One aspect perhaps overlooked in today’s announcement of progress on Belfast’s £130m York Street Interchange (YSI) project is the success in forcing engineers to place high quality cycling space at the heart of the scheme.
The scale of the YSI project – making a free-running interchange between three motorways beside the centre of Belfast – and several objections meant a Public Inquiry was held in November 2015. Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard’s announcement of progress (subject to funding) was accompanied by publication of the Inquiry Inspector’s Report.
“For an urban road project between £125m and £165m it is unacceptable in this day and age for a) the plan and b) the engineers working to those objectives to claim not to have responsibility beyond the benefits to motorised users.”
NI Greenways verbal submission to Inquiry
A lengthy critique of the original plan for the York Street (local traffic) spine running through the motorway underpasses and bridges was published in March 2015 and highlighted some main concerns from a cycling perspective:
- poor 1.5m advisory cycle lanes
- continuing use of defunct advanced stop lines
- bus lanes continuing to be pushed as cycling infrastructure
- cycle tracks not bypassing bus stops
- inconsistent cycle provision design northbound vs southbound
- no thought to increased ‘street life’ due to new Ulster University campus
- poor junction designs with left turning traffic in conflict with cyclists
- claims of a lack of space despite many separation strips as ‘dead space’
— NI Greenways (@nigreenways) February 10, 2015
In total 33 objections were made to the (then) Department for Regional Development (DRD) / Transport NI (TNI) about the scheme – a remarkable 20 of which related to the poor cycling provision.
“I think that balance [of objections] gives some indication of how much value the people of Belfast place on being able to move around safely by bicycle.”
NI Greenways verbal submission
Several campaigners and Sustrans made written and verbal submissions to the Inquiry. A combination of scathing criticism and obviously flawed design and thinking, along with the developing Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland, and the adoption by TNI of the London Cycling Design Standards (LCDS) as its design manual for cycling schemes, meant a reworking of the scheme was deemed necessary, before the Inquiry even got going.
“The York St Interchange plan was, in essence, a blank canvas. Standard-setting, high quality cycling routes can be designed in from the beginning rather than the typically more difficult retrofitting. Instead the plans included designs which took the worst elements of Belfast cycling routes – advisory cycle lanes, bus lanes, essentially sharing with or fitting in around motor vehicles.”
NI Greenways verbal submission
The biggest change occurs along the length of the York Street section. An inconsistent and outdated approach led to a northbound cycle lane designated only by paint, and a shared bus lane for most of the southbound route.
Recognising the problems the design caused, the revised scheme separates the northbound cycle track with wands (seen in action here on Alfred Street) while the southbound section now separates cycling journeys from other bus lane users. While wands won’t be deployed southbound (as it stands) it’s a big step forward to recognise that a bus lane in itself is not cycling infrastructure and, where space is not an issue, cycling should have dedicated space.
We also have a bus stop bypass!
Where once buses would come into conflict with users of the on-road advisory cycle lane (above) now a dedicated cycle track winds behind the bus stop.
And just for good measure, TNI threw in a second bus stop bypass going southbound. Ta!
The original plan had several junctions where left turning vehicles would conflict with the cycle lane hovering across the entrance. In the new plan, wand-separated cycles tracks now take cycle track users away from this point of conflict, allowing the crucial mitigation of eye contact between driver and cyclist at dedicated crossings.
The Inspector’s Report accepts the thrust of the objections on cycling provision, and acknowledges TNI’s good work to respond:
Consideration on provision for cyclists
It was very clear from reading the earlier correspondence from Sustrans and a considerable number of other Objectors, that the original proposed provision for the cycling community was far from satisfactory. Indeed, Mr [Gordon] Clarke (Sustrans) spent some time reinforcing this point in his presentation at the Inquiry.
However, it equally apparent that a combination of dialogue between TNI and Sustrans Representatives, a willingness to make changes and the introduction of current design standards has led to a situation where most of the original issues have been resolved.
It was claimed that an earlier adoption of the higher standards could have eliminated the need to ‘retro-fit’ the design changes. However, the constraints imposed by the existing built infrastructure might still have limited the room for manoeuver by the design team.
It is not clear whether the anticipated very considerable increase in the number of cycling journeys over the next ten years has been fully assessed by TNI within the context of the YSI Scheme. It was claimed that a rise in cycling use is foreseen within the DRD Bicycling Strategy, which was published in August 2015.
The major drivers of this change would appear to be:
- the construction of the new Ulster University complex
- the construction and location of the new student residential accommodation
- the future expansion of the Belfast bike hire scheme
Continued dialogue between TNI and Sustrans is clearly highly desirable in order to seek acceptable solutions to the outstanding issues.
Whilst acknowledging concerns over ‘project creep’, TNI should re-examine their proposals for the roads at the extremities of the Scheme to ensure that as far as possible the anticipated cycling and other infrastructure developments outside the footprint of the Scheme are taken into account in the YSI project.
Dialogue to continue between TNI and Sustrans in order to seek acceptable solutions to the outstanding issues.
- TNI to re-examine their proposals for the roads at the extremities of the Scheme to ensure that as far as possible the anticipated cycling and other infrastructure developments outside the footprint of the Scheme are taken into account within the YSI project.
- TNI to reassess the implications of both the new University and emerging DRD cycling strategies on the Scheme, as it is anticipated that this will transform the area around York Street beyond recognition
- TNI to investigate mitigation measures to provide a degree of protection to
cyclists and pedestrians from wind and rain on the York Street Bridge
What still needs to change?
While the objectors and TNI found common ground in the revised scheme design, there was one major flaw in the revision which was picked up by the Inspector:
“The Inspector said that it had occurred to him .. that when travelling in a northbound direction along York Street to the Brougham Street junction on a bicycle, you would be emerging from behind a bus stop and onto the lane on the carriageway and immediately encountering traffic turning left. Did that merging from two different directions not lead to a risk of accidents. There may well be buses sitting at that bus stop, so traffic passing by those buses would not see the cyclists emerging.”
“Mr Spiers [TNI] said he was content that the proposal meets current standards.”
The dotted black line is (apparently) critical to the reason why the Brougham Street slip lane wasn’t revised to safely accommodate cycling, as others have been. Technically it falls outside of the scope of the YSI project and therefore won’t be considered as part of the scheme.
This leaves a very dangerous end to an otherwise excellent northbound route, and should be urgently addressed, as suggested by the Inspector’s first recommendation.
TNI’s response to the Inspector’s third recommendation on wind and rain mitigation will be fascinating to observe 😉
Congratulations to everyone who fed into the Inquiry process through objections or submissions to improve the cycling aspects. The York Street Interchange may prove to be the pivot point for embedding cycling-as-transport into major roads schemes as a matter of course, not a matter of how loud we have to shout.