Letter from America or “Saving the Life of a Befuddled Ex-Pat”

Dear Cargobike Dad:

I am an American physician resident in China for the last decade, moving April 2015 to Belfast to take up a post at Queen’s. I have been a year-round bike commuter for 25 years in a number of places, the last 10 car free, and I am very much hoping to commute and shop in NI by bike. We will be living in Hillsborough […], R/T of 25-30 mi per day to work at Royal Victoria Hospital. I was hoping I might ask you some questions about resources for planning a cycle route, advisability of using a MUP like the Lagan Towpath for this ride, etc. I will certainly understand if you are too busy, given that you must receive a number of such queries. But then “Saving the Life of a Befuddled Ex-Pat” has the ring of an interesting blog post! In any event, thanks for providing such a great resource for cycle advocacy in NI. I would very much like to get involved in local advocacy of that nature, not much space for such in China…Please feel free to contact me by email if it is convenient for you to reply.

Best regards,
Nathan

Dear Nathan,

Thank you for your kind comments. As for your questions about a Hillsborough to RVH commute, I put it to Twitter and between their replies and local resources this is what I came up with.

Type your query into Google and it says to take the A1 from Hillsborough to Lisburn. Don’t ask Google! Their recommended routes are often in the chocolate teapot category: useless.

I would not advise cycling up and down the A1 from Sprucefield to Hillsborough. It is a busy fast dual carriageway trunk road with a poor safety record for cyclists.

Road users who want to avoid the A1 have two options. The first is to take the Comber Road out of Hillsborough, then take a left through Ravarnet into Lisburn; the other is to take Culcavy Road and after crossing the M1 motorway take the first turn right (Blaris Road) towards Lisburn. The Blaris Road is an on-road section of NCN9 and leads to the entry of the Lagan Towpath. The latter, Culcavy Road route, would be my preferred option.

The Towpath is heavily used by cycling commuters between Lisburn and Belfast. It is unlit, so a good set of lights is essential in the darker months. Some sections are prone to flooding. Twitter is a good source for up to the minute news of it being passable. Look up Lagan Valley Regional Park on Facebook; they update their pages regularly with notifications and events.

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Towpath traffic east of Lisburn (top left to middle right, source Strava heat map)

In Belfast continue on the Towpath all the way to the Botanic Gardens entrance on Stranmillis Embankment. Go through the park (anti-clockwise) and exit the park at Botanic Avenue behind the main Queen’s University Belfast buildings. At Shaftesbury Square take the Donegall Road. Then the first right past the petrol station (Roden Street) and cross the Westlink into the Royal Victoria Hospital campus.

In winter time Botanic Gardens is closed in hours of darkness, so leave the Towpath at Lockview Road, Stranmillis, then up Stranmillis Road towards the Ulster Museum and Queen’s University Belfast, joining University Road. Turn left into Elmwood Avenue, then right and immediately left into Jubilee Road, the entrance to Belfast City Hospital. Turn right after the multi-storey car park then left, across the mini-roundabout and on to the Donegall Road. Then as before.

The main drawback of the Towpath is it’s definitely the long way round. And doesn’t go in the direction you want.

Some cyclists use the Sandy Lane short cut to avoid the scenic route:

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If you are a confident commuter, a straight run down the A1 between Lisburn and Belfast is shorter and quicker than the Towpath. This stretch of the A1 carries less motorised traffic because of a better alternative route for cars: the M1. It has stretches of cycle lane and the bus lanes are open to cyclists in the morning and evening rush hours.
The shared use path on the outbound Belfast Road, Lisburn is best avoided by cyclists. It is poorly conceived and badly executed.

Join the A1 in Lisburn town centre, continue on the road into Belfast. Take the Jubilee Road entrance to Belfast City Hospital, then as above.

Better by bus?

Public transport options are good with regular express bus services to Hillsborough from the bus station at Glengall St (behind the Europa Hotel), which is within easy walking distance of the Royal. Some services also stop at the halt at the foot of the Roden Street footbridge.

Best of both worlds (and what I would do if I were in your shoes)

Cycle to Lisburn railway station, fold up your QUB Cycle 2 Work scheme Brompton or similar and take it on the train to Belfast. From Great Victoria Street Station cycle to the Royal. There are no restrictions on folding bikes on Translink trains.

You are of the campaigning kind so you can ask your local political representatives (councillors and MLAs) to lobby the Department of Regional Development (soon to be the Department for Infrastructure) for a two-way, 4m wide cycle way between Hillsborough and Lisburn, running to the east of the main A1 road, serving Sprucefield, linking to the Towpath, Lagan Valley Hospital and Lisburn town centre.
It is election year (and next year also) so politicians are open to seduction by a good vote winning proposal.

