Clifton Gateway – A Traffic Sewer Repackaged

Earlier in the year the Department for Communities released their proposals for redeveloping Crumlin Road, Carlisle Circus and Clifton Street.

The plans are available here.

The project’s introduction recognises the poor quality of the public realm, the severance caused by the hostile environment for pedestrians around Clifton Street’s junctions with the Westlink and Carrick Hill. The Westlink cuts neighbourhoods off from the city centre, and separates communities from economic opportunity. To the north and west of the Westlink lie some of Europe’s poorest neighbourhoods. To the south and east are some of Northern Ireland’s wealthiest districts.

There is nothing bad about the context and background. It even mentions cycling without adding “foolhardy“.

Ideal

The project’s objectives include: “d. to design and deliver the infrastructure necessary to accommodate the relevant phases of the Belfast Cycle Network Programme.”

Excellent.

What does the Programme for Government say? In the absence of a Minister the civil service should continue the directives of the most recent Programme for Government.

The Government have recognised that the share of 25% walking, cycling and use of public transport is stagnant and not sustainable. This percentage has to be much higher. It has remained roughly the same for much of the past decade.

Indicator 25, section 3.17 says:

“Provision of adequate infrastructure is critically important. We will, therefore, aim to BUILD [sic] a comprehensive network for the bicycle – the emphasis is on providing good quality safe and accessible infrastructure so that people will have the freedom and confidence to travel by bicycle for everyday journeys.”

This is further fleshed out in the Department for Infrastructure’s Bicycle Strategy.

All good. With such a framework in place we should expect something really good. A segregated cycleway of perhaps an even better standard than the Middlepath Cycleway.

Reality

What is offered to pedestrians and cyclists in these plans?

The area has a number of collision black spots for cycling: the Agnes Street junction, outside the Mater Hospital, Carlisle Circus, the junction with the Westlink and the Carrick Hill junction:

Here is a Google Streetview of the current cycle lane on Crumlin Road:

The green paint has all but been worn away, because drivers abuse it as a free car park for the nearby Mater hospital. It is effectively useless as a cycle lane.

In the opposite direction there is a bus lane, which cyclists may use. Except, of course, for 22 hours of the day when it is a car park. It is effectively useless as cycle infrastructure. And ineffective as a bus lane also.

The plans are for exactly the same.

This cross-section is located here (in red dashes):

In summary, there are no plans for good quality accessible and safe cycle infrastructure on the Crumlin Road.

The civil servant responsible will argue they were never going to build anything new there, because that particular road is not included in the Network Plan. So they don’t have to do anything at all.

Belfast Cycle Network Plan routes (red), Clifton Gateway (green)

Except they do, under the terms of the Programme for Government Indicator 25, they have to build good quality, safe and accessible cycle infrastructure to give people the freedom and confidence to travel by bicycle to go to a hospital, say, or go into the city centre.

Summing up, the cycle lane plans for Crumlin Road fail to meet the project’s targets, do not meet the requirement set out in Indicator 25 of the Programme for Government and least of all will persuade more people in North Belfast to cycle.

Within the same footprint available on Crumlin Road DfI could build something like this:

Carlisle Circus

In my blog about roundabouts I mentioned Carlisle Circus as a possible site for a Dutch-style roundabout with protection for cyclists and improved crossings for pedestrians.

The current situation:

And the proposed situation:

We await DfI’s plans eagerly, because the plans for this junction and the Carrick Hill junction are yet to finalised. Whatever it is, it has to enable pedestrians and cyclists to make their everyday journeys with freedom and confidence.

A few questions, though. Why is there car parking on the circle itself? A roundabout with car parking. Mad. Almost as mad as a motorway roundabout with a footpath around it.

Would that space not be better used to make the roundabout safer?

Is there perhaps a lid on any radical change here? We can be pretty sure the final junction design will try and accommodate the big purple Glider buses.

