Some time ago @nigreenways and I sat in Common Grounds Café on Belfast’s University Avenue exploring cycling ideas: 20mph, Gasworks Bridge, rat runs.
And we talked around the idea of pedestrianising Botanic Avenue.
The vast majority of the road’s users at any time of day are pedestrians. Commuters making their way to and from Botanic Station to their place of work in Queen’s Quarter, shoppers, students escaping from lectures, a lunchtime crowd queuing at Boojum, revellers on a night out.
And most of these pedestrians arrive there by public transport or taxi. The very busy Translink Metro 7 route goes up Botanic, bringing staff and students to Queen’s University, as well as commuters and shoppers to the City Centre. Additionally, the Cairnshill Park & Ride buses use the Avenue. In the evening taxis do a hefty trade bringing people to bars and restaurants (and taking them home again).
The top end of Botanic (College Park East) is in the Holylands 20mph zone. If only the limit were enforced! At present the area is not so much a rat run, but a complete warren for vehicular vermin. This traffic is trying to bypass congestion on the Ormeau Road, or cruising for a parking space.
Parking is a major problem in the area. With major employers near, and its proximity to the city centre, competition for spaces can be fierce. Mount Charles, a private street off Botanic, has an automated barrier to stop excessive numbers of cars parking there.
Elsewhere, on-street car parking is “pay and display”, but with (poorly enforced) restrictions to keep the road clear at morning and evening rush hour.
A decision to close the street to all vehicles is attractive. The potential for increasing trade is enormous. Restaurants and bars can have more outdoor seating areas, perhaps semi-permanently covered against typical Irish weather. The space can be used for outdoor events, markets or music.
Pedestrianising the road completely may not be the best solution. A large number of buses and taxis use Botanic Avenue. Can they be re-routed down the Ormeau or University Roads? And shops, restaurants and bars need to have some sort of access for deliveries. Also, Mount Charles can only be accessed through Botanic Avenue. And we want to encourage more cyclists by creating a safe road space.
At the moment the road is a two-lane single carriageway, with car parking down both sides (bays on the west side, boxes on the east side – note the BMW illegally parked on a double yellow in the picture above). There is a taxi rank operational in the evening at the Empire – a popular night spot. The station, aptly called Botanic, is beside the Empire.
Between Shaftesbury Square and University Street there are 5 side streets on the east side, 2 on the west side (W). From North to South: Posnett St, Cameron St/Lower Crescent (W), Cromwell Road, Ireton St, Mount Charles and India St.
If the Avenue were pedestrianised how would bus and train connect? In a future when Belfast is reliant on active and public transport Botanic becomes the railway station for the Southeast of the city; Metro 7 buses dropping passengers off who continue their journey by rail. Interconnecting bus and train becomes an issue if passenger face a long walk from railway station to bus stop.
Instead, let’s imagine a solution that includes active travel and public transport.
we closed the Avenue for all cars, but allowing buses and taxis that can carry wheelchairs? What if we got rid of the parking bays and boxes and instead had a fully segregated bi-directional cycle lane running from the QUB car park at College Square East all the way to Shaftesbury Square. We would still have plenty space for outdoor seating, we can set up stalls on car-free days and weekends.
Taxis that cannot carry wheelchairs can still get to the Avenue by using Lower Crescent and crossing over into Cameron Street (a favoured route for taxis, anyhow), pick up and drop off passengers.
There could be a couple of loading lay-bys for deliveries.
Could it work? Of course it can. For examples from across the UK look at the Living Streets website.
The side streets on the east side can be bollarded off, turning them into cul-de-sacs; Mount Charles will need to remain accessible, but no additional infrastructure is needed.
When I mentioned this on Twitter people were enthused, and even the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Martin O Muilleoir, re-tweeted the idea of car-free Sundays in Botanic.
To the south of the Botanic and Holylands Area is the Lagan, alongside which runs the NCN 9. At present the link from the NCN runs through Botanic Gardens, then on streets to the station and onwards to the City Centre. The roads, through the haphazard parking and poorly enforced speed limits are not particularly safe and do not invite people to cycle. The official Sustrans map allows the access to dead-end at College Square East. From there you are on your own.
Note the purple line at the top through Posnett Street and on down Donegall Pass? Here’s a missed opportunity. Sustrans will have you cycle down Donegall Pass, through the Gasworks to rejoin NCN 9. There is a better way.
Traffic-free cycling to the City Centre
Forget the dogleg out to the Gasworks. There is a low-traffic route that goes from Botanic Station all the way to City Hall. The following route, turned into a series of cycle streets (a street that allows local access for residents and businesses, with limited permitted on-street parking, but prioritises cycling), can be an attractive and cost-effective solution to the lack of decent cycle routes in Belfast: Posnett Street, Maryville Street, Linenhall Street.
The route is 0.5 miles long. It would require a lane to be built along Linenhall Street, but otherwise with clever positioning of planters, bollards and signs could be made a safe route for cycling. The northern end of Maryville Street is already closed off for all, except pedestrians and cyclists.
The route requires a bit of an attitude change from cyclists. Instead of mixing it with buses and heavy traffic on the longer route down Great Victoria Street and Wellington Place cyclists need to get a new map into their head: a grid of safe direct routes for cycling. The Maryville Street route is but one example. Thinking creatively, many such routes can be created (if only we dared to close off rat-runs) across Belfast.
And thinking wider, cyclists coming off the Lisburn and Malone Roads could be persuaded to use the Maryville Street Route if there was a link made between Bradbury Place and Posnett Street. But where could we build it? Oh where, indeed?