Greystown

“We live in greystown aera &the speed of vehicles coming up&down the street is frightening,Its a built up area with lots of children &we can’t let our kids out the front.Something has to be done before it’s to late.”

So starts a thread on Nextdoor. The replies:

Indeed. What price is a child’s life? People list incidents, collisions, some resulting in damage to property. And Department for Infrastructure refuse to act.

A petition will not achieve much either. A petition with 1500 signatures calling for the pedestrianisation of Hill Street, supported by politicians of every hue and local businesses was airily dismissed by DfI. And unless someone dies in Greystown, the residents’ petition is equally doomed to fail.

Situation

Greystown Park is a road that links Finaghy Road South to Upper Malone Road. It is a residential road, but as so many residential roads in Belfast is used as an alternative to avoid queuing traffic at the top of Finaghy Road South and bypassing some of the morning rush hour congestion on Upper Malone Road.

Greystown Close is a cul-de-sac off Greystown Park.

Greystown Avenue is a residential cul-de-sac, off Greystown Park, but it also links to Finaghy Road South with a footpath.

(c) Google

The Remedy

The residents want to see traffic calming, i.e. speed bumps, but other voices question their usefulness in reducing traffic volume or speed.

At nearby Diamond Gardens in Finaghy speed bumps fail to deter the number of drivers choosing residential streets in order to avoid the chronic congestion at Finaghy crossroads.

Speeding remains an issue. At Strangford Avenue traffic speeds are not noticeably lower despite speed bumps, because the road environment in between encourages driving at 30mph.

The two streets require different solutions to their problem.

Greystown Park

Northern Ireland Water carried out work that blocked off the entrance to Upper Malone Road. Traffic for the entire neighbourhood was rerouted through the Finaghy Road South entrance. Traffic volume was notably lighter in the morning rush hour as rat running drivers were forced to use the main road instead.

Greystown Park can be severed for motor vehicles just above the junction with Greystown Close.

Pedestrian and cyclist access can be maintained, but rat-running will be prevented.

Simple, effective filtering on Donegall Road, Belfast

The question is whether residents are willing to give up the minor convenience of having two access points for their neighbourhood to stop the major inconvenience of rat running and careless driving?

Conditioning

Through decades of car-centred road design and planning, coupled with conditioning from manufacturers, Belfast residents have come to think of cars as their only or preferred mode of transport. Any measures to reduce the negative impact of motoring are framed as reduction of personal freedoms in the local media.

The key to introducing traffic control measures is getting community input and ownership.

Sadly, we live in NI, where we are administered by faceless bureaucrats who operate without much oversight from our politicians.

Attempts to address any issues on and surrounding our roads are routinely stonewalled by the Department for Infrastructure.

Greystown Avenue

Greystown Avenue is a cul-de-sac, so a 20mph or even 15mph speed limit, enforced by placement of planters, installing speed tables and chicanes will result in a much safer environment for children to play.

Traffic calmed residential street in de Vossener, Venlo, NL

Another example here in Houten, near Utrecht, where, despite completely prioritising pedestrian and cycle traffic, residents can easily access their house by car.

Guerrilla methods

Inspired by the plunger bike lanes in the US, residents could take matters into their own hand and improve their street.

One tactic that could work locally is for residents to park on alternate sides of the street to create chicanes, forcing traffic to slow down. It wouldn’t take much organising. You see your neighbour’s car as you drive up, so you park on the opposite side. The only agreement you need is for people to park their cars at the kerb, rather than on the drive.

Another tool to effect long-term change is to install a temporary parklet, such as these in London:

These could be developed by a residents’ committee as a community play area, seating with views over Belfast, or simply to meet and chat with neighbours. They are temporary, but could, if successful, easily be converted to permanent features.

In the meantime

In the meantime, residents need to organise; to log every traffic incident (however minor) and report them to the PSNI. They need to build a case for converting their street to a safer area for all to enjoy. They need to think creatively and approach political representatives as a collective. And they need to come up with creative and eye-catching ways to alert local media to their cause.

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Jeopardy

The premise of the famous US TV quiz show, Jeopardy, has contestants guessing the question, after being presented with a clue.
In Dungannon AG Wilson Engineering installed a tank trap on a local Greenway. When pressed on the anti-cycling aspects of the design the company replied they built what was asked for. Here’s the clue. So what did Mid Ulster Council ask for?
The only sensible answer could be they asked for Dungannon’s version of the Maginot Line to stop people on scrambler motorcycles wrecking the Greenway.

Darragh wins $50

Another day, another edition of NI Council Jeopardy. Belfast City Council took delivery of a very glossy document detailing what should be done to the Linen Quarter. This is the area immediately south of Belfast City Hall, with grand Victorian warehouses. It is the city’s business district where a number of Belfast’s leading employers have offices. It is also home to Sustrans NI.

We can only guess at the brief that was given to the Manchester-based consultants. What we can safely say is that the brief was reworded, edited and sent back to the Council with added pictures.

And now the council wants our views:

In my view it is dreadful; a waste of ratepayers’ money. Cut out the waffle and you’re left with a mood board of paving options.

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Public Spaces

I do like the idea of the new traffic free public spaces. Developing Amelia Street as a gateway into the city from the Europa Bus Centre and Great Victoria Railway Station Transport Hub is genius. The street is clogged with idling black cabs, treating the contraflow bicycle lane as a permanent taxi rank.

Deliveries to local businesses further impede cyclists using the contraflow lane.

The second planned public space sits on the junction of Linenhall Street and Clarence Street. Most of it is already there: wide pavements, a bit of green. It has views of interest in three directions: due North to City Hall, East to St Malachy’s Church and South to the Ormeau Baths building.

