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