Taking back the Square, part 2

Three years ago I blogged on the consultation for the redevelopment of Shaftesbury Square, launched by the then Department of Social Development, now Department for Communities.

The plans mentioned the poor provision for cyclists travelling across the Square from North to South. It did not mention cyclists being unable to cross the Square from Donegall Road to Donegall Pass. No mention either of the Belfast Bikes hire stations in Botanic Avenue or Bradbury Place.

My blog post was picked up by the design company, GM Design Associates. My comments would be passed on to Billy Robinson, the project lead, who is a “keen cyclist”.

You then think in the intervening years, with Belfast Bikes establishing themselves into the streetscape, 2 Ciclovia events, increasing numbers of people on bikes crossing the Square daily for commuting, shopping or leisure, the plans under the aegis of a keen cyclist would move away from providing for cars to something more pleasing, more people friendly, more human scale.

So, what has changed?

The words remain good, though I have to take issue with the insertion of “most foolhardy” in the description of cyclists who currently use the Square.

How exceptionally hostile and hazardous is it?

Mapped are all collisions involving cyclists between 1998 and 2015. This reveals that lower Botanic Ave, site of the Belfast Bikes hire station, is a very hazardous place.

The hot spots for cycling collisions, besides the bottom end of Botanic Avenue are on the corner of Donegall Road and Shaftesbury Square;

outside the former Northern Bank on the corner of Bradbury Place;

and at the point where the lane entering Botanic Avenue and Donegall Pass meet:

The plans would only address the latter, as the plans are summarised best as the removal of the Botanic Avenue slip lane to make a larger public space.

At the end of my blog I scribbled a plan of how the plans could be improved. I was still maintaining the Great Victoria Street and Dublin Road gyratory.

We now have had 2 Ciclovia events, showing the potential benefit of pedestrianising Botanic Avenue and Dublin Road, and the excellent route Dublin Road would make as the primary access into the heart of Belfast, continuing along Bedford Street.

Over the years Belfast’s Golden Mile along Great Victoria Street has withered and is now only found in people’s memories and sepia tinted photographs. However, a lot of nightlife, pubs, restaurants and cafés are now along the axis of Dublin Road, Botanic Avenue and Bradbury Place.

The Department for Communities plans should look beyond the Square and move through traffic away from Dublin Road and Botanic Avenue.

Removing through traffic from Dublin Road will result in Great Victoria Street becoming two way, with a much simplified junction with Donegall Pass and Donegall Road. If Botanic Avenue were pedestrianised the junction would be far simpler still.

Great Victoria Street has ample space to accommodate 2 bus lanes, 2 general traffic lanes and cycle paths. If the Department for Infrastructure can give up its obsession with on-street parking.

Walking into a nightmare

The biggest problem with the Department’s plans is turning Shaftesbury Square into a shared space. This would require a massive reduction in traffic volume. The plans only mention a reduction in vehicle speed.

The plans set out 10 transport goals:

So let’s see how this has been translated into the plan.

No dedicated cycle route through the Square. No bus stop bypasses. A shared space, where up to 3000 vehicles an hour cars jostle for room to move. More car parking is included in an area where there is already no shortage of spaces.

This is not going to improve the place for pedestrians or cyclists. People with impaired vision or mobility will struggle to move safely across a space without clearly demarcated spaces for vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists.

Building crumbling infrastructure

It is not as if this idea has not been tried before. And failed.

Here is Frideswide Square in Oxford:

Read about damage here: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-36214992 or here: http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/14727336.More_cracks_and_damage_at_Frideswide_Square_just_days_after_it_reopened/

And concerns from cyclists: https://aseasyasridingabike.wordpress.com/2014/11/12/squeezing-out-cycling-with-two-tier-provision/

And visually impaired people: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-37560744

It was nominated for a prize. Mortifying.

