Slow Road to Lisburn

It was reported recently Belfast’s Lisburn Road is the most congested road in the UK outside London in the evening rush hour. Similarly, Ormeau Road is one of UK’s most congested roads in the morning.

Belfast also regularly features at or near the top of the table of most congested UK cities.

Inrix estimate congestion causes £30 billion worth of damage to the UK economy, or nearly £1000 per driver. This seems well over the top. The Telegraph put a more realistic £4.3 billion bill for congestion annually, which works out at around £30 million annually in Greater Belfast.

(Coincidentally, the cost of 12 monthly rail tickets for travel between Lisburn and Belfast Great Victoria Street is £1000.)

Inrix, who put together the congestion data make alarming suggestions that without investment in road upgrades Belfast will choke on traffic. But beyond headlines and a call for investment in more and bigger roads, Inrix offer nothing that helps urban planners. At best their figures are an indicator something is not working.

Local headlines are not any more trustworthy: Belfast Telegraph claim the city’s worsening congestion problem is

blamed on factors like segregated cycle lanes and poorly-planned roadworks.

The Lisburn Road between Methodist College in Belfast and Wallace Park in Lisburn which Inrix have crowned most congested outside London has no segregated cycle lanes along the entire stretch of road. None.

So, it must be those poorly planned road works.

Or could it be something else? Such as too many people using cars for short urban journeys all at the same time?

Numbers

In 2014 16910 cars a day passed the counter at Dunluce Avenue with a maximum of 1310 cars an hour at 5pm countrybound. The morning peak is 1280 citybound. At King’s Hall 19670 cars are counted citybound with a peak of 1670 in the morning. There is no data there for countrybound traffic. At Derriaghy 9710 cars pass the counter daily, with a morning peak citybound of 790, an evening peak of 800. At Lambeg it is busier than Derriaghy with 14750, with peaks of 1310 in the morning and evening.

Not desperately huge. A principal route between two towns should be able to cope with traffic volume. Many roads have far higher traffic numbers, but cope very well.

History

Lisburn Road used to be a toll road which rivalled the older and hillier Malone Road slightly to the east. The toll booth was at what is now Tollgate House in Bradbury Place. In 1858 tolls were abandoned. The Belfast to Lisburn railway runs parallel to the road, crossing over the road at Derriaghy halt.

Tollgate House on the site of the original toll house (Google)

Development along the route took off in the late 1800s at the height of the industrial boom and continues to this day with new housing developments encroaching on the last remaining green field between Belfast and Lisburn, used currently as a BMX track.

The road is home to numerous shops, but especially between King’s Hall and Lisburn residential developments dominate.

Strategic road?

The A1 is part of NI’s strategic road network, but only for the section between Sprucefield near Lisburn and the Irish border. Between Belfast and Lisburn the strategic role is reserved for the M1.

The European Union don’t talk of strategic roads, but of corridors, the total bundle of roads, railways and waterways between two places. Belfast sits at the northwestern end of a corridor stretching, by way of Dublin, across Europe to Marseille on the Mediterranean coast.

Whilst Brexit need not stand in the way of EU funding of connections between Dublin and the European mainland across England and Wales (similar to EU funding transalpine routes in Switzerland), the EU might not be so willing to provide funding for A1 and M1 upgrades in NI post Brexit, or indeed upgrades in Scotland and the north of England.

Taking on congestion in Belfast will require serious funding as Inrix suggest. But not solely on our roads as they would like, but across the whole bundle of road and rail connections between central Belfast, suburbs, the commuter belt and beyond. After Brexit it remains to be seen if there is any political will or money to improve Belfast’s transport infrastructure.

So, yes, the Lisburn Road is strategic but as part of the whole bundle of connections between Lisburn and Belfast. And resolving the congestion problem will need to take into account rail, motorway, local roads and Lagan Towpath.

Improving the Lisburn Road will mean investing in the entire corridor.


Local access or car park?

In 2013 the Department of Regional Development introduced a scheme to improve traffic flow. The Department deemed the tidal parking restrictions a success and traders were happy, because customers could park outside their shop at any time of the day.

