When I first arrived in Northern Ireland in 1992 I took my 3-speed Dutch bike on a trip from Belfast to Larne along the A2 on a sunny August Bank Holiday. It wasn’t until I reached Eden on the outskirts of Carrickfergus on the way back I encountered another cyclist: a venerable man on a well-maintained classic road racing bike. We looked at each other as if we had encountered an alien from another planet. We nodded by way of greeting and went on our way.
On the back of their Local Development Plan, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council have presented their Cycling Routes Masterplan. You can get a copy by emailing Lynda Foy at the council.
Lisburn and Castlereagh hid their Community Greenway plans in the lengthy Local Development Plan. Their plans were a giant step forward, but still well short of enabling a modal shift towards cycling.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council have asked Sustrans to help develop their plans and it shows. At first glance the networks proposed for Ballymena, Carrickfergus and Larne are a true network of paths, reaching into neighbourhoods and connecting with key destinations: schools, railway stations, shops and businesses.
The plan also reaches out beyond town limits with a number of Greenways across the council area. The maps rather optimistically mention existing cycle paths along the A26 and A8.
Sustrans authorship also shows itself in the reluctance to move away from shared use paths and more forcefully claim space for cycling on the towns’ main thoroughfares.
A change of climate
East Antrim is of course the constituency of Sammy Wilson MP, infamous for his climate change denial and nudity, who claimed that Northern Ireland’s climate and topography don’t lend themselves to cycling.
It is satisfying then to see that this plan is the best of the three I have looked at. Imagine a steady stream of Larne residents pedalling past Wilson’s constituency office. These plans can make it so. Alas, the plans do not include a path along the length of Larne’s Main Street, but let’s hope Mid and East Antrim find the money to put a bike hangar, or public pump and repair station right in front of Wilson’s office.
The plan does not contain many words, but instead showcases areas of opportunity and areas for improvement. The numbers on the town maps correspond to action points.
The timescale for these plans is a leisurely 10 years. That is too long. It should be 5 years at most. We are facing an acute obesity crisis in UK and Ireland because of inactivity. 0% of school children cycle to school and we will fail them and their generation if we do not act. We cannot afford to let these plans drag on for a decade.
None of the planned routes require large capital outlay. There are no iconic bridges to be built. These plans involve mostly retro-fitting paths to wide roads, and updating existing infrastructure. Many of the fixes such as cutting back vegetation can possibly be achieved within existing budgets.
Even if there were need for an underpass, it wouldn’t take very long to build:
If there is serious money to be spent for the benefit of bicycle users it should be to make safe the borough’s junctions and roundabouts. What is missing from the plan is an inventory of dangerous junctions and roundabouts and actions to mitigate for the danger.
Instead cyclists are to be ushered through a side street.
As with the Belfast plan, these plans stand or fall by their offering cyclists a direct safe coherent route of consistent quality from anywhere in town to any destination. Or, if you don’t create a safe cycling environment you will not see an increased uptake of cycling.
The areas of opportunity identified are the very wide roads in the towns.
That is the Galgorm Road, where lane width far exceeds car width. The lane should be no wider than the bus. This would give acres of space either side for cycle paths and bus stop bypasses. Like so:
Bike paths can be installed quickly without impeding existing traffic flows and at the same time prioritise bus services over cars. A pity therefore that giving up parking spaces and space on main roads for bike lanes is a battle these plans mostly avoid.
Case 1, Ballymena:
There is an obvious northeast to southwest diagonal route possible through the town centre. Note how the purple line doesn’t cross the town centre. Instead the bicycle user is routed away from the heart of the town and instead sent through a riverside park. It is a missed opportunity. Perhaps the roads here are too narrow to include cycle infrastructure.
Definitely no room for cycling here.
Case 2, Carrickfergus:
Carrickfergus railway station is in the wrong place. It should be at the North Road bridge. This situation cannot be helped. However the back entrance is accessible on traffic free paths from North Road. You would think consequently that at the Sustrans NI HQ the North Road would see the first cycle route drawn alongside it. On the map North Road (yellow) runs from top to bottom with the railway station a red dot at the bottom of the map.
North Road is perhaps a narrow lane. And putting in a cycle path alongside would need homeowners to give up their gardens.
Again, absolutely no room for cycling here.
There is no point in looking to Utrecht for inspiration on how we could change these good plans into excellent plans. Utrecht has spent in excess of €180 million in 4 years on cycling infrastructure. But the video makes a couple of good points.
