Lagan cordon count (Ormeau Bridge)

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 last of three articles we take a look at Belfast’s Ormeau Bridge, long held to be Belfast’s busiest bicycle junction – do the figures bear this out?

Count 3: Ormeau Bridge (north bank)

This is a complex junction as the Ormeau Road crosses the River Lagan. Heavy arterial vehicle flow between South Belfast and the city centre interacts with the Stranmillis Embankment on the north bank and the Annadale/Ormeau Embankment through route on the southern bank.

On the Stranmillis Embankment (north bank) a separated cycleway on the road links up, via a toucan crossing over the Ormeau Road, with the Laganside pathway toward the city centre, and the sites of our other two counts at The Gasworks and the Albert Bridge.

On the southern side of the bridge the areas surrounding the Ormeau Road have the highest concentration of cycling commuters in the country. Ballynafeigh ward had a 6% cycling share of all commuting journeys at the 2011 census, a figure likely to have risen towards double figures in subsequent years.

The evening rush hour in particular is a good time to see the concentration of cyclists heading across Ormeau Bridge to the (short) cycle lane shared with pedestrians or into Ormeau Park.

The northern end of the bridge is the ideal spot for counting bicycles given the crossing of the National Cycle Network and Belfast’s longest-established dedicated cycling route along to Stranmillis.

The data

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 – just normal working weekdays.

We noted the direction of bicycle travel and some characteristics of the riders (more on that later).

Over the two days we observed a total of 362 bicycle movements in a combined 68.5 minutes, giving the Albert Bridge an estimated peak flow rate of 317 bicycles per hour, or over 5 bicycles per minute. It’s not The Netherlands, but for Belfast this is pretty cool.

This is significantly higher than the rates observed at The Gasworks and Albert Bridge junctions. This is partially down to dedicated (if not 100% ideal) cycling infrastructure on 3 arms of the junction, and a dense urban population on the city centre side of the bridge in the lower Ormeau and Holylands fuelling a counter-tidal flow back towards the city centre (higher than our last two counts).

We’ve worked up a graphic to demonstrate the flow patterns.

Those cycling from the Laganside direction accounted for 48% of journeys entering the junction while 49% of people exiting the junction were travelling south across the Ormeau Bridge.

The gender imbalance is still clear, however less drastic than our other two counts – at 28% of riders being female it’s heading towards a 2:1 ratio of male to female rather than 4:1 at the Albert Bridge. It’s an indication that Belfast still has a long way to go to make cycling safe and accessible for everyone.

Footway or roadway?

In our last article we tested the anecdotal assumption that half of all cycling movements on the Albert Bridge were on the pavement – and found it was actually closer to 60%.

Was this also the case on the Ormeau Bridge? Despite the absence of barriers enclosing the roadway – perhaps perceptibly less hostile – people still don’t want to ride with busy vehicle traffic. Remarkably almost three quarters of people cycling on the bridge (in either direction) choose the footways:

  • 43% of people cycling used the northern footway
  • 27% of people cycling used the road
  • 30% of people cycling used the southern footway

The narrow footways barely cope with pedestrian footfall and a significant volume of bicycles at present, and will be unlikely to safely accommodate a rise in cycling journeys.

It’s an indication of a sick road environment – unforgiving, unwelcoming and unattractive to those using bicycles. And it poses difficulty for pedestrians. It will need to be addressed as part of the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan should the Department for Infrastructure agree with the need to plan a new arterial route along the Ormeau Road corridor.

The Ormeau Road is confirmed as the busiest bicycle junction in Belfast, and likely by extension the busiest in the country. It offers those who are engaged in planning for the bicycle in Belfast a chance to observe (in large numbers) how people cope with the limited space for cycling afforded to them, their preferences for travel in that context, and the benefits of investing in dedicated space.

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 our 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.

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