There is no incentive, though, for anyone to spend any time in either public space. We have little to interest people at street level. Especially in the eastern half of the Quarter this lack of engagement with pedestrians transforms streets into narrow, dark, windswept and unwelcoming corridors.

The glorious Victorian architecture, where it survived the onslaught of pre-fab high-rise modernism, is often only visible on the higher floors of the surrounding buildings.

Space for cars

More off-putting than the insipid modern architecture are the lines of parked cars across the district. But roads are meant to move cars, not store them at ratepayers’ expense.

Further, to help the erosive flow of cars the area is a near fully permeable grid, where drivers opt to go from East Bridge Street to Dublin Rd and vice versa along Hamilton Street and Franklin Street, rather than go along Cromac Street and Ormeau Avenue.

The consultation sees this permeability as an asset. A major fault in the report.

To resolve this ratrunning the Linen Quarter should only be accessible for destination traffic, with through traffic routed along the outer edges. Only pedestrians, cyclists and public transport should be able to traverse the area.

A small amount of work has been done to stop through traffic using Adelaide Street. Only buses may enter Adelaide Street from Donegall Square East, but that doesn’t deter motorists ignoring the clear signage, matrix boards and road colour.

Surely, the only solution is to close off Donegall Square East for car traffic altogether, such as done at Donegall Square West, to benefit Metro bus services.

How can the Linen Quarter be made more people friendly? The consultation report does not want to alter or impede traffic flow through the area. By traffic the report authors mean vehicle traffic, rather than pedestrian traffic.

The report doesn’t recognise that pedestrians are traffic. It doesn’t acknowledge that having a near fully permeable road grid is to the area’s detriment. It doesn’t give cycling a place at all, other than a mention of the bike hire stations at Linenhall Street and Blackstaff Square.

Alfred Street is at the eastern edge of the Quarter. And here Belfast’s cycling revolution is taking shape. But more than that. At the Ormeau Avenue end a continuous footway is put across the mouth of Alfred Street, giving a very visible sign to drivers to slow down and discourage all but those who have business being there.

Continuous footways should be constructed across all side streets leading into the area, with the exception of Adelaide Street and Bedford Street (both important bus routes). This underlines the message that cars are less important than people.

To improve the area’s chances of being an attractive place to work and spend time we need to completely remove through traffic and reduce on-street parking in an area where there is plentiful multistorey parking available within a short walking distance.

Pedestrian Priority Streets

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I’m not a fan of pedestrian-priority streets shared space. Exhibition Road in London shows that where through traffic is removed (at its southern end) it can be a success.

In front of the nation’s great museums, however, the flow of traffic all but cuts the eastern side from the western side. Pedestrians don’t “dwell” on Exhibition Road. They run for their lives.

Closer to Belfast, Lisburn has installed a shared space. And not without problems:

Quite apart from the lack of support for disabled road users the space is unsuccessful in another way:

Lord Holmes takes the case for shared space apart and calls for a moratorium on new shared spaces being built.

The proposed shared spaces should be clearly defined to benefit disabled street users. And every effort should be made to reduce through traffic.

At present the grid is nearly fully permeable. When the streets are being refurbished it would not take much effort to reduce all but a handful to one way streets. The aim should be to give necessary access to destination traffic, but discourage rat running. There should be no advantage given to a motorist seeking to avoid congestion on Cromac Street.

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Red: continuous footway; green: Alfred St cycleway; orange: public spaces; pink: bus only; yellow arrows: one way; lilac: delivery access only

The city centre 20mph speed limit should be extended to the Linen Quarter. It saves lives. This is the one thing that must be done, regardless of this consultation.

The haulage industry has been campaigning vociferously for an increase in the number of loading bays across central Belfast. With the caveat that HGV entering an area with high numbers of pedestrians and cyclists should have measures such as low cabs, sensors, audible indicators and glass panels in the lower part of cab doors, some car park space should be turned into loading bays. However, HGV access should be limited to certain time slots to encourage use of the Quarter’s streets by people to stop, chat, have lunch and relax.

In sharing out the available parking space we should firstly put in loading bays for HGV. Outside the allocated delivery times some can act as taxi ranks. The remaining spaces can then be made available to -in order of importance- residents, blue badge holders and, lastly, the general public.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the area has considerable potential. It can be all the things the consultation report strives for, but only by removing all but a tiny proportion of vehicle traffic. A range of devices (continuous footways, pedestrianisation, removal of on-street parking and 20mph limit) can be used to improve the area for pedestrians. Cyclists will, at the same time feel more safe if car traffic were restricted in volume and in speed.

The shared spaces need extra consideration and extensive consultation with disabled street users.

The plans are available to view at the Ulster Hall during February, with the exception of the 20th.

Lisburn: Room for Improvement (II)

At the end of February I dropped off my eldest at school in South Belfast and cycled to Lisburn to join my wife and youngest for an appointment at a clinic. I asked Google for the shortest route and it suggested the following 7.2 mile route.

Finaghy to Warren Map

It would indeed have been the shortest and fastest if I hadn’t spent the last 10 minutes of the ride looking for my destination. (Mental note to self: old ladies at bus stops are not a reliable source of geographical information. It transpired I cycled right past the building and as I asked the lady I had my back turned to my destination.) Which rather conveniently brings me to my first point:

Signage

It isn’t obvious enough. There are some cycling related signs in Lisburn town centre, but as soon as you head out of town the signs simply disappear. I avoided Laganbank Road and chose the Lagan towpath towards the southwest. If Google hadn’t told me where the entrance was I would not have found it. The signage on and towards the towpath in the direction of Belfast in marked contrast is very good.

