Bin Lane Binned?

On Thursday a little bird told me that DRD were having an information event at their HQ in Belfast’s Adelaide Street.

Here is the press release.

We weren’t given much notice. Yet I found myself with a spare 30 minutes, grabbed a Belfast Bike from Bradbury Place and went to inspect the plans.

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On offer were two versions for an improved two-way cycleway between Chichester St and Ormeau Ave, one with the cycleway to the east, the other to the west (the current situation). The plans are designed to improve the network of paths between Belfast Bike Hire stations at Arthur Street, Alfred Street and the Gasworks.

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East

And:

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West

The plans are not yet finalised and many details remain to be resolved.

Cycling Unit staff were open to suggestions and ideas. For instance, having parked cars act as protection for the cycle lane was suggested by a number of people and I got the impression DRD would look at this variant.

Some of the “details” are quite serious.

There is an obvious gap in provision on Ormeau Avenue. Currently a short stretch of shared use path connects the Gasworks site to Joy Street. Are DRD proposing to extend the shared use path to the next junction? Or is something better in the pipeline, perhaps a protected cycleway all the way from the Gasworks to Blackstaff Square?

The importance of this missing link will become very evident when the Gasworks Bridge opens. More cyclists will use the routes leading to the bridge. A similar gap exists at Shaftesbury Square where there is no eastbound cycle lane or crossing connecting Donegall Road and Donegall Pass.

It would be better for the Cycling Unit to start a discussions with the DRD Dinosaur Unit that is still looking to implement the Southern section of Belfast’s inner ring, so blocking any development along Ormeau Avenue (and blighting the area with fenced off surface car parks). Plans for a gyratory to take traffic between Cromac Street and Bruce Street should not stop the development of a cycle path along the Avenue. Ormeau Avenue is wide enough to reallocate space for cycling.

I suspect the gap is left in the plans as leverage for further budget and development. A holistic large-scale area-wide approach may well be unpalatable to the car lobby within DRD.

A second issue is the Advanced Stop Lines in the design. Why? Why in the UK are cyclists abandoned when they need protection most, i.e. at junctions? The lane needs to come right up to the junctions. The design plans for the May Street crossing are a case in point:

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The minor junctions in the design are designed right: the lane carries across the side road; and priority is given to the cyclists over traffic emerging from side streets. I’d prefer a little more hard protection at the corners to stop drivers left- or right-hooking.

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The Cyclesaurus Memorial Junction

The good news is that the Cyclesaurus is going to die. At last (see design above). However, the issue of cyclists needing to cross the carriageway (and pass each other on the right side) has been moved to the path’s entry points at Chichester Street and Ormeau Avenue.

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West fudge

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East fudge

The designers have drawn a patch of shared space to fudge the ends. But as above, good design at the junction can sort this out.

One big disappointment is that Upper Arthur Street remains open to cars. What is the rationale behind this? There are two on-street parking spaces in one version, none at all in the other. Why do cars need access at all? There needs to be access for deliveries, emergency services and collecting refuse, but I struggle to see the need for any other motorised vehicles.

As you drive down May Street a sign directs you down Upper Arthur Street for access to the Montgomery Street and Victoria Square multi-storey car parks:

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Sign on May Street

It appears DRD see Upper Arthur Street as a shortcut to access city centre multi-storeys.

One of the principles underlying Groningen‘s successful cycle strategy is making drivers go the long way around, but giving cyclists, pedestrians and public transport direct access. Here, motorists are given a sneaky shortcut, consequently access for pedestrians and cyclists is compromised.

When you pass this sign you have already passed Montgomery Street. But the street’s one way direction is “wrong”. And arguably the person who ignored the previous right turn on to Victoria Street to access Victoria Square should not be rewarded with a shortcut to make up for their foolishness.

To access the multi-storey the direction of the one way Montgomery Street could be reversed between May Street and the car park entrance. Cars exiting can leave the area by Gloucester Street and Seymour Street.

All things considered, would it not make sense for Upper Arthur Street to be closed off for motorists, allowing for the carriageway to be used as a cycle route and increasing outside space for the street’s caf├ęs and restaurants? Here’s an example in central Utrecht, photographed by @cyclingchch:

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I don’t often advocate the removal of a cycle path. Here, removing cars and the infamous bin lane are probably the best solution.

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Cyclesaurus Again

BBC Northern Ireland on Monday, 25 May 2015, showed “Something to Ride Home About”, featuring the best of cycling in Northern Ireland and Michael Smiley.