The Dutch cycle network doesn’t live in isolation. It is enabled (increasingly controversially) by a road and motorway network designed to keep motor traffic out of towns. It is aided by a ruthlessly efficient public transport network. It is underpinned by a philosophy of sustainable safety, enabling all age all ability cycling. It puts pedestrians and cyclists first. And these principles can be applied on a small scale. In Co. Antrim.
Despite Copenhagen once again crowning itself the world’s cycling capital we have to look to small Dutch towns instead to understand how it all hangs together. On a small scale. In Venray.
At this point I usually bring up the larger city of Venlo 15 miles south. Mostly because I grew up there, though I was born in Horst halfway between the two. Venray, however, is by far the most bicycle friendly town in Limburg. It has a higher than Dutch average modal share for cycling. In many ways Venray can be compared to Mid and East Antrim’s three main towns. It has a rural catchment area with similar economic circumstances and a socially conservative political scene.
In Venray they protect cyclists where needed:
And keep out cars where they are not needed:
And Venray has a large bicycle storage area near its station. A station, like Carrickfergus Station, built in the wrong place.
Outlined in red are the covered bike racks. And they are always full to bursting with bikes as they are at every Dutch railway station. The storage area is not guarded but some bike lockers are available for added security. OV-Fiets hire bikes are also available.
And obviously the station can be reached on designated cycle lanes:
Venray has a lively cycling culture. It is justly proud of its annual 4 day bicycle tour festival at the end of July.
Carrickfergus, Ballymena and Larne are firmly in Belfast’s commuter belt and many brave the horror of traffic on the M2 and M5 to access places of employment in the city. There is a rail service to these towns, but it could be much better. One train an hour to and from Ballymena is not good enough.
And that 26 mile train journey should not take 50 minutes and cost £13. The same journey is 35 minutes by car. The aim should be to offer at least two trains an hour taking no more than 35 minutes. There is no point in encouraging a bike-train solution to car commuting misery if the train bit is so costly in time and money.
For comparison the diesel train service from Venlo to Cuijk is 28 miles, takes 37 minutes and has a frequency of 30 minutes. It costs €9.62 for a single journey. The Dutch government has pledged money so the line will be electrified and partially doubled to allow an increase in frequency and introduce intercity services. Additional stations could also be added at some point in the future, though for now a station at Grubbenvorst is shelved.
As with Dutch trains there is little room for bicycles, and not at all in rush hour, unless it is a folding bike.
To increase bike-train or bike-bus as a commuter mode and start relieving congestion on Belfast’s northern approaches cycle storage at stations and principal bus stops needs to be built and expanded.
Bike lockers could be placed at unmanned halts and at bus stops, in addition to increasing racks at manned stations and using double deck bike racks as found at many Dutch stations. Or Cambridge, or Sutton:
Bicycle hire should be made available at Carrickfergus, Ballymena and Larne stations. Visitors to the towns could then arrive by bus or rail and continue to their destination by bike.
These plans represent a real change for people in Mid and East Antrim. For many cycling to school, shops or work cycling can become a realistic alternative to taking the car. The proposed paths amount to a fairly coherent network. Many key destinations are made accessible for bicycle users, and some (but not all) main roads will get designated cycle space.
The plan itself admits there could be linking and new routes added. The lack of a spine to the networks in Ballymena and Carrickfergus will need to be addressed to ensure directness isn’t compromised. Forcing cyclists on an unnecessary detour is a central failing of the Belfast Network Plan; Mid and East Antrim need not make the same mistake.
Another aim is to make bike-train or bike-bus a realistic alternative for commuters to Belfast. The plan includes installing extra racks at bus and railway stations. Bike lockers could be used at less secure unmanned halts and principal bus stops.
A major block to developing bike-train are the poor railway connections to Belfast. The trains are too infrequent and slow and tickets too expensive. Significant investment in more rolling stock is needed to expand to a 30-minute frequency. Additionally, the continued use of diesel trains can no longer be justified. Electrification of NI’s rail network should be pursued as a priority.
The plan does not set clear targets for cycling uptake. And as a result it is difficult to gauge how these plans will cope with 5, 10 or 30% modal share. What modal share is the council aiming for? The plans should say and the paths should be built to accommodate that level of cycling.
Using shared paths is already causing problems in Belfast where cycling sits at 3-5%, so where possible they should be avoided. If shared paths need a Sustrans initiative to avoid conflict the shared path has outgrown its capacity to accommodate the volume of users with divergent needs.
Finally, the biggest and darkest cloud. Unfortunately roads and transport are not controlled by councils. Instead roads are administered by the Department for Infrastructure. They are very reluctant to shift road space towards accommodating more bicycle users. The council’s Cycling Routes Masterplan could very well fall victim to Departmental inertia and lack of cooperation.