The changes were made permanent in 2014.

And less than 3 years after the trial started congestion is said to be worst in the UK outside London. I called it a failure even earlier, because of persistent illegal parking.

TransportNI have yet to make use of their power to tow illegally parked cars. In the meantime enforcement of restrictions by issuing fines is haphazard. The threat of fines is not enough to deter habitual offenders. And obviously a car with a ticket is still causing an obstruction to traffic flow.

Confused traders

Traders need their shops to be accessible to customers. They also don’t want to see them sitting in traffic jams, you’d assume.

Belfast on the Move is a steategy aimed at increasing access to Belfast City Centre. That’s a good thing, no? Belfast Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) have been opposed to Belfast on the Move from the very start. They see the strategy which has delivered a drop in numbers of cars, an increase in number of people accessing the city centre, increase in numbers of public transport users, cyclists and pedestrians, an increase in number of cars parking and people staying longer, an increase in footfall and takings as detrimental to small businesses.

It stands to reason that any plans to alleviate Lisburn Road congestion by removing cars or even car parking spaces will meet with opposition from trader organisations, despite their trade and the wider economy suffering from economic damage caused by congestion.

The FSB complain about congestion harming trade and at the same time that Belfast was becoming a “very hostile place to bring your car”. They fail to see that making it easier for drivers to access Belfast, the more congested it becomes.

Politicians and traders need to learn that plentiful parking does not equal high footfall. Instead, parking is an invitation to drive and increases congestion. Belfast City Council have recognised this in their Parking Strategy.

Any solutions?

Before he went rogue, Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard, said:

“Investing in public transport, walking and cycling must be at the heart of our transport policy.  It is the only way we can address congestion in our key urban centres, enable people and goods to move easily and ensure the north remains an attractive place to live, work, shop, visit and invest.”

Minister Hazzard announced the Department for Infrastructure’s 3-five-10 strategy. The quote above is from the press release. The strategy’s aim is to increase active travel and public transport and reduce car dependence for short local journeys.

Part of the Lisburn Road’s problems stem from confusion about its function. The road serves as a through route for Belfast to Lisburn traffic, a road to give access to residential areas and businesses and also acts as a car park.

It would be better to unravel these roles, decide on the primary function of the A1 route and remove all other traffic to a better suited road or space.

Congestion beating measures should offer people a choice of means to get to their destination. Ideally, walking, cycling and public transport should be cheaper, faster and more convenient than use of a private vehicle.

For the Lisburn Road from Black’s Road Park and Ride to Bradbury Place the 3-five-10 strategy to reduce congestion should be employed. 

Some ideas for improvement:

  • Between Bradbury Place and King’s Hall the road should be transformed to move people, giving clear priority for active travel and public transport.
  • Bus lanes must run continuously from Black’s Road to Shaftesbury Square. Allowing the single traffic lane to splay into two, before merging them again into one soon after, causes congestion.
  • A continuous cycleway must be built along the entire length of road from Belfast to Lisburn.
  • To allow for bus lane and cycleway installation on-road parking must be removed.
  • Reduce the number of interactions at junctions by putting bollards across minor side roads, having more side roads made one way, and banning right turns for all but a handful of junctions.

  • Belfast Bikes should expand further up Lisburn Road with docking stations at 300 to 400m intervals.
  • Capacity at Black’s Road Park and Ride must be increased, with perhaps slip roads from and to the M1 built to serve the Park and Ride only to enable more drivers to leave their cars at the edge of town.
  • An additional railway halt to be built at Black’s Road to allow people to park and continue by rail, but also provide better access to public transport to residents of Black’s Road.
  • Adelaide halt must be made fully accessible for wheelchair bound passengers, mums with prams and train passengers wheeling luggage or bicycles. Currently, footbridges to Lisburn Road and Apollo Road are stepped, not ramped.

    People fear the bath tub effect that closing off or reducing a road’s capacity will inevitably lead to traffic overflowing and causing congestion chaos elsewhere. In practice a significant portion of traffic ceases to exist.