Exhibition Road in London is often cited as a successful design, but I felt the central car space acts as a barrier to crossing the road, with pedestrians pushed together against the facades of the museum buildings:

Shared Space for the Fittest and Strongest

Closer to home, in Lisburn, Joanna Toner won a court case over the use of low kerbs in the town centre shared space development. “[Joanna] stated that previously she could walk around Lisburn city centre without difficulty, accompanied by her guide dog or using a white cane.” But no longer. The shared space has destroyed her independence and confidence.

Lord Holmes called for a moratorium on shared space schemes.

With the large volume of traffic on Shaftesbury Square the definition of shared space is pushed beyond its limit.

LTN 1-11 (link above) talks of a threshold of 100 vehicle movements an hour at which point the space becomes a road to be crossed, rather than a truly shared space. None of the arms of Shaftesbury Square are anywhere near that figure. Donegall Pass with 400 vehicle movements is the least busy but still 4 times the threshold.

In the GM Design plan the roads will remain roads to be crossed, and pedestrians will remain pushed to the edges of the Square, near the buildings.

How does a blind person negotiate with 50 vehicles a minute in crossing the Square? How will an 8 year old cycle safely across this space with around 70 buses per hour?

Traffic volume needs to be reduced dramatically before we start dreaming of turning Shaftesbury Square into a space for events. Simply putting a 20mph speed limit sign up and putting down nice slabs of stone is not going to achieve very much.

Inspiration from elsewhere

Haarlemmerplein, Amsterdam. Mark Wagenbuur did a little portrait of Haarlemmerplein in Amsterdam. Its redevelopment was controversial, with the design changing from a historically inaccurate pond to a water feature similar to the one at Belfast Custom House Square.

The take home message there is the rerouting of the main flow of traffic away from Haarlemmerdijk, across the square to Haarlemmer Houttuinen, just to the north. Removing the main flow of traffic enabled a more human scale square. Somewhere to chat and to spend time and money.

Similarly, Times Square, New York. Snøhetta, the designers, boldly pedestrianised Broadway between 42nd and 47th Street, removing a flow of traffic across Times Square.

The Department for Communities was inspired by Times Square, but GM Design Associates were not bold enough to remove any traffic flows across Shaftesbury Square.

Conversation

Noise pollution is a serious problem in Shaftesbury Square.

The dark blue splodge on the map above is where average daytime noise levels exceed 75dB. This is uncomfortably loud. People have to shout to make themselves heard.

One of the startling features of Dutch rush hours and cities is the lack of road noise. Staying in a B&B just off Amsterdam’s Vijzelgracht, the only clue that rush hour was in full swing was the ringing of tram bells and the sound of people chatting as they rode by on their bikes.

A street café is unimaginable in Shaftesbury Square unless road noise is reduced. Electric cars will reduce engine noise, but the equally noisy rumble of tyre noise and wind resistance remains.

Air Quality

These are NOx-emissions apportioned per vehicle type. We can now add that cars (especially diesels) are now known to be far more polluting than thought when Belfast City Council drew up its Air Quality Action Plan. Without drastic action Belfast air quality will fail to improve and annually 300 people will still die prematurely because of air pollution caused by traffic.

With these plans pedestrians and cyclists on Shaftesbury Square will continue to breathe in noxious fumes because no effort has been made to reduce through traffic.

Belfast Rapid Transit stunts development of arterial cycling routes

I am all for Rapid Transit. What I question about its implementation in Belfast is it being introduced without taking space from cars and removing space for cycle paths. In the consultation the Department for Infrastructure glibly dismissed cyclists’ concerns. I queried this with the Department and was told cyclists could use the bus lanes. As pointed out in the BRT consultation responses. And that was it. The Department for Infrastructure Cycling Unit shrugged its shoulders and Sustrans was happy with that.

In East Belfast a dogged campaign saved the Comber Greenway from being turned into a fast bus track. The route was put on the main Newtownards Road. Cyclists can use the parallel Comber Greenway.

In West Belfast the BRT goes up the Falls Road, Andersonstown Road and terminates on the Stewartstown Road. No alternative cycle route is available, though the Department for Infrastructure insists cyclists can use the paths through Bog Meadows instead.