Belfast Rapid Transit, phase 2

The BRT Gliders made an appearance in the Shaftesbury Square public realm plans, because phase 2 of the big purple bus will open up a north-south route across the city, with tentative plans for a route from Newtownabbey to Knockbracken, with a spur to Queen’s University Belfast. The exact route has not been settled yet, but space is reserved across the city nonetheless. What is the point, argue the civil servants at DfI, of making Carlisle Circus a place where people can walk and cycle with freedom and confidence now, when we will go and rip it up in a few years anyway?

The Belfast City Deal includes the funding from central government for the North South BRT, which is conditional on the Assembly being restored.

Readers, it may be a few years before the BRT comes anywhere near Carlisle Circus, if at all. In the meantime any developments that could benefit pedestrians and cyclists are stifled.

Grosvenor Road

Even when the BRT goes somewhere else, the resulting free road space is not automatically given to other sustainable travel modes. A little way along the Westlink the East West BRT was initially planned to go up Grosvenor Road. It was instead routed along the Falls Road a little north.

The Belfast Cycle Network Plan RVH to Comber cycleway fizzles out at the junction of Durham Street and Grosvenor Road. An empty expanse of tarmac lies between there and the gates of the hospital.

No room for cycling here

Cyclists are routed, diverted, along the polluted, noisy Westlink, where WHO air quality levels are breached on more than 25% of days of the year. And the gate from the Westlink to the RVH campus is closed at weekends.

Carlisle Circus reimagined

For an idea on how to improve Carlisle Circus for pedestrians and cyclists and include mass transit we -naturally- head off to the Netherlands.

Mark Wagenbuur wrote about this roundabout in Amsterdam, the Hugo de Grootplein, which includes a tram track. And what is the BRT, but a tram without tracks?

Dare the Department for Infrastructure build something mad like this? Maybe. They, after all, came up with a single lane motorway roundabout with a footpath.

Clifton Street

Clifton Street is a traffic sewer. It collects traffic from the Antrim and Crumlin Roads and dumps it in Belfast’s answer to Rome’s Cloaca Maxima, the Westlink. To continue with the scatological theme, the Westlink is part of the 1960s Belfast Urban Motorway (BUM, in case the penny drops more slowly for you).

It is more than a road, an attempt to build barriers between rich and poor, Catholic and Protestant. Belfast is criss-crossed with euphemistically called Peace Lines. Instead these lines are the petrified remains of our conflict, uniting communities on both sides under the peace line’s dark shadow.

(c) PRONI/SpatialNI

The map of Belfast prior to the Westlink shows a dense network of streets and alleys. They were all cleared away and the residents moved to bright and breezy, optimistic sprawl and new towns at the edge of ever expanding outer urban Belfast.

The Westlink is a formidable moat. And Clifton Street is one of the few bridges across it into central Belfast.

The Clifton Gateway project recognises the severance, this barrier caused by too many vehicles in too little space, suffocating the life out of this area of town. Literally.

Image showing air pollution in Belfast.

Let’s see a before and after and see how pedestrians can walk with confidence and freedom from Carlisle Circus to Carrick Hill.

Clifton Street – current

Clifton Street – proposed

A new bridge railing. That is it. No doubt more pleasing to the eye than the existing utilitarian fence. They plan to overcome a barrier to walking and cycling, a traffic bottleneck, with a fancy bridge railing.

The plans acknowledge the existing footways are challenging, full of dips, bumps, kerbs and odd slopes. So walking might be made easier, but is it enough to encourage people to walk beside a noisy, smelly 5 lane traffic sewer, crossing flows of traffic to and from the Westlink; a journey currently undertaken by car?

There is nothing for cyclists. There is an advisory cycle lane on Crumlin Road, but where it is needed most, at Carlisle Circus and along Clifton Street there is nothing.

The plans maintain 5(!) lanes for motor traffic. There are no bus lanes, not even for the BRT.

Belfast is not going to achieve its aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution targets if the government like a gambling addict keeps backing the losing horse, or in this case the car. If we want road space for cyclists and buses space needs to be taken from one or more general traffic lanes.

Happily, Clifton Street has plenty of room for bus lanes, cycleways, leaving 2 lanes of general traffic.

