Arterial bypass: Belfast Bicycle Network Plan objection

The neighbourhood centres of Belfast life – the arterial streets – have been ignored in the Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan

Belfast Bicycle Network

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“Next to safety and mobility, which should be the first considerations, the economic power of sustainable streets is probably the strongest argument for implementing dramatic change.

“It isn’t hard to find a restaurant owner or shopkeeper claiming that bike lanes, bus lanes, and plazas cause local recessions. Data says otherwise. If cities don’t keep data, they will remain susceptible to spurious claims that changing streets hurts businesses.”
Janette Sadik-Khan, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution

In the first objection article from our Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan analysis series, Bikefast takes aim at the most obvious problem – avoiding Belfast’s main arterial streets.

While the headline 130km of dedicated cycle routes for Belfast and the map of the proposed network seem impressive, it took only a minute for disappointment to set in. The ‘main roads’ of Belfast – the streets which host our community life, our independent retailers, our post offices, health practitioners, churches, community centres – were absent from the plan.

It just didn’t make any sense. Shouldn’t a ‘Primary network’ go where people go?

“A Primary network .. will form a core network which will be the backbone of the entire system. It will carry the highest volume of bicycles, have as much separation from motor traffic as possible in order to provide a comfortable, low stress experience that will welcome riders of all ages and abilities and utilise existing cycle paths. We envisage that this will consist of eight arterial or radial routes broadly reaching out to the eight principal points of the compass and three orbital routes connecting the arterial routes around the city centre, around the outer ring and roughly at a midpoint around two miles out from the city centre.”
Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan


Even if you don’t know Belfast, you can make out the darker grey lines radiating from the centre of the city on the route map. Only the Shankill Road (heading due west) sees a red line along it, but even this may be misleading. It’s a reference to the visionary Greater Shankill Greenway plan but there is no indication of any cycling infrastructure planned between Woodvale and Peter’s Hill in the greenway plan.

So, effectively, bicycles are not foreseen or planned to use these critical corridors in the city. By a Bicycle Network Plan.

The implication is serious – a plan which aims to raise cycling levels has surrendered the city’s most important streets to the same vehicle traffic which is slowly choking Belfast.

And that is just wrong, whether by accident or design.

Belfast City Council’s (draft) response hits the nail on the head when it comes to arterial routes:

“The Council would request consideration is given to including a number of the main arterial routes in city which service high density residential areas as part of the primary network.

“In particular, the Lisburn and Ormeau Roads suffer from heavy traffic congestion and the opportunity to develop high quality cycle infrastructure along these routes to encourage modal shift is paramount. In addition, the south and north of the city will not benefit from the Phase 1 of Belfast Rapid Transit therefore, it is considered that priority should be given to promoting other sustainable modes such as walking and cycling routes.”
Belfast City Council

The clout which Belfast City Council brings should be noted by the Cycling Unit because the fundamental reason for no arterial cycling routes appears to be.. fear.

Avoiding the (inevitable?) street fight

In discussion at a consultation event at Spires Centre, Cycling Unit staff made it clear that lack of confidence was the major factor in route choice, or more precisely route avoidance. There is a strong fear within the team of long drawn out fights with local residents, businesses and stakeholders.

The views of these groups are not fully known, but anticipated to be resistant to the types of measures needed to create arterial cycling space – in a Belfast context that will primarily mean some loss of unrestricted parking.

In the book Streetfight by Janette Sadik-Khan (former NYC transportation commissioner) and Seth Solomonow, the retail impact was one of the plus points of the Department of Transport’s people-focused street interventions:

“After the installation of hundreds of miles of bus and bike lanes and dozens of acres of reclaimed street space for pedestrians, the impact on New York’s retail communities would have been evident all over the city by 2012. But while we heard protests from local businesses that every parking space lost to a bike lane or plaza was like a nail in the coffin of their livelihood, there was no data to confirm or contradict that premise. Transportation departments don’t traditionally measure these economic data.