That is perhaps fine for fit people on conventional bicycles, but everyone else will struggle.

The plan’s transport goals have the BRT at the apex of Belfast’s transport hierarchy.

The plans do not remove general traffic lanes to accommodate the dedicated bus lanes. And in the plans, despite having dedicated cycle tracks as a transport goal, no dedicated cycle tracks are included.

Unless GM Design Associates Billy Robinson, the foolhardy keen cyclist, doesn’t mind sharing with buses. And thinks a bus lane is a cycle lane.

I get tired trotting out this graph from Sustrans Belfast Bike Life report. Bus lanes you can cycle in are the least encouraging for getting more people to cycle.

Improving the design

Times Square, New York, shows how we can improve the presented plans. Dublin Road and Botanic Avenue need to be pedestrianised, with a two way cycle track along the entire length.

Donegall Pass is dead-ended for vehicle traffic at its junction with Botanic Avenue. Great Victoria Street becomes two way from Bruce Street to Bradbury Place. Great Victoria Street will have inward and outbound bus lanes, a general traffic lane in each direction and cycle tracks. The bus lanes and cycle tracks are continued up Bradbury Place. The cycle tracks flow behind the bus stops. On-street parking is removed entirely, leaving a only couple of loading bays and a taxi rank.

And if we really must continue to provide car parking…

In Leiden at the Lammermarkt an underground car park was built, leaving space on the surface for events. If Belfast were really ambitious it could do something similar. It has to be balanced by removing more surface parking in the city centre, so encouraging drivers not to take cars into the city centre.

Advertisements

A Green Barrier to Cycling

Geraldine McAteer, the Sinn Fein councillor for Balmoral invited people to attend a Belfast City Council consultation on replacing the green steel barriers on Finaghy Road North railway bridge.

I went along to see what was planned. Would it address any of the problems around Finaghy Road North: the rush hour congestion; the lack of cycle infrastructure; the poor access to Finaghy railway halt; the dangerous junctions of Finaghy Road North with Diamond Gardens and Orchardville Avenue.

To cut a long blog short. No, these plans concerned themselves only with the look of the bridge:

There was a choice of cladding for the bridge sides, paving slabs or tarmac and lighting options.

Early in the day people expressed a clear preference for sides that allowed people to see the trains, and didn’t offer a blank canvas to graffiti “artists”.

Also, people wished to have the bridge reinforced with a containment kerb and rail. This is understandable. The local environment, with a high traffic volume is threatening.

Squeeze

One, unintended, consequence of a containment kerb and rail is the narrowing of footpath space. Some of the path width will be recouped from removing the green barrier. Narrowing will be bad for pedestrians and cyclists.

The road itself is very narrow and doesn’t allow cyclists easy filtering past the queue of traffic. Most cyclists will continue to use the footpath, but with less space, more conflict seems inevitable.

Great Heck

After the Great Heck Rail Crash in 2001 railway bridges across the UK were assessed for safety. The crash near Selby was caused by a sleep deprived driver plunging his Land Rover and trailer, loaded with a Renault 21, off the M62 onto the East Coast Main Line. The southbound early morning Intercity service from Newcastle to King’s Cross hit the Land Rover and was pushed into the path of a freight train travelling in the opposite direction. 10 people died and 82 were injured.

The bridge at Finaghy was identified as in need of most upgrading in Northern Ireland.

Very soon after the “upgrade” local politicians called for the “ugliest bridge in Ireland” to be improved. We can only hope the current consultation is the beginning of the end for the green walls of Finaghy.

Budget

There is no budget for major, meaningful improvements. The current consultation is simply looking at replacing the green containment wall with a prettier arrangement.

No plans exist to making the bridge safe for cycling. Many cyclists choose the footpath rather than go on the road. The bridge approaches and nearby junctions are outside the project’s remit.

The footpath is not much better; the area is blighted with pavement parking and dog dirt.

