In the third of four articles on the Department for Infrastructure’s (DfI) review of the Alfred Street cycleway, we tackle an unexpected development. In the middle of a review of cycleway deployment and operation, DfI’s Eastern Division announced to Belfast City Council a new cycleway scheme on Hamilton Street, which links directly with Alfred Street.
Bikefast asks if it’s prudent to be creating new cycleways during the review (if it’s being taken seriously) and whether this is another counter-productive sticking plaster in place of a strategic active travel intervention.
Where is Hamilton Street and why is this important?
Whereas the Alfred Street cycleway provides a quality north-south route for cycling, Hamilton Street is one of the main active travel entry points to the city core from the east.
Heavy pedestrian footfall makes its way between the Linen Quarter’s many offices and Lanyon Place Station for onward rail travel, as well as Belfast’s new Rapid Transit “Glider” service.
Some really poor painted cycling infrastructure provides little incentive above being a direct link between workplaces and the twin bus lanes of East Bridge Street.
From a cycling point of view it’s an important first / last section of city centre journeys through what should be calm streets.
And yet it’s also a key car commuting corridor – and shouldn’t be. The reasons why it is are understandable. DfI planners have actively tried to reduce traffic on the parallel May Street and succeeded – both in terms of absolute numbers and in changed perceptions. But heavy traffic persists.
Part of this is explained by geography, observation and psychology – there’s a mile long line of sight all the way from the Albert Bridge to the iconic Europa Hotel, with Hamilton Street / Franklin Street looking like a main city boulevard.
But the real problem lies with the generous access maintained by DfI to make that cut through possible, even preferable, by car.
Hamilton Street’s traffic problem
Hamilton Street has suffered from heavy traffic over the years because it’s an entry into the Linen Quarter, which short circuits the city centre ‘main’ road system.
There is a swirling mix of through traffic avoiding the strategic one-way system, a constant influx of cars circulating in search of prime on-street parking spaces (many for shopping elsewhere in the city centre than for business in the Linen Quarter) alongside the vehicles which have a need to be here – private car parkers, commercial and municipal vehicles, taxis and residents.
The Belfast on the Move (BotM) project (2010-2013) reworked the city centre road system to reduce general traffic capacity by creating wide bus lanes to support the roll out of Glider which launched in September 2018. The headline results were impressive:
“There are around 11,000 fewer vehicles in the core city centre streets each day, which is a reduction of around 16% since 2010. Morning peak traffic flow levels have reduced by around 32 % in the city centre. Traffic levels on Westlink have increased by about 6,000 vehicles per day indicating that some city centre ‘through traffic’ has re-routed to more strategic roads. A number of residential areas have experienced a reduction in traffic levels.”
Belfast on the Move Post Implementation Impact Study (2014)
While this was successful in reducing car journeys across the city centre, Linen Quarter permeability remained largely unaddressed. The area felt abandoned by DfI to the smart driver willing to rat run around the designated routes of May Street and Ormeau Avenue which were now prone to congestion, and perceived as slower options. In fact, there is a ridiculous situation where May Street is limited to 20mph while the parallel residential Hamilton Street has a higher 30mph limit.
Monitoring of traffic took place during the BotM project for both May Street (a main one-way artery into the city core) and the parallel Hamilton Street to gauge any displacement, and these granular results seemed encouraging.
Comparisons of the 2013 and 2011 traffic flow data indicate that:
Average changes in traffic flows entering the city centre core area over a 24 hour period;
From the east via May Street – reduced by 21% (2,650 vehicles)
Average changes to traffic flows through residential areas over a 24 hour period;
Hamilton Street – reduced by 24% (1,300 vehicles)
Belfast on the Move Post Implementation Impact Study (2014)
Little evidence of direct displacement, and a 24% reduction – great, right? Look beyond the headline and you see the thorny problem which didn’t materially change during BotM – residential Hamilton Street carries around 40% of the traffic of the ‘strategic’ May Street, before and after BotM changes.
That was five years ago but what is the situation today? We have little more than anecdote to go on given the expected timescale of this cycleway plan.
This 30 minute time-lapse looking east from Franklin Street along Hamilton Street during an evening rush hour in December 2018 gives a little taste of how congested these streets can become, and how demand isn’t being managed by DfI.
Any reasonable consultation on changing traffic priorities on Hamilton Street would need a traffic analysis to compare with 2011 and 2013 levels, and to make that information available to the public. Will we see that data, and have a chance to comment on it?
