Cycling to School 2

The School Run. How inappropriate is that phrase?! Nobody is on foot and nobody is going anywhere fast.

Almost a quarter of rush hour traffic consists of parents dropping off children at school. Most parents claim it is dangerous traffic conditions that prevent their going to school on foot or by bike. Going on foot or by bicycle is something the parents did when they were young.


Sustrans run events at schools and claim a great increase in cycling and walking. They get a great response locally and highlight the alternative to the car for the school run. But. The Dutch would call this “een druppel op een gloeiende plaat”, a drop on a white hot griddle.

St John the Baptist PS on Finaghy Road North are currently taking part in a Sustrans scheme, as have other schools in South Belfast. Yet judging by the hopelessly gridlocked traffic on Finaghy Road North the scheme is not working well enough. Perhaps participation in a scheme is part of the answer, not the whole answer.

When parents are conditioned to think car equals safety and convenience no one is going to be persuaded otherwise. Many see driving a car as their right. (It isn’t; it is a privilege.) Some people won’t be persuaded however juicy the carrot.

Clearly carrots alone don’t work. We need a stick.

Over breakfast, after yet another near miss the previous day, Olivia remarked how they should just close the streets to cars and HGV for 15 minutes to enable parents and children to walk and cycle to school.

The ink was barely dry on my blog about the school run in Finaghy and Edinburgh go and do this. At first the council only agreed a pilot at 5 schools, but parent pressure encouraged a bolder implementation at 11 schools. Some say it’s not bold enough.

School runs are typically short (less than 2 miles) and are much more efficiently covered by bicycle or on foot. If it becomes clear you can’t drop junior off at the school gate and have to walk the last 400 metres and back to your parked car you might as well walk all the way.

This can be done in Belfast. And should be done everywhere. The prize is a huge reduction in congestion and more children and parents being physically active on a daily basis. What’s not to like?

It will upset some people. A parent at my daughter’s school said I should “get a car”. Like everyone else. My guess is that she is in a minority, and most parents would gladly not sit in a traffic jam.

Olivia adds: when due to a recent fatal collision the Malone Road in Belfast was closed, traffic ground to a standstill across South Belfast. When no buses appeared, because they were stuck in traffic, hundreds of people walked down to the City Centre. Many walked three miles and more. And the weather wasn’t great.
It shows that people can be persuaded to walk (and walk great distances) if they are not given another option.

Taking back the Square

DSD (keep up, it is yet another Government department who shape cycling provision in Northern Ireland) have announced a consultation on plans to redevelop Shaftesbury Square in Belfast.

That the Square needs a fair bit of work is something everyone agrees on. For instance, the bombed shell of the Social Security building on the Eastern side was nominated for the Channel 4 programme ‘Demolition‘. The intended target was the adjacent Donegall Pass RUC Station; a 500lb device was detonated by the IRA on 24 March 1992. There are plans for a new office block fronting the square.

More recently, in 2013, the best-known tenant on the square, Paul Rankin’s Cayenne Restaurant (formerly the Michelin-starred Roscoff) closed its doors.

The Square is not a good place to be, with dereliction, vacant properties and the domination of the square by motorised traffic. There are diverse flows of traffic crisscrossing the square:


Note bullet point 5:

There are advisory cycle lanes on Donegall Road (usually blocked by parked cars in contravention of HC 140), but none of the other roads leading off the square have any provision for cyclists. Pavement cycling is rife and it shows demand for segregated lanes is there.


It is good to see a government report acknowledge there is a problem for cyclists. And plans creating a better North-South cycle track is excellent news. It doesn’t, however, spot the glaring gaps for cyclists in this square.

While North-South is receiving attention, cycling from West to East will remain impossible, without getting off your bike and walking or going on a detour down Great Victoria Street and coming back up Dublin Road.


No way ahead; cyclists must dismount


Even Google gives up; walk your bicycle #fail

Such a detour is no problem for a car driver, but it is a problem for pedestrians or cyclists. The pedestrians were given a pedestrian crossing across the middle of the square; well almost: they were given a signalled crossing to the central traffic island from where they must run across 3 traffic lanes or use the crossing at the northern end of the island; nothing was done for cyclists.


DSD rightly point out the gap in provision on Dublin Road where cyclists at rush hour battle with 4 lanes of motorised traffic. But perhaps DSD are too focused on traffic from City Centre to suburb and vice versa.

The West-East axis is an important link for cyclists who travel from the Gasworks and East Belfast beyond (crossing the Lagan at the Albert Bridge or soon at this new bridge to Ormeau Park) to the Belfast City Hospital, Boucher Road area and the Royal Victoria Hospital. The new Gasworks bridge will only increase the number of cyclists crossing the square East to West and vice versa.

Throughout the plans cyclists’ needs are ignored. Belfast’s brand new bike hire system will see two docking stations in or very near the Square, but they don’t feature in any of the plans.


Docking stations marked H & W

The architects’ vision sees pavement cycling as the norm, with no road space dedicated to cycle tracks. The good words of bullet point 5 of the “proposed response (pdf 4.2MB)” are not visualised for us. Instead, on almost every Jetson-esque architectural daydream cyclists are positioned on the pavement.


