Cycling snub at the Transport Hub

You’d hope that a £175M public investment in a Transport Hub to revolutionise city transport would mean a step forward for active travel in Belfast. Instead the big beasts of transport planning have once more prioritised car travel in an urban setting, with the needs of pedestrians and bicycle users and, shockingly, even Belfast Rapid Transit left to play second fiddle.

Translink’s rendering of the impressive terminal building and surrounding developments

Described by Translink as a new gateway for the city, “a 21st century passenger experience designed to provide commuters, visitors and residents with a best in class transport experience“, the impressive new station architecture and integration of services stand in sharp contrast to the external elements – typical, stubbornly mediocre transport planning. The scheme, going through planning consultation on planningni.gov.uk, includes these main elements:

“New integrated transport interchange comprising; station concourse, 26 bus stands, 8 railway platforms, bus maintenance and parking, track and signalling enhancements, bus access bridge, cycle and taxi provision, car parking, new public square, public realm improvements, highway improvements, infrastructure improvements.”

The Hub project was launched in 2014 by former Transport Minister Danny Kennedy, labelled as a “green urban gateway”. This right-on if ultimately meaningless phrase was echoed by Lead Architect Hiro Aso, who spoke highly of the design team including Arup and John McAslan and Partners:

“The team we’ve assembled will bring innovative, fresh thinking to the complexities of Belfast’s transportation challenges.”

A scheme being driven and funded by the government-owned company Translink, with the final decision on planning permission lying with the Department for Infrastructure (DfI, who do the government-owning bit), should have some revolutionary cycling infrastructure and facilities at its heart.

Except this is Belfast, where transport planners have got away with serving up crap for so long, they’ve no incentive to change. The “innovative, fresh thinking” on how to incorporate the bicycle into the newly re-branded “Weaver’s Cross” area stinks of reheated slop from 1990s.

The scheme boundaries include a whopping 1.5km of surrounding streets and 1km of new internal streets. Portions of Grosvenor Road, Howard Street, College Square East, Great Victoria Street, Glengall Street, Durham Street and Hope Street are all being altered significantly to address traffic impact of the new Hub. For every mode of transport except the bicycle.

So how do those promised “measures that will provide enhanced access to the proposed development by sustainable modes of transport” actually manifest on the scheme maps?


No Transport Hub Greenway

The Bikefast idea to carve out a southern approach urban greenway isn’t happening.

“An opportunity exists to provide a segregated cycleway to connect the hub site to the southwest, utilising the path from the corner of Donegall Road and Roden Street.

This would formalise an existing desire line for cyclists, providing enhance safety measures for both bus and cycle movements along the bus way, connecting into the proposed Belfast Bicycle Network. As shown in figure 1.63, there are a number of proposed shared surface areas on the surrounding highway infrastructure, where pedestrian and cyclist can both utilise the footway space.”
Design And Access Statement June 2017

A “segregated cycleway” sounds great, until you pick your way into the specifics and see there’s nothing of the sort. There is an access proposed from existing pathways in Blythfield Park which links with… the Transport Hub busway. Yes, back to cycling on a road.

Drawing 97 – BMX Park Proposed Development, showing access to the busway

Commuters, shoppers, kids and families will be expected to share the road within the bounds of the Transport Hub site instead of enjoying dedicated space for cycling.

People in Belfast very clearly see space shared with buses as the worst option for cycling (other than with general traffic) – and this will be Belfast’s busiest set of bus lanes, with hundreds of movements each day.

Bike Life Belfast 2015 survey (Sustrans / DFI)

So there will be no Transport Hub Greenway, as laid out in the Restitching Belfast series, and highlighted to the ARUP design team in an unacknowledged email in July 2016.

Option for a dedicated greenway path safely moving through the Transport Hub site

Instead of planning in a greenway path, cycling and walking access is an afterthought. There’s space galore for car parking and even lines of trees within the operational boundaries of the Hub – just not for high-quality safe space for cycling.

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide a dedicated safe cycling link through the site from the Donegall Road – opening up a 2.5km safe “quietway” cycle and pedestrian route along the congested Lisburn Road corridor – disappears as active travel is left once more to squeeze in around vehicle priority and lazy planning.


No cycle hub

Actually the term “cycle hub” is sprinkled throughout the planning documents.

