The Alternative Belfast Bicycle Network Plan

The official version is pretty poor. Here’s my alternative.

Here’s that Department for Infrastructure map again:

Note the large blank spaces on the map in the south and east of the city. Let’s improve it.

First we need identify where cyclists currently are. 

They are in the city’s bus lanes along arterial routes, according to the Department for Infrastructure. One of the interesting things to have come out of the Taxis in bus lanes trial is evidence that cyclists use bus lanes in ever greater numbers:


The same data also show how taxis in bus lanes depress cycling figures. Cycling is virtually non-existent in West Belfast, with modal share below average for the whole of NI. The unique presence of taxi “buses” are to blame for keeping cycling figures low. 

Yellow areas: taxi buses have 2nd biggest share of commuting traffic after cars

Why do cyclists ride in bus lanes? Let’s quote the Department’s network plan: 

Coherence: cycling infrastructure should form a coherent entity, linking all trip origins and destinations; with a continuous level of provision;

Directness: routes should be as direct as possible, based on desire lines, since detours and delays will deter use;

Attractiveness:  routes should be attractive on subjective as well as objective criteria. Lighting, personal safety, aesthetics, noise and integration with the surrounding area are important;

Safety: designs should minimise the danger for all road users; and

Comfort: bicycle routes need smooth,well-maintained surfaces, regular sweeping, and gentle gradients. Routes need to be convenient to use and avoid complicated manoeuvres and interruptions.

In the absence of a safer alternative, the relative safety of bus lanes are a refuge to cyclists. But that misses out that bus lanes are also direct and in the morning peak hours a relatively coherent network. Certainly more coherent than the existing cycle paths.

Morning (left) and evening bus lane network (NIGreenways)

In drawing up its bicycle network plan, the Department is ignoring direct routes along arterials, arguing they are used by hardened commuters who will cycle a straight direct route regardless of the level of provision (which is mostly true) and inexperienced or novice cyclists will go out of their way to use a safe off-road alternative (which is not true). In their own words:

“detours and delays will deter use”

Humans tire and in Rotterdam as in Belfast cycling numbers drop off sharply after 5-6 miles. Make a route too long and people will use transit or their own car instead.

Belfast’s Bicycle Network should target people who currently use their car for journeys less than 5 miles. Research in London shows how 50% of car trips there could be cycled instead in 10 minutes or less.

How people in Belfast get around

When you compare Rotterdam with Belfast, it immediately becomes apparent Belfast commuters do not use public transit to the same extent. And for shorter distances Belfast commuters do not cycle at all. 

A similar proportion in both cities walk short distances. The presence of cycling infrastructure does not affect the number of people walking. Consequently, should Belfast build cycling infrastructure then its users will be by and large people who drove before.

Any strategy to reduce congestion in Belfast will need to encourage more people to use train or bus if their commute is over 5 miles, and convince those within a 5 mile radius of City Hall that cycling is a viable alternative. And that means all residents of Belfast:

Almost the whole city is less than 5 miles from City Hall

The network plan as presented by the Department for Infrastructure brings a path to within 400m of the majority of homes in Belfast. The vision recognises the existence of the amenity cyclist. All good. 

The planned routes then avoid amenities, mostly situated along Belfast’s main roads. Schools are not served well by the plans. Direct routes to the Royal Hospitals along Boucher Road and Grosvenor Road veer away within sight of the destination. This is difficult to comprehend.

What the Department’s plans clearly lack is directness. With the official plans relying heavily on sharing space with pedestrians, and leaving cyclists to share with motor vehicles along main roads safety is an issue also.

As illustration for the Department’s skewed priorities:

Cycling (green) vs. driving; how much quicker again if there were a cycle path beside the Ormeau Road?

Not all routes in the official plans are bad ideas, and not all bits of the badly chosen routes are useless. All in all, most of it can be retained as a secondary network reaching into the heart of neighbourhoods, giving access to all.

Cycle Superhighway 

What I find funny, from a Dutch perspective, is the UK’s obsession with cycle superhighways. Photos and videos of this space age cycle infrastructure in London invariably show what Dutch people call a “fietspad” or even a “fietsstrook”. Fietspaden (cycle paths) and fietsstroken (cycle lanes) can be found in any Dutch village, town and city.

Snelfietsroutes (cycle superhighways) should be aimed at replacing cars on busy transport corridors. They are born out of the realisation around a third of traffic on congested strategic trunk roads is local traffic, going only a short distance, a distance that can be cycled. 

The Rijnwaalpad (15.8km) between Arnhem and Nijmegen, alongside the busy A325, sees around 1000 cycle users daily, 50% of which cycle the path’s entire length; 20% of users have bought an e-bike specifically for that commute. And 90% commute all year. 