Finally

Our Cargobike causes much rubber necking in Lisburn. It is not a cycling town. It will be good to see more bike users showing there is an alternative to the car!

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Lagan Valley Regional Park (LVRP)/Bog Meadows/Whiterock Community Greenway

Deep in the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) 2015 there is a section devoted to Community Greenways.

When I saw the title “Lagan Valley Regional Park (LVRP)/Bog Meadows/Whiterock Community Greenway” and skimmed over the proposed route my heart nearly leapt for joy, because here was a proposed route that would take us on a Greenway between home and our primary school.

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Greenway (green) and route to school (red)

But

All is not what it seems.

Here is the entire route. As with any urban planning document it is huge. Handily, someone also provided this route description:

Begin at Shaws Bridge within the LVRP and travel in a northerly direction, past the Queens University Playing Fields and the House of Sport.

This is the A55, so not exactly an off-road experience here. You will share the greenway with 30-35k cars a day. The pavements are shared use. While the road racing fraternity ignore the shared use path, commuters use it increasingly:

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At the Malone Roundabout, travel west along the Upper Malone Road, cross the road and travel along Harberton Park.

If you’re cycling you must join the road at the Roundabout just at the point where traffic speeds up to leave it. The alternatives are to get off and push or ignore the law and cycle on the pavement.

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End of 🚲 route

A signalised crossing will be needed here to cross the Upper Malone Road.

The area around Shaw’s Bridge has become a major destination for MTB cyclists. No safe access to the tracks around Barnett’s Demesne is provided. Groups of school age children use the pavements along all major roads in the area to get to the tracks.

Jeff Dudgeon, Balmoral UUP councillor says, “[o]ne of the most frequent complaints I received from constituents during my election campaign was about cycling on pavements.”

Instead of going along the very noisy and busy A55 I go underneath the ring road beside the river and then up the lung-bustingly steep “Clement Wilson Ramp”. This leaves me at the signalised pedestrian crossing north of the Malone Road Roundabout. From there I go down the Strangford Avenue rat run, to join Harberton Park and on to rejoin the A55.

As does the Greenway. Because the landowners are not yet on board with the idea of a Greenway from Harberton Park to Lisburn Road pedestrians and cyclists are diverted back onto Belfast’s Ring Road:

The following section of the greenway is inaccessible to pedestrians
Travel along the periphery of the RUAS Showgrounds and Balmoral Golf Club.

Alternative Pedestrian Linkage
Travel to the end of Harberton Park and turn left down Balmoral Avenue. At the junction with the Upper Lisburn Road, turn left and travel in a south westerly direction until you reach the railway bridge leading into Musgrave Park where you can rejoin the Greenway

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The A55 Greenway

The following section of the greenway is fully accessible to pedestrians,

but not cyclists.

Turn left and travel along the Upper Lisburn Road to no. 24. Cross the road here and continue down the narrow footpath and across the railway footbridge into Musgrave Park.

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You would think a pedestrian link to a hospital site would be fully accessible for people of all ages and abilities. And the irony is that the hospital is the Northern Irish regional centre for orthopaedic medicine, rheumatology, sports medicine and has a rehabilitation unit. But isn’t easily accessible for people with any kind of problem walking.

But back to the Greenway A55:

Travel north west through Musgrave Park and out onto Stockmans Lane. Turn left along Stockmans Lane and travel towards the motorway (M1) roundabout, before passing under the M1 bridge to reach Kennedy Way.

Stockman’s Lane is the A55. As is Kennedy Way:

The following section of the greenway is inaccessible to pedestrians

Travel north along Kennedy Way before turning right into Blackstaff Road and a further right into Blackstaff Way. At the bottom of Blackstaff Way, turn left onto the vacant ground. Travel around the boundary of Milltown Cemetery and through St Galls GAC Playing Fields onto Milltown Row. Travel west to the top of Milltown Row, cross the Falls Road and enter the Falls Park.

This bit of the “Greenway” leads through a light industrial estate. You are treated to the back of an Asda, a council waste recycling site and various commercial units. Lorries thunder up and down. Happily, there is an alternative involving Belfast’s Ring Road:

Alternative Pedestrian Linkage

Travel along Kennedy Way. At the roundabout beside the Westwood Shopping Centre, turn right onto the Andersonstown Road. Continue along this road, which becomes the Falls Road, in a north westerly direction. At the Falls Road / Glen Road roundabout, continue straight on, passing Milltown Cemetery on the right. Enter Falls Park on the left and rejoin the Greenway at this point.