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Access across a car park, with no real thought how to reach the destination

Access to the start of the Lisburn section of the Towpath is across a pub car park. And crossing from the Belfast to Lisburn section of the Towpath to the Lisburn section includes using the daunting Laganbank/Sloan Street/Linehall Street junction.

The Masterplan recognises that this entry point to town deserves better than a municipal car park and a pub. So, here is what the dreamers at DSD have come up with:

Sloan Street Office Development

The view is looking East across the Lagan where there will be an additional bridge for pedestrians (and cyclists?) as an alternative to the existing route. There will be a riverside development of offices on the eastern bank.

The western bank of the river will be privatised, with the existing car park north of the bridge given over to mixed retail and residential development. Also included here will be city centre hotel, with a basement car park (yet more parking…) beside the river.

The Towpath from Belfast effectively stops at the access road to the Island Centre. It then resumes on the other side of the Sloan Street bridge, past the pub and its car park. If the plans are implemented as intended they will make this gap in the Towpath permanent. This is not a problem, as the saying goes, it is an opportunity.

Imagine a piece of engineering to link the two sections of the towpath. In Belfast underneath Governor’s Bridge an underpass was constructed to take pedestrians and cyclists from Stranmillis Embankment to the start of the Lagan Towpath. An underpass is a relatively simple engineering solution, but as the DSD wants to pawn off the riverbank to private ownership impossible to incorporate. However, Lisburn could put itself on the map if they did something like this:

Read all about this underpass bridge in Haarlem here.

As the underpass bridge sits clear off the bank, there will be no issues over access rights.

And let’s not just link the two severed sections of the Towpath this way, but at the southern end include a link to the opposite bank as per the Masterplan, giving cyclists and pedestrians a traffic-free alternative to the existing road bridge.

Surfacing

The Lisburn town section of the Towpath is a step back in time. The path surface is poor, and in places muddy. And a pillar supporting a sewer pipe across the river sits in the middle of the path. Further on, where the river goes under the A1 Hillsborough Road the cyclist needs to duck to avoid hitting the arch of the bridge. The paths linking the towpath to the housing estates are no more than unpaved forest tracks, covered in deep mud. On the Towpath there is no indication which track offers the best access to the various residential areas, such as the Old Warren Estate, and there is no access that I could see to the Lagan Valley Hospital. (11/3 There is access to LVH, but not signposted, see comment below).

Traffic-free Lisburn

The positive is that the Lagan Towpath is a traffic-free route that goes past the town’s hospital and almost reaches the Sprucefield shopping development. So much more could be made of this path if a traffic-free link was created from the Towpath to Sprucefield across the A1 and underneath the M1. At the Sainsbury’s end of the Sprucefield site bicycle parking is provided, but no real thought is given how one might get there.

At present the Towpath dead-ends at Blaris Road. As does the Lagan Navigation. The M1 Motorway was built across the old Lagan Navigation and the canal is now lost.

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Plans are drawn up to revitalise the link by water between Lough Neagh and Belfast. Sustrans route 9 takes a right on Blaris Road and sends you on quiet rural roads towards Mazetown and Moira beyond.

In Lisburn there are very good separated cycle tracks beside Knockmore Road and Prince William Road. These tracks, however, and the Lagan Towpath running from Edenderry in the far northeast of the council area to  the Sprucefield Shopping Centre (almost) do not add up to a network for active travel. The Cardiff study points out that if cycle tracks were built cyclist numbers will increase. Thought needs to be given to linking the tracks and doing it so that schools, libraries, health centres, shops, leisure and community centres can be reached without having to share road space with cars.

Many safety concerns in local neighbourhoods will be addressed by Pat Ramsey’s private member’s bill. But slowing cars down to 20mph is not enough. Active travel and public transport need to have an added incentive for people to leave the car at home. Cycling and walking will be seen as a safe option if interaction with motorised traffic is kept to a minimum. I have previously blogged about closing rat runs. Across Lisburn there are a number of rat runs that could be closed off to through traffic, but kept permeable for pedestrians and cyclists. Judicious closing of rat runs disincentivises car use, but gives pedestrians and cyclists the bonus of being able to travel the most direct route.

The end of Knockmore Road and its cycle tracks is near the Lagan on the Moira Road. A link could be made from the junction to the existing Towpath, alongside the Lagan (black), skirting the housing areas of southwest Lisburn. Alternatively, a link could be made from the Knockmore Road junction to the Blaris road – part of NCN9 (red).

Knockmore Towpath Link

Similarly, across the north of Lisburn centre a traffic-free route can be created that starts at the end of the cycle track at Prince William Road and goes past Tesco, Wallace Grammar School (Clonevin Park), Friends School (Magheralave Road), Wallace Park and Fort Hill Integrated and onwards to the Lagan Towpath at Huguenot Drive, Hilden. This route can be extended past the Hillhall Estate across the M1 and onto Hillhall village (in orange in the map below). Along Prince William Road a segregated cycle track can easily be accommodated, with the double roundabout upgraded to provide a peripheral segregated cycle track with priority over the access roads.

(Dark) green tracks already exist

(Dark) green tracks already exist

Of course there have to be links into the town centre (for instance along the Pond Park Road in yellow, linking to the existing shared use paths along Derriaghy Road), taking in as many local amenities as possible. At present it is impossible to walk and cycle safely from the town centre and bus station to the Lagan Leisureplex. There are footpaths, and attempts have been made to help cyclists across the Laganbank Road/Hillsborough Road junction, but it is simply not good  enough. What use is a leisure centre if the only way to get there in one piece is by going by car?

