Exclusive: Revolution on the High Street

The Department for Infrastructure has moved its Cycling Revolution up a gear by proposing to radically alter Belfast’s High Street to attract more people to cycle in the city.

The bland-sounding title The Control of Traffic (High Street, Belfast) Order (Northern Ireland) 2017 hides the single most impressive cycling scheme proposed in our part of the world.

Single-direction cycleways will run on both sides of High Street, protected by built-out traffic islands and bus stops. Innovative design features and priority measures will be deployed for the first time locally in the scheme, and the whole project has been upscaled into an urban realm redevelopment to multiply the benefits beyond just cycling.

Belfast Cycle Network Scheme 4 - High Street Visualisation
Belfast Cycle Network Scheme 4 – High Street Visualisation (DfI, DfC, Amey)

High Street is currently an unnecessarily wide road with street life clinging to the edges while vehicles have a disproportionate allowance of space.

This scheme will actively take away that privilege from vehicles and do something far more interesting with it.

You can see the full plans here (with maps) and respond to the consultation by Thursday 20th April. If you like all or part of the scheme, please do take the time to respond with your support or views – it may draw significant negative comment from groups actively opposed to pedestrian priority in Belfast, let alone cycling investment. Here’s the Bikefast summary of the scheme:

The very cool things

High profile cycling infrastructure literally on the High Street

If you want to signal your intent to change a city’s transport ethos, redesigning the High Street around cycling is about as brash as it gets. This could have been the weak link in the Cycling Unit’s first cross-city cycle route – packed as it is with people, buses and vehicles – but there are few signs of compromise here.

Indeed the Cycling Unit have smartly tied this primarily cycling scheme into urban realm development led by the Department for Communities, leveraging the need for safe and high-quality cycling space into a scheme which will benefit people and improve place.

Vehicles have very little positive role to play on Belfast’s High Street – the Department were already thinking this way and didn’t need pushing from the outside. As a through-route there’s little value, and the route into Castle Place is already heavily restricted to general traffic. It’s a brave move and hopefully sets down a marker for how cycling schemes will be developed across the city in future.

Priority pedestrian link from Victoria Square to Cathedral Quarter

This has been one of the major needs since the rebirth of the Cathedral Quarter as a centre of creativity, nightlife, bars and restaurants and major hotels. A significant desire line, between the constant bustle of the pedestrianised Church Lane and Skipper Street as a gateway to CQ, is cut off by a 17 metre six lane ocean of roadway, with no controlled crossing. The never-ending scurrying of cars into the Hi Park multi-storey car park presents an additional barrier.

Skipper Street (left) and Church Lane (right) separated by an ocean of road

The scheme plans to put a controlled crossing point over the now two lanes separating these two gateways.

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And look! The cycleways on both sides aren’t interrupted by the vehicle control, with zebra crossings to get pedestrians safely to and from the crossing islands. This is great stuff.

Partnership working

The real power of this scheme is the fingerprints of the different bodies which the Cycling Unit has consulted and involved before we’ve arrived at this public consultation. I’m seeing the great work of IMTAC on making the bus stops accessible, I’m seeing FTA’s impressive local leadership in the loading space prioritised over on-street parking, I’m seeing the critical partnership with the Department for Communities in turning this into an urban realm scheme as part of Belfast Streets Ahead. And I’m seeing a vastly superior cycling scheme than the one shown to Bikefast last summer. I’m probably missing more, but the Cycling Unit seem to be forging a clever path to success.

Restriction on vehicle space, full priority for buses

While the improved pedestrian areas and new cycleways are the headlines here, the big story is the restriction of vehicle traffic. While just a stone’s throw away road engineers are busy loosening the belt on growing traffic, here on High Street we’re seeing the opposite – general traffic lanes being removed to accommodate active travel.

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The two traffic lanes which remain will be dominated by public transport – there will be little space to squeeze past buses sitting at the new floating bus stops, so car drivers will just have to wait. A new bus lane will prioritise buses across to Custom House Square in sharp fashion.