“To be successful over the long term, we knew we had to be smart about measuring the street, but getting data isn’t easy. It required that we first create an economic methodology. Working with our sister agency, the Department of Finance, which collects taxes and revenue for New York City, we obtained detailed, aggregated retail sales data for the dozens of locally owned storefronts, restaurants, and markets on streets where we introduced bike lanes, bus lanes and plazas across the city. We compared the results on these streets with boroughwide and citywide retail sales trends as a control group. What we found was astonishing: stores along streets where changes had been made reported increased sales, far outperforming overall business across the boroughs.”
Janette Sadik-Khan, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution

Here’s the problem with the nervous approach – this fight has occured in countless cities across the world and measures which prioritise cycling and walking over driving tend to improve streets and boost trade. The Cycling Unit could draw on objective data as part of the discussion – but they’re not prepared to initiate it.

Meanwhile other cities leave us behind.

Let’s say a cycleway along the Ormeau Road proved an economic hit, increasing footfall and takings in local independent retailers and food establishments – other streets in Belfast (and towns and cities across the country) would be actively calling for cycling investment, not resisting it.

The nervous caution behind the draft route map does a disservice to Belfast. We need to have a vigorous debate around the purpose of streets and priority of transport modes now. We need to test ways for arterial streets to be improved, to measure if businesses will benefit from a people-centred approach. Otherwise one of the main results of the Belfast Bicycle Strategy will be condemning Ormeau, Crumlin, Malone, Lisburn, Antrim, Castlereagh and Antrim Roads to be little more than car commuting highways.

Not the legacy we need.

Is it a question of space?

Apart from avoiding a fight, are the arterial roads too narrow to take cycling infrastructure of a high standard?

In short, no. Take a look at the Ormeau Road for example. Between the Ravenhill Road roundabout and the Ormeau Bridge you can split the road into three – at the top end there are overly-spacious footways on both sides of the road, and cycling is encouraged on this shared space (which is cluttered with signage for vehicles, naturally).


From Sunnyside Street to Park Road it varies between a generous FIVE OR SIX vehicle widths wide, taking into account the parking bays on both sides of the road.

From the approaches of the Ormeau Park to the Lagan there is an existing cycleway on the footway, but again enough space on the full cross-section to create better, dedicated cycling space.


By tightening general traffic lanes we can develop protected cycleways – two-way on only one side of the street if need be – on our arterial streets.


Castlereagh Road – can you spot how to easily double the cycling space?

Belfast is another one of those strange cities where people will tell you the streets aren’t wide enough for cycling infrastructure, while at the same time considering a four lane road dominating the streetscape to be normal and sacrosanct. There is space, everywhere; it just takes a critical eye to see the potential.

Belfast is a small city – we can all see the opportunities around us to develop cycleways on spacious ‘main roads’. Lack of space as a city-wide veto to arterial cycling infrastructure is not a defensible position.

Accidentally creating a two-tier network

Half of the excitement of waiting to see the Draft Bicycle Network Plan map was to see how the Cycling Unit would upgrade our current cycling network.. which is primarily located on arterial routes.

Here’s the new network plan (yellow) overlaid by existing on-road cycle lanes (dark grey):


Yes, these cycle lanes are rubbish. Yes, they’re only paint. Yes, they’re advisory. Yes, they’re blocked all day every day by cars parking lawfully and unlawfully. They’re useless and a main part of the reason why we have a Draft Bicycle Network Plan.

But this is still space marked out for bicycles – a nascent arterial network. Anywhere from 1 metre to 2 metres wide. Just sitting there, winking at you saying “turn me into something better.”

And here’s the problem if we don’t upgrade these to a modern standard. If the network gets built around them, we’re left with a two-tier network – excellent facilities where people don’t travel in great numbers now, and substandard ones where they do want to travel – creating inconsistency against the stated objectives of the city network:

“To ensure a consistent level of service in the design of safe infrastructure – providing dedicated infrastructure where there are large volumes of higher speed vehicles and shared facilities where the volume and speed of traffic is low.”
Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, Network Objectives

The Cycling Unit when pressed said they have no plans to remove these cycle lanes – and why would they? It might seem like a retrograde step.

So our second-rate cycle lanes will stay in place – continuing to be abused by motorists, suitable only for brave experienced bicycle users, standing as a constant reminder of where the gleaming new Bicycle Network should have been built.