Michelle McIlveen, as Minister for Regional Development, went to see the Beuningen to Nijmegen snelfietsroute, and hoped it would be a good template for an upgrade of the Comber Greenway to a cycle superhighway. And it is.

Other cycle superhighways can be included, using existing paths, but upgraded to suit commuting, reaching beyond the city limits into Belfast’s commuter belt. Paths towards Holywood, Comber, Newtownabbey, Lisburn and Carryduff are viable, though the latter would include a long incline which would deter people on unassisted bicycles.

In my version of the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan Cyclesuperhighways have been included.

Community Greenways

A number of potential routes have been identified across Belfast that could act as Community Greenways. These are contained in the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan 2015. They are shared use paths, although a more in-depth look reveals most routes are not set out with cycling in mind.

The Department’s plans include some of these, but as they are not designated for cycling, it would be hard to use these to grow cycling into double figures.

The same goes for the Lagan Towpath. It would be hard to grow this into a major cycling route carrying 4 to 5 times the current number of bicycle users without causing conflict with other path users. 

To grow cycling, designated cycle tracks need to be put in along arterial routes near to the Greenways and Towpath, with links from the Greenways to feed into the arterial route.

Copy and paste, replace “London” with “Belfast” and remove anything that costs too much money

How Belfast gained its plans is roughly following London’s LCDS and ignoring large bits of it. In short, the capital TfL planned its provision around a 400m by 400m grid. This was overlaid on a map and then pushed into place to fit existing roads, streets and cycle paths. These prospective routes are then assessed on safety, functionality, accessibility and a final coherent network is arrived at. One hopes. 

Like all things copied and pasted from existing GB schemes to NI schemes, some stuff just gets deleted. Isn’t that so, Arlene?

And what got deleted from the London scheme was putting in cycling provision along main roads, because that brings with it bothersome assessments of safety at junctions and consequently costly remedies to make junctions safe.

The Belfast plans were perhaps meant to be cheap and cheerful, effectively putting a sign beside an existing footpath, proclaiming it part of the Bicycle Network and so one more box can be ticked.

That is not good enough.

London’s experience shows that other than a few flagship routes and a couple of Mini-Hollands there is no coherent network to speak of. “Yet”, I add hopefully.

Belfast is much smaller, the population size of a typical London borough, but geographically more spread out. Which should make designing a coherent network easier.

Belfast Rapid Transit

Over the past year or so in this blog I have pointed out the deadening hand of the Belfast Rapid Transit scheme, stifling development of cycling across the city. In the Department’s plans the Newtownards Road and Falls Road have been abandoned as potential cycle network routes. Worse, the Department wishes to see BRT buses on more main arterial routes, driving a horse and cart through the Bicycle Strategy.

Most of Belfast’s arterial road grid is configured with 2×2 running lanes, with one lane set aside permanently for parking and a second lane designated partially as bus lane, but also acting as a car park outside peak hours.

In a city blighted by congestion, it is wasteful designating between 25 and 50% of road capacity to parking cars. Roads are for moving people, not for storing private property.

The parking space on arterial roads are effectively the Department for Infrastructure reserving space for BRT lanes. A bit like British holidaymakers in Majorca putting their towels on poolside sun loungers at the crack of dawn to annoy Germans.

Yet, I am in favour of the BRT. I wish to see quality designated cycle infrastructure beside it. And I wish both these modes of transport flourish for the good of Belfast. On our arterial roads that means one thing: restricting car use. Because cars are incredibly inefficient at moving people in urban areas.

Belfast can have BRT and have cycle paths, but should remove general traffic either partly, or entirely, from routes that should serve to move lots of people, quickly and efficiently. 

So here is my plan:

Blue: cycle superhighways; red: designated cycle paths; green: shared space. Black circles: roundabouts with protected space for cycling.

Should it boil down to a choice between a path along an arterial route or a shared space Greenway through a park, the arterial route should be built first.

If we are serious about cycling as a transport mode all main arterial routes must be reconfigured. A strip of on street parking or parking laybys must be sacrificed to accommodate cycle paths.

(BRT) bus lanes should take space from general traffic lanes. And should not enough space remain to accommodate private cars going in both directions, then the route should be made a one way, with a nearby arterial running the other way.

For example…

In that case the road layout could be changed like so:

Road works often give a sense of what space can be spared. This particular stretch of my evening commute is usually an illegal car park. It being coned off created no additional congestion.

Temporary road works showing where cycle paths can be built

And I hope the Department for Infrastructure take on board my criticism of their plans so Belfast can see this kind of thing also:

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