Links to Belfast

There are two routes to Belfast. The Lagan Towpath (NCN9) meanders its way along stretches of river and canal. The second more direct route is along the A1 (red in the map above). The DRD Cycling Unit proposes a SW-NE axis through Belfast, which could neatly be extended into Lisburn via the red route. There is existing provision for cyclists, but it would need serious upgrading. The existing roundabout at McKinstry Road/Queensway can be replaced with a Dutch-style roundabout (more specifically the design that doesn’t have priority for cyclists used outside built-up areas). There are painted white lines and some green paint and for some reason the Belfast-bound cyclist is expected to share the narrow pavement on Belfast Road. Ideally, there should be a cycle superhighway between Belfast and Lisburn, allowing for greater cycling speed, and reducing congestion on both the A1 and M1 by people choosing the bicycle over their car.

Finally

And so you got to your destination by bicycle and the only place to lock up your bike is at a fence or to a lamp post? A major health facility such as the Warren Children’s Centre should have bicycle racks. At present access to the front door is across a congested car park with no clear demarcated path for pedestrians. It is a microcosm of Lisburn: access to the centre is across a car park, with no real thought how people without cars reach their destination.

Lisburn – A Town for Cars

When I was a child I had a blackboard and I used chalks to draw road maps with improbably intricate junctions, little towns and so on. I filled the town with small Lego buildings and drove my Matchbox cars around the road network.

Every time I cycle around Lisburn I am reminded of this. A toy town, with a weapons-grade road network.

On 28 August I cycled from Knockbracken Healthcare Park to Knockmore to collect our car from Lindsay Cars Accident Repair.

Here is the route I took: 

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Pretty much a straight line, 9.9 miles from door to door. From KHCP, up the old Saintfield Road, then Mill Road, Mealough Road to Drumbo, Drumbo Road, Tullyard Road, down Glen Road and left on the Hillhall Road to Lisburn. In Lisburn: Sloane Street, Laganbank Road, Governor’s Road, Longstone Street, Longstone Road, Moira Road and right into Knockmore Industrial Estate.

Lisburn should put a sign up saying “Cyclists not welcome”, much in the way that other councils put bars across layby entrances to stop Travellers stopping there.

I’ve commented before on Lisburn’s poor cycling facilities.

Hillhall Hell

The route across Lisburn took me down a short stretch of the Hillhall Road. I have never been so scared, or so close to death.

I tried avoiding this road. Google drew a blank, suggesting long detours adding miles to my journey. I simply could not avoid the short stretch between Glen Road and Church Lane, Hillhall.

I briefly considered continuing on the Tullyard Road and then down the Comber and Saintfield Roads into Lisburn, but I am not a grimpeur: the Tullyard route is better known as the Bloody ‘ard route.

Traffic was so heavy that crossing into Church Lane (a right turn across two lanes of traffic) seemed the more dangerous option. Instead I persevered along Hillhall Road.

Why is it that people have to overtake so urgently? Why is it they have to do so without considering other road users? If it isn’t safe, don’t overtake. Is there traffic coming the other way, don’t try and fit yourself between them and me.

(My breath is wasted complaining about motorists’ behaviour, though. As a cyclist I am per definition a Red Light Jumper and therefore lose all arguments, ever. And obviously I don’t pay road tax, so that’s me told.)

The real issue is the road’s narrowness and many bends and corners, coupled with the high traffic volume. There is a poorly maintained pavement down one side and there are no cycle lanes at all. Between Mill Road and Pinehill Road, Drumbo, there isn’t even a poorly maintained footpath.There are no crossing points for pedestrians, and with the demise of Hillhall Primary no lollypop ladies there.

On this twisting narrow road a continuous rumble of traffic taking a shortcut from East Belfast to Lisburn and the M1 and vice versa. It is a rural rat run. A hell of a road.

(Added 19/6/2014) The sections of the Hillhall Road where the national speed limit was in force have been reduced to a maximum speed of 50mph. Has someone been reading my blog?

And the Saintfield and (Old) Ballynahinch Roads out of Lisburn are no better. A cyclist died there in 2012.

A solution? Best practice from elsewhere in Europe (trying very hard not to mention Netherlands again and again) suggests a kerb-separated cycle lane beside these roads.

However, there is a more interesting alternative for a cycle path from Hillhall Village to Lisburn town centre. Church Lane runs from the Hillhall Road to the back of the Hillhall Estate. Take a left and you’re back at the Hillhall Road at Largymore Primary School. Take a right and a right again and you are on the NCN9, yards from the Island Civic Centre.

Church Lane, Hillhall

Now imagine cars banned from Church Lane, with vehicle access limited to residents and farmers tending their fields. Red or green tarmac to mark it clearly as a cycle path. Children from Hillhall village could cycle, almost traffic-free, to the nearest school; grownups could get to work and the shops in Lisburn without getting the car out of the drive. With a kerb-separated path along the Hillhall Road as far as Glen Road, the residents of Drumbo could equally benefit.

Entering Lisburn by bicycle down the main road is daunting. At the bottom of the Hillhall Road there is a roundabout – never a good place for a cyclist. Crossing over the M1 bridge, you want to be in the right hand lane to go straight down the Hillhall Road. The bulk of the traffic wants to go in the left hand lane down Largymore Drive towards the M1. Expect to overtaken and undertaken, or both at the same time.

Remember all those cars that overtook with inches to spare, speeding as they did so? Recognise the lorry from the tree surgeon’s that nearly took you out with the wood chipper it was towing? Here they all are waiting at the red traffic light at the junction with Sloane Street.

All that reckless overtaking and speeding and they are as quick as a cyclist. Annoy them further by staking your claim to the Advanced Stop Line. I, on this occasion, found access to the ASL blocked by cars waiting to leave the petrol station forecourt.