What is driving this cycleway scheme?
Belfast is a small place and social media allows us to keep a good ear to the ground for problems with cycling in the city. Hamilton Street would barely register in terms of open public concern. Coupled with two years of (official) silence from DfI on the Alfred Street cycleway problems, let alone expansion, the Hamilton Street scheme came out of the blue.
But there’s maybe a clue in that Belfast City Council report – it’s marked as *Additional to programme. Hamilton Street wasn’t planned at the start of the year – it’s not in the equivalent Spring Report presented to Council in June 2018 (PDF, 1.45MB).
So it’s been thrown into the mix during this financial year, which means it’s likely to have originated off the back of the 2018-19 in-year monitoring round – unused and reallocated funds from other government departments.
So what – does it really matter where the money comes from?
The Department’s philosophy since the original Northern Ireland Cycling Strategy (2000) has been budget-driven delivery of strategy – feeding off scraps and finding somewhere to use them.
This was supposed to change with the introduction of Dfi’s Walking and Cycling Unit in 2013 and the (slow) progress to putting strategies in place from which to mainline a dedicated year-on-year budget for cycling infrastructure schemes.
Now it seems Hamilton Street is just the latest example of crumbs brushed from the top table.
To make cycling work in our transport planning we need a strategy-driven budget to make long-term planning possible – and enough of being grateful for scraps.
That timeline is also concerning – 2018/19 Programme of Works may mean the funding is set against this financial year only i.e. if the project isn’t underway by the end of March, the money may disappear back into the next monitoring mix.
If a cycling scheme on Hamilton Street (or anywhere else) is worth doing – and worth doing right – it shouldn’t need this additional time pressure.
Damn the scraps.
Hamilton Street and Joy Street are lined with splendid three storey Georgian terraces, an oasis of character in a sea of identikit office buildings, apartment blocks and loading yards.
If DfI intend to create a protected cycleway along this street, their default approach is to use separation wands – as seen on Alfred Street.
They’re great as a high profile intervention – you’d have to be woefully bad driver not to notice that something is different about this street and extra caution is required. In themselves, as a design which conveys a message, they look half decent.
As a street feature in a tight repeating pattern, they become somewhat cartoonish, and bring the overall look of the street down. This is true of Alfred Street, College Square East, Durham Street, Queen Street and Ann Street.
On Hamilton Street, outside these Georgian terraces, they’ll wreck the streetscape. Which leads on to another pressing concern.
Where is the public consultation?
The openness to early consultation has been a strength of DfI’s Walking and Cycling Unit, despite sometimes not delivering on what’s been agreed. To lose that for the sake of time and budgetary pressures would be a massive step in the wrong direction – are DfI consulting anyone on this scheme?
This is important not just for aesthetics but also the wider issues with the Linen Quarter’s traffic levels, rat running, commuter parking, lack of residents’ parking schemes, and balancing the needs of residents’ access versus everyone else.
“The demand for on-street spaces in the south core area (which includes the likes of the Linen Quarter, Donegall Pass and Sandy Row) is double that of other core areas. This is considered to be due to the majority of city centre offices being located in this area and limited parking regime implementation.
“There are some areas within the Controlled Parking Zone such as The Markets, Sandy Row etc where the level of driveway parking provision is not generally commensurate with car ownership levels in these areas. The lack of an on-street regime encourages commuters to park in these predominantly residential areas.”
Belfast Parking Strategy and Action Plan (2016)
Commuters avoiding the regulated on-street parking system (currently £1.20 an hour, with 2-4 hour time limits) are a plague on local residents of the Market Community. Cars get abandoned throughout the day outside properties causing access issues. The surrounding streets are littered with traffic cones as residents try to keep their streets from drowning in cheapskate car commuters.
That might sound like throwing difficult issues in the way of just getting on with a simple cycling scheme, but think through the practical implications of a putting a DfI-style cycleway on Hamilton Street.
Repeating the mistakes of cycleway-driven traffic management
The cycleway will have to be protected, because that’s the minimum standard expected of new cycling schemes delivered by DfI where heavy traffic exists. And there simply isn’t the space to fit on-street residents parking, two traffic lanes and a cycleway along Hamilton Street.
So I strongly suspect DfI will use this scheme to make Hamilton Street one-way, either stopping in the influx of traffic from the east by removing the slip turn at Cromac Street, or ending the nightly escape queues heading to East Bridge Street. Again – good, right?