Why try to reinvent the wheel?

The last point on why avoiding arterial streets is daft goes to the heart of whether or not the Belfast Bicycle Network will be successful. Because it risks repeating a common mistake of planners who don’t understand why people use bicycles.

Too often circuitous routes are employed for the purposes of cycling as if the leisure side of cycling trumps utility. It feeds a common perception of cycling as a twee pursuit, something nice to do for its own sake, with main streets left for grown-ups to drive along.

Take Belfast’s own Comber Greenway – this excellent facility has been marketed as an alternative route to the roads for commuting. The fact that the majority of residents in East Belfast have to travel a significant distance out of their way to reach it in the first place is barely recognised as an issue. Extra time which reduces the benefits of better journeys speeds for bicycles over vehicles in rush hour. Moves to even properly link it with the city centre, which would cut some of the time spent reaching it, have been slow and not prioritised.

A Bicycle Network that avoids the places and routes that people traditionally use to travel along, meet and dwell in, is doing something dangerous – expecting a city of people to change their behaviour to suit your plan.

That’s a solution searching for a problem.

The final word on why a Bicycle Network shouldn’t be sidelined from major streets in Belfast draws on the experience of Copenhagen and Jan Gehl (with emphasis added):

“In Copenhagen, a cohesive network for bicycles comprising all parts of the city has gradually been established. Traffic is so quiet on small side streets and residential streets in 15 and 30km per hour zones that a special cycle network is not necessary, but all major streets have one.

“Another link in the city’s bicycle system is green bicycle routes, which are dedicated bike routes through city parks and along discontinued railway tracks. These paths are intended for bicycles in transit and are viewed as a supplementary opportunity, a sightseeing possibility and a green option for bicycles. However, the main principle of bicycle policy is for bicycles to have room on ordinary streets, where just like the others in traffic, their owners have errands in shops, residences and offices.

“Room for this comprehensive bicycle network has been largely gained by down-sizing car traffic. Parking space and driving lanes have been gradually reduced, as traffic patterns have moved from cars to bicycle traffic, and therefore bicycle needed more room.”
Jan Gehl, Cities for People

The draft route map does not reflect the ambition contained in the plan as a whole, and will not create the optimal conditions for Belfast cycling to thrive. The route map needs to be scrapped and redrawn with no fear of bringing bicycles along arterial streets.

But Bikefast won’t be drawing up a counter-proposal network map at this stage. The Cycling Unit have fallen into a trap and we’d prefer to pull them out, not fall in ourselves.

If you want to find the path of least resistance to create a cycling network which doesn’t upset the established order, you’ll come up with a similar layout. If you just attempt another layout, you risk drawing lines on a map to suit your opinion of a better network.

The thinking has to change. At the moment we have to justify why a cycleway should be built on an arterial street. A better starting point is to flip that and ask which arterial streets shouldn’t have cycleways, and why?

The Cycling Unit’s analysis on the street fight lying in wait is probably correct. These questions take us into areas of subjectivity, and that can lead to dead end arguments. Proposers and objectors of cycleway schemes need to be able to digest data and understand the clearly defined criteria behind what is a radical reshaping of streets, so that the debate is on firm ground.

So we need an objective methodology to determine the scope of cycling provision needed in any given area – arterial or residential. That’s what’s missing from the Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, it’s why arterial routes have been ignored, and it’s what we deal with in our next objection article.

For more information on Bikefast’s full response to the Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan consultation see the following articles:

4 Replies to “Arterial bypass: Belfast Bicycle Network Plan objection”

  1. […] The additional three ring routes will be the focus of another objection article. But the headline act was always going to be the arterial streets – the places people visit and travel through every day – and the Cycling Unit fudged it. […]

  2. […] It can be seen in the route choices. The most glaring indication of the Cycling Unit not having faith in the ground they stand on within their own Department is the lack of arterial routes. […]

  3. […] avoiding arterial routes (and the feared arguments with local stakeholders, was a mistake […]

  4. […] On road physically separated cycling space is what should have dominated the draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, but cars got to keep the main roa…. […]

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