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.

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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.

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.

The Alternative Belfast Bicycle Network Plan

The official version is pretty poor. Here’s my alternative.

Here’s that Department for Infrastructure map again:

Note the large blank spaces on the map in the south and east of the city. Let’s improve it.

First we need identify where cyclists currently are. 

They are in the city’s bus lanes along arterial routes, according to the Department for Infrastructure. One of the interesting things to have come out of the Taxis in bus lanes trial is evidence that cyclists use bus lanes in ever greater numbers:

NIGreenways:

The same data also show how taxis in bus lanes depress cycling figures. Cycling is virtually non-existent in West Belfast, with modal share below average for the whole of NI. The unique presence of taxi “buses” are to blame for keeping cycling figures low. 

Yellow areas: taxi buses have 2nd biggest share of commuting traffic after cars

Why do cyclists ride in bus lanes? Let’s quote the Department’s network plan: 

Coherence: cycling infrastructure should form a coherent entity, linking all trip origins and destinations; with a continuous level of provision;

Directness: routes should be as direct as possible, based on desire lines, since detours and delays will deter use;

Attractiveness:  routes should be attractive on subjective as well as objective criteria. Lighting, personal safety, aesthetics, noise and integration with the surrounding area are important;

Safety: designs should minimise the danger for all road users; and

Comfort: bicycle routes need smooth,well-maintained surfaces, regular sweeping, and gentle gradients. Routes need to be convenient to use and avoid complicated manoeuvres and interruptions.

In the absence of a safer alternative, the relative safety of bus lanes are a refuge to cyclists. But that misses out that bus lanes are also direct and in the morning peak hours a relatively coherent network. Certainly more coherent than the existing cycle paths.

Morning (left) and evening bus lane network (NIGreenways)

In drawing up its bicycle network plan, the Department is ignoring direct routes along arterials, arguing they are used by hardened commuters who will cycle a straight direct route regardless of the level of provision (which is mostly true) and inexperienced or novice cyclists will go out of their way to use a safe off-road alternative (which is not true). In their own words:

“detours and delays will deter use”

Humans tire and in Rotterdam as in Belfast cycling numbers drop off sharply after 5-6 miles. Make a route too long and people will use transit or their own car instead.

Belfast’s Bicycle Network should target people who currently use their car for journeys less than 5 miles. Research in London shows how 50% of car trips there could be cycled instead in 10 minutes or less.

How people in Belfast get around

When you compare Rotterdam with Belfast, it immediately becomes apparent Belfast commuters do not use public transit to the same extent. And for shorter distances Belfast commuters do not cycle at all. 

A similar proportion in both cities walk short distances. The presence of cycling infrastructure does not affect the number of people walking. Consequently, should Belfast build cycling infrastructure then its users will be by and large people who drove before.

Any strategy to reduce congestion in Belfast will need to encourage more people to use train or bus if their commute is over 5 miles, and convince those within a 5 mile radius of City Hall that cycling is a viable alternative. And that means all residents of Belfast:

Almost the whole city is less than 5 miles from City Hall

The network plan as presented by the Department for Infrastructure brings a path to within 400m of the majority of homes in Belfast. The vision recognises the existence of the amenity cyclist. All good. 

The planned routes then avoid amenities, mostly situated along Belfast’s main roads. Schools are not served well by the plans. Direct routes to the Royal Hospitals along Boucher Road and Grosvenor Road veer away within sight of the destination. This is difficult to comprehend.

What the Department’s plans clearly lack is directness. With the official plans relying heavily on sharing space with pedestrians, and leaving cyclists to share with motor vehicles along main roads safety is an issue also.

As illustration for the Department’s skewed priorities:

Cycling (green) vs. driving; how much quicker again if there were a cycle path beside the Ormeau Road?

Not all routes in the official plans are bad ideas, and not all bits of the badly chosen routes are useless. All in all, most of it can be retained as a secondary network reaching into the heart of neighbourhoods, giving access to all.

Cycle Superhighway 

What I find funny, from a Dutch perspective, is the UK’s obsession with cycle superhighways. Photos and videos of this space age cycle infrastructure in London invariably show what Dutch people call a “fietspad” or even a “fietsstrook”. Fietspaden (cycle paths) and fietsstroken (cycle lanes) can be found in any Dutch village, town and city.

Snelfietsroutes (cycle superhighways) should be aimed at replacing cars on busy transport corridors. They are born out of the realisation around a third of traffic on congested strategic trunk roads is local traffic, going only a short distance, a distance that can be cycled. 

The Rijnwaalpad (15.8km) between Arnhem and Nijmegen, alongside the busy A325, sees around 1000 cycle users daily, 50% of which cycle the path’s entire length; 20% of users have bought an e-bike specifically for that commute. And 90% commute all year. 

