Cycle infrastructure for all

The new look Alfred/Arthur Street cycle lane nearing completion in Belfast. One of the most persistent criticisms has been that the money we can’t spare is spent on lycra-clad middle aged male cyclists.

Someone hasn’t told these people:

Or this crowd:

All examples from London this weekend. Brilliant!

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Go West!

There is nothing better than to get on a bicycle and go slowly up a hill; watch the panorama unfold and contemplate life.

On a sunny afternoon I decided to leave work a bit earlier than usual and see if I could make it to Divis Mountain car park (alt. 295m) on my large Gazelle Heavy Duty 7-speed.

A local loudmouth politician once wrote to me saying the topography of Northern Ireland did not lend itself to cycling. I have proved him wrong so many times now. Next time, with a bit more time and longer daylight I’ll make it to the top (alt. 478m).

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The best approach from Belfast goes up the B38 or Grosvenor Road, across the Falls onto Springfield Road. This eventually morphs into the A55, but rather than looping down towards the M1, the route of the B38 takes a right along the brooding flank of Black Mountain towards Hannahstown.

Whilst I was cycling slowly up, two questions arose: the barrier on Donegall Road: why is it there? And why are roads in West Belfast so snarled up with heavy traffic when relatively few households there have access to a vehicle?

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My route to Divis took me through areas where fewer than 1 in 2 households have access to a car or van (coloured green on the map compiled by Bob Harper). The area also scores poorly in many other measures of wealth and health. It is one of the most deprived areas in the UK.

The Royal Hospitals site has a parking problem. Unlike the City Hospital campus there is not enough capacity to park staff and service users’ cars. The roads around the hospital are de facto car parks. And the Springfield Road advisory cycle lanes are still parked on. There appears to be little enforcement of the tidal parking restrictions.

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Springfield Road Car Park

However, the further away from the Falls I cycled, the fewer cars had been left in the cycle lane. The advisory lane was mostly respected by drivers and allowed me a slow and steady passage up the hill.

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But as is the case elsewhere: when the cyclist needs help most, at junctions or roundabouts the lane just ends:

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It occurred to me that both the congestion and the parking problems were caused by people from outside of West Belfast. Cars travelling through West Belfast, along the mountain road to Crumlin, Glenavy and other communities along the eastern edge of Lough Neagh. Cars owned by staff and service users of the Royal Hospitals parked on West Belfast streets during the day, but gone by night.

But Wait

Belfast’s bicycle revolution is coming to the Grosvenor Road, promising and end to a car dominated streetscape. Frustratingly, the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan (BBNP) stops at the Westlink and the plans for the B38 fizzle out into a disappointment: a shared use pavement.

However, there are ambitious plans to sweep the cycleway away from the road with a curved bridge leading directly to Wilson Street, giving access to the BBNP path at Durham Street via Albert Street.

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And there’s more. Belfast Bikes phase 2 are expanding the scheme in a westerly direction, with a docking station at the Royal.

Further, Sustrans are very busy promoting active travel on the Royal site. This is supported by the Belfast HSC Trust, clearly in an effort to encourage more staff to leave their cars at home and so relieve the chronic car parking woes.

In West Belfast the modal share for cycling is close to zero. Belfast’s bicycle boom is loud in the neighbourhoods on the southern and eastern fringes of the city centre, but has so far failed to resound in the north and west. The main reason is the severance caused by the Westlink and the lack of cycling infrastructure crossing it into the west and north. Cycling infrastructure that is already in place and used in the south and east of Belfast.

The Opportunity

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Take a look again at the picture above. Look past the line of parked cars on the left. See the pavement. As I cycled in the door zone, filtering past slow moving traffic I got a good look at it. It is massively wide. Absolutely oceanic. Why did TransportNI (or its predecessor) suffice with a useless lick of paint on the main carriageway? This space could have been a segregated bidirectional cycleway from the Royal all the way up to the roundabout where the B38 turns into the A55. And all the way around it, just like they do in the Netherlands.

Below the Falls Road junction the Grosvenor Road is equally spacious and can easily accommodate moving cars, parked cars and a properly built cycleway.

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If the B38 cycleway then hooked up with the BBNP paths and the Comber Greenway (or cycle superhighway) beyond you could -in theory- cycle unimpeded from Comber town square all the way to the flanks of Black Mountain.

With not too much imagination the B38 cycleway could connect up with the Lagan Valley Regional Park (LVRP)/Bog Meadows/Whiterock Community Greenway.

And there you have a network of cycleways forming across (West) Belfast. A network that can be used to access schools, places of work, shops, leisure and community centres. A network that makes the bicycle a cheap, easy, healthy alternative to the car.

Having put the world to rights, I got to the Divis Mountain car park, took a photograph and headed back down.

Donegall Road, Belfast

On Belfast’s Donegall Road, at the Roden Street junction a temporary barrier has been installed. It appears to allow cyclists using the advisory cycle lanes to bypass the Roden Street lights.

