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.

Roundabouts

Twitter:

Stranmillis Roundabout in South Belfast is used as an alternative route for commuting cyclists accessing the Towpath in winter when the Botanical Gardens are closed.

It also serves as a route from the residential areas of Stranmillis to the Towpath. A nearby desire line bears this out:

The roundabout has 5 arms, clockwise from the north: Stranmillis Road (N), Stranmillis Embankment, Lockview Road, Stranmillis Road (W) and the entrance to Stranmillis College.

(Google)

The roundabout is a standard UK circle with two rings, a central island and has zebra crossings across all the arms. There are 2 bus stops: just north of the college gates for city bound Metro services and at the start of Stranmillis Road (W) for outbound services.

A small Belfast City Council run car park is situated between Stranmillis Road  (N) where you also find a bottle bank.

The area to the south is mainly residential with a few small business at Lockview Road, including 5a, a cycling themed café. To the west is the Stranmillis College estate; the Lagan to the east and Stranmillis village and Queen’s University to the north.

The roundabout has no dedicated space for cycling. Stranmillis Road has a painted cycle lane, but this stops well short of the circle.

Space for cycling ends here (Google)

There is a short shared use path from the roundabout along Stranmillis Embankment towards the Lagan. A marked crossing takes cyclists to the segregated path on the other side of the Embankment. Most cyclists ignore the shared use path and instead cycle down to the river on the footpath on the other side of the road and follow the track used by the cyclist in the photo above.

The circle has been the scene of a number of collisions involving cyclists:

Each dot is a collision involving a cyclist

Read more here.

Because it is directly adjacent to one of Belfast’s busiest cycle routes the roundabout’s layout should be altered to accommodate cycling.

We can make the circle safer by making it look a bit like this “monstrosity”. (Like calling a lifebuoy at a scenic seaside beauty spot an eye sore.)

It’s European, so therefore it’s mad, bad and dangerous to know, even if it saves lives…

For a more detailed report see the TRL report (pdf) and the view of the LCC here.

In real life a Dutch roundabout looks like this one at Laaghuissingel in Venlo, where cycling has a modal share of ~30%:

Roundabout with priority for cyclists in Venlo

Going around in circles, going nowhere fast
Currently Stranmillis roundabout is set up to improve traffic flow. In contrast, continental designs of roundabouts have road user safety in mind.

The most significant change would be reduction in number of lanes approaching the circle, and reducing the circling lanes from two to one.

Maximum traffic levels for 3 types of roundabout

At Stranmillis there is an over-provision of vehicle space. Most of the day the circle is quiet. At rush hour the roads in the area grind to a halt. Either way, the present circle is not meeting needs.

The traffic levels in Stranmillis fall within the first category: a roundabout with one circling lane and single approaches should suffice. The area sees a peak flow of approximately 1400 vehicles per hour, and 14,000 vehicles a day.

There are significant numbers of pedestrians and cyclists using the circle, due to its proximity to the University, Stranmillis College and the Towpath.

For what it’s worth here’s the Strava heat map:

At present northbound traffic is split between two lanes, which past the roundabout are merged on Stranmillis Embankment. Why? The merging causes delays for traffic leaving the area. It is an area of conflict between drivers, and it should not surprise most collisions involving cyclists are here.

Car culture

Reducing vehicle traffic space will increase available space for pedestrians and cyclists. More space can be found by realigning the arms and make the entries and exits less flared.

(TRL 2015)

Reducing vehicle space is something guaranteed to raise hackles within the NI Department of Infrastructure. Despite the pro-cycling leadership proposals to reduce speed limits, impose filtered permeability, bung up rat runs, remove vehicle access, etc are met with Departmental opposition.

Typical Response from Department of Infrastructure

If we want to grow cycling in Belfast we need to rearrange our road space, and start thinking about moving people rather than vehicles. So more bus lanes, not fewer and segregated safe space for cycling along main arterial roads.

Belfast City Council in their response to NI Bicycle Strategy Draft welcome “Dutch style roundabouts”

Elsewhere

Other roundabouts in south and east Belfast where cyclist will benefit from a re-design are Ormeau:

Cregagh:

And Belmont:

And away from Belfast’s cycling heartland, Carlisle Circus:

And what are Dutch roundabouts like for cyclists?

 ***Latest***

A Brief Roundabout History

I grew up in Venlo, the Netherlands. The self-styled capital of Noord-Limburg and home of the best football team on earth. Recently Mark Wagenbuur in his excellent blog commented on Dutch roundabouts, especially in relation to provision for cyclists.

At the end he remarks:

“Dutch roundabout with priority for cyclists on the circular separated cycle path all around the roundabout. This type of design is for the built-up area. This is also the design of the Amsterdam roundabout of the videos in this post and also the design TfL is testing. These roundabouts have existed since 1992 when the first one was built in Enschede.”

Koninginneplein

I commented that Venlo has a roundabout that had priority for cyclists from at least the mid-1970s. It turns out the roundabout (or more precisely, circle) has an interesting history.

The roundabout was constructed in the post-war years when urban planners and architects were given a blank canvas to build a modern city. Venlo had suffered horrendously from Allied bombing raids during the Second World War.

image

Rail and road bridges 1939

Venlo was and still is the main crossing point across the river Maas, a railway junction, and as an added bonus to the Allied aircrews the Germans constructed an airfield on the heath to the east of the city.

image

Fliegerhorst Venlo

The bombing raids left most of the city centre in ruins.
image

After the war the rubble was piled into what is now the Julianapark, and the railway line to Straelen and onwards to Geldern was dismantled. This left a great wedge to the east of the city centre available for grand projects.

