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.

image

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:

image

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

  1. Dear Cargobike Dad

    We have just arrived in Belfast, and I have just now seen your blog post resolving my cycling commute problem. Thanks very much for this thoughtful and comprehensive response! We are renting in BT7 until we move to Hillsborough in July. I will use the intervening months to carefully test out the main alternative routes you suggest, and let you know how I get on. Thank you again for the perfect Cycling Welcome to our new home in Belfast! I will look for you on your cargobike, and you may see me on my Moulton…

    Best regards,
    Nathan

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