Michelle McIlveen, as Minister for Regional Development, went to see the Beuningen to Nijmegen snelfietsroute, and hoped it would be a good template for an upgrade of the Comber Greenway to a cycle superhighway. And it is.

Other cycle superhighways can be included, using existing paths, but upgraded to suit commuting, reaching beyond the city limits into Belfast’s commuter belt. Paths towards Holywood, Comber, Newtownabbey, Lisburn and Carryduff are viable, though the latter would include a long incline which would deter people on unassisted bicycles.

In my version of the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan Cyclesuperhighways have been included.

Community Greenways

A number of potential routes have been identified across Belfast that could act as Community Greenways. These are contained in the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan 2015. They are shared use paths, although a more in-depth look reveals most routes are not set out with cycling in mind.

The Department’s plans include some of these, but as they are not designated for cycling, it would be hard to use these to grow cycling into double figures.

The same goes for the Lagan Towpath. It would be hard to grow this into a major cycling route carrying 4 to 5 times the current number of bicycle users without causing conflict with other path users. 

To grow cycling, designated cycle tracks need to be put in along arterial routes near to the Greenways and Towpath, with links from the Greenways to feed into the arterial route.

Copy and paste, replace “London” with “Belfast” and remove anything that costs too much money

How Belfast gained its plans is roughly following London’s LCDS and ignoring large bits of it. In short, the capital TfL planned its provision around a 400m by 400m grid. This was overlaid on a map and then pushed into place to fit existing roads, streets and cycle paths. These prospective routes are then assessed on safety, functionality, accessibility and a final coherent network is arrived at. One hopes. 

Like all things copied and pasted from existing GB schemes to NI schemes, some stuff just gets deleted. Isn’t that so, Arlene?

And what got deleted from the London scheme was putting in cycling provision along main roads, because that brings with it bothersome assessments of safety at junctions and consequently costly remedies to make junctions safe.

The Belfast plans were perhaps meant to be cheap and cheerful, effectively putting a sign beside an existing footpath, proclaiming it part of the Bicycle Network and so one more box can be ticked.

That is not good enough.

London’s experience shows that other than a few flagship routes and a couple of Mini-Hollands there is no coherent network to speak of. “Yet”, I add hopefully.

Belfast is much smaller, the population size of a typical London borough, but geographically more spread out. Which should make designing a coherent network easier.

Belfast Rapid Transit

Over the past year or so in this blog I have pointed out the deadening hand of the Belfast Rapid Transit scheme, stifling development of cycling across the city. In the Department’s plans the Newtownards Road and Falls Road have been abandoned as potential cycle network routes. Worse, the Department wishes to see BRT buses on more main arterial routes, driving a horse and cart through the Bicycle Strategy.

Most of Belfast’s arterial road grid is configured with 2×2 running lanes, with one lane set aside permanently for parking and a second lane designated partially as bus lane, but also acting as a car park outside peak hours.

In a city blighted by congestion, it is wasteful designating between 25 and 50% of road capacity to parking cars. Roads are for moving people, not for storing private property.

The parking space on arterial roads are effectively the Department for Infrastructure reserving space for BRT lanes. A bit like British holidaymakers in Majorca putting their towels on poolside sun loungers at the crack of dawn to annoy Germans.

Yet, I am in favour of the BRT. I wish to see quality designated cycle infrastructure beside it. And I wish both these modes of transport flourish for the good of Belfast. On our arterial roads that means one thing: restricting car use. Because cars are incredibly inefficient at moving people in urban areas.

Belfast can have BRT and have cycle paths, but should remove general traffic either partly, or entirely, from routes that should serve to move lots of people, quickly and efficiently. 

So here is my plan:

Blue: cycle superhighways; red: designated cycle paths; green: shared space. Black circles: roundabouts with protected space for cycling.

Should it boil down to a choice between a path along an arterial route or a shared space Greenway through a park, the arterial route should be built first.

If we are serious about cycling as a transport mode all main arterial routes must be reconfigured. A strip of on street parking or parking laybys must be sacrificed to accommodate cycle paths.

(BRT) bus lanes should take space from general traffic lanes. And should not enough space remain to accommodate private cars going in both directions, then the route should be made a one way, with a nearby arterial running the other way.

For example…

In that case the road layout could be changed like so:

Road works often give a sense of what space can be spared. This particular stretch of my evening commute is usually an illegal car park. It being coned off created no additional congestion.

Temporary road works showing where cycle paths can be built

And I hope the Department for Infrastructure take on board my criticism of their plans so Belfast can see this kind of thing also:

Still No Space For Cycling Here

Following on from a Facebook post where cyclists were informed of road works on Albertbridge Road to facilitate the Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) bus system, I queried what improvement this represented for Belfast cyclists.

BRT team responded stating that no space could be spared for cyclists, but omitted to say that local residents can still use the existing parking bays along the road. In short, space cannot be spared because drivers need it to store their cars.

