Isolation: Belfast Bicycle Network Plan objection

Bikefast’s official consultation response to the Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan consists of five articles laying out our objections to the document. Objection five deals with the lack of an over-arching strategy which the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan needs for cover – with the aim to use the bicycle and its infrastucture as tools to fix Belfast.

“Imagine the kind of a 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, Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan

There is only one other reference to congestion in the document.

Bikefast’s main objection articles have mostly been about the lack of ambition in the route map and the timescale. But running as a thread along all of the objection topics is a bigger issue. We are of the opinion that the Cycling Unit are being left to attempt the impossible – radically increasing the mileage of cycling routes and the levels of cycling in Belfast completely in isolation to any other transport strategy.

Why is that problematic?

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.

The Department bears the scars of very public (and ongoing) battles with self-interested business groups over schemes like Belfast on the Move, Belfast Rapid Transit, Taxis in bus lanes, 20 mph zones and so on.

While the last Minister showed some real backbone in standing ground on some of these issues (until the election was announced) the car-centred culture within the Department is still the greatest barrier to cycling investment in Belfast.

Little silos of interest compete against each other. The Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan targets set way back in 2001 show this starkly – while the desire to enhance active travel and public transport is there, so is the need to make sure car journeys do not deteriorate.

When car use continues to rise, that sets a clash of priorities – and the car should never be prioritised in a dense urban environment.

The Department was ambivalent towards the two 20mph private members bills in the last two Assemblys (along with the PSNI) effectively killing any notion of this radical and much-needed intervention being imposed upon them. Instead of creating wide areas of safer travel at a stroke, the Department prefers a softly softly, don’t antagonise the driver approach which will get us nowhere fast.

The Department is rolling out a Rapid Transit system which it is hoped will revolutionise public transport on the 3 initial corridors and perhaps across the city in future. And yet the very managers of that project wilfully ignore the damage that flooding our bus lanes with private taxis will do to that system before it has even launched.

It’s this silo approach which means the Cycling Unit have their own little place – propose and plan cycling routes. Can they take away unrestricted parking bays the length of an arterial street like the Ormeau Road?
Their plan says not.

Can they cut all through traffic between two parallel arterial streets to tip the balance of journey comfort and directness away from car travel and towards active travel?
Their plan says not.

Can a Bicycle Network Plan be so stuffed full of little carrots that the stick becomes unnecessary when we want widespread modal shift in a city?
Maybe, but this plan doesn’t come close.

Which is why the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan needs to be a sub-set of a wider plan. One with more clout. One that Ministers and Departmental staff will refer to when planning a city-wide change like the Cycling Unit is attempting here.

One that says “there are too many vehicles using this street” and then directs a complete streets approach to attempt to change the situation.

Is this plan the trailed “3-five-10” strategy which was announced in January but is currently nothing more than a headline?

We’d assess it for its potential, but nothing more than the press release has come forward to date. It may or may not be what we are calling for.

Or is it Bikefast’s idea for a Congestion Plan for Belfast?

A plan which assesses the changing patterns in travel over the last fifteen years, documents the issues with congestion, is brutally frank about the over-reliance on car travel within and from outside Belfast, and devises a set of interventions to change things – not promote alternatives and hope for the best as we do today.

We’re going to gather more ideas to fill out this concept, but the broad brush strokes are simple:

  • Draw up existing mode split movement patterns for all arterial streets in Belfast
  • Take a special look at commuter flows coming from outside the city boundaries
  • Identify areas out of balance with the the city averages
  • Amalgamate the modal split upwards to a city-wide score
  • Look at best practice cities across the world to benchmark our modal splits
  • Set five, ten, 15, 20 year targets for what a healthy city split should be
  • Apply interventions on a street-by-street basis to alter travel priorities and options
  • Complete a city-wide parking survey to determine on-street usage (all-day vs churn)
  • Regulate arterial on-street spaces, subordinate to active travel & public transport
  • Radically cut private vehicle priority where M-way, rail, Transit alternatives exist
  • Plan to reduce city centre car parking (Belfast City Council has begun this process)
  • Enhance and further incentivise park and ride sites in a cordon around Belfast
  • Plan for all schools in Belfast to radically cut down on staff and pupil car parking
  • Cut all major neighbourhood rat runs to push vehicle traffic to appropriate routes

..and much more. But you get the idea.

An agreed Congestion Plan for Belfast would set a clear vision to loosen the grip of private cars on our clogged city. it would mean all Department staff and partner organisations would be working towards a shared goal, not looking after their own interests.

congestion_target

Why is this important?

“Almost one in four Northern Irish children born at the beginning of the new century was obese by the age of 11, a new study suggests.”
BBC News

That’s why separating Bicycle Network from overall vehicle reduction strategy is a mistake.

Because the health of our city and our people is declining and without restricting the all-access pass which private motor vehicles have in our city, liveable streets will not be an option in this critical fight.

The splitting of the Primary and Secondary network under the Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan shows why a Congestion Plan is needed. It would allow the Cycling Unit to go beyond its own silo and make real difference to the city.

We have a new mantra given to us by former Transport Minister Chris Hazzard. We need to mainstream it in Belfast, make it the founding statement for all work on urban transport in our city.

We’ll do more work to on this proposal, but in the meantime our objection stands on the basis of the Department allowing the Bicycle Network Plan to go it alone – to face the wrath of opposing interests without the firm political will and strategic backup it needs to be a real success.

We don’t want Belfast to be a dull, plodding addition to a list of competent cycling cities of the world. Belfast has never done things by half. This is a city with a world-class reputation for innovation, risk and progress, and some awful history too.

We don’t make middling efforts. We make a splash. Our cycling network needs to do that too. We start by overhauling Dublin and London.. because we can. We have the tools, we just need to money.

Then we shoot for the big prize, make the world sit up and notice what we’re doing.

We need to ruffle feathers to do it, but the reality of congestion and poor health make the perfect storm for radical change as a necessity – and starting right now.


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

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