My educated guess is that cyclists are expected to use the red coloured bus lanes.


But there is the BRT! What are these articulated buses doing in the Square, away from the Newtownards Road and Falls Road? Local roads and transport blogger, Wesley Johnston, @niroads, tweets:

Quite how DSD envisage Belfast Rapid Transit to be Rapid if buses are expected to use bus lanes clogged with 4000+ extra vehicles and double up as cycling provision is anyone’s guess.

People who don’t use bicycles now will not be persuaded to use a bicycle if bus lanes are the only dedicated road space they can expect. Allowing cyclists to use bus lanes has delivered a single figure modal share. To grow cycling, to create a cycling culture space needs to be set aside for cycling.

One vacant site near the Square, currently the Posnett St surface car park, is earmarked for social housing. It is good to see social housing so prominent in the plans. One can only hope that the architects include adequate bicycle storage for each house. If a bike shed/store cannot be realised beside or inside each property, these hangars may provide an on-street solution.

If pushed to summarise the plans for the Square: the filter lane from Dublin Road to Botanic Avenue and Donegall Pass is removed in favour of a larger pedestrian space.

How can the plan be improved for cycling?

Firstly, provide segregated tracks along Dublin Road, Great Victoria Street and Bradbury Place. One traffic lane (currently used for parking 20 hours a day) can be sacrificed and redistributed to give a 1.5m wide track on both sides of each road.
The Donegall Road advisory lanes should be segregated.
Cyclists should be able to cross the square from West to East without having to get off and push.
The Lavery’s bus stop on Bradbury Place should be moved to the Square with the cycle track behind it, creating floating bus stops.
The cyclists should have their own lights and phases in the traffic lights’ sequence to diminish conflict.
Finally, cars should be banned from Botanic Avenue. The plans get their inspiration from the pedestrianisation of New York’s Times Square; planners here should turn back the tin avalanche of motor traffic in our city centre and put people first.

A bit like so, with cycle lanes in green. image

(forgive my dreadful graphic design skills)



Tramore Beach, Downings, Co. Donegal

Olivia and I discussed how the slope up to the House of Sport in Belfast was limiting our enjoyment of the Cargobike. It is great for the school run and bringing home large bags of cat litter. Not so much if there is a hill to go up.

We’re not talking the Col De Madeleine here, but vicious nonetheless. We needed a bit of extra power. So the plan was born to try and fit an electric motor to the bike.

After a bit of Googling I decided to contact E-fietsspecialist in the Netherlands, based near my home town of Venlo. The site is in Dutch only.

They offer a standard “ombouwset” at 3 levels. I emailed them that I wished to fit it to a Cargobike with 20″ front wheel with rollerbrakes. They then quoted me for a bespoke package, based around their €649 “luxe set”, taking into account the power needed to pull the heavy bike along.

As I intended to fit the battery in the box I decided not to take the special luggage rack. This saved quite a bit of postage and packing.

I paid directly by SWIFT bank transfer and the package was delivered efficiently within 3 working days.


An experienced bike mechanic with the correct tools could probably do the conversion in an afternoon, but I am a stranger to the world of bike thingummyjigs and doodlewhatsits. It took me a little longer.

I tackled the work in small bits. I divided it so I could complete each task and still use the bicycle every day.

First, I replaced the front wheel with the new motorised one retaining the brake, tyre and tube.

It required a bit of creative thinking as the fork rubbed the engine housing if fitted according to instructions. By moving both spacers to the non-brake side it slipped in easily. I refitted the brake cable and secured to motor power lead with a cable tie.


No room for error

The next job was fitting the brake sensors. I cut off the end caps from the cables and pulled them out from the handle bar end. I cut through the protective sheath just above the first cable mount on the stem below the handle bars. Then I removed a 4 cm section and pushed the brake cable back, this time through the brake sensor. I fed the cable all the way through and refitted the end caps and tuned the brakes.

At this point I also fitted the display (centrally on the handle bar) with the controller button beside it.

Then I removed the left crank arm (I got a crank puller from Chain Reaction Cycles) and glued in the pedal sensor using epoxy resin. I replaced the crank arm. I had to Google what a crank puller looks like, so I could find it in the shop.


I drilled a 20mm hole centrally about 5cm from the back of the box and fed through all the wires and connected these to the controller box. There is only one way to fit the wires to the controller.

The battery requires an initial overnight charge so I hooked it to the provided mains adapter and let it sit. I had to fit a UK-standard plug, because the kit came with a European one. The battery can be uncoupled and removed easily. I have it secured with heavy duty velcro stuck to the foam padding the battery was sent with.

The foam pad cushions the battery from blows and shaking and protects the wires coming out of the controller end. I also tidied away all leads and wires with cable ties and the provided cable tidy.

The following morning I switched it on and miraculously it all worked. As soon as you turn the pedals the engine kicks in and it pulls you along. You have to keep pedalling to get the assistance from the engine. Braking cuts the engine and it doesn’t restart unless you turn the pedals.

The bike sounds a bit like a milkfloat, but it is a joy to sail up a hill that previously nearly killed us.