The Saintfield and Ballynahinch Road converge and dump the cyclist on the Saintfield Road roundabout at the other end of Largymore Drive link Road.

The roundabout centre islands would be an ideal place to put the “Cyclists not welcome” sign.

All the traffic from rural County Down is funnelled down Sloane Street. There are some stretches of green tarmac to help the cyclist, but confidence and strength are needed to make it to the ASLs and get out of the path of turning vehicles, especially articulated lorries trying to round the corner on to Laganbank Road. This is definitely not a safe place to cycle, and people will prefer using the pavements.

Laganbank Road/Governor’s Road

We’ve got to the Laganbank Road. Google suggests a detour along the Lagan Towpath, which I ignored. There is a steep incline, with traffic lights at the top, then a descent towards the Hillsborough Road junction.

I needed to go straight over. There is some green tarmac between the two traffic lanes to help you.

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Getting there in rush hour is an adventure. Note how narrow it is. Of course, cars should not be impeded at all. Ever.

Here’s what a Lisburn cyclist says of Governor’s Road:

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There is some cycling infrastructure here too. Going up to the roundabout (more of a gyratory: there are houses in the middle) there is some green tarmac between the double yellow lines, no more than a bike’s length. It is possibly the shortest, narrowest cycle lane in the UK.

The final stretch

The Longstone Road is one of those one-and-a-half lane wide roads. People don’t know whether to drive single file, or if they can both fit side-by-side as they overtake the cyclist. Without causing too much bother the lane can be reduced in width, and a separate bidirectional cycle lane created.

What inevitably will happen here is the creation of a cross-hatched lane separation down the centre of the road. This will limit the space for cycling and force drivers to overtake cyclists more closely. The separation is put in place to prevent glancing blows between vehicles travelling in opposite directions. Laudable, but it also endangers the lives of cyclists. Has anyone investigated if lane separation was a factor in the death of this cyclist in Newry?

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Elsewhere in Lisburn

  • The one-way city centre race track

As most towns with delusions of grandeur Lisburn has an impressive town centre one way system. It is a two-lane wide track with numerous junctions, traffic lights, pedestrian crossings. It resembles my childhood urban planning fantasies most. The Lisburn DSD masterplan recognises the urban race track’s detrimental effect on the town centre, despite it being the main access to the town-centre multistoreys, surface and underground car parks. The corner of Bow Street and Antrim Street, with a diagonal pedestrian crossing is a collision waiting to happen.

Rounding the corner from Antrim Street into Bachelor’s Walk cyclists will prefer to use the left-hand lane, to prevent drivers undertaking. Feeding across fast-flowing traffic is not easy. Only those well-versed in Cyclecraft, vehicular cyclists who cycle as if they are driving a car, will not find this daunting. The overwhelming majority, me included, would prefer not to.

There are ASLs along the circuit, but with no thought given how a cyclist can safely access these (providing they are not blocked by a car), they are pretty useless. At either end of the pedestrianised section of Bow Street bicycle parking is available; 3 double hoops at each location.

  • The Wallace Avenue cycle lane

With much fanfare, I exaggerate, DRD announced that it had completed a cycle lane in Lisburn in June. Yes, there it is, right at the bottom of the press release, almost a little afterthought. So what did we get for our taxpayers’ money?

We get an advisory cycle lane that runs almost the length of Wallace Avenue. You can guess that it stops short of the junction with the A1 Seymour Street, leaving the cyclist marooned in queuing traffic. But why is it an advisory lane? The lane is on the northern side of the road, where parking is prohibited. This, surely, could have been a mandatory lane, with at least a rumble strip to stop cars straying into it; better still marked with lane dividers, or, ideally, a kerb.

Again DRD excels in falling well short of best practice. A missed opportunity.

  • Prince William Road/Knockmore Road

We have had the bad and the ugly. Is there any good? There is and it is here!  Lisburn possesses an off-road cycle network. No lie – I can hear the gasps from the readers. This kind of path will encourage school kids to cycle, and people to leave their cars in the drive.This is what I would love to see more of in towns and cities across Northern Ireland. It could be better of course: the signalled crossings are not clearly separated for pedestrians and cyclists. Also, along Knockmore Road cyclists have to give way to cars on side roads, though efforts have been made to slow traffic down with speed cushions at minor junctions.

Finally

Did you know that in 2013 Lisburn was European City of Sport? Me neither. But there you go. Here is the dedicated website. Of course the city council are promoting this with adverts on the back of some Metro buses in Belfast. And guess what sport was not featured…

Some time ago @nigreenways and I sat in Common Grounds Café on Belfast’s University Avenue exploring cycling ideas: 20mph, Gasworks Bridge, rat runs.
And we talked around the idea of pedestrianising Botanic Avenue.

The vast majority of the road’s users at any time of day are pedestrians. Commuters making their way to and from Botanic Station to their place of work in Queen’s Quarter, shoppers, students escaping from lectures, a lunchtime crowd queuing at Boojum, revellers on a night out.

And most of these pedestrians arrive there by public transport or taxi. The very busy Translink Metro 7 route goes up Botanic, bringing staff and students to Queen’s University, as well as commuters and shoppers to the City Centre. Additionally, the Cairnshill Park & Ride buses use the Avenue. In the evening taxis do a hefty trade bringing people to bars and restaurants (and taking them home again).

The top end of Botanic (College Park East) is in the Holylands 20mph zone. If only the limit were enforced! At present the area is not so much a rat run, but a complete warren for vehicular vermin. This traffic is trying to bypass congestion on the Ormeau Road, or cruising for a parking space.

Parking is a major problem in the area. With major employers near, and its proximity to the city centre, competition for spaces can be fierce. Mount Charles, a private street off Botanic, has an automated barrier to stop excessive numbers of cars parking there.