The plans are available here.

Cyclists in East Belfast can look forward to a painted cycle lane running not quite the length of Albertbridge Road from Templemore Avenue to Newtownards Road. A couple of Advanced Stop Lines and that is it.

City bound cyclists can use the rapid transit bus lane.

I put in a request to the Department of Infrastructure where I asked the following:

  • The terms and references of the initial BRT consultation pertaining the impact on cycling along BRT routes;
  • A summary of the assessed impact of BRT on cycling as part of the consultation;
  • Whether contact was sought with cycling stakeholders (for instance, Sustrans, British Cycling or Cycling UK) regarding cycling specific design and implementation of the BRT scheme;
  • Whether the impact on cycling has been reassessed since the consultation exercises given the increase in numbers of cyclists, the building of the BBNP, and the implementation of the Belfast Bikes hire scheme – the date(s) and outcome(s) of any review(s);
  • The length and location of all segregated cycleways, mandatory cycle lanes and shared use paths along BRT routes (planned and realised). Segregation may be achieved by, for instance, wands, planters, armadillos and/or kerbs. Advisory cycle lanes and shared use bus lanes should not be counted;
  • The number of bicycle parking spaces at BRT halts and terminals (planned and realised.

Here is their response:

I welcome the BRT. I think it will change the commuting habits of people in East Belfast and North Down. With the Comber Greenway running parallel to the BRT route it can provide a good alternative route for cyclists who do not wish to share bus lanes with rapid buses.

Sustrans, in their BikeLife Survey found that of all options to increase cycling uptake sharing bus lanes was the least favoured option. Physically separating cyclists from motor traffic was the most favoured option.

Sustrans BikeLife Belfast

Indeed, segregated cycling infrastructure is the Department of Infrastructure’s vision for cycling. It is a pity that the vision is not being implemented.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we won’t get a urban cycling network overnight. However, as each brick of the BRT is put in place, the less space remains for cycling along Albertbridge Road.

The Mythical Mystery Tour

The Comber Greenway stops abruptly at Holywood Arches. The junction is named after the railway arch which took the Belfast and County Down Railway over the busy Newtownards Road.

Holywood Arches, Old Belfast (Facebook)

The route, theoretically, continues onwards over the Connswater, through Ballymacarret, across Dee Street, to Titanic Railway halt, across the M3 and there joins the Sydenham Road cycleway. And then you have still a mile to go to the city centre.

Google

The above route is not the most direct way into the City Centre. It is not encouraging people from Ballyhackamore, Knock, King’s Road, Tullycarnet and Dundonald to get cycling, especially to destinations to the South and West of the City Centre.

The direct route goes along the Albertbridge Road, across the Albert Bridge, East Bridge Street and from there into Belfast City Centre.

It speaks volumes that Andrew Grieve from the Cycling Unit chose the Albertbridge Road route for his race against a motorist from the Holywood Road area into town, not the scenic route past Samson and Goliath, the Titanic Quarter and the Odyssee. 

From a cycling perspective nothing will change for Andrew as he cycles to work. 

And that is bad.

What is good is that work is about to start on the Eastern section of the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan from the City Centre to Titanic halt. This will at least cut out the dog leg through Belfast’s mythical quarter, but will still leave cyclists who need to be south and west of the City Centre with a lengthy detour.

The BRT has blazed ahead, with the approval of Sustrans, without considering cycling as a serious transport option.

The Department of Infrastructure BRT project team always presumed that cyclists can be lumped together with rapid buses. The original BRT consultation report mentions that consultation responders asked how bus lanes would benefit cyclists. The department’s response is that cyclists can use bus lanes. Which is in my view is not sufficient in answering the questions raised during the consultation, or my FoI request.

It leaves the impression cycling was not considered at all. The 12 bicycle parking spaces at the Dundonald Terminus are really adding insult to injury. The lack of bus stop bypasses in the entire plan is totally ignoring best practice on combining cycling and public transport.

The latest figures put cycling commuting levels in Belfast at 3%, but we know from the 2011 Census levels in South and East are above 5%. This has been achieved without much investment in infrastructure. 

To lift cycling uptake higher we need to see segregated cycling routes along our arterial roads, where people need to go to work, to school or college and to shop. Cycling routes should not be put down glass-strewn, poorly lit alleys.

The plans for the BRT along Albertbridge Road are lazy, perfunctory. The parking bays are maintained on Albertbridge Road, even expanded. Cyclists get a painted lane countrybound, but no bus stop bypasses. 

There is no protection at the Templemore junction where two eastbound traffic lanes merge and cyclists are expected to jostle for space with motorists.

There is no protection for cyclists at the Newtownards Road junction. Motorists still get their slip road to avoid the lights. Can this space not be better used for a segregated cycle path?

