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.

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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)

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