cougars roam, I am told.

At the time of writing the direct route to Shaw’s Bridge, by way of Newforge, is closed for bridge repairs. The diversion follows the left bank of the old Lagan Navigation. Access is across the bridge spanning the chamber of the beautifully restored lock. One day, boats will ply these waters again. At present the canal bed is overgrown with willow and the regular haunt of heron, otter and kingfisher.

This section is too narrow, and the righthand side of the path (going upstream) is perilously precipitous. On the left is a beech hedge, separating the path from the playing fields beyond. Proceed carefully.

At Shaw’s Bridge the diverted NCN9 rejoins its original route. Cross the Lagan if you want to go to Drumbeg and beyond to Lisburn. I go on under the old Shaw’s Bridge and follow the footpath. This section is not surfaced and is prone to flooding at any time of year. The section nearest the mouth of the Minnowburn (Carryduff River) is very low-lying, very wet and slippery.

Because of the tight chicane at the Edenderry entrance to the NCN I follow the Edenderry Road from here. There is a steep incline up from the bridge, but it isn’t very long. It is the favourite stretch of my commute. At the “summit” I know that it is only a couple of minutes to my home.

Strava tells me that Option 3 is 5.1 miles and has a total elevation gain of 222ft; average speed of 12.2mph. Travelling time is 25:09. More than half of the route is traffic-free.

The elevation gain is surprising. You’d think the lumpy Malone Road route would easily be the one with most climbing, but no. The short incline to Stranmillis adds a few more feet than the long slog up the Malone Road to the House of Sport. The route is 24.4% longer than option 2. It is also 39.9% slower timewise. Option 1 is in the middle distance-wise, but not much slower than option 2.

In my Twitter argument I said that Sustrans pleading for shared use cycle lanes with pedestrians and shared use bus and bike lanes was selling the commuting cyclist short. I stand by that statement, although it would be better if the NCN9 between the Waterfront in Belfast and the Island Centre in Lisburn were compared to the direct route straight up the Lisburn Road. Anyone up for doing that comparison?

The NCN is not built for the A to B commute; it follows meandering rivers and scenery takes precedence over direct travel. Sustrans should be proud of the NCN, but it is not a National Commuting Network. Not by a long shot.