It’s the first case of misappropriation of the language of good cycling provision to mask poor cycle provision.

Here’s our summary of what a cycle hub at a major transport interchange means to the rest of the world:

An indoor area providing secure bicycle parking for large numbers of customers; a 24 hour staffed facility providing security for users in the evening and bicycle maintenance services by day; paid parking services on a daily / weekly / monthly / annual rate basis; secure changing, showering and locker facilities can be incorporated.

Read more here for an idea of how they do cycle hubs at railway stations in The Netherlands.

Here’s what the Translink plan delivers for Belfast Transport Hub.

“Up to 100 cycle parking spaces.”

But this “represents a significant upgrade in comparison to current provision” so shut up and be grateful.

The cycle parking facilities will be adjacent to the main entrance of the hub and the Station Square, but details are sketchy.

Belfast Transport Hub Design and Access Statement June 2017

Indeed, over different planning documents the cycle parking is shown in different locations (one version being opposite the number 7 in the above diagram) while additional cycle stands appear in the surrounding streets – most appearing to be outdoor, uncovered and one suspects very insecure.

This was Belfast’s big chance to leverage major public investment to deliver a huge step forward for that end-of-journey worry – bicycle security. A major cycle hub at such a prime and central location would have attracted users from across the city, and not necessarily public transport users.

That last point is none of Translink’s business you might say, but it’s certainly DfI’s business and part of that joined-up government approach everyone likes to talk about but never bothers to do anything with, even faced with this open goal.

Translink have been rightly lauded for rolling out improved secure bicycle parking at stations around their network, but your flagship Transport Hub – expected to serve millions of passengers annually – requires a flagship facility by some orders of magnitude more impressive.

There’s also a first indication of warped priorities based on Belfast’s car sickness – the Transport Hub will have over 200 car park spaces for staff and customers. Major office and residential developments in Belfast – private sector no less – are being built with parking for bicycles outnumbering vehicles.

The car parking level in itself might be fair – being set at over double the bicycle parking is plain wrong.

Two public bodies charged with getting people out of their cars should not be treating cycle parking as a tick-box tack-on.

But don’t bet on DfI coming to the rescue here:

“The quantum and location of cycle and car parking has been discussed and agreed with Transport NI during the Pre-Application Discussion process.”
Belfast Transport Hub Sustainability Statement June 2017

Transport NI are an executive agency of DfI. Ah well.


No space for cycling

“[Cycle parking at the Transport Hub] will be well linked with the surrounding cycle network and the existing cycle route facilities on Glengall Street, Grosvenor Road and Great Victoria Street being maintained. Additionally, a shared footway/cycleway is proposed on the eastern side of the A12 Westlink, along the outskirts of the site, in the vicinity of the bus way. Provision of additional bus lane infrastructure associated with development of the Hub will assist permeability for cyclists.”
Belfast Transport Hub Travel Plan June 2017

There are no protected cycleways on this plan, new or existing. Incredibly, the scheme actually reduces the dedicated cycling space in the city, removing (albeit crap and unloved) facilities on Glengall Street and Great Victoria Street.

This is despite a protected lane leading into the scheme footprint on the far side of Durham Street, something a progressive city would seize upon to expand and upgrade.

Durham Street cycleway (as seen from Boyne Bridge on Transport Hub site)

Even the “shared footway/cycleway is proposed on the eastern side of the A12 Westlink” (which would be awful in real life) is a confused proposal – it appears here:

Belfast Transport Hub Travel Plan June 2017

But then magically disappears from the main scheme illustration:

Belfast Transport Hub Design and Access Statement June 2017

And then reappears elsewhere – like the cycle parking, its nearly impossible to get a handle on what’s actually planned. Handy, should space become an issue later.

With a strong, independent body retaining the final say over the planning application, you might expect it would be pulled up here:

“Planning permission will only be granted for development .. where the needs of cyclists are taken into account. Where appropriate provision of the following may be required:
(a) safe and convenient cycle access;
(b) safe, convenient and secure cycle parking having regard to the Department’s published standards; and
(c) safe and convenient cycle links to existing or programmed cycle networks where they adjoin the development site.”
Planning Policy Statement 3: Access, Movement and Parking

Bikefast maintains the plans for the Transport Hub should fail each one of these tests, with particular emphasis on the last point. Will DfI agree? Or have they already been consulted on, and agree to, the surrounding street layout?

