Lisburn: Room for Improvement (II)

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

Finaghy to Warren Map

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

Signage

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

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

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

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

Sloan Street Office Development

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

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

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

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

Read all about this underpass bridge in Haarlem here.

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

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

Surfacing

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

Traffic-free Lisburn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knockmore Towpath Link

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

(Dark) green tracks already exist

(Dark) green tracks already exist

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

Links to Belfast

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

Finally

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

Rat runs – a shortcut to the future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem with rat runs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Barrack Street Barricade – not particularly attractive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s consider the options.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reclaiming rat runs for cyclists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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