Elsewhere, on-street car parking is “pay and display”, but with (poorly enforced) restrictions to keep the road clear at morning and evening rush hour.

A decision to close the street to all vehicles is attractive. The potential for increasing trade is enormous. Restaurants and bars can have more outdoor seating areas, perhaps semi-permanently covered against typical Irish weather. The space can be used for outdoor events, markets or music.

Pedestrianising the road completely may not be the best solution. A large number of buses and taxis use Botanic Avenue. Can they be re-routed down the Ormeau or University Roads? And shops, restaurants and bars need to have some sort of access for deliveries. Also, Mount Charles can only be accessed through Botanic Avenue. And we want to encourage more cyclists by creating a safe road space.

Botanic Avenue, looking Southeast

Botanic Avenue, looking Southeast

At the moment the road is a two-lane single carriageway, with car parking down both sides (bays on the west side, boxes on the east side – note the BMW illegally parked on a double yellow in the picture above). There is a taxi rank operational in the evening at the Empire – a popular night spot. The station, aptly called Botanic, is beside the Empire.

Between Shaftesbury Square and University Street there are 5 side streets on the east side, 2 on the west side (W). From North to South: Posnett St, Cameron St/Lower Crescent (W), Cromwell Road, Ireton St, Mount Charles (W) and India St.

If the Avenue were pedestrianised how would bus and train connect? In a future when Belfast is reliant on active and public transport Botanic becomes the railway station for the Southeast of the city; Metro 7 buses dropping passengers off who continue their journey by rail. Interconnecting bus and train becomes an issue if passenger face a long walk from railway station to bus stop.

Instead, let’s imagine a solution that includes active travel and public transport.

What if…

we closed the Avenue for all cars, but allowing buses and taxis that can carry wheelchairs? What if we got rid of the parking bays and boxes and instead had a fully segregated bi-directional cycle lane running from the QUB car park at College Square East all the way to Shaftesbury Square. We would still have plenty space for outdoor seating, we can set up stalls on car-free days and weekends.

Taxis that cannot carry wheelchairs can still get to the Avenue by using Lower Crescent and crossing over into Cameron Street (a favoured route for taxis, anyhow), pick up and drop off passengers.

There could be a couple of loading lay-bys for deliveries.

Could it work? Of course it can. For examples from across the UK look at the Living Streets website.

The side streets on the east side can be bollarded off, turning them into cul-de-sacs; Mount Charles will need to remain accessible, but no additional infrastructure is needed.

When I mentioned this on Twitter people were enthused, and even the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Martin O Muilleoir, re-tweeted the idea of car-free Sundays in Botanic.

Cycling

To the south of the Botanic and Holylands Area is the Lagan, alongside which runs the NCN 9. At present the link from the NCN runs through Botanic Gardens, then on streets to the station and onwards to the City Centre. The roads, through the haphazard parking and poorly enforced speed limits are not particularly safe and do not invite people to cycle. The official Sustrans map allows the access to dead-end at College Square East. From there you are on your own.

Sustrans Botanic Map

Sustrans Botanic Map

Note the purple line at the top through Posnett Street and on down Donegall Pass? Here’s a missed opportunity. Sustrans will have you cycle down Donegall Pass, through the Gasworks to rejoin NCN 9. There is a better way.

Traffic-free cycling to the City Centre

Forget the dogleg out to the Gasworks. There is a low-traffic route that goes from Botanic Station all the way to City Hall. The following route, turned into a series of cycle streets (a street that allows local access for residents and businesses, with limited permitted on-street parking, but prioritises cycling), can be an attractive and cost-effective solution to the lack of decent cycle routes in Belfast: Posnett Street, Maryville Street, Linenhall Street.

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The route is 0.5 miles long. It would require a lane to be built along Linenhall Street, but otherwise with clever positioning of planters, bollards and signs could be made a safe route for cycling. The northern end of Maryville Street is already closed off for all, except pedestrians and cyclists.

The route requires a bit of an attitude change from cyclists. Instead of mixing it with buses and heavy traffic on the longer route down Great Victoria Street and Wellington Place cyclists need to get a new map into their head: a grid of safe direct routes for cycling. The Maryville Street route is but one example. Thinking creatively, many such routes can be created (if only we dared to close off rat-runs) across Belfast.

And thinking wider, cyclists coming off the Lisburn and Malone Roads could be persuaded to use the Maryville Street Route if there was a link made between Bradbury Place and Posnett Street. But where could we build it? Oh where, indeed?

Possible cycleway solution - Bradbury Place to Botanic Avenue

Possible cycleway solution – Bradbury Place to Botanic Avenue

Botanic Avenue – A Walk to the Park

Rat runs – a shortcut to the future?

Most neighbourhoods have one: that residential street that somehow has become a convenient shortcut for commuters, a bypass for a busy junction.
Councils, after residents’ complaints, sometimes act by installing speedbumps. Subsequently residents complain about the “bump-scrape” as cars hit the ramp. The installation of speedbumps does not deter motorists from using a rat run.
In some cases, councils block the road altogether. The closing of Barrack Street, a rat run between Grosvenor Road and Divis Street in Belfast prompted me to contemplate the wider picture.

Belfast is massively car-orientated, more so than any other city in the UK. In a nutshell, we are still dealing with the consequence of 1960s car-centred politics, for instance the Benson Report recommended closing all but the Dublin-Belfast railway line and the commuter line to Bangor. Another example is the Jetsons-esque and grotesque Belfast Urban Motorway Plan, that appears to live on in the minds of Regional Development civil servants. The legacy of the Troubles was chronic underinvestment in public transport. All these have left Belfast more car-dependent than other similar-sized UK cities.

