Bikefast wanted to know what the peak rates of everyday cycling were in our city. We’ve talked a good bit about the perceived growth of cycling in our city and we’ve posted lots of encouraging pictures to Instagram – but we’re struggling to get good, granular data out of our Transport Department (DfI). So we took matters into our own hands. We pitched our intrepid bicycle counter (me – Ed) at three locations along the Laganside corridor on evenings in Autumn 2016 and Spring 2017 to get just a little sample of what a dedicated cordon count might show. In the first of three articles, here’s what we found happening at the Gasworks..
Count 1: Gasworks Junction
Why the Gasworks? Well, it was our first choice, as the central vertebrae in Belfast’s spinal cycling route, offering the shortest, safest connection to the city centre.
The National Cycle Network here earns that title in a way few other facilities in Northern Ireland do. You can cycle from Lisburn to Newtownabbey only encountering vehicle traffic when crossing a handful of roads – a shared towpath winds through Lambeg, Edenderry and Malone, before a pleasant 1.2km of kerb separated cycleway spirits you along the Stranmillis Embankment to the Ormeau Bridge.
The shared Laganside path then skims the edge of the city centre to the Albert Bridge, onward under the new Waterfront Exhibition Centre, mixing shared footways, cycleway, traffic-closed streets and out to the Loughshore Path which stretches to Whiteabbey and eventually to the Newtownabbey Greenway.
Two of the key cycle corridors across the Lagan for city centre journeys are the Albert and Ormeau Bridges, while sitting in the middle is the Gasworks Junction, providing access to the office development in Gasworks Park and a further 1km of traffic-free cycling directly to the heart of the city centre along on the Alfred Street Cycleway.
It’s the gravitational centre of cycling in Belfast.
— NI Greenways (@nigreenways) September 30, 2016
And it should be even more important. The Gasworks Bridge, a £7m-£9m proposal to create a traffic free link at Gasworks Junction across to the Ormeau Park would truly revolutionise active travel in Belfast. It just needs an Assembly, Executive, and a capital injection from the next Finance and Infrastructure Ministers.
Placing a video camera on a large Dutch bicycle we recorded two separate periods of the evening rush hour – one in October 2016 and one in May 2017. Both days had clear weather and no major traffic incidents were reported – normal working weekdays.
Where the Gasworks Path meets the Laganside Path is a simple three-way junction with a short red bridge marking the point where the Blackstaff River merges with the Lagan.
We noted the direction of bicycle travel and some characteristics of the riders (more on that later). As expected, the dominant flow into the junction was from the Gasworks and Albert Bridge directions – coming from the city centre – and leaving the junction to the south – where as far back as 2011 cycling accounted for over 6% of commuting journeys by residents just across the Ormeau Bridge.
In total over the two days we observed a total of 369 bicycle movements in a combined 94 minutes, giving the Gasworks Junction an estimated peak flow rate of 236 bicycles per hour, or about 4 bicycles per minute. It’s not The Netherlands, but for Belfast this is pretty cool.
We’ve worked up a graphic to demonstrate the flow patterns.
Those cycling from the city centre through the Gasworks accounted for 49% of journeys entering the junction while 69% of people exiting the junction were travelling towards Ormeau.
Somewhat disappointing is the continued gender imbalance in cycling, with females accounting for less than a quarter of those cycling. That’s a better percentage than any official count we’ve seen over the last five years, but an indication that Belfast still has a long way to go to make cycling safe and accessible for everyone.
We also captured a little time-lapse video of part of the count in May to show how people are using the junction.
The 2011 Census recorded 2,282 regular cycle commuters across the whole of Belfast, which was a 60% rise since 2001. Without a baseline for this exact location for those time periods (and the ability to look beyond commuter cycling) we can’t make a judgement on cycling growth beyond 2011. But 236 bicycles per hour (peak) in one location in the city looks extremely healthy in that context.
It’s fair to say a large proportion of those heading either direction along the Laganside Path will continue their journeys across the river at either the Ormeau or Albert Bridge (and we have data to look at that aspect). Opening a fourth arm of this junction by building the Gasworks Bridge would not only serve the many people already using this junction, but with journey time saving and extended traffic-free routes through the Ormeau Park on the opposite bank, hundreds more people could be encouraged to travel actively here.
Up next we look at the Albert Bridge where the National Cycle Network crosses a key commuting corridor between East Belfast and the city centre.
Why are we doing this?
Other than being curious about the impact of the Cycling Revolution™ which, apart from some infrastructure, is still a purely organic movement in Belfast, we’re trying to highlight a big gap in government data gathering and everyday cycling insight.
Our best indication of cycling growth is at a very high level. We have the annual Travel Survey for Northern Ireland which places cycling commuting (not everyday journeys) at between 3-5% of all commuter journeys in the city.
Other than that, the Census is out most detailed look at cycling habits, but again only looks at commuting – and we’re about halfway between the 10 year gap between Census reports.
We used to have a potentially excellent source for cycling journey data – the (now defunct) Department for Regional Development’s live cycle counters. These enabled the Department (now DfI) to measure growth on key corridors.
And then they were turned off. And many were removed. The boxes may still be in place but nothing is happening inside.
We’re calling for DfI to deploy new live cycle counters in a cordon around the city to enable the growth of cycling, linked to their proposed Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, to accurately measure cycling journey levels and observe demand for new facilities.
And we need a baseline before those cycleways are built, so counters should be going in now. And to top it all off, live roadside counter displays should be deployed in a couple of locations to demonstrate to everyone that cycling is an important and growing part of our city’s transport landscape.