The station was moved westward and the square in front became the regional bus station. The station was completed in 1958.

This was the station in the early 1960s.

image

1958 (from top left) Koninginneplein, station, Koninginnesingel, Roermondsepoort gyratory

Somewhere along the line the projects slipped into mediocre provincial apartment blocks and wide unwelcoming boulevards: the Koninginnesingel and the Burgemeester van Rijnsingel. Elsewhere in the city centre the medieval street pattern was maintained with narrow pedestrianised shopping precincts, passages and alleys.

The Koninginneplein roundabout was conceived by chief designer Jos Klijnen on a massive scale. The “traffic circuit” was part of the wider plan, the Brugplan, to reconstruct the city centre, replace the temporary bridges and provide adequate capacity and give pride of place to the motor car.
Even in the Netherlands it was the age of the car. People left their bikes in the shed and took to the streets in their DAF cars.

The Koninginneplein had three concentric rings of traffic, a separate cycle lane and pedestrian crossings. What marked out this circle was the priority rules for traffic on the circle. Until 1992 roundabouts in the Netherlands had the following priority rules: traffic on the roundabout gives way to traffic approaching on the side roads. This circle gave priority to all traffic, including pedestrians and cyclists, on the roundabout.

This view shows the large triangular yield signs on the Keulsepoort approach (middle right) and the diamond signifying a priority route on the circle in the foreground.

In primary school we were taught this roundabout had unique “German” priority rules. Because, it was said, of the large number of German cars using the roundabout. To comply with Dutch law it wasn’t, strictly speaking, a roundabout, rather a circular three-lane highway.

At the time of construction the planners could not have conceived their circle would meet the demands of modern traffic with little change, other than the addition of lane markings and a monumental fountain by Wim Berkhemer constructed in 1964.

image

The above picture, dated ca. 2009, shows typical congestion.

Traffic converges on the roundabout from the Kaldenkerkerweg (the road to Germany, linking to the A61 until the A74 was built, bypassing the city to the south), the Burgemeester van Rijnsingel (the N271 to the north, linking to the A67, and to Geldern), the Keulsepoort (entry to the city centre), the Koninginnesingel (the N271 to the south, also linking to the western half of the city and the A73) and the Stationsplein (access to the bus and train station).

In the early 1980s buses were given their own lanes along the Koninginnesingel to allow them to bypass the chronic traffic congestion.

Since the1980s several road-building projects were carried out to take traffic out of the city centre.

To the east, the Klagenfurtlaan was built to take traffic from the German A61 to the Dutch A67 Antwerp to Duisburg motorway. The second Maas crossing followed in the 1990s, a part of the new A73 Nijmegen-Roermond motorway.
Finally, in the late 2000s the aforementioned A74, linking the A61 and Dutch A73, was completed. The Klagenfurtlaan is now essentially redundant.

Despite these massive projects, up to 50,000 vehicles daily continued to use the Koninginneplein. (If ever proof were needed that road-building generates more traffic, then these motorways prove the point.)

In addition to all the cars 1000s of cyclists and pedestrians also use the circle. Clearly, with congestion an every-day, all-day occurence something had to be done.

Another consideration was the separation between the station and the city centre.

So how would British planners tackle the problem?

Firstly, they’d banish pedestrians and cyclists into subterranean underpasses.
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Then, they’d probably put an elevated 2×2 dual carriageway over the top, and regulate the traffic on the circle with lights.

image

Finally, they would grudgingly add provision for cyclists and pedestrians at ground level because the underpasses are used by the homeless, drug users, grafitti artists and skate boarding youth.

Tunnel

The standard Dutch design for a roundabout with one circle of traffic and a separate circle for cyclists does not mix well with 50,000 vehicles a day. However, the replacement circle is exactly that: a single lane for motorised traffic, with separation for cyclists and pedestrians.

Despite building roads to bypass the city and limiting access to the Kaldenkerkerweg by banning HGV, congestion was still a feature of the Koninginneplein and its principal approach roads, the Koninginnesingel and Burgemeester van Rijnsingel.

Rather than putting a wide dual carriageway over the top, a 2 lane road was planned to go underneath. The natural incline (we are not in Holland, after all) in the Koninginnesingel also makes a tunnel a more easily engineered option.

Putting a tunnel underneath to take the bulk of the traffic off the roundabout has the added bonus of making the Koninginneplein a more personal, living space. Added to closing off the Keulsepoort and redeveloping the Stationsplein, the space is much improved.

Pedestrians now can stroll across from the station to the Limburgs Museum, or down the Keulsepoort into town for shopping or a leisurely drink in one of the many bars along the Parade.
Cyclists of any age can safely navigate the roundabout, knowing that the never-ending flood of traffic is beneath their wheels.

Work was started in 2009, but due to two consecutive severe winters not finished until the spring of 2011. Despite the delay it was still ready before the start of the Floriade. Another grand project, the Maasboulevard, was delivered in the same year, finally filling the last gaps left by Allied bombs.

Contractors constructed the tunnel in a trench, which was then covered over.
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Somewhere along the way the central sculpture got damaged, but it was restored. 47 years of traffic grime was also removed from its surface.

And isn’t the end result pretty?

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