[added 28/3] It will be a relief for cyclists to leave the Andersonstown and Falls Road behind at Falls Park. This stretch of the “Greenway” includes two notorious roundabouts. The first at Kennedy Way is terrifying.

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Greenway Roundabout

The slope across the roundabout, the high central island make it difficult to see cars coming. Trying to cross as a pedestrian, pushing your bike is no better. On all approaches motorists queue across the zebra crossings, and driving across them when pedestrians are crossing. It’s captured by the Google car:

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The only reason cyclists are not killed here is because cycling’s modal share in West Belfast is 0%.

The roundabout where the Andersonstown Road morphs into the Falls Road is no better. It is a wide unmarked triangular space with a circular “feature” in the middle. It’s a free for all.

I have looked for it and I cannot find the roadside sign saying the Highway Code is suspended in West Belfast and it’s do as you please.

However, back to the Greenway:

From Falls Park it is not far to the glorious end:

The following section of the greenway is fully accessible to pedestrians
Follow the pathway in a northerly direction through Falls Park, past the playing fields and Belfast City Cemetery, out onto Whiterock Close and along the Whiterock Road into the Belfast Hills where the greenway ends.

There is however an alternative that isn’t accessible for pedestrians. What is the point of that? And it includes yet another of these terrifying roundabouts, where traffic pushes on regardless of what or who has right of way. It’s the Falls Road / Whiterock Road roundabout:
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The current roadworks to accommodate the Belfast Rapid Transit lanes do not help.

Alternatively, exit the Bog Meadows at St James’s Road and travel in a northerly direction along St James’s Crescent and onto the Donegall Road. Travel west to the top of the Donegall Road and turn left along the Falls Road. At the Falls Road / Whiterock Road roundabout, turn right and continue up the Whiterock Road.

The following section of the greenway is inaccessible to pedestrians

Travel through the Belfast Metropolitan College Campus past St. Johns GAC grounds to Corpus Christi Church. Cross Springhill Drive and continue along the Springhill open space, past the playground and onto the Springfield Road. Turn left and continue along the Springfield Road and connect back into the greenway route at the Whiterock Road beside New Barnsley Parade.

But wait! There is another route. An alternative to the alternative:

Alternative Pedestrian Linkage
From the Whiterock Road, travel past the Belfast Metropolitan College Campus and turn right along the Ballymurphy Road. Turn right along Springhill Drive and then continue north along the Springhill open space to rejoin the Greenway at this point.

Pedestrians or cyclists? Pedestrians and cyclists?

The first obvious observation is the complete lack of thought given to cycling. Accessibility is used only in reference to walking. What is the overarching vision for Community Greenways?

Community Greenways serve a variety of functions including:

• Offering pedestrians and cyclists [my emphasis] the opportunity to travel from one green area to another via pleasant green surroundings; and
• Providing an ecological haven and green linkage along river corridors, pathways and disused railway lines.

To put it bluntly, the whole route needs to be re-evaluated from a cyclist’s point of view.

Also, can we really say that the A55 is a “pleasant green surrounding”?

Does this Community Greenway offer a reasonable alternative to using the pavements along the A55 for pedestrians and cyclists?

No and no.

To make this route work we need to gain public access to parcels of privately owned land. Consideration needs to be given to places where the route crosses main roads and the M1 motorway. There is a need for signalised crossings and perhaps a tunnel or bridge to cross the M1.

If we want cyclists to have full access Harberton Park needs to be upgraded to include cycle tracks. We need fully segregated tracks along the Upper Malone, Lisburn, Andersonstown and Falls Roads. The pedestrian footbridge at Musgrave Park Hospital needs to be upgraded so people of all ages and abilities can use it.

The wider picture

West Belfast has a very low uptake of cycling, due in no small part to the complete lack of cycling infrastructure. Plans like this can improve the environment for cycling. Combined with initiatives to encourage multi-modal transport (cycling to a secure bike parking at a Belfast Rapid Transport halt along the Falls and Andersonstown Roads, perhaps) the cycling share may increase. Large employers such as the Royal site of the Belfast Trust are to be commended for encouraging staff not to use their cars. And the Belfast bike hire scheme should be extended to the Royal site as a matter of priority.

Is there potential for better? Maybe. The Southwest Gateway plan may give a very good alternative to parts of the greenway route set out in the BMAP. And in my opinion the two plans should be combined taking the best elements of both.

I don’t think I will personally benefit from the Greenway for the school commute. It remains to be seen if any of it can be realised by the time my youngest leaves primary school in 2023.