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.
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.
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.