The bypass is narrow and probably unsuitable for wide tricycles. Also, it doesn’t allow for right turns into Roden Street.

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Barrier at Roden Street junction

Roden Street is an important shortcut for cyclists and pedestrians, especially for staff and clients of the Belfast HSC Trust travelling between the City and Royal Hospitals sites.

Update 26/02/2016

DRD say:

“I can advise that this is a temporary vehicle restraint system, which was provided to ensure the safety of road users, workers and rail passengers during construction work on the bridge parapets. It is not intended to function as a bypass or to segregate cyclists from other traffic and all traffic should keep to the outside of the barrier, away from the works area.

As the parapet reconstruction work is nearing substantial completion, the barrier is due to be removed during the next week.”

Comber Greenway Upgrade

The purpose of Transport Minister McIlveen’s visit to Gelderland was to see how the Dutch province developed its network of Cycle Superhighways and how cycle infrastructure might lift the percentage of children cycling to school above 0%.

Bikefast report that the Comber Greenway might be up for a makeover. Actually, it would be more like open heart surgery.

To bring it up to Dutch standard it will need segregation between pedestrians and cyclists.

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The Minister on the footpath, the rubber necker on the cycleway

Or like so:

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Cycle Superhighway in Essen, Germany

The route will need clear priority over motorised traffic on junctions with minor roads.

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The Other Abbey Road

And at major crossings, such as the A55 at Knock we might need this:

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Rijn Waal Pad tunnel under A15

And lighting.

And a budget to maintain it, keep it gritted in winter, cleared of snow and swept.

But mostly we need a clear political will to spend significantly more than the paltry £1.30 per person per year.

Cycle superhighways cannot exist in a vacuum, but need to be connected with local high standard cycleways to school, shops, community and leisure centres and libraries.

I encourage Michelle McIlveen to continue down this road. All the others are dead ends.

Transport Minister McIlveen visits Gelderland

Translated from this report by Omroep Gelderland

Beuningen – Beuningen will get an eminent visitor on Thursday. The Transport Minister for Northern Ireland, Michelle McIlveen wants to know how the cycle superhighways were developed across the [Arnhem-Nijmegen] region.

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Transport Minister McIlveen in Beuningen, image from Omroep Gelderland

The Minister will have it explained to her how the cycleways can support safer routes to school. Minister McIlveen has chosen Beuningen consciously, because Beuningen with its 20,000 residents resembles the area where she hails from.

McIlveen is especially interested in the routes that childen use to cycle to and from school every day. She will therefore with deputy mayor Piet de Klein visit primary school De Hoeven which is close to the cycle superhighway Beuningen – Nijmegen.

I am happy for her visit to see how safe the link is. The cycle routes have priority in traffic situations, there are few junctions, and the paths are wide. The Northern Irish minister became interested through an earlier presentation by the province [of Gelderland] in Ireland, says Piet de Klein.

Learning from Beuningen

Northern Ireland is interested in the regional cycle policy in the Netherlands. The Minister wants to learn how the regional routes were built and how the safety of the cycleways is ensured.

In this way in Northern Ireland it will be decided what the best way is to build cycle routes. The Minister will also be a guest of the Province Gelderland in Arnhem and Nijmegen.

Audio report in Dutch:

(Thanks to Sjors van Duren for alerting me to the article.)

Jeopardy

The premise of the famous US TV quiz show, Jeopardy, has contestants guessing the question, after being presented with a clue.
In Dungannon AG Wilson Engineering installed a tank trap on a local Greenway. When pressed on the anti-cycling aspects of the design the company replied they built what was asked for. Here’s the clue. So what did Mid Ulster Council ask for?
The only sensible answer could be they asked for Dungannon’s version of the Maginot Line to stop people on scrambler motorcycles wrecking the Greenway.

Darragh wins $50

Another day, another edition of NI Council Jeopardy. Belfast City Council took delivery of a very glossy document detailing what should be done to the Linen Quarter. This is the area immediately south of Belfast City Hall, with grand Victorian warehouses. It is the city’s business district where a number of Belfast’s leading employers have offices. It is also home to Sustrans NI.

We can only guess at the brief that was given to the Manchester-based consultants. What we can safely say is that the brief was reworded, edited and sent back to the Council with added pictures.

And now the council wants our views:

In my view it is dreadful; a waste of ratepayers’ money. Cut out the waffle and you’re left with a mood board of paving options.

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Public Spaces

I do like the idea of the new traffic free public spaces. Developing Amelia Street as a gateway into the city from the Europa Bus Centre and Great Victoria Railway Station Transport Hub is genius. The street is clogged with idling black cabs, treating the contraflow bicycle lane as a permanent taxi rank.

Deliveries to local businesses further impede cyclists using the contraflow lane.