The street space being redesigned and reprioritised as part of the plan is extensive – and not one inch of new dedicated cycleway being considered.

Belfast Transport Hub Environmental Statement June 2017

The external street plan and changes to accommodate the Transport Hub again represent a unique opportunity to weave in the kind of dense, protected cycling network which will encourage people who don’t cycle now to consider shifting modes.

So what is the use of a Bicycle Strategy, a Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, even the DfI Cycling Unit itself, if the more important people within the Department can simply ignore them?

We’re left with the classic Catch-22 situation which cycling campaigners know only too well, and which serves transport planners who see the bicycle as an inconvenience to their big ticket plans:

Can we have a cycleway to support journeys on this existing road?
“Sorry it’s too costly and disruptive and space is at a premium – if only we could have planned it in from the start.”

Can we have a cycleway on this blank slate plan?
“Sorry, space is at a premium and the demand doesn’t justify it – but don’t worry, we can always retro-fit it in the future.”

Or to use a more parochial phrase, never, never, never, never…


Advanced Cycleway Stop Lines

There are 19 advanced stop lines (ASL) in the plan, spreading like a rash.

Amended from Drawing 75 – Site Plan Internal and External Road Layout

ASLs are the little green boxes which road engineers put at junctions to mock cyclists at the lack of safe cycling infrastructure provision.

The ASL was erased from the Draft Belfast Bicycle Nework Plan through lobbying by Bikefast and others. But here we are anyway.

Note the insidious appropriation of the language of safe cycling infrastructure, with the ASL now designated as the “Advanced Cycleway Stop Line”.

Drawing 75 – Site Plan Internal and External Road Layout

There are no cycleways in the plan. You didn’t put any “cycleways” onto your maps, so you don’t get to use that term.

Of the 19 ASLs, just one has a cycle lane which leads into it, at least allowing some sense of safe access past traffic. A painted cycle lane. Which exists today on the Grosvenor Road. Like 14 of these 19 ASLs do too.

This is all progress, apparently.

ASL infestation (Drawing 75 – Site Plan Internal and External Road Layout)

And… that’s it for street side cycling facilities.

We’re not joking, even if Translink and their “innovative” team seem to be.


The tyranny of shared space

“It is proposed that Glengall Street will offer cycle connectivity to the city centre, enabling segregation for cyclists from city centre vehicle traffic. The proposals offer connectivity from all directions, with the permeable site layout offering an enhanced sense of place and segregation for the cyclist.”
Belfast Transport Hub Design and Access Statement June 2017

There it is – there’s your “innovative, fresh thinking”. A city which is planning a reasonable network of separated cycleways and a sizeable increase in bicycle usage is planning to lump bicycles and pedestrians on the same footways. In some of the busiest streets in the city.

Glengall Street cross section (Design and Access Statement June 2017)

“The street will have vehicular use limited to taxis, use as drop off and for deliveries.”
Design and Access Statement June 2017

Cutting through the bull, that means not limited at all. Through access for vehicles will be unrestricted and Glengall Street will act as a vehicle trip generator, purely to accommodate a new city centre pick up / drop off zone.

Current cycle lane on Glengall Street, looking towards the new “super crossing”

Glengall Street should be stopped up entirely to through traffic, with limited access for logistics, servicing and emergency vehicles. But not in car sick Belfast.

“Pavement cycling” is probably the number one complaint relating to cycling in Belfast these days – and here’s a publicly funded and government approved area scheme actively planning this crap in. This mind-bendingly stupid arrangement is being pushed as a positive aspect, the major active travel benefit of the plan.

Cycling groups don’t want this type of shared space and neither do those representing people with mobility and visual impairments.

No-one seems to have thought about the real world consequences of funnelling bicycle traffic down a shared pavement towards a super crossing at Great Victoria Street.

Where pavement cycling will be funnelled (Drawing 75, with amends)

Once over that crossing, to access the city centre it’s either left to Howard Street or right to Amelia Street, on the footway. This footway:

The new cycle route

The Great Victoria Street pavement, cluttered with street furniture and café street extensions, won’t be widened, because (wait for it) vehicle parking.

The new cycle route – those parking bays will remain in the revised road layout

If the best you can offer for active travel is tight, busy, shared pavements, you’re going out of your way to suppress everyday cycling at the expense of pedestrian safety – and don’t dare try to claim you’re promoting active travel.