..and look at those bus stop bypasses

While the York Street Interchange plans were the first mention of floating bus stops with cycling by-passes, High Street will have the honour of the first physical implementation in Belfast.

It’s understood IMTAC have been involved in the design of the bus stops to ensure people with accessibility requirements have been fully accounted for – raised zebra crossings with tactile paving will prioritise pedestrian movements across the cycleways.

Forgiving kerbs

Another first for Northern Ireland and a welcome infiltration of best practice from The Netherlands is the use of forgiving kerbs along the cycleway.

One of the problems with current kerb-separated cycleways (see Stranmillis Embankment) is the 90 degree kerbing. A movement to avoid a hazard or a wobble can lead to a crash as bicycle wheels hit this barrier. In The Netherlands cycleways typically have kerbing at a 45 degree angle, which allows a bicycle to roll up and over rather than slip and fall.

Belfast Cycle Network Scheme 4 - The High Street Public Realm Scheme - maps (4).png

If we’re being picky we’d be keen to see these on both sides of the cycleway, but we’ll discuss the thinking behind the 90 degree kerb on the footway side with the Cycling Unit.

Traffic control not affecting cycling movements

A bug-bear of local cycling facilities – try as we can we can’t seem to unravel cycling movements from traffic. Cycle lanes end before junctions. Cycling priority at junctions is applied through an advanced stop line – signal controlled and in front of snarling engines.

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Here we see one of the many benefits of treating cycling space as its own entity, separate from pedestrian space and vehicle space. The cycleways can run behind a junction without users needing to wait for traffic control. The use of zebra crossings on the cycleway and their adherence by those cycling along who must give way will be keenly watched ‘in the wild’.

Restricted parking zone

While not actually within the consultation document, Bikefast understands the whole scheme includes another first for Belfast. With parking demand fully catered for by the 565 space Hi Park multi-storey car park, on-street parking is virtually redundant save for blue badge needs and some taxi ranking.

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A restricted parking zone is expected to be rolled out, allowing blue badge parking after a morning period of exclusive use by loading and unloading goods and service vehicles. Private parking is well looked after at private parking rates – this scheme is putting people first.

Extended cycle gate replacing advanced stop lines

Although two classic advanced stop lines have somehow (temporarily) snuck into the scheme, the Cycling Unit are trialling another innovation for Belfast. One troublesome aspect of this scheme was always going to be the transition from High Street to Custom House Square in a double cycleway set-up.

Currently anyone cycling on the road can avail of a perilous painted cycle lane in the middle of the road – not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced rider. In the new scheme the junction at the end of High Street will be set back significantly from Victoria Street, allowing for a large “cycle gate”. The mechanics of this are understood to be as follows – as the vehicle traffic has a green light to turn (one-way only) left onto Victoria Street, the cycleway to its left will have a red light. Once the traffic stops at red, the cycleway will go green allowing bicycle users to fill the gate. At the next green those who are cycling will proceed ahead of the traffic across to Custom House Square.

Belfast Cycle Network Scheme 4 - The High Street Public Realm Scheme - maps (3).png

It’s an interesting two-stage crossing solution which will be fascinating to watch in operation.

Wider, less cluttered pavements

“Enhanced pedestrian facilities, including wider, less cluttered pavements on High Street. Enhanced crossing facilities on High Street, making the street much more pedestrian orientated. Cycle facilities segregated by kerb from pedestrian facilities with pedestrian priority at crossing points.”

Yes, this is a cycling scheme at heart but High Street as a whole will be improved by the repurposing of vehicular traffic lanes. Those tight, cluttered pavements will be upgraded and widened, allowing for better pedestrian movement and dwell on a street that lost out to car development in a big way.

We’re not likely to see a return to sailing ships docking along the street as once happened here, but reclaiming a sense of space and pride in a historically important city thoroughfare is something to be celebrated in this plan.

What’s up for grabs

Changing the Castle Place pedestrian crossing from zebra to puffin is a mistake

“Proposed conversion of existing zebra crossing into Puffin crossing to improve pedestrian safety & traffic movements.”