    Cycling

    The Lisburn Road passes through areas with very divergent cycling uptake. From Finaghy down to the city centre cycling commuters make up between 3 and 5% of total traffic. Above Finaghy this rapidly drops to nearly 0%. (2011 census via NIGreenways).

    In order to reduce the number of cars on the road cycling needs to be enabled better in outlying districts. A designated cycleway with priority over side roads running along the Lisburn Road from central Belfast to Lisburn town centre will offer people a choice to leave the car at home.

    Combining a cycleway with meaningful numbers of secure bicycle storage areas at railway halts and principal bus stops will enable people to use various modes for their journeys to suit the journey’s purpose or destination.

    The Lisburn Road also serves as a refuge for bicycle users when the Lagan Towpath is not rideable due to frost or flooding. The lack of lighting along the Towpath also is off-putting to some. The main drawback, however, of the Towpath is its meandering, scenic nature. It adds considerably to time and distance over the direct route to and from work using the Lisburn Road. 

      The bitter pill

      Through traffic should be pushed to the M1 as much as possible. Drivers should be deincentivised from going along the A1 from end to end.

      This could be done by nudging behaviour with information boards showing actual travel times. For instance a sign at Shaftesbury Square could inform drivers going to Finaghy using the Lisburn Road that it would take, for instance, 20 minutes, choosing Donegall Road and M1 could be 15 minutes.

      A way to reduce peak congestion is road pricing. Charge people for using the most congested roads at busiest times and soon they will adapt their behaviour. A city centre car park levy could be used to fund initiatives to strengthen public transport, walking and cycling along the route.

      Let the train take the strain

      It is not sensible to look in isolation at roads, when part of the answer is literally next door, its potential unfulfilled because of chronic underfunding in favour investment in roads.

      Major investment is needed to allow a Metro style railway service between Lisburn across Belfast to Bangor. Instead of at best an half-hourly service, trains should run at 10 minute intervals (or less) and get the commuter from Lisburn to Belfast in less time than it takes to go by car when roads are quiet.

      Electrification may be needed to achieve such levels of service. A useful template are German S-Bahn or Dutch RandstadRail networks of local rapid transit: turn Lisburn-Bangor rail into a LUAS-style light rail, taking it off the main line in places to allow passengers easier access and give priority on the main line for regional and Enterprise services.

      Electrification and phasing out diesel is urgently needed from an environmental perspective. Air pollution and global warming concerns mean continued reliance on diesel is irresponsible. Electrification of the Dublin to Belfast main line must be pushed higher up the political agenda.

      Summary

      The Lisburn Road suffers from chronic congestion, not  simply because of a large number of vehicles, but because many drivers with different purposes use the same stretch of road. The road has many junctions and on-street parking leading to many interactions across lanes of traffic. Bus lanes are inconsistent and poorly enforced. Cycling infrastructure is non existent despite the road going through areas with relatively large numbers of cycle commuters. The adjacent railway is underfunded, and poorly equipped to serve as an alternative.

      To alleviate congestion the Department for Infrastructure’s 3-five-10 strategy needs to be applied and funded to enable greater uptake of walking, cycling and use of bus and rail. The cost could be recouped by introducing road pricing, or a city centre parking levy, or even better, both.

      Letter from America or “Saving the Life of a Befuddled Ex-Pat”

      Dear Cargobike Dad:

      I am an American physician resident in China for the last decade, moving April 2015 to Belfast to take up a post at Queen’s. I have been a year-round bike commuter for 25 years in a number of places, the last 10 car free, and I am very much hoping to commute and shop in NI by bike. We will be living in Hillsborough […], R/T of 25-30 mi per day to work at Royal Victoria Hospital. I was hoping I might ask you some questions about resources for planning a cycle route, advisability of using a MUP like the Lagan Towpath for this ride, etc. I will certainly understand if you are too busy, given that you must receive a number of such queries. But then “Saving the Life of a Befuddled Ex-Pat” has the ring of an interesting blog post! In any event, thanks for providing such a great resource for cycle advocacy in NI. I would very much like to get involved in local advocacy of that nature, not much space for such in China…Please feel free to contact me by email if it is convenient for you to reply.