Unaddressed problems

  • Finaghy and Andersonstown are car-centred neighbourhoods
  • Finaghy halt is accessed through a pub car park;
  • Access to the station for people using mobility aids, prams and bicycles is circuitous;
  • There are steep steps leading up to the road;
  • There is no footpath on both sides of the road;
  • There is no protection for cyclists;
  • Drivers make walking from the station hazardous at the junctions of Finaghy Road North and Diamond Gardens and Orchardville Avenue (below)
  • Finaghy Road North is used by through traffic; it is a favoured route for taxi drivers to and from Belfast International Airport to south and east Belfast.

Solutions

1930s

This part of Belfast does not see much cycling. The 2011 Census shows the share for cycling at around 1% – about Northern Ireland average, but below areas to the northeast, closer to the city centre.

Few children cycle to school; the majority of primary school age children are brought by car. And all because the car is given priority.

Any solutions for this bridge should put the interests of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport above that of car drivers.

Changing the environment

Despite there being 3 primary schools, 3 secondary schools, a health centre and library within walking distance to Finaghy cross roads, the light sequence massively favours cars. In a 3 minute light sequence only one phase of 20 seconds are allocated to pedestrians. This is not quite enough to cross diagonally. Though some try:

The nearby side streets are rat runs and they should be bunged:

With BRT coming to the northern end of Finaghy Road North, more should be done to dissuade residents in the area reaching for their car keys when they need to go out. Stopping rat running and inappropriate through traffic will increase road safety in the area, which will enable people to walk to the train or bus, to work and school.

Incentives need to be offered to residents to discover for themselves how good and convenient public transport or cycling can be for them. Most people reach for their car keys, because the other options are simply not familiar to them.

Solutions – Cycling

The Belfast Bicycle Network Plan reaches Finaghy Road North by way of the private school grounds belonging to Malone College and Cranmore Integrated Primary School (red on the map below). Which is strange, because the school gates close when the last member of staff leaves in the afternoon. During the day visitors to the grounds using the back gate at Musgrave Park are buzzed in.

A better solution here is to take the network cycle path along the railway straight to the station (green on the map below). The railway embankment and grounds are wide enough to accommodate a path. I suspect at some stage there were sidings here.

Finaghy Road should have cycle tracks running its entire length. It would enable more pupils cycling to school. The principal of Cranmore IPS welcomes more pupils coming to school on foot or by bike, but the road environment simply makes it impossible.

A solution for the look of the bridge should be sufficiently flexible to allow for the construction of cycle tracks at a later date.

Solutions – station access

What is amazing is that the bridge over the railway never had a footpath on both sides, as this view of Finaghy Lane in the 1930s shows.

However there was an access to the railway down a set of stairs on the south side. It appears the land immediately below and beside the bridge is still owned by Translink and gives access to the station forecourt via an arch. Why can this lane off Ardmore Avenue not be used for vehicle access to the station, rather than crossing the pub car park?

Giving the station its own access might stop this kind of thing happening:

Solutions – Pedestrian access

The station is currently reached by steps from the road level down to the platforms. For people using mobility aids, prams and bicycles there is a detour to a ground level path leading to the southbound platform and the halt’s forecourt.

Not having a footpath on both sides of this urban distributor road is not acceptable; it discriminates against those who have difficulty crossing roads. The lack of a footpath adds to the bridge being perceived as a barrier.

Simply because a footpath was not there in the 1930s is not a good enough reason to not have it there 80 years later. The area has changed beyond recognition.

Pedestrian walkways can be added to each side of the bridge with ramps leading straight down to platform level on both sides of the road and railway line.

Conclusion

The replacement of the ugly green barriers is long overdue. It detracts from the area and makes the walking and cycling environment even more hostile.

Narrowing the footpath to install containment kerbs will increase conflict between pedestrians and cyclists.

None of the areas traffic problems are addressed and no budget is available to put pedestrians, cyclists and public transport first.