Belfast Bicycle Network Plan verdict

Belfast Bicycle Network

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“The city of Copenhagen has been restructuring its street network for several decades, removing driving lanes and parking places in a deliberate process to create better and safer conditions for bicycle traffic. In short a whole-hearted invitation has been extended to cyclists, and the results are reflected clearly in the pattern of use.”
Jan Gehl, Cities for People

This is neat summary of what’s wrong with the Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, with no little irony given that the architects of the plan met Jan Gehl three years ago.

It’s definitely a plan which forsees Belfast’s streets being restructured over decades to come, but it’s not a whole-hearted invitation. It’s a concession ticket with several conditions, permitting the bicycle into the cheap seats but not providing the access-all-areas pass which Copenhagen or numerous Dutch cities provide. And it kinda avoids the first sentence.

Other than the bad points though, we love it. And we’ll improve it in consultation. So let’s start.

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The Department for Infrastructure’s vision for a coherent, direct, attractive, safe, comfortable and adaptable network of cycle routes across Belfast is like nothing this city has seen before. It is a mark of progress in itself that we are two steps away from shovel-ready schemes which aim to give access to high quality space for cycling to the majority of citizens of our city.

Its a testament to a strong chain of political leadership from three successive Transport Ministers (Danny Kennedy, Michelle McIlveen and latterly Chris Hazzard) that brought the Cycling Unit into being, commissioned national and urban strategies for traffic-free travel, and now aims to lift Belfast up among the great cycling cities of the world.

The Cycling Unit themselves continue to do an excellent job and must be congratulated on bringing forward this first urban cycling network plan. A great deal of work, thought and effort to bring in learning from around the world has gone into it. If you haven’t read it by now, take the time to read the online version to form your own view.

Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan (PDF, 5.7MB)

The public consultation ends at 5pm on Thursday 13th April 2017.

While Bikefast welcomes the plan and sees it as a key driver of Belfast’s transport future, we regretfully must formally object to the document as it stands – on five key themes:

  • Arterial bypass
  • Timescale
  • Methodology
  • Circulation
  • Isolation

It is Bikefast’s considered opinion that the plan doesn’t go far enough and, for even this limited vision, it isn’t scheduled to move quick enough. The Cycling Unit have created a plan which nervously tries to avoid contentious route selection, fearing serious wounds from public fights which other sections of the Department for Infrastructure have suffered for attempting to pursue progressive strategies.

It’s a nervous tick seen in the current taxis in bus lanes fiasco – a Department too cowed to say no to powerful private interests even when their own data tells them the policy will damage active travel and public transport.

It’s an understandable reflex, but it’s not going to help make Belfast work as a city. A dense and comprehensive network of bicycle routes cannot be designed and implemented to its fullest potential without ruffling feathers, but the Cycling Unit have allowed their vision to narrow to ensure something gets built rather than what the city needs to be built.

This might seem downbeat or harsh on a plan which promises 130km of dedicated protected cycleways within 400m of two-thirds of the residents of Belfast. Over the five objection articles Bikefast will set out clear, logical reasoning behind the disappointment.

But being naturally optimistic (as well as kick-ass campaigners) we can see that the plan isn’t actually that far away from being worked into acceptable shape. That’s why there’s a public consultation, and what we want from you – the people of Belfast who cycle now or will in the future – is to pressure for improvements to the route plan to give us a world-class cycling network built upon international best practice.

The Cycling Unit needs your confidence and support for radical change.

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We’ll propose different lines on the map – because we need to be in that discussion when others make counter-proposals – but we want to encourage the Cycling Unit to draw up their own Route Map Version 2.0 based on a change of thinking within the Department for Infrastructure on how, why and for who streets should be designed.

And that’s where a philosophical departure point exists between devising a standalone plan for a single transport mode and pro-actively messing with the status quo of street purpose to benefit all.

We want to see an extensive cycling network in the city and beyond but we don’t want a glorified appendage which lacks the multi-functional purpose afforded to motor vehicles.

Imagine the kind of city we could have with less motor traffic – less noise, less pollution, healthy people and a more pleasant environment to spend time in, live in and enjoy.
Chris Hazzard (former Minister for Infrastructure)

We think a Bicycle Network Plan which sits in isolation of other strategies to better prioritise public transport and pedestrian movements while – and here’s the controversial point avoided in implementation of the vision statement above – actively restricting the volume and flow of motor traffic into, through and around the city is destined to only scratch the surface.

And permeating through all of this is the urgent need to actually tackle all of this in a coordinated way far in advance of the ten-year horizon set within the Draft Bicycle Network Plan. Our city is grinding to a halt now. Car traffic has already reached saturation point. It brings everything down with it – bottling up buses which should bypass the worst congestion and providing such a harsh street environment that cycling levels are unnaturally suppressed.

We think the Bicycle Network Plan begins to address these things but it can only go so far before it needs more power to its elbow from above. And some subtle changes to thinking with a reworked route map will do the trick.

If the plan as presented now was implemented tomorrow, it would undoubtedly raise cycling levels across a range of users who avoid the current car-dominated street network. But we believe a better route map, going with the grain of the city rather than against it, will get many more people out of cars and onto bicycles.

Stick with us over the next few days as we go through our thinking in more detail and give you some food for thought while preparing your own response to the plan. Belfast needs to get this right – the prize if we do is a more liveable and better-functioning city for everyone.


For more information on Bikefast’s full response to the Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan consultation (closing Thursday 13th April 2017) see the following articles:

2 Replies to “Belfast Bicycle Network Plan verdict”

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