      Best regards,
      Nathan

      Dear Nathan,

      Thank you for your kind comments. As for your questions about a Hillsborough to RVH commute, I put it to Twitter and between their replies and local resources this is what I came up with.

      Type your query into Google and it says to take the A1 from Hillsborough to Lisburn. Don’t ask Google! Their recommended routes are often in the chocolate teapot category: useless.

      I would not advise cycling up and down the A1 from Sprucefield to Hillsborough. It is a busy fast dual carriageway trunk road with a poor safety record for cyclists.

      Road users who want to avoid the A1 have two options. The first is to take the Comber Road out of Hillsborough, then take a left through Ravarnet into Lisburn; the other is to take Culcavy Road and after crossing the M1 motorway take the first turn right (Blaris Road) towards Lisburn. The Blaris Road is an on-road section of NCN9 and leads to the entry of the Lagan Towpath. The latter, Culcavy Road route, would be my preferred option.

      The Towpath is heavily used by cycling commuters between Lisburn and Belfast. It is unlit, so a good set of lights is essential in the darker months. Some sections are prone to flooding. Twitter is a good source for up to the minute news of it being passable. Look up Lagan Valley Regional Park on Facebook; they update their pages regularly with notifications and events.

      image

      Towpath traffic east of Lisburn (top left to middle right, source Strava heat map)

      In Belfast continue on the Towpath all the way to the Botanic Gardens entrance on Stranmillis Embankment. Go through the park (anti-clockwise) and exit the park at Botanic Avenue behind the main Queen’s University Belfast buildings. At Shaftesbury Square take the Donegall Road. Then the first right past the petrol station (Roden Street) and cross the Westlink into the Royal Victoria Hospital campus.

      In winter time Botanic Gardens is closed in hours of darkness, so leave the Towpath at Lockview Road, Stranmillis, then up Stranmillis Road towards the Ulster Museum and Queen’s University Belfast, joining University Road. Turn left into Elmwood Avenue, then right and immediately left into Jubilee Road, the entrance to Belfast City Hospital. Turn right after the multi-storey car park then left, across the mini-roundabout and on to the Donegall Road. Then as before.

      The main drawback of the Towpath is it’s definitely the long way round. And doesn’t go in the direction you want.

      Some cyclists use the Sandy Lane short cut to avoid the scenic route:

      image

      If you are a confident commuter, a straight run down the A1 between Lisburn and Belfast is shorter and quicker than the Towpath. This stretch of the A1 carries less motorised traffic because of a better alternative route for cars: the M1. It has stretches of cycle lane and the bus lanes are open to cyclists in the morning and evening rush hours.
      The shared use path on the outbound Belfast Road, Lisburn is best avoided by cyclists. It is poorly conceived and badly executed.

      Join the A1 in Lisburn town centre, continue on the road into Belfast. Take the Jubilee Road entrance to Belfast City Hospital, then as above.

      Better by bus?

      Public transport options are good with regular express bus services to Hillsborough from the bus station at Glengall St (behind the Europa Hotel), which is within easy walking distance of the Royal. Some services also stop at the halt at the foot of the Roden Street footbridge.

      Best of both worlds (and what I would do if I were in your shoes)

      Cycle to Lisburn railway station, fold up your QUB Cycle 2 Work scheme Brompton or similar and take it on the train to Belfast. From Great Victoria Street Station cycle to the Royal. There are no restrictions on folding bikes on Translink trains.

      You are of the campaigning kind so you can ask your local political representatives (councillors and MLAs) to lobby the Department of Regional Development (soon to be the Department for Infrastructure) for a two-way, 4m wide cycle way between Hillsborough and Lisburn, running to the east of the main A1 road, serving Sprucefield, linking to the Towpath, Lagan Valley Hospital and Lisburn town centre.
      It is election year (and next year also) so politicians are open to seduction by a good vote winning proposal.

      Finally

      Our Cargobike causes much rubber necking in Lisburn. It is not a cycling town. It will be good to see more bike users showing there is an alternative to the car!