The Department of Regional Development for Northern Ireland uses design guides for new road design, which in their introduction restate the dominance of car-based transport now and for the foreseeable future. It would be better were they to start with the mindset of the pedestrian. After all, we are all pedestrians. But that is a blog for another day.

The NIGreenways blog asks what can be done to promote cycling in Belfast. We are not going to get Dutch-style separation of traffic flows without major investment and political leadership. Suggested are 13 ways to promote cycling in 2013.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, has launched a £1bln cycling scheme for London. That may seem a lot of money, but consider this: the NI Executive is prepared to blow a similar amount of money on one road, the A5. Taking into account the population size, the A5 is a far more expensive plan, with far less economic benefit than Johnson’s grand cycling plan.

Sustrans have long campaigned for safe routes to school and liveable neighbourhoods.

Can Belfast address all these issues on the cheap? And do it well, so it serves local communities and keep traffic flowing? It has to be cheap because DRD prefer spending all of the road budget on large headline-grabbing car infrastructure.

The problem with rat runs

Neighbourhood residential streets have numerous driveways and junctions with limited visibility. The streets are meant for access to properties. Also, they provide a space for social interaction between neighbours; a place for children to play.

Once through-traffic starts using a neighbourhood street the people retreat from it, because of the perceived and real danger of cars at 30mph driving past. Walking and cycling are discouraged by the volume and speed of traffic.

In addition there is added road noise, made worse if speedbumps are introduced: the “bump-scrape” mentioned above, and the noise of cars accelerating to 30mph, only to slow down again for the next bump.

And are they a short-cut in distance travelled? Do they save time? My observations (not scientifically proven) suggest they don’t. If a car leaves a batch of traffic on a main road and follows a rat run, they rejoin the same batch of traffic further on. The motorist’s advantage taking the rat run is taken away where they need to rejoin the main traffic flow. Often, lengthy queues build up on side streets where the rat run ends.

A special circle of hell is reserved for the makers of SatNav systems and Google Maps. Choose the shortest route option and you will often be directed down neighbourhood streets, unsuited to through-traffic.

I mentioned that Barrack Street has been closed off, after ramps failed to deter rats running. Closing the street forced traffic back to the main road at College Square East, designed for large traffic flows.

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Barrack Street Barricade – not particularly attractive.

Let me illustrate with a couple of South Belfast examples. I apologise for these “posh” rat runs. For almost all of the past 21 years I’ve lived in South Belfast. I’m familiar with its streets and know many of its residents.

1. The One-Way Rat Run: Strangford Avenue, Balmoral

Strangford Avenue is a tree-lined quiet residential street where well-to-do residents own and have built large properties. It is slap-bang in the middle of the desirable BT9 postcode. You cannot get a more des res. Until the morning rush hour.

Belfast city centre-bound rats leave the House of Sport roundabout at Dorchester Park, turn left down Malone Hill Park and then choose either to go straight across up Shrewsbury Park to join Balmoral Avenue, or turn left down Strangford Avenue, and turn right at one of the Harbertons (Drive, Avenue or Park) and rejoin Balmoral Avenue further down the queue of traffic. If traffic starts building up on the Malone Road, rats also turn left at Rosemary Park, Malone Hill Park and Mount Eden Park.

Speedbumps have been installed to stem the flow of through traffic throughout the neighbourhood.

In 2012 a sewage mains replacement necessitated closing off Strangford Avenue at the junction with Malone Hill Park. For four blissful weeks my wife and I cycled along the tree-lined avenues in near silence. Simply closing Strangford Avenue pushed the rats back out to the main route along the Malone Road and Balmoral Avenue. Closing off the road meant fewer chose to go down Dorchester Park, and there were no queues at the end of Harberton Park.
Some rats still persisted by choosing to use the Shrewsbury Park exit, but numbers were far fewer.

A further measure to deter rats could be making Shrewsbury Park one way flowing from Balmoral Avenue to the junction with Malone Hill Park, so rats are forced back up Mount Eden Park towards the Malone Road.

As my wife and I cycled along chatting we remarked how good it would be if it was like this all the time. For once we could cycle and chat without trying to make ourselves heard over road noise.

The big question is, would Strangford Avenue residents put up with the inconvenience of living in a cul-de-sac, and a longer driving distance to the Malone Road, in return for a quiet morning?

2. The two-way rat run: Knightsbridge Park, Stranmillis

Strangford Avenue is quiet in the evenings. Rats see little benefit waiting to cross west-bound traffic down Balmoral Avenue to enter the maze.

Knightsbridge Park is different. Whatever the time of day, whatever the day of the week, rats will use this run to bypass the traffic lights at the Stranmillis Road junction with the Malone Road.

If you travel city-bound on Malone Road past the Newforge Lane junction you see people filtering into the lefthand lane. Why? There is a queue of rats in the righthand lane waiting to enter the run at Deramore Drive and further down at Bladon Drive.

Traffic from Deramore Drive joins Bladon Drive, then turns left onto Knightsbridge Park.

Coming from the Stranmillis Road roundabout a lot of traffic goes straight up Richmond Park, leading to Knightsbridge Park, rather than veering right along Stranmillis Road. The road lay-out encourages rats to enter the run.

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There is a good reason people might go here. Stranmillis Primary School is halfway down the run and many parents drop their children off and pick them up again at the school gate.

The roadworks at Strangford Avenue pointed out where the rat run could be closed off permanently. Where can Knightsbridge Park be blocked off? People still need access to the school.

Let’s consider the options.

At the bottom of Bladon Drive there is a T-junction. Knightsbridge Park is to the left. To the right is a small cul-de-sac, Bladon Court. The connection between Bladon Drive and Knightsbridge Park could be severed. This option would not allow access to the school from the Malone Road. Not ideal.