In the latest road safety report NI cyclists are more likely to get injured than car occupants. The blame for the crash lies with the other road user in 2/3 of cases. And in 3/4 of those careless driving is the root cause. This design should protect vulnerable road users and it fails.

Every design should be put through a review and be scored on safety. Without protection cyclists are still endangered at junctions. Paint won’t stop a careless driver straying into a cycle lane. 

The plans should also be scored on their efficiency. I doubt these plans increase or improve the flow of buses. At Templemore Avenue and Newtownards Road junctions the bus lane still stops short of the junction in favour of an extra car lane.

The BRT is meant to shift car commuters towards public transport. An important victory was won when the preferred route was announced as the Newtownards Road. This meant the Comber Greenway was saved for active travel.

However, at every turn in the implentation of the project the BRT team have bent over backwards to give cars the same amount of road space as they were given before. This is a doomed exercise. BRT will not succeed without removing car traffic. And the only way to reduce car traffic is to remove their road space. 

Cycling Revolution

Should we, cyclists, rejoice at getting a piece of tarmac painted green, with a cute bicycle motif? 

Those days are over. If Belfast is really serious about cycling these plans would have been radically different. 

How different?

What if countrybound traffic was directed up Short Strand and then up Newtownards Road and citybound traffic down the Albertbridge Road?

Countrybound (green); citybound (red)

The current configuration of pavement, parking, 4 motor traffic lanes, parking, pavement could become pavement, cycle path, parking, bus lane in, general traffic lane, bus lane out, parking, cycle path and pavement.

We must bear in mind that urban roads should be optimised to move people, not cars. Cars are incredibly inefficient in urban environments. They take up too much space and most of the time they sit still. Parked somewhere.
Where to look for best practice?

One cannot help but peek at Utrecht where they found space for rapid transit buses, whilst giving cyclists, cars and parked cars their own space. Buses have pride of place in the middle of the road. Cars (if allowed) are reduced to one lane with a parking strip protecting the bicycle paths.

They got their priorities straight for the 21st Century when Belfast, despite Belfast on the Move, is still worshipping at the altar of King Car.

No Space for Cycling Here

The Department of Infrastructure Cycling Unit posted on Facebook:

Improvements are on the way for cycling and public transport on the Albertbridge Road. The benefits, which are being delivered as part of the Belfast Rapid Transit works, include improvements to drainage, resurfacing of the road and footpaths, enhanced street lighting, and additional lengths of bus lane which, of course, can be used by cyclists. The works are due to start on Monday 29 August.

In order to deliver these benefits the works will necessitate the suspension of the section of existing cycle lane over the length of the works. We would ask cyclists to extra care for the duration of the works, which are due to be completed by summer 2017.

They decorate their announcement of the bus lane improvement on the Albertbridge Road with pictures of Belfast’s best bits of cycling infrastructure: segregated cycleways and Belfast Bikes.

Stranmillis Embankment (Cycling Unit)

Alfred Street (Cycling Unit)

I questioned why cyclists are made to share with buses. Perceived lack of safety is a constant complaint from colleagues who don’t cycle into work using the Lisburn Road’s peak time bus lane.

Here’s the BRT team response:

‘Along the BRT routes we have endeavoured, where physically possible, to provide 12m carriageways (4 x 3m lanes) with 2.5m footways on either side. To provide dedicated cycle infrastructure on these corridors would require at least a further 3m of roadwidth, which is simply not available along much of the routes, including this section of the Albertbridge Road’.

The Cycling Unit adds:

From the Cycling Unit’s perspective: we have been working on a draft Bicycle Network Plan for Belfast which we hope to consult on very soon.

We are striving to create separate cycling provision where possible over the next ten years, however, we see bus and cycle lanes as an interim measure until such routes are available.

It is a scandal major pieces of traffic infrastructure are given the go ahead without considering cyclists. The plans for Belfast Rapid Transit barely mentioned cycling and now it’s being built across Belfast it is clear the routes are not made suitable for cycling. We have unforgiving high kerbs, especially at bus stops, and pinch points. 

In the years since the BRT was consulted on, cycling in Belfast has changed dramatically: numbers have increased; there is the highly successful Belfast Bikes hire scheme.

But still the BRT continues as if it’s ten years ago. It contains no plans for cycleways or infrastructure that will entice more people out on their bikes, even where space allows to construct these. People don’t want to cycle with a bus right up their backside. It is intimidating, however well the driver is trained.

And is there no space as the BRT team assert? Like here on the Albertbridge Road, where ample space is afforded to parking:

Oh.

The only lack of space for cycling is in the imagination of the Belfast Rapid Transit team. They obviously value storage of private vehicles on public roads more than moving people from A to B.

BeRTie Bus

A special mention and thank you to Olivia who inspired me to tell you this story:

Time has flown on the island of Sodor. In the days after Thomas’s original tales a very important man came and told the Fat Controller to shut all the branch lines.