      Lisburn: Room for Improvement (II)

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

      Finaghy to Warren Map

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

      Signage

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

      image

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

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

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

      Sloan Street Office Development

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

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

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

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

      Read all about this underpass bridge in Haarlem here.

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

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

      Surfacing

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

      Traffic-free Lisburn

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

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

      image

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

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

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

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

      Knockmore Towpath Link

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

      (Dark) green tracks already exist

      (Dark) green tracks already exist

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

      Links to Belfast

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

      Finally

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

      National Commuting Network

      On 29 January on Twitter I had a “discussion” with Steven Patterson, from Sustrans NI and Roy White, Chair of NI Cycling Initiative.
      It started off with my displeasure at bus’n’bike lanes and ended with me tweeting a link to Richard Ostler’s excellent blog. Richard points out that the National Cycle Network is ill-suited to the every-day commuter, because the NCN takes the least direct route from A to B. Also, it is often poorly surfaced.

      It got me thinking about our own NCN9. It runs past our house on the opposite bank of the Lagan. Yet I hardly ever use it to commute to and from work.

      In the morning I do the 3.6mile  school run to Finaghy, on the roads via the House of Sport and Musgrave Park Hospital and then go the additional 2.6mile to work, straight down the Lisburn Rd bus’n’bike lane.
      image

      I could take the NCN9 for the first mile, but there are two problems. The chicane at the Edenderry access gate is too short for the CargoBike and too narrow for the AT3 trailer and the Gilchrist Bridge at Edenderry is stepped, rather than ramped.

      On the way home I have the choice. There are 3 routes:

      • The first is to go the way I came, omitting the loop to my daughter’s school: Lisburn Rd, Balmoral Ave, Malone Rd, Milltown Rd, Ballylesson Rd, Edenderry Rd. This is 4.5 miles, has a total elevation gain of 189ft, and can achieve an average speed of 13.2mph for the route. Total travelling time is 20:36. Wind is a factor going up the Lisburn Rd. The prevailing wind is against me on most days. This route has 2 ASLs: one at the bottom of Jubilee Rd, the second at the Tate’s Avenue junction. There are no cycle lanes, but there is a shared path from the House of Sport to Shaw’s Bridge.
        image
      • The second (my preferred and shortest option) is to go down Elmwood Ave, then up University Rd and the Malone Rd. Then as above. This is 4.1 miles, has a total elevation gain of 217ft; average speed of 13.8mph. Travelling time is 17:59. The route is more sheltered. There are ASLs at Jubilee Rd, University Rd, and 2 on the Malone Rd, no cycle lanes.
        image
      • The third option is NCN9, which starts as the second, but joins the NCN at the first opportunity in Stranmillis. In winter that is at the bottom of Ridgeway St, or in summer opposite Queen’s University’s PEC complex. The seasonal variation is due to Botanic Gardens closing at sunset. The evening commute in winter is in the hours of darkness.

      I decided on option 3 and recorded the ride on the Strava Android App.

      A quick route description. Leaving work, I take the roads, filtering along lines of near stationary traffic in Elmwood Avenue, University Road and Stranmillis Road. There is a short incline at the start of Stranmillis Road, but then it levels off. The junction with Chlorine Gardens has an advanced stop line. Cars often red light jump out of Chlorine Gardens to join the country bound Stranmillis Road. Beware.

      Pass the village and then left, downhill towards the river on Ridgeway Street. The pedestrian crossing across Stranmillis Embankment is on the right hand side of the junction. At the change of lights use the pedestrian crossing to join NCN9 on its only traffic and pedestrian free stretch. It is an actual bi-directional bike lane. In Belfast. Pause for a brief moment and savour it. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the city.

      The NCN9 between Belfast and Lisburn is liable to flooding in winter, spring, summer and autumn.
      image

      I couldn’t tell you what season it was on 30 January, but the river has recently flooded and at the time of writing water was still standing in the section below Governor’s Bridge. At this point the NCN9 loses its cycling exclusivity. From here on expect to share with pedestrians, joggers, horse riders and other wildlife.