The second option is closing off or reshaping the lower junction of Stranmillis Road and Richmond Park, pictured above. This might cut back Malone Road-bound traffic. Because this is a two-way rat run, however, Stranmillis-bound traffic would start using the more dangerous upper junction. Not a real solution either.

Stranmillis Primary School occupies a cramped site on the corner of Knightsbridge Park and Cricklewood Park. The crescent of Richmond Park completes a triangular space.

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What if Knightsbridge Park was closed off completely at the school, allowing only pedestrians and cyclists through? And if the school was allowed to claim some of this space?
Parents could still drive down to the school from either end of the rat run and drop off their children. (In an ideal world they shouldn’t have to, but Belfast is a long way from ideal.)

The aim of closing rat runs is to stop through-traffic from using unsuitable neighbourhood streets, but more than that, also to reclaim streets for social interaction between neighbours, for children playing, for walking the dog. A school, such as Stranmillis Primary School, is at the heart of neighbourhood life. Parents gather at the school gate, meet and chat. Let’s imagine a space where this social interaction can happen; a soft-surface play area, bounded by some planters and benches, perhaps.

And what better place to put this, than at the school gates? No longer need pupils fear cars rushing past outside their school.

Hillside Court, opposite the school, can be dead-ended for cars: there is an alternative access from Stranmillis Road to this street at Broomhill Park.

Closing off the run would lead to a greatly improved traffic flow on the Malone Road, when rats no longer block the city-bound overtaking lane to turn right down Deramore Drive or Bladon Drive.

Reclaiming rat runs for cyclists

In the two examples above we have closed off, boldly, two well-known South Belfast rat runs. Cars are now only entering the neighbourhoods for access to properties, to drop children off at the school, and we have forced through-traffic back onto the main roads where it belongs. The streets fall quiet at rush hour, children come out to play and the sun dapples the leaves of the trees lining the avenues.

Belfast is failing to implement a coherent network of cycle lanes. Advisory cycle lanes are really parking lay-bys; bus lanes are bus and taxi lanes (also here) and Belfast on the Move pretty much ignores cycling as a serious means of transport, relegating the interests of cyclists below car parking and the interests of the partially-sighted.

But now we have quiet streets in two neighbourhoods. And with some more imaginitive blocking we can close off a few more rat runs: Orpen Park, Diamond Gardens and Grangeville Gardens (all in Finaghy), Church Avenue (Dunmurry), Trossachs Drive (Upper Malone).

East of the Lagan there are two notable rat runs ripe for blocking: Ravenhill Park and Cherryville Street/My Lady’s Road.

I am sure there is a rat run near you in Greater Belfast. My apologies for the gap in my local knowledge about your area.

Soon quiet neighbourhoods are spreading across Belfast. Putting in place a 20mph speed limit will also help to make streets liveable.

Sustrans campaign for Safe Routes to Schools, with the aim to make the school journey “safer, healthier and more enjoyable for everyone”. Closing rat runs in my opinion can serve two purposes: taking cars away from residential areas and encouraging parents and children to walk or cycle to school.

My vision goes wider: we could use our becalmed streets to make a web of safe routes across our city, linking schools, libraries, local shops, health centres. Reconnect communities, previously driven apart by cars. In London they are called Quietways. And these quiet ways are ideal for cyclists to get around the city.

It will be important that neighbourhood residents, schools, local businesses all buy into the vision that stopping cars using rat runs is a good thing. When local businesses are pleading with the DRD to roll back Urban Clearway restrictions in South Belfast business support for traffic calming measures cannot be counted on. Residents will be more easily persuaded, provided they are shown what a difference blocking a rat run has made to a local community elsewhere. They also need to be given ownership of the project, given input. They know their streets and communities best. Perhaps my suggestions above are not suitable or workable, but the local residents might know of a better place to block a road and deter rats.

Speedbumps have not worked. Let’s try something different so these rat runs might yet become a short-cut to a people-friendly future.

Going 30kmh across Europe

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“30 km/h (20mph) – Making Streets Liveable!“

The European Citizens´ Initiative                               

News Nr 1 8th February 2013:

The French ECI partner organisations launched an exciting press conference in Paris. They got a huge media response and almost 600 people signed online within one weekend: setting a record.
Congratulations to you!

You may have noticed that we´ve been struggling through problems with the EU commission´s software, meaning a long December waiting for these to be fixed. But we are now able to collect signatures in 15 languages. You can sign online on www.30kmh.eu and also download forms and print them out.The first regional contact points for physical signatures are already running well. A great big “Thanks” to all who are providing the facilities!

It took us some time to restart after all the fuss about the online collection software working only in one single language. Some people are still contacting us complaining about technical failures and that they cannot sign. But we have now surpassed the mark of 14 000 online signatures: Never before have so many people applied for a 30 km/h (20mph) speed limit in Europe!

And the numbers are still rising: indeed, they have been coming in even faster over the last few days.

To watch them in real time see http://30kmh.eu/statistics/ 

We have a good chance of achieving our mission: collecting at least 1 million signatures by 13th November 2013. Please help us! 

30 km/h (20 mph) limits improve safety and encourage smarter travel choices. They cut pollution andtraffic noise and lead to improved traffic flow and less congestion. People can move without fear.

In a nutshell: our communities become safer, more active, more beautiful.   

Please promote our initiative. Use your media to do so: facebook, twitter, email, newsletters, magazines…. You can visit us on www.30kmh.eu and on facebook www.facebook.com/30kmh.eu

You can also donate to help us continue our initiative which is completely funded by donations.

(Sent to me by e-mail; reposted to raise awareness)