Only Gordon was allowed to thunder up and down the main line for a little while longer. Not all the branch lines were closed: after a big argument a couple of suburban stretches were kept.

The narrow gauge lines in the mountains were abandoned. And the Thin Controller lost his job. He went to a second career as a tour guide at the Railway Museum, so he could still talk to his little engines when nobody was watching.

Gordon was soon retired, replaced by dodgy, unreliable Canadian diesel engines, who pull comfortable and elegant French coaches; they don’t get on at all. Now the local railway lines are operated by a fleet of busy Spanish diesels. And often you see a green Japanese diesel train in Tidmouth when the express engine has broken down again.

All rural services, once operated by Thomas and his friends are now taken care of by buses. The original Bertie Bus is in the museum together with Henry. No one is really sure why they kept that engine; all he did was toot, huff and puff.

Mrs Smith lives in a little house off one of Tidmouth’s main roads. The main road is clogged with cars and buses. Cars were the future they said. Motorways would snake across the city, whisking people here and there. The reality was somewhat different. The city’s roads are congested, noisy and smelly. It does Mrs Smith’s asthma no good.

Her mother’s cottage by the former railway line was surrounded by a fragrant garden, with flowers and blossoms of every kind imaginable. She remembers her mum telling this crazy story about her saving the life of a talking engine. Certainly, every year she was entitled to one free trip to the seaside, courtesy of the railway company. But when the line was abandoned she didn’t go to the seaside anymore. “I don’t care for coaches”, she used to say.

Mrs Smith prefers getting about on a bicycle. She has an antique black bicycle with a basket. Such as a community midwife would have had in the middle of the last century. People point and laugh as Mrs Smith cycles past.

Mrs Smith uses the bus lanes to get into town. It’s not great; and officials from the government are forever hatching plans to make it worse. She protested against allowing taxis in bus lanes at City Hall and got a photo taken by the Tidmouth Mail, probably because she was the only woman there.

But a little while ago an information leaflet came through the door telling her that the bus lanes were to be extended and would be for the use of buses, cyclists and permitted taxis between 7 in the morning and 7 at night.

The new buses, all called BeRTie, were full of themselves: puffed up for having Priority over other traffic; they had Magic and could Change the Traffic Lights to Green. And with their Camera Eyes they could Enforce. And BeRTie buses were so important they could never be late.
image

Mrs Smith cycled down the bus lane one day when all of a sudden a BeRTie Bus hurtled past her beeping its horn loudly. Mrs Smith was so shaken she stopped cycling altogether.

The New Controller, however, was delighted, because BeRTie was on time.

Mr Clyde lives a couple of streets up from Mrs Smith. He has a family bike and uses it to take his twin boys to school. People recognise him because of the bicycle. People don’t laugh at him or his bike. They stand dumbfounded and slack-jawed. Children think it’s wonderful and all want to have a go.

image

When the Government announced their plans to have BeRTie buses he campaigned to stop them using the abandoned railway branch line as an “Expressway” for the BeRTies.

Mr Clyde even wrote to the Fat Controller to come out of retirement and speak against the plans at a Rally. The Fat Controller replied though he supported the campaign, public speaking was no longer possible on account of his throat cancer caused by smoking too many cigars.

Mr Clyde had been delighted when the campaign succeeded in saving the abandoned line as a Greenway. And now he was delighted to see the BeRTies with a halt at the end of his street.

One day Mr Clyde was taking his twin boys to school, going along the BeRTie Bus lane when he overtook a BeRTie at a halt. When Mr Clyde was beside the bus it suddenly pulled out. Mr Clyde was sandwiched between the beeping BeRTie and a car that was overtaking Mr Clyde.

Happily, no one was injured but Mrs Clyde would only agree to him cycling if he stayed on the pavement. Mr Clyde thought a bus stop bypass would have prevented the “near miss“, but the New Controller said there wasn’t any room, or money to put in such an expensive thing. He blamed the Project Creep for the lack of money. The Project Creep doesn’t do anything but costs money nonetheless.

BeRTie Bus’ camera eyes showed that he hadn’t done anything wrong. BeRTie was pleased and so was the New Controller.

Darla and Chuck are from Omaha. They love Sodor because Darla’s great uncle by marriage has a Sodor heritage, and that made her a Sodor-American. She was the President of the Sodor Friendship Association in Omaha. Chuck also has a Sodor heritage, but mainly because he believed that Sodor was part of Sweden and his grandparents emigrated from Sweden.

Darla and Chuck hired some Pimm’s hire scheme bikes to see the sights and visit the address where the great uncle lived. (The original terraced house is no longer there, because it was cleared to make way for a motorway that was never built. Instead it is a run-down surface car park.)