      I keep to the pavement at Cutter’s Wharf, preferring not to mingle with the inevitable pile up of taxis at the door of this riverside pub, then across the car parks serving pubs and rowing clubs (also used by couples for romantic trysts; look where you are going, not at the romping in the car with the steamed up windows) and finally onto the Lagan Towpath.

      The Towpath is an extremely popular leisure route. On a cold, wet evening there are few people and a steady pace can be kept for the next 1.5miles. On Sunday mornings, or when the sun is out, the path soon fills up with walkers so cyclists are reduced to walking pace. It isn’t gritted when it’s frosty, and it is almost entirely unlit.

      I am 6ft, and reasonably strong, so if I were to be attacked I’d have a decent chance of getting away or defending myself. I would counsel against women using the path if out on their own at any time, but especially at night. My wife was manhandled by a runner in daylight hours on the way to work some time ago. I confronted the man, a pensioner with a terrible attitude towards cyclists, and nearly chucked him into the river. But that is another story.

      The Towpath is supposed to be a shared use space, but one where pedestrians have right of way over cyclists. At the “red” bridge this message is helpfully reinforced by a “cyclist dismount” sign painted on the path. Few cyclists do. Conflict can arise when walkers pause to play Pooh-sticks, and you are pulling a wide trailer, necessitating the pedestrians to tuck in. I only pray my daughter could not hear the muttered swear words. Imagine, stepping aside to let a child pass.

      A ride through green spaces never fails to lift my spirits, so I am flabbergasted why some Towpath users are so grumpy and bad-tempered. To the point of scattering tacks and broken glass to inconvenience cyclists. And remember, using your bell is pointless: the young are listening to their MP3-players, the old are deaf.

      We’ve arrived at the Lock Keeper’s Inn, infamous for its connection with the wife of the First Minister. Where cougars roam, I am told.

      At the time of writing the direct route to Shaw’s Bridge, by way of Newforge, is closed for bridge repairs. The diversion follows the left bank of the old Lagan Navigation. Access is across the bridge spanning the chamber of the beautifully restored lock. One day, boats will ply these waters again. At present the canal bed is overgrown with willow and the regular haunt of heron, otter and kingfisher.

      This section is too narrow, and the righthand side of the path (going upstream) is perilously precipitous. On the left is a beech hedge, separating the path from the playing fields beyond. Proceed carefully.

      At Shaw’s Bridge the diverted NCN9 rejoins its original route. Cross the Lagan if you want to go to Drumbeg and beyond to Lisburn. I go on under the old Shaw’s Bridge and follow the footpath. This section is not surfaced and is prone to flooding at any time of year. The section nearest the mouth of the Minnowburn (Carryduff River) is very low-lying, very wet and slippery.

      Because of the tight chicane at the Edenderry entrance to the NCN I follow the Edenderry Road from here. There is a steep incline up from the bridge, but it isn’t very long. It is the favourite stretch of my commute. At the “summit” I know that it is only a couple of minutes to my home.

      Strava tells me that Option 3 is 5.1 miles and has a total elevation gain of 222ft; average speed of 12.2mph. Travelling time is 25:09. More than half of the route is traffic-free.
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      The elevation gain is surprising. You’d think the lumpy Malone Road route would easily be the one with most climbing, but no. The short incline to Stranmillis adds a few more feet than the long slog up the Malone Road to the House of Sport. The route is 24.4% longer than option 2. It is also 39.9% slower timewise. Option 1 is in the middle distance-wise, but not much slower than option 2.

      In my Twitter argument I said that Sustrans pleading for shared use cycle lanes with pedestrians and shared use bus and bike lanes was selling the commuting cyclist short. I stand by that statement, although it would be better if the NCN9 between the Waterfront in Belfast and the Island Centre in Lisburn were compared to the direct route straight up the Lisburn Road. Anyone up for doing that comparison?

      The NCN is not built for the A to B commute; it follows meandering rivers and scenery takes precedence over direct travel. Sustrans should be proud of the NCN, but it is not a National Commuting Network. Not by a long shot.