Programme for Government Indicator 23

Indicator 23 looks at increasing capacity of the strategic road network. The ways it is hoped this will be achieved:

  • road infrastructure investment at localised congestion pinch points in the network
  • identify and investigate any pinch points which appear to be operating inefficiently (e.g. relatively low flows but high delays)
  • remove interaction between local and strategic traffic through:
  • bypasses of towns and villages
  • restricting access to the strategic network for traffic undertaking local journeys

This opens up a whole new realm of possibilities.

Removal of the Clifton Street/Westlink junction

The junction with the Westlink pulls traffic from across North Belfast towards it. It increases traffic on surrounding roads; much the same way the Stranmillis gyratory pulls traffic towards itself.

Down below, on the Westlink, the weaving of traffic to access the Clifton Street slip roads, or of traffic joining the Westlink, reduces speed and capacity, reduces traffic flow.

Be radical! Remove the slip roads, remove the central filter lane on Clifton Street, do away with the traffic lights. Do away with the junction.

Fewer drivers will come to Clifton Street, because they can no longer access the Westlink there. Which is good, because you have just given all that space to buses, cyclists and pedestrians.

The drivers will soon discover that they can still access the strategic road network at Fortwilliam, York Street and Divis Street.

Carrick Hill Junction

The Carrick Hill junction is a mess, 5 roads converge on the junction. It is a challenge for any cyclist or pedestrian to cross safely.

There are filter lanes inviting drivers to cut across cyclists going straight ahead. One is at Donegall Street entering Carrick Hill, the other on Carrick Hill, entering Clifton Street.

There is no need for filter lanes in inner urban areas. Filter lanes, advanced stop lines, pedestrian guard rails and staggered crossings (all found on this junction) have little to do with safety, but everything to do with improving car traffic flow. They are symptoms of car-centred road design, obsessed with moving cars.

This should be a place where people using public transport, people walking and people cycling dominate.

A proposed Belfast Cycle Network route crosses the junction, from Carrick Hill to North Queen Street.

Instead of a space for people, we have dreadful wasteland of tarmac. A road diet is long overdue for this morbidly obese junction.

If you arrive at this junction by car your destination should be nearby in the city centre. If your destination is elsewhere the light sequence and road layout should quickly send you back to the nearest Westlink access at York Street.

It will be interesting to see how the Department for Infrastructure resolve this. For inspiration they could look to the Heetmanplein in ‘s Hertogenbosch. Here an over-complicated junction was massively reduced in size and made safer for cyclists and pedestrians. The before and after are pictured below:

Donegall Street

Thank you, if you have made it this far. If you are a cyclist, the worst of the traffic is now behind you.

Currently, Donegall Street is a tired looking, inner city street. However, change is coming to this corner of Belfast where the University of Ulster are building their new city centre campus. The whole area is overseen by cranes, new high rise university buildings and student residential blocks.

The plans are to maintain what is there, but improve the pavement surface.

The plans for Donegall Street should reflect the population shift in the area. More walking, enabling cycling, public transport as the street’s main user.

A bit like so, perhaps?

Donegall Street (featuring a 6.5m wide footway!) is wider than Nobelstraat in Utrecht, so most of the car parking could be maintained, to protect cyclists on the cycleway from passing vehicles. The Transport for Greater Manchester design guide provides a helpful diagram for a hybrid (terrace) cycle track.

A stepped bicycle track

In summary

Like the Shaftesbury Square plan, the proposed changes do not amount to much change at all and will certainly fail to lift the number of people walking and cycling in North Belfast. The plans do not reduce car traffic or road space for cars, and do not give space for cycling and public transport.

The plans are a beauty makeover for a traffic sewer; it will remain a traffic sewer. It is a traffic sewer repackaged.

We have a very short time to radically change our city and the way we move around it in order to save the planet from the worst effects of climate change.

These plans are deeply disappointing for those looking to improve air quality and improve health outcomes of the communities beside these roads.

The best thing the responsible government departments can do is to rip up these plans and start again. Imagine a new Belfast, where people are put first, not just those privileged enough to own and drive a private car.