Darla and Chuck were cycling on a BeRTie Bus lane when a large lorry turning left cut across their path and they were both killed instantly. The lorry driver drove on for about 100 metres before onlookers managed to attract his attention and stop him. He put his phone down, telling his lover he’d be a little later than usual.

The Coroner was scathing about many things, but mostly about the design of the BeRTie Bus Lanes which gave a false sense of security to cyclists, but in fact, as in this case, led them into the path of danger and their untimely death.

The lorry driver, the government, the Mayor and the New Controller said they were very, very sorry. However, they soon forgot all about it when a member of One Direction said something vaguely intelligent: “Let’s stop pretending bus lanes are cycling infrastructure that will encourage non-cyclists to start cycling.”

But no one understood that really.

Lagan Valley Regional Park (LVRP)/Bog Meadows/Whiterock Community Greenway

Deep in the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) 2015 there is a section devoted to Community Greenways.

When I saw the title “Lagan Valley Regional Park (LVRP)/Bog Meadows/Whiterock Community Greenway” and skimmed over the proposed route my heart nearly leapt for joy, because here was a proposed route that would take us on a Greenway between home and our primary school.

image

Greenway (green) and route to school (red)

But

All is not what it seems.

Here is the entire route. As with any urban planning document it is huge. Handily, someone also provided this route description:

Begin at Shaws Bridge within the LVRP and travel in a northerly direction, past the Queens University Playing Fields and the House of Sport.

This is the A55, so not exactly an off-road experience here. You will share the greenway with 30-35k cars a day. The pavements are shared use. While the road racing fraternity ignore the shared use path, commuters use it increasingly:

image

At the Malone Roundabout, travel west along the Upper Malone Road, cross the road and travel along Harberton Park.

If you’re cycling you must join the road at the Roundabout just at the point where traffic speeds up to leave it. The alternatives are to get off and push or ignore the law and cycle on the pavement.

image

End of 🚲 route

A signalised crossing will be needed here to cross the Upper Malone Road.

The area around Shaw’s Bridge has become a major destination for MTB cyclists. No safe access to the tracks around Barnett’s Demesne is provided. Groups of school age children use the pavements along all major roads in the area to get to the tracks.

Jeff Dudgeon, Balmoral UUP councillor says, “[o]ne of the most frequent complaints I received from constituents during my election campaign was about cycling on pavements.”

Instead of going along the very noisy and busy A55 I go underneath the ring road beside the river and then up the lung-bustingly steep “Clement Wilson Ramp”. This leaves me at the signalised pedestrian crossing north of the Malone Road Roundabout. From there I go down the Strangford Avenue rat run, to join Harberton Park and on to rejoin the A55.

As does the Greenway. Because the landowners are not yet on board with the idea of a Greenway from Harberton Park to Lisburn Road pedestrians and cyclists are diverted back onto Belfast’s Ring Road:

The following section of the greenway is inaccessible to pedestrians
Travel along the periphery of the RUAS Showgrounds and Balmoral Golf Club.

Alternative Pedestrian Linkage
Travel to the end of Harberton Park and turn left down Balmoral Avenue. At the junction with the Upper Lisburn Road, turn left and travel in a south westerly direction until you reach the railway bridge leading into Musgrave Park where you can rejoin the Greenway

image

The A55 Greenway

The following section of the greenway is fully accessible to pedestrians,

but not cyclists.

Turn left and travel along the Upper Lisburn Road to no. 24. Cross the road here and continue down the narrow footpath and across the railway footbridge into Musgrave Park.

image

You would think a pedestrian link to a hospital site would be fully accessible for people of all ages and abilities. And the irony is that the hospital is the Northern Irish regional centre for orthopaedic medicine, rheumatology, sports medicine and has a rehabilitation unit. But isn’t easily accessible for people with any kind of problem walking.

But back to the Greenway A55:

Travel north west through Musgrave Park and out onto Stockmans Lane. Turn left along Stockmans Lane and travel towards the motorway (M1) roundabout, before passing under the M1 bridge to reach Kennedy Way.

Stockman’s Lane is the A55. As is Kennedy Way:

The following section of the greenway is inaccessible to pedestrians

Travel north along Kennedy Way before turning right into Blackstaff Road and a further right into Blackstaff Way. At the bottom of Blackstaff Way, turn left onto the vacant ground. Travel around the boundary of Milltown Cemetery and through St Galls GAC Playing Fields onto Milltown Row. Travel west to the top of Milltown Row, cross the Falls Road and enter the Falls Park.

This bit of the “Greenway” leads through a light industrial estate. You are treated to the back of an Asda, a council waste recycling site and various commercial units. Lorries thunder up and down. Happily, there is an alternative involving Belfast’s Ring Road:

Alternative Pedestrian Linkage

Travel along Kennedy Way. At the roundabout beside the Westwood Shopping Centre, turn right onto the Andersonstown Road. Continue along this road, which becomes the Falls Road, in a north westerly direction. At the Falls Road / Glen Road roundabout, continue straight on, passing Milltown Cemetery on the right. Enter Falls Park on the left and rejoin the Greenway at this point.