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The photo above shows a cyclist approaching Belfast’s award winning Cyclesaurus. The cycle path is a two-way provision running alongside one ways Alfred St and Upper Arthur St. The latter section is colloquially known as the bin lane.

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The cyclist continues on the green path across the junction. And this leaves him on the wrong side of the street. Where they ran out of paint.

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This is the new and improved Cyclesaurus.

The correct way to use this marvellous piece of official street graffiti is of course to keep to the left of the lane. Stop and yield to all traffic approaching the junction. Then cross the junction diagonally. DRD have kindly provided a miniature cycle lane as an aide memoire to cyclists.

Someone in DRD must be really proud that it was featured on TV.

Parking the problem

Generally, I don’t do problems. They are opportunities to change practice for the better.

Cars don’t move much

Cars don’t move very often. Most of the time they sit outside your home, then sit outside your place of work. Occasionally they sit outside a shop, or a leisure centre. You get my drift. Cars do an awful lot of sitting.

And when they are sitting they take up space. Lots of space. Belfast City Centre is not very big. A very walkable square mile or two, well connected by public transport. Yet it hosts about 14,000 parking spaces. Each taking up roughly 15 square metres of prime city centre real estate. Around 30 football piches, not including space for access. Occupancy of car parks at peak time is about 60%. Or: 12 of those 30 pitches are always empty.

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Belfast City Centre car parking core zones

The implementation of Belfast on the Move has coincided with an increase in the number of cars parking in the City Centre.

Belfast on the Move is a small success. The number of people going into the City Centre has increased; the number of cars entering the area above has gone down. Translink Metro and NI Railways have seen an increase in passenger numbers.

The public perception is that Belfast on the Move is a failure because congestion has not decreased.

Reduction of congestion for private vehicles was never the purpose for the scheme. At its core the scheme is designed to shift people from private vehicles to other forms of transport and removing through traffic to the Westlink:
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Road space in Belfast has been reallocated to public transport and impressive numbers justify the building of bus lanes. At Great Victoria Street two out of every three people access the City Centre by bus for the price of a lane of car traffic.

The survey period between 2011 and 2013 saw an increase in consumer confidence, so the increase in people accessing the City Centre cannot be totally ascribed to Belfast on the Move.

Let’s park that there.

Convenience

People cite convenience as a motivation for on-street parking over multi-storey parking.

It is well observed that people are not willing to walk more than 1000ft, 300m or 5 minutes to access public transport.
The density of public bike hire schemes correlates with the scheme’s success. The optimum distance between stations is 300m. There is pressure to expand a scheme too thinly, leading to poor uptake.

Large airport car parks offer bus links to parking sites more than 300m from the front door. Any closer and people will walk.
In airport terminals and stations it is worthwhile putting in moving walkways if the gates or platforms are more than 5 minutes walk from the front door. Moving walkways are slower, but the benefit is derived from arriving at your gate or platform without moving a muscle.

At the front door of my place of work there is a small multi-storey, named Car Park 2. Queues of cars build at 10:00 and again at 14:00.
A larger multi-storey car park, Car Park 1, is just that bit further away from the entrance. It is just within the 300m radius from the front door. The total number of spaces on the site is more than adequate to absorb the number of vehicles.
Drivers, despite causing chronic congestion and blocking junctions, will wait for a chance to park close to the front door in Car Park 2, rather than find a guaranteed space in Car Park 1 and walking.

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Queuing for a space

The congestion on the City Hospital campus is caused by a large number of drivers competing for a small number of premium spaces. Just like Central Belfast there is an over-provision of spaces, but public perception is of too few spaces, because of the queues.
It appears humans will prefer sitting in a queue for a longer time than it takes to park further away and walk.

On Twitter cyclists deplore that on-street parking is taking up road space that could more usefully be used for moving people on bikes. Similarly, hauliers need access to shops and businesses for deliveries. They have been lobbying for more and better enforced loading bays.

Looking at the raw statistics you could lose all the on-street parking in Belfast and still have ample room to spare.

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By Andy Singer

But it’s never as easy

At 80% occupancy a person seeking a place for their vehicle is more likely to consider the location full.

Car park operators will try and increase occupancy by showing at the gate, or at the city centre’s edge, how many places are left.

Car park operators use guides to lead people to empty spaces. These guides can be high tech or human. In this way car parks can increase occupancy above 80%.

Modern Dutch bicycle parking facilities at railway stations use sensors to track occupancy, highlight empty spaces and charge for overstaying. But can this be done on the streets of inner city Belfast? For cars?

In San Francisco they have dynamic pricing, with a phone app to show where places are available and the cost of parking. This encourages people to park in cheaper, less convenient, locations and reduces cruising for free spaces. This has increased occupancy and reduced congestion.