And it gets worse..


Car travel prioritised over everyone

What’s at the heart of all of this? Is it just plain ignorance of best practice in providing high-quality cycling and pedestrian links within an urban context?

One thing that shines out from the plans is an almost obsessive need to retain, and expand and improve where possible, space for vehicle travel.

On Durham Street, car drop-off zones and taxi ranks on both sides of the street veto the possibility of a continuous cycleway in front of Station Square.

Durham Street at Station Square (Drawing 75)

On Great Victoria Street, the belt is loosened on traffic at all the key points – before and after junctions – to load up vehicles and artificially reduce the effects of congestion. It also reduces bus priority and reliability and again eliminates the possibility of cycling-protected junctions.

Belt loosened at the key junction to load up car traffic (Drawing 75)

Why is there a left turn from Great Victoria Street into Grosvenor Road? With a one-way street behind it, it only serves to let traffic from the Europa Hotel and Glengall Street access the Westlink. Vehicles can access it earlier via Hope Street or later via Divis Street. Again, priority for vehicle journeys over the possibility of cycle routing or better junction protection.

Great Victoria Street, over-engineered and under-humanised (Drawing 75)

The bare-faced cheek of it all is best shown up on Howard Street. Despite this street corridor – running 2km from the BT Tower to the Royal Victoria Hospital – maintaining two vehicles lanes along its entire length (save for the Westlink on-slip) planners have insisted upon maintaining three vehicle lanes at this junction.

Howard Street – pedestrians space stolen for vehicle traffic (Drawing 75)

With a new dedicated Bus Rapid Transit bus lane to fit in, space is squeezed. The lazy simple solution? Take away up to three metres of footway. The photo below, but with one more vehicle lane cutting into the pavement.

Howard Street pavement about to be squeezed

Vehicle travel must be prioritised at all costs – this is the major lesson. Cycling space and pedestrian space be damned. You give the impression in your marketing of the opposite being the case – and you expect to get away with it, because who really looks at the street maps and the thinking behind them?

This is all par for course when it comes to pedestrians and cyclists – the usual thinking. But surely no-one will compromise on city bus service priority and integration?


Belfast Rapid Transit

Remember when Dublin built their port tunnel to divert freight traffic off city streets, but built it too low to accommodate all freight traffic?

A key rule of major project management is avoid embarrassing mistakes. Like Belfast is about to do here.

We’re developing a £175m Transport Hub promising a “best in class transport experience”.

We’re developing a £90m Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system creating “a new and dynamic public transport system for Belfast”.

Being managed respectively by, and in partnership with, Translink and DfI, we’re going to bring these two massive projects together, aren’t we? It says so here:

“Combining bus and rail termini with interfaces to private car, taxi, bus and cycle modes, The Hub will also connect into the proposed Belfast Rapid Transit network.”
Belfast Transport Hub Design and Access Statement June 2017

No. No, it won’t.

The two will not be integrated. Despite being on either side of a single city block, we’re planning each to sit in perfect isolation.

Observe the rotting heart of how we “plan” transport in this country.

“It should also be noted that in consultation with the Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) design team, they have stressed that the proposed BRT routes will not be incorporated into the Transport Hub development or the immediate vicinity of the Transport Hub site.”
Belfast Transport Hub Environmental Statement June 2017

Or, if you wanted a funnier summary:

As a modern, multi-modal, transport interchange, the Proposed Development will ensure the right infrastructure is in place to attract more people to use public transport and active travel modes by combining bus and rail termini with interfaces to private car, taxi, bus and cycle modes whilst acknowledging Metro bus and the Belfast Rapid Transit.
Belfast Transport Hub Sustainability Statement June 2017

Instead of Rapid Transit pulling up at the front door of the Hub, a passenger from Dublin with mobility issues will have BRT stops 379m away (for the Falls Road) or 540m away (for Titanic or East Belfast).

Belfast Transport Hub Design and Access Statement June 2017

Nor (as an aside) will Hub passengers find it easy to jump on any city bus service:

“Translink do not intend to integrate the existing Belfast Metro bus services directly into the Belfast Transport Hub development, and these services will remain unaltered from their existing routings around Belfast City Hall.”
Belfast Transport Hub Environmental Statement June 2017

With the footprint of the streets within the scope, they (Translink, DfI) could have routed fully-dedicated and prioritised busways around an anti clockwise Grosvenor-Durham-Gt Vic loop to put BRT at the Hub front door.