One issue here is that it’s just the latest trend in this area of DfI making traffic management decisions with cycling infrastructure as the fixed starting point, and problems piling up for residents as a result.
Take for example how a cycle priority junction on adjacent Joy Street (issue covered in detail by the excellent NI Roads website) was used as way to stop vehicles turning in from May Street – with predictable results.
“The problems began 18 months ago when a cycle lane was added and the existing signs were changed. [A resident] said that for 18 months she had been banging her head off the various brick walls of officialdom.”
Do those timescales and indifference to problems sound familiar, Alfred Street users?
If the access between Hamilton Street and Cromac Square is to be reduced to one-way, I’d politely suggest that halving access for local residents for the primary benefit of bicycle commuters isn’t smart, practically or politically. This is especially true if the issue of rampant commuter parking isn’t going to be addressed first – through prioritising, agreeing and rolling out a residents’ parking scheme.
The Department is getting ahead of itself with a plan which doesn’t fit in with a wider strategy, and worse, will rule out better interventions which do align with published strategies, international best practice and the momentum of traffic-free city centres.
Neither one-way option will address the parking problem, but both would be a major change in the overall balance of traffic in the southern part of Belfast city centre. But what’s the overall goal?
Is there an underlying strategy and methodology behind a Hamilton Street cycleway?
Traffic is a blight on Hamilton Street and this cycleway scheme might result in half of it evaporating instantly. What’s not to like?
Let’s refer back to the Alfred Street cycleway, where the main drawback has been and continues to be traffic. Not necessarily that there’s too much of it, but more that DfI has never been willing to ask if it needs to be on these streets at all.
While our last article on the Alfred Street cycleway review concentrated on fixing the broken design, it avoids the same question DfI has been avoiding for years now – instead of fixing how the area works, are these cycleways actually enabling traffic to continue to dominate these streets?
From a Dutch sustainable safety perspective Alfred Street is a mess – functionally it acts as both a distributor road and an access road. Hamilton Street is exactly the same.
What should be a quiet access-only street ends up with a bubbling stew of mass and speed (pedestrians, cyclists, cars, vans, large lorries, impatient taxis, fast rat runners). The cycleway itself is a piece of road design unique to this city quarter, and almost all of Belfast, which most drivers won’t recognise and have difficulty navigating its unpredictability.
If it was in the premiere cycling nation, Alfred Street wouldn’t have a cycleway. And we wouldn’t be extending that cycleway into the adjacent Hamilton Street.
So the question is, why does DfI think it knows better than the Netherlands in terms of cycle route deployment?
Bikefast raised this same exact point in the series looking at the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan (which remains in draft), that there is no underpinning methodology to cycling route development. There is no attempt to apply a form of sustainable safety principles when deciding how streets should be designed. Cycleways are commissioned without even asking if cycling infrastructure needs to be deployed, or whether traffic removal and route unravelling can achieve better outcomes for everyone.
This remains one of the fundamental problems with cycling route development here, the kind of self-reflection which you’d hope that DfI would see as integral to a review it was taking seriously, before proceeding with any new schemes.
With an ongoing review of cycleway design, implementation and operation, announcing new cycleways is very bad timing. Very simply, DfI needs to halt any new cycleway and cycle route plans until its house is in order. Including Hamilton Street.
Good money after bad isn’t how Belfast needs its cycling network to develop. Protected cycleways on streets which don’t need them isn’t how Belfast needs its cycling network to develop. Continuing to eke out a cycling programme from scraps of budgets when the Programme for Government aims for cycling are failing isn’t how Belfast needs its cycling network to develop.
If the driver for the Hamilton Street project isn’t the urgency of a grab-it-while-you-can budget, then bicycle users around Belfast can provide DfI with a long list of higher priorities to be pursued at this stage – not least bringing the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan itself over the line to allow for route development to be planned years into the future starting from 2019-20.
In our final article on the Alfred Street cycleway review, we look at how common sense, best practice and existing masterplans, coupled with those two qualities seldom found in Clarence Court – bravery and leadership – would direct the best design, methodology and intervention for these streets – without making a single design change to Hamilton Street – and make all of those cycleway wands magically disappear.
The Department is seeking your views on “what improvements can be made to the operation of Alfred Street and Upper Arthur Street in line with the draft Programme for Government”.