York Street Interchange – No Space for Cycling

DRD have released their plans for the York Street Interchange. This is a junction to the north of Belfast City Centre where the M2, M3 and Westlink to the M1 meet; Northern Ireland’s busiest.
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It is also a traffic bottleneck and a blight on the local area, with the northern inner city suburbs cut off from the centre. A wide swathe of tarmac and undeveloped real estate makes the area feel very unwelcoming.

Pedestrian and cyclist numbers were surveyed in 2010. The surveys show pretty dismal figures for an area bounded by densely populated neighbourhoods, Belfast City Centre and the Cityside retail complex.

The sheer volume of traffic, noise and wide stretches of tarmac deter pedestrians and cyclists.

From the Preferred Options Report, vol. 1.

Dedicated cycling provision throughout the existing study area is limited. None of the existing road network currently has adjacent cycling lane provision, thus cycling journeys made through the existing junction arrangement are on-road and in direct interaction with local and strategic traffic.
With reference to Sustrans [online] and Figure 6.8.1, National Cycle Network (NCN) Route 93 is aligned along the eastern periphery of the study area. This route is aligned along Garmoyle Street, Dock Street, Princes Dock Street, Clarendon Road and Donegall Quay.
BMAP (Draft) 2015 also contains proposals to connect several on-road and traffic-free local routes to NCN Route 93. Local on-road routes west of the River Lagan would run along Royal Avenue, Castle Street, Castle Place and High Street to link in with Donegall Quay.
In addition to that noted above under pedestrian facilities, Community Greenways also act as a cycle network, allowing cyclists to have a safer journey with less surrounding noise and pollution.
The NMU survey undertaken on 21 and 22 April 2010 also observed and recorded cyclist movements throughout the wider study area. This survey identified that of all the existing routes (i.e. York Street, Nelson Street, and Corporation Street) connecting North Belfast and the Docklands to the City Centre, the highest movements were recorded along Corporation Street. This would not at all be unexpected considering the proximity to NCN Route 93, availability of the road to two-way movements, and the comparatively low traffic volume. At the Corporation Street/Dock Street junction, approximately 112 cyclists were recorded moving in both directions. Cyclist movements were also recorded on York Street (particularly northbound) and none were recorded on Nelson Street.

Works to improve the area are long overdue.

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The Interchange, being situated at the edge of the City Centre, also has links to the local road network. The plans’ development for these links has been informed by the strategy and here for Belfast City Centre and the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan 2015.

But money spent on strategic roads is money spent on cars, not bicycles!

Despite being mainly concerned with Northern Ireland’s strategic roads, cyclists have been considered in the plans. Often I see cyclists bemoaning the amounts spent on space for cars, when a fraction of that cost could pay for mile upon mile of high quality cycle network.

And they’re right. Yet these strategic roads have junctions and intersect with cyclists’ journeys. Flyovers and tunnels linking communities either side of the motorway or trunk road need to cater for pedestrians, cyclists, public transport and other local motorised traffic.

On the DRD website the developers present an aerial view of the Interchange, and in the bottom right hand corner a cross section of the flyover.

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Proposed scheme

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Cross section of the flyover

The problem with the York Street flyover

DRD writes:

York Street would be raised above existing ground level as part of the works to accommodate the proposed underpasses. Two traffic signal controlled junctions would be provided at the intersection between York Street and Great George’s Street, and at the intersection of York Street and the diverge from Westlink to York Street. Existing provision for pedestrians and cyclists on York Street would be maintained as a minimum, with an expected improvement for non-motorised users at the junctions from the removal of a significant volume of traffic. Access arrangements from York Street to adjacent properties would be revised to suit its raised level.
It should be noted that the proposed changes to York Street would reintroduce two-way running of a form to provide a new bus/cycle lane in the southbound direction, from Galway House to the Inner Ring. This would be further complemented by the provision of cycle lanes in both northbound and southbound directions between the Inner Ring and Dock Street.

In bold the bits I have issues with.

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So, existing provision for pedestrians and cyclists on York Street would be maintained as a minimum. A real sense of underwhelming lack of ambition oozes from those words.

Currently, there is a pavement. And… That’s it. The improvement would be reducing the number of lanes pedestrians have to cross. As DRD continue: “an expected improvement for non-motorised users at the junctions from the removal of a significant volume of traffic.”

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Maintain, not improve

Green paint solution

It is important to realise that the project planners and engineers see a green strip of paint, or what they call an “adjacent cycle lane” as adequate.
It isn’t adequate at all. A painted line does not protect cyclists from cars, or prevent cars from straying into the cycle lane, parking there, causing cyclists to veer out onto the main carriageway.

Yet, northbound on the flyover we have no less than 4 general traffic lanes and a strip of green paint. And the two sets of northbound traffic lanes are more than the cycle lane’s width apart.
Southbound cyclists are expected to share with buses; there is no space for cycling at all.
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With so much space (over 27m from parapet to parapet) it is extraordinary the designers have not come up with a better design.

The area is the focus of much development, with the University of Ulster relocating here from Jordanstown. Planning requires parking for 200 bicycles at Frederick Street, beside the main university buildings.

Having the University of Ulster here will massively increase pedestrian and cyclist numbers in the area. The nearest station to the new campus is Yorkgate, across the Interchange.

The city centre strategy calls for part pedestrianisation of the Inner Ring, with Dunbar Link reimagined as a tree-lined pedestrian-friendly street. The square beside the Central Library will be pedestrianised and the Buoys Park will be used for outdoor events. All these locations are within sight of the York Street flyover. And of course, bikeshare docking stations will dot the area.

And despite creating these people spaces DRD are planning a flyover to deal with current car traffic levels, rather than designing for the near future where pedestrians and cyclists will dominate the local streetscape. Once the cars have been designed into the plans it will be difficult to get rid of them. It is important they reconsider now, before it’s too late.

Here’s my redesign of the flyover:

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The reduced traffic levels mean we can remove one of the northbound lanes and redistribute the space for segregated cycle paths either side, with wide buffer zones. The paths must run from Dock Street to the Inner Ring, with their own traffic lights across the Westlink off-slip and M2 slip road.

The report mentions the significant levels of cycling on Corporation Street, because of the proximity of NCN93 (even with its faults). Design this flyover right and significant numbers of cyclists will use it.

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An opportunity for a floating bus stop

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