Belfast Cycle Network Scheme 4 - The High Street Public Realm Scheme - maps.png

You can strike out the pedestrian safety reference because the only reason to change this aspect is to help with traffic flow through what is the most pedestrian-prioritised junction in Belfast. Yes, cars and buses can sit for a good minute at times waiting for a gap in the crossing pedestrians. But it’s the city centre – there’s nothing wrong with this.

Replacing the zebra crossing with anything which restricts the flow of pedestrians will be a massive downgrade for pedestrian experience. People will cross despite the light phases in their hundreds throughout the day. Traffic will be emboldened to travel at a higher speed than currently. This is a pro-car measure in an otherwise wonderfully pro-people plan and needs to be thrown out. Bikefast will formally object to this aspect.

Cycleway widths are tight at 1.5m

This could be looked at again. At minimum we should be providing two metre wide cycling space, especially with this paragraph of the Belfast Bicycle Network in mind:

Adaptability: cycling infrastructure should be designed to accommodate users of all types of cycle and also increasing numbers over time.

1.5m is tight, especially on a street where heavy pedestrian movements are likely to spill onto the cycleway at most times. It may limit the potential for cargobikes etc wo safely interact with other users. On the other hand being nominally one directional paths there should be fewer head-on interactions that on similar cycleways in the city, but eeking even half a metre extra should be looked at.

Give more thought on cycling turns into Bridge Street

One immediately noticeable change from the picture of High Street in the Draft Bicycle Network Plan to today’s version is the addition of an advance stop lines (ASL) at Bridge Street. We thought we were past this – the ASL had apparently been erased from the NI policy playbooks but they’re back here with a vengeance, front and centre.

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With dedicated, protected, one-way cycleways on both sides of the streets, ASLs are not required in the design. One reason for their inclusion might be the seeming difficulty turning right into Bridge Street coming from the Albert Clock. Access from the eastbound cycleway to the ASL is provided, but this is far from best practice.

A safe turning space on the far side of the junction, similar to the junction set-up in The Netherlands, would be far more appropriate – and a good trial ahead of similar arrangements which will be needed across the city.

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Apologies for the crayon-like approach 🙂 Tightening that ridiculous sweep of the Bridge Street junction curve would allow for some protected space – somewhere that people cycling wouldn’t need to hold at a traffic light-controlled ASL, but could get ahead of vehicles and proceed when safe along the line of the separated cycleway.

Right hand turns banned from Queen’s Square

This is merely an observation – the experience from the cycleway on Alfred Street and the turning restriction for vehicles is not good – trusting drivers is a mistake seen repeating on a daily basis with potentially lethal consequences.

On such a busy junction as between Queen’s Square and High Street, it may be wise for the Department to consider a fixed enforcement option (CCTV linked to the crossing phase) to eliminate what could be deadly conflict.

Something brewing around the car park

We’ll give our colleague Cargobike Dad the floor for this one:

“Entry to Hi-Park and Skipper St exit are conflicts waiting to happen.”

End of eastbound cycleway is messy

While spiriting eastbound bicycles though the first part of Bridge Street junction phase is a most welcome development, the same is not replicated on the second part – the cycleway will be signal-controlled to allow pedestrian crossing. This is inconsistency within a single scheme, never mind the plan to make facilities consistence and easily understandable across the whole city.

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The merge between cycleway and road towards Castle Place is less than ideal. It’s likely that cycling movements and vehicle movements will coincide due to the previous controlled junction, so we have a definite point of conflict.

A less abrupt merge may be possible by extending the cycleway on towards Castle Place – the dotted line to the left of the picture above defines a space with an unspecified purpose. And who knows, on a scheme where we’re trying to encourage more people – inexperienced riders of all ages – couldn’t we trial a set-up where the emerging cycleway requires (highly restricted anyway) vehicle traffic to give way?


We wish the Department, and its partners on this project, all the best – some tweaks aside, it’s a remarkable proposal and will set Belfast along a path to better days.

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