When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail

A reply to the Department of Infrastructure in defense of Belfast city centre pedestrians

Many thanks for your email of 5 July 2017. I've included the relevant pieces of our correspondence at the bottom of the article.

To summarise, as part of a welcome and revolutionary cycling scheme on Belfast's High Street, you've oddly tacked on a proposal to scrap a zebra crossing on nearby Castle Place. This is likely to be the country's busiest* dedicated pedestrian crossing, and you intend to replace it with.. a signal-controlled crossing which will necessarily prioritise vehicle movements compared to the current situation. 

Despite (access-only) traffic levels not expected to change as a result of the overall scheme, you've presented a recipe for constant conflict and the clear downgrading of pedestrian experience.

And while you've briefly skimmed over the technical process of how you've reached this opinion, you haven't said why it's even on the agenda.

That's why you have an objection from Bikefast. And it's not going away.

“I trust that this information is helpful”

Actually your note of 5 July 2017 may have been the least helpful email I’ve ever received from the Department of Infrastructure (DfI) or your predecessor Department for Regional Development. Repeating a single sentence and adding one more to say “we did an assessment” wasn’t your finest hour.

A copy of that assessment, made under “Local Transport Note 1/95 – The Assessment of Pedestrian Crossings” attached to your reply – now that would have been helpful.

Naturally you’ll rectify that error asap so that we can discuss the matter face-to-face on something of an equal footing. It’s likely to be of wider public interest at this stage, as it will surely include usage levels on the crossing by pedestrians, buses and access vehicles.

I am mindful that my objection may by holding up the wider High Street cycling scheme, so I’m going to make things crystal clear for you:

  • I am not objecting to the High Street cycling scheme.
  • I am fully in support of the High Street cycling scheme.
  • I am objecting to the inclusion of the Castle Place pedestrian crossing in the High Street cycling scheme.

There is a clear distinction between the two areas and you’ll need to provide some exceptional justification for its inclusion, because:

  • This crossing has nothing to do with the High Street cycling scheme.
  • It doesn’t interact with any of the proposed High Street cycling infrastructure.
  • Pedestrian and vehicle volumes on this crossing will not change significantly as a result of the High Street cycling scheme.

Extraordinary change requires extraordinary reasons and you haven’t come close so far.

"The Department would be of the opinion that [this is] the most appropriate means of control"

That last word reveals everything about the vehicle-addicted thinking still rattling around DfI. Old habits and all that..

This is a big messy city centre crossing point with wonderfully messy movements between key pedestrianised areas. That's what pedestrians do when they feel safe to roam - make lots of movements which bamboozle traffic engineers.

Yes, vehicle drivers have to wait a little longer than they'd prefer. One exception to a  country-wide system where pedestrians play a subordinate role.

And you want to bring control to that mess. Control the pedestrian mess. In the heart of a city centre pedestrian area.

The initial consultation talked of this change helping to "improve pedestrian safety & traffic movements" yet you still haven't addressed the so-obvious-it's-painful rebuttal to that point:

"People will cross despite the light phases in their hundreds throughout the day. Traffic will be emboldened to travel at a higher speed than currently. This is a pro-car measure in an otherwise wonderfully pro-people plan and needs to be thrown out."
Revolution on the High Street, Bikefast - 29 March 2017

People will ignore your new crossing in droves, especially as it appears to still be offset from the direct desire line between Lombard Street and Cornmarket.

You will create more conflict. You will reduce safety.

It's worth reflecting on the fact you're attempting to downgrade the country's busiest dedicated pedestrian junction while your Department (under the last Minister) has signalled its intention to launch a Walking Strategy.

That strikes me as a very courageous decision.

Also, remember the hierarchy of road users in the Bicycle Strategy? Maybe the irony is lost on you that pedestrians will get dumped down the pecking order on one of the first major cycling schemes under that strategy.

And never mind that this critical decision on a Castle Place crossing is buried in a consultation on a High Street scheme. In fact, Castle Place isn't mentioned in the consultation article on the Department website.

Nor, in fact, is it mentioned in the draft Order The Control of Traffic (High Street, Belfast) Order (Northern Ireland) 2017, which I suspect makes the process of removing the crossing from the scheme due to this objection rather quite easy.

Regardless, given all of the above, I doubt you can reasonably stand over the level of scrutiny you've afforded to this small but significant change.