How to simply integrate Bus Rapid Transit into the Transport Hub

But they baulked, and presumably it goes back to the previous point – the impact upon the common motorist would be too great. Despite having every means at their disposal to make it happen if they wanted to.

The Department had some real backbone when Belfast on the Move caused media controversy over reduced vehicle priority in Belfast. But clearly those wounds have not healed, the wrong lessons were learned and the stomach for the fight has evaporated.

The aim of this whole development is to resurrect the importance of this site to city transport.

Looking back over a hundred years, the “express passenger traffic to and from Dublin Connolly station was always Great Victoria Street’s most prestigious traffic.” And Belfast’s tram network ran right outside Great Victoria Street for almost 50 years.

It’s amazing that what Belfast could get so right a century ago, can be so recklessly dismissed in 2017. Sorry, not dismissed, “acknowledged”…


Summary

This is an angry post. That anger stems from having to fight battles which had apparently already been won, but we’re clearly destined to repeat ad nauseam.

DfI have a Bicycle Strategy and a Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan. There is a Cycling Unit within DfI working on fine policies which their peers appear to treat with contempt – and more, are allowed to demonstrate that contempt publicly in a major transport investment plan.

Not once is the Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland referenced in the key planning documents. It’s missing from the policy context sections in the:

  • Sustainability Statement June 2017
  • Planning Statement June 2017
  • Design And Access Statement June 2017
  • Environmental Statement (Transport) June 2017
  • Travel Plan June 2017

What is the Bicycle Strategy good for within DfI? An oversized coaster? A door stop? Something to prop under a wobbling table?

The galling part of this is that problems are understood, and are laid out in black and white in the Hub plans:

“Cycling in Belfast is currently more difficult than walking, in terms of uninterrupted dedicated routes. The current facilities often come to an end without warning, requiring frequent stopping for cycles, and can vary significantly in style, colour and signage.”
Environmental Statement (Transport) June 2017

Translink, DfI and their consultants had a chance to do something about this. Instead, they embraced the safety of status quo.

That mediocrity is shameful.

No doubt Translink and DfI can turn around and demonstrate how all of the cycling elements meet policy and design requirements. Adhering to Transport Assessments, Planning Policy Statements, Area Plans, Transport Strategies and the rest are not a guarantee of quality, and certainly shouldn’t be used to sweep away criticism. Instead, they set standards which you are allowed to build upon and exceed, if you can be bothered.

Instead the Transport Hub Plans offer the absolute bare minimum for cycling, the path of least resistance. Austerity of imagination, austerity of vision, austerity of wit. And then you market it as a step forward for cycling, shilling your mediocrity as “measures that will provide enhanced access to the proposed development by sustainable modes of transport”.

That statement is demonstrably nonsense. Belfast deserves better.

Keeping BRT separate from the Transport Hub is a massive fail. Letting the reconfiguration of an entire city quarter slip by with no rolling out of safe cycling infrastructure is a massive fail. Enabling at least the existing volume of vehicle traffic to circulate this area, and by design or error inviting even more, is a massive fail.

This is an angry post because the final decision on the planning application will be decided by DfI who, according to the planning documents, have already had significant input into some of the worst aspects of the plan – leaving a gaping hole of accountability on poor planning.

This is an angry post because these plans won’t alter without honest self-reflection within DfI, and cutting the crap when it comes to cycling. And I just don’t think that’s possible anymore.


Planning images sourced from planningni.gov.uk and re-used under the terms of the Open Government Licence 2.0.

Please note: direct links to planning documents are not available – to view the Transport Hub documents please visit planningni.gov.uk and search for ref: LA04/2017/1388/F. You can also comment on the application and raise an objection.

One Reply to “Cycling snub at the Transport Hub”

  1. I suspect the anger is a manifestation of a mix of frustration, incredulity and despair. I know how that feels as some simple name changes would make this a post about Adelaide in South Australia and the numbnuts doing exactly the same here.

    My only nitpick is the summary awarded rating of “mediocre”, which a dictionary defines as “of average quality or not very good”. From my experience the dullard engineers and planners responsible pathetic plans such as this is will take “mediocre” as a pass mark and not a fail.

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