[added 28/3] It will be a relief for cyclists to leave the Andersonstown and Falls Road behind at Falls Park. This stretch of the “Greenway” includes two notorious roundabouts. The first at Kennedy Way is terrifying.

image

Greenway Roundabout

The slope across the roundabout, the high central island make it difficult to see cars coming. Trying to cross as a pedestrian, pushing your bike is no better. On all approaches motorists queue across the zebra crossings, and driving across them when pedestrians are crossing. It’s captured by the Google car:

image

image

The only reason cyclists are not killed here is because cycling’s modal share in West Belfast is 0%.

The roundabout where the Andersonstown Road morphs into the Falls Road is no better. It is a wide unmarked triangular space with a circular “feature” in the middle. It’s a free for all.

I have looked for it and I cannot find the roadside sign saying the Highway Code is suspended in West Belfast and it’s do as you please.

However, back to the Greenway:

From Falls Park it is not far to the glorious end:

The following section of the greenway is fully accessible to pedestrians
Follow the pathway in a northerly direction through Falls Park, past the playing fields and Belfast City Cemetery, out onto Whiterock Close and along the Whiterock Road into the Belfast Hills where the greenway ends.

There is however an alternative that isn’t accessible for pedestrians. What is the point of that? And it includes yet another of these terrifying roundabouts, where traffic pushes on regardless of what or who has right of way. It’s the Falls Road / Whiterock Road roundabout:
image

The current roadworks to accommodate the Belfast Rapid Transit lanes do not help.

Alternatively, exit the Bog Meadows at St James’s Road and travel in a northerly direction along St James’s Crescent and onto the Donegall Road. Travel west to the top of the Donegall Road and turn left along the Falls Road. At the Falls Road / Whiterock Road roundabout, turn right and continue up the Whiterock Road.

The following section of the greenway is inaccessible to pedestrians

Travel through the Belfast Metropolitan College Campus past St. Johns GAC grounds to Corpus Christi Church. Cross Springhill Drive and continue along the Springhill open space, past the playground and onto the Springfield Road. Turn left and continue along the Springfield Road and connect back into the greenway route at the Whiterock Road beside New Barnsley Parade.

But wait! There is another route. An alternative to the alternative:

Alternative Pedestrian Linkage
From the Whiterock Road, travel past the Belfast Metropolitan College Campus and turn right along the Ballymurphy Road. Turn right along Springhill Drive and then continue north along the Springhill open space to rejoin the Greenway at this point.

Pedestrians or cyclists? Pedestrians and cyclists?

The first obvious observation is the complete lack of thought given to cycling. Accessibility is used only in reference to walking. What is the overarching vision for Community Greenways?

Community Greenways serve a variety of functions including:

• Offering pedestrians and cyclists [my emphasis] the opportunity to travel from one green area to another via pleasant green surroundings; and
• Providing an ecological haven and green linkage along river corridors, pathways and disused railway lines.

To put it bluntly, the whole route needs to be re-evaluated from a cyclist’s point of view.

Also, can we really say that the A55 is a “pleasant green surrounding”?

Does this Community Greenway offer a reasonable alternative to using the pavements along the A55 for pedestrians and cyclists?

No and no.

To make this route work we need to gain public access to parcels of privately owned land. Consideration needs to be given to places where the route crosses main roads and the M1 motorway. There is a need for signalised crossings and perhaps a tunnel or bridge to cross the M1.

If we want cyclists to have full access Harberton Park needs to be upgraded to include cycle tracks. We need fully segregated tracks along the Upper Malone, Lisburn, Andersonstown and Falls Roads. The pedestrian footbridge at Musgrave Park Hospital needs to be upgraded so people of all ages and abilities can use it.

The wider picture

West Belfast has a very low uptake of cycling, due in no small part to the complete lack of cycling infrastructure. Plans like this can improve the environment for cycling. Combined with initiatives to encourage multi-modal transport (cycling to a secure bike parking at a Belfast Rapid Transport halt along the Falls and Andersonstown Roads, perhaps) the cycling share may increase. Large employers such as the Royal site of the Belfast Trust are to be commended for encouraging staff not to use their cars. And the Belfast bike hire scheme should be extended to the Royal site as a matter of priority.

Is there potential for better? Maybe. The Southwest Gateway plan may give a very good alternative to parts of the greenway route set out in the BMAP. And in my opinion the two plans should be combined taking the best elements of both.

I don’t think I will personally benefit from the Greenway for the school commute. It remains to be seen if any of it can be realised by the time my youngest leaves primary school in 2023.