"I look forward to your reply"

Based on the lack of information provided, the headlong rush to reduce pedestrian priority and safety - and the startlingly stubborn nature of consultation correspondence - you're demonstrating the Department lacks the in-house expertise to manage this crossing.

It's a classic traffic engineering solution searching for a problem which doesn't exist. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  If change is needed, it should proceed from a place-making standpoint, focusing first on whether there's a need for vehicles to be travelling through here at all.

The balance is currently right - thousands of pedestrians moving freely between traffic-free areas while a handful vehicles pass through in turn. Making thousands of people wait for permission to cross will lead to a vast bulk ignoring your control "solution" and continuing on their own desire lines. And that's a failure of design.

So let's have that face-to-face meeting I've asked for since April, but the message is clear - the objection from Bikefast remains firmly in place. Regardless, I would be grateful if you could reply in writing to confirm if you are prepared discard this institutional obstruction to getting on with the important job of modernising High Street.


Correspondence to date

Bikefast email to DfI, 24 April 2017

I'm writing to comment upon the proposed scheme on High Street. I greatly welcome the scheme and the work which has been done to date, but I strongly suggest changes are made before the scheme is finalised. These can be summarised as follows:

...

b. changing the Castle Place pedestrian crossing from zebra to puffin is an unacceptable reduction of pedestrian priority [objection]

...

More detail is available on the Bikefast.org website and I'd be happy to meet to discuss the implications of issues identified in the current design and the benefits of amendments.


DfI email to Bikefast, 1 June 2017

Network Traffic, Street Lighting and Transportation
Eastern Division

BELFAST CYCLE NETWORK (BCN) SCHEME 4 - HIGH STREET, BELFAST
THE CONTROL OF TRAFFIC (HIGH STREET, BELFAST) ORDER (NORTHERN IRELAND)

Thank you for your email dated 24 April 2017 regarding the above scheme proposal and objections associated with the scheme.

Firstly can I thank you for the words of support for the work being undertaken by the Department in Developing the Belfast Cycle Network, it is appreciated.

With regard to the points raised within your email I can respond as follows:

..

b. The Department would be of the opinion that the use of PCats (Pedestrian Countdown at Traffic Signals) or a Puffin crossing would be the most appropriate means of control, safety and balances the needs of pedestrians / cyclists and motorists / public transport.

..

I would be grateful if you could reply in writing to us .. by 23 June 2017 to confirm if you are prepared to withdraw your objections.

I trust that this information is helpful and I look forward to your reply.


Bikefast email to DfI, 19 June 2017

Many thanks for your letter.

While few of my points have been reasonably addressed, I can appreciate some of the constraints which are involved. However point b with regards to the change from a zebra crossing to a controlled crossing is very far from a design constraint but a choice. And very clearly the wrong choice to prioritise vehicles movements.

Specifically on this point I cannot withdraw my objection. I would appreciate if you can facilitate a meeting to discuss the issue (perhaps in partnership with my colleagues in Sustrans and IMTAC) to find a way forward.


DfI email to Bikefast, 5 July 2017

Network Traffic, Street Lighting and Transportation
Eastern Division

BELFAST CYCLE NETWORK (BCN) SCHEME 4 - HIGH STREET, BELFAST
THE CONTROL OF TRAFFIC (HIGH STREET, BELFAST) ORDER (NORTHERN IRELAND)

Thank you for your email dated 19 June 2017, in relation to Belfast Cycle Network (BCN) Scheme 4 - High Street.

During the design stage of the scheme this crossing point at Castle Place, Belfast was assessed in accordance with the Local Transport Note 1/95 - The Assessment of Pedestrian Crossings. As a result of this, the Department would be of the opinion that the use of PCats (Pedestrian Countdown at Traffic Signals) or a Puffin crossing would be the most appropriate means of control, safety and balances the needs of pedestrians / cyclists and motorists / public transport.

In relation to your meeting request, the Department would be willing to have a meeting with you to discuss your objection to the scheme and a suitable date / time can be arranged.

Regardless, I would be grateful if you could reply in writing to us at the address above by 26 July 2017, to confirm if you are prepared to withdraw your objection.

I trust that this information is helpful and I look forward to your reply.


*It could also very possibly be the crossing at the Europa Hotel on Great Victoria Street, but let's not split hairs 😛

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