Up to 1/3 of congested city centre traffic are motorists looking for a space to leave their vehicle. But, are they looking for any space? Or are they looking for a premium space, nearest their destination?

Back to the airport

Airline companies try to eke profits out of the tightest of margins. They need to ensure maximum bums on seats to make it worthwhile flying. The 6:55 from Belfast to London will be very sought after, but the 14:30 not so.

So they charge more for a seat on the 6:55 and less for that mid afternoon slot. A number of passengers who don’t have morning business meetings can be persuaded to fly at a later time.

But if they charge a premium for all early morning seats all the passengers may well fly with someone else. So the airline puts a few seats on at less than cost price to generate interest. And as the plane fills up the prices go up.

Belfast city centre parking does not work that way. A uniform charge is applied whether you find a premium space outside your destination, or if you drop the car off some streets away. We expect more from and pay more for parking in multi-storeys, but again, a single hourly charge is levied.

Can city centre parking not be modelled on airline pricing? So, as premium spots fill the prices in the area go up, but around the corner the price could go down as an inducement to park there instead and walk a little further.

Traders, especially those in premium locations, will object to charging more for parking. But, if I were a shopkeeper I’d worry that time customers spend looking for premium parking places is time not spent in store.

The trader could subsidise the cost of parking outside their shop, either directly by paying the parking operator, or indirectly by refunding the customer.

However, if I were a trader I would not chase the car customer. A number of studies have concluded that car customers are not as important as people think. Car parking does not equal footfall. Cars don’t shop, people do.

Another group who consistently oppose removal of on-street parking are disability rights groups. They demand and get prime parking spots in the retail heart of Belfast. Despite there being ample accessible spaces in multi-storeys within a short radius.

Whilst TransportNI rate provision for pedestrians, cyclists, public transport and road hauliers higher than for private cars, a blue badge means these motorists are considered first. A blue badge should only prioritise them over other drivers, not over all other road users.

In 2012 BBC NI reported that the cost of enforcement of parking restrictions is not covered by income generated from issuing fixed penalty notices and car park charges. Effectively, the tax payer is paying for car parking.

Local government has gone further in the past, offering free on-street parking as a boost to trade, despite there being no clear evidence this actually works. It is a knee jerk reaction to traders’ demands.

TransportNI thinks tax payers footing the bill for car parking is justified. But I challenge them to provide data to support this stance. Is it good value for money? And in a time of serious financial constraints can our government be generous with tax payer’s money, especially supporting something that already costs us dear?

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Ample free parking didn't help this retailer...

Motorists are blind to the true cost of parking. When they are charged at anything like cost price, national newspapers get involved and call it a rip off.

Since 1 April 2015, Belfast City Council controls most city centre car parks, but TransportNI retains control over on-street parking. Now we have two public-funded authorities with different remits and priorities offering competing services. Splitting control of parking is arguably not in Belfast’s best interests.

The Council has recognised the issue of car parking, but can other service providers be brought to share the same way forward?

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Beside the two authorities, a number of privately owned car parking companies operate in Belfast. Some illegally. Additionally, any city centre employers have private car parks for staff use. All in all 30 football pitches, of which 12 are permanently empty.

All these car parks are invitations to car drivers to visit Belfast City Centre by car. And it’s very difficult to rescind that invitation. Car parks demand access, access demands big roads and big roads deter pedestrians and cyclists.

Road hauliers have been lobbying local authorities for improved loading bays and their better enforcement. Making some car parking spaces loading bays will help. Better still would be to ban car traffic from certain sections of town completely, with manually operated or automated bollards to allow HGV access before, for example 11am.

Loading bay abuse is rife as Chris Murphy documents:

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Minicabs in Loading Bay

Future

Belfast car parking, as the Council’s Strategy document highlights, needs to be rationalised. Fewer, more efficient multi-storey car parks, accessible from the city’s inner road ring. Car parking must be centrally coordinated, so strategic objectives to turn Belfast’s city centre into a place where people want to come, shop, work, learn and relax, without the constant throb of road traffic dominating.

Removal of on-street parking where there is a multi-storey in close proximity is essential. Introducing dynamic pricing to regulate supply and demand and advertising the up to the minute cost of parking at the city centre’s edge.

Opponents will need to be swayed and shown they will be better off in a city that doesn’t prioritise private car access.

Belfast City Council is inching towards this future, and every move forward, taking away space from cars and giving it back to people should be applauded.

Main sources: DRDNI 2013 BotM Survey
BCC Framework for car parking