Taking back the Square

DSD (keep up, it is yet another Government department who shape cycling provision in Northern Ireland) have announced a consultation on plans to redevelop Shaftesbury Square in Belfast.

That the Square needs a fair bit of work is something everyone agrees on. For instance, the bombed shell of the Social Security building on the Eastern side was nominated for the Channel 4 programme ‘Demolition‘. The intended target was the adjacent Donegall Pass RUC Station; a 500lb device was detonated by the IRA on 24 March 1992. There are plans for a new office block fronting the square.

More recently, in 2013, the best-known tenant on the square, Paul Rankin’s Cayenne Restaurant (formerly the Michelin-starred Roscoff) closed its doors.

The Square is not a good place to be, with dereliction, vacant properties and the domination of the square by motorised traffic. There are diverse flows of traffic crisscrossing the square:

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Note bullet point 5:
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There are advisory cycle lanes on Donegall Road (usually blocked by parked cars in contravention of HC 140), but none of the other roads leading off the square have any provision for cyclists. Pavement cycling is rife and it shows demand for segregated lanes is there.

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It is good to see a government report acknowledge there is a problem for cyclists. And plans creating a better North-South cycle track is excellent news. It doesn’t, however, spot the glaring gaps for cyclists in this square.

While North-South is receiving attention, cycling from West to East will remain impossible, without getting off your bike and walking or going on a detour down Great Victoria Street and coming back up Dublin Road.

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No way ahead; cyclists must dismount

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Even Google gives up; walk your bicycle #fail

Such a detour is no problem for a car driver, but it is a problem for pedestrians or cyclists. The pedestrians were given a pedestrian crossing across the middle of the square; well almost: they were given a signalled crossing to the central traffic island from where they must run across 3 traffic lanes or use the crossing at the northern end of the island; nothing was done for cyclists.

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DSD rightly point out the gap in provision on Dublin Road where cyclists at rush hour battle with 4 lanes of motorised traffic. But perhaps DSD are too focused on traffic from City Centre to suburb and vice versa.

The West-East axis is an important link for cyclists who travel from the Gasworks and East Belfast beyond (crossing the Lagan at the Albert Bridge or soon at this new bridge to Ormeau Park) to the Belfast City Hospital, Boucher Road area and the Royal Victoria Hospital. The new Gasworks bridge will only increase the number of cyclists crossing the square East to West and vice versa.

Throughout the plans cyclists’ needs are ignored. Belfast’s brand new bike hire system will see two docking stations in or very near the Square, but they don’t feature in any of the plans.

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Docking stations marked H & W

The architects’ vision sees pavement cycling as the norm, with no road space dedicated to cycle tracks. The good words of bullet point 5 of the “proposed response (pdf 4.2MB)” are not visualised for us. Instead, on almost every Jetson-esque architectural daydream cyclists are positioned on the pavement.

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My educated guess is that cyclists are expected to use the red coloured bus lanes.

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But there is the BRT! What are these articulated buses doing in the Square, away from the Newtownards Road and Falls Road? Local roads and transport blogger, Wesley Johnston, @niroads, tweets:
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Quite how DSD envisage Belfast Rapid Transit to be Rapid if buses are expected to use bus lanes clogged with 4000+ extra vehicles and double up as cycling provision is anyone’s guess.

People who don’t use bicycles now will not be persuaded to use a bicycle if bus lanes are the only dedicated road space they can expect. Allowing cyclists to use bus lanes has delivered a single figure modal share. To grow cycling, to create a cycling culture space needs to be set aside for cycling.

One vacant site near the Square, currently the Posnett St surface car park, is earmarked for social housing. It is good to see social housing so prominent in the plans. One can only hope that the architects include adequate bicycle storage for each house. If a bike shed/store cannot be realised beside or inside each property, these hangars may provide an on-street solution.

If pushed to summarise the plans for the Square: the filter lane from Dublin Road to Botanic Avenue and Donegall Pass is removed in favour of a larger pedestrian space.

How can the plan be improved for cycling?

Firstly, provide segregated tracks along Dublin Road, Great Victoria Street and Bradbury Place. One traffic lane (currently used for parking 20 hours a day) can be sacrificed and redistributed to give a 1.5m wide track on both sides of each road.
The Donegall Road advisory lanes should be segregated.
Cyclists should be able to cross the square from West to East without having to get off and push.
The Lavery’s bus stop on Bradbury Place should be moved to the Square with the cycle track behind it, creating floating bus stops.
The cyclists should have their own lights and phases in the traffic lights’ sequence to diminish conflict.
Finally, cars should be banned from Botanic Avenue. The plans get their inspiration from the pedestrianisation of New York’s Times Square; planners here should turn back the tin avalanche of motor traffic in our city centre and put people first.

A bit like so, with cycle lanes in green. image

(forgive my dreadful graphic design skills)