The second planned public space sits on the junction of Linenhall Street and Clarence Street. Most of it is already there: wide pavements, a bit of green. It has views of interest in three directions: due North to City Hall, East to St Malachy’s Church and South to the Ormeau Baths building.

There is no incentive, though, for anyone to spend any time in either public space. We have little to interest people at street level. Especially in the eastern half of the Quarter this lack of engagement with pedestrians transforms streets into narrow, dark, windswept and unwelcoming corridors.

The glorious Victorian architecture, where it survived the onslaught of pre-fab high-rise modernism, is often only visible on the higher floors of the surrounding buildings.

Space for cars

More off-putting than the insipid modern architecture are the lines of parked cars across the district. But roads are meant to move cars, not store them at ratepayers’ expense.

Further, to help the erosive flow of cars the area is a near fully permeable grid, where drivers opt to go from East Bridge Street to Dublin Rd and vice versa along Hamilton Street and Franklin Street, rather than go along Cromac Street and Ormeau Avenue.

The consultation sees this permeability as an asset. A major fault in the report.

To resolve this ratrunning the Linen Quarter should only be accessible for destination traffic, with through traffic routed along the outer edges. Only pedestrians, cyclists and public transport should be able to traverse the area.

A small amount of work has been done to stop through traffic using Adelaide Street. Only buses may enter Adelaide Street from Donegall Square East, but that doesn’t deter motorists ignoring the clear signage, matrix boards and road colour.

Surely, the only solution is to close off Donegall Square East for car traffic altogether, such as done at Donegall Square West, to benefit Metro bus services.

How can the Linen Quarter be made more people friendly? The consultation report does not want to alter or impede traffic flow through the area. By traffic the report authors mean vehicle traffic, rather than pedestrian traffic.

The report doesn’t recognise that pedestrians are traffic. It doesn’t acknowledge that having a near fully permeable road grid is to the area’s detriment. It doesn’t give cycling a place at all, other than a mention of the bike hire stations at Linenhall Street and Blackstaff Square.

Alfred Street is at the eastern edge of the Quarter. And here Belfast’s cycling revolution is taking shape. But more than that. At the Ormeau Avenue end a continuous footway is put across the mouth of Alfred Street, giving a very visible sign to drivers to slow down and discourage all but those who have business being there.

Continuous footways should be constructed across all side streets leading into the area, with the exception of Adelaide Street and Bedford Street (both important bus routes). This underlines the message that cars are less important than people.

To improve the area’s chances of being an attractive place to work and spend time we need to completely remove through traffic and reduce on-street parking in an area where there is plentiful multistorey parking available within a short walking distance.

Pedestrian Priority Streets

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I’m not a fan of pedestrian-priority streets shared space. Exhibition Road in London shows that where through traffic is removed (at its southern end) it can be a success.

In front of the nation’s great museums, however, the flow of traffic all but cuts the eastern side from the western side. Pedestrians don’t “dwell” on Exhibition Road. They run for their lives.

Closer to Belfast, Lisburn has installed a shared space. And not without problems:

Quite apart from the lack of support for disabled road users the space is unsuccessful in another way:

Lord Holmes takes the case for shared space apart and calls for a moratorium on new shared spaces being built.

The proposed shared spaces should be clearly defined to benefit disabled street users. And every effort should be made to reduce through traffic.

At present the grid is nearly fully permeable. When the streets are being refurbished it would not take much effort to reduce all but a handful to one way streets. The aim should be to give necessary access to destination traffic, but discourage rat running. There should be no advantage given to a motorist seeking to avoid congestion on Cromac Street.

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Red: continuous footway; green: Alfred St cycleway; orange: public spaces; pink: bus only; yellow arrows: one way; lilac: delivery access only

The city centre 20mph speed limit should be extended to the Linen Quarter. It saves lives. This is the one thing that must be done, regardless of this consultation.

The haulage industry has been campaigning vociferously for an increase in the number of loading bays across central Belfast. With the caveat that HGV entering an area with high numbers of pedestrians and cyclists should have measures such as low cabs, sensors, audible indicators and glass panels in the lower part of cab doors, some car park space should be turned into loading bays. However, HGV access should be limited to certain time slots to encourage use of the Quarter’s streets by people to stop, chat, have lunch and relax.

In sharing out the available parking space we should firstly put in loading bays for HGV. Outside the allocated delivery times some can act as taxi ranks. The remaining spaces can then be made available to -in order of importance- residents, blue badge holders and, lastly, the general public.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the area has considerable potential. It can be all the things the consultation report strives for, but only by removing all but a tiny proportion of vehicle traffic. A range of devices (continuous footways, pedestrianisation, removal of on-street parking and 20mph limit) can be used to improve the area for pedestrians. Cyclists will, at the same time feel more safe if car traffic were restricted in volume and in speed.

The shared spaces need extra consideration and extensive consultation with disabled street users.

The plans are available to view at the Ulster Hall during February, with the exception of the 20th.