Four wheeled circus – the Clifton Gateway scheme

Analysis

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“With Government commitment to the delivery of PfG [Programme for Government] targets to increase more walking, cycling and public transport journeys the provision for the different journey modes needs rebalanced.

“Although the current [Clifton Gateway] proposal will ensure that the walking surface is good and slightly more pleasant with street trees, there appears to be no improvement for cycling, nor a marked incentive to reduce the reliance of cars.”
Department for Infrastructure Cycling Unit, September 2018

In January 2019 the Department for Communities (DfC) launched a consultation on “design proposals for a potential public realm improvements known as the Clifton Gateway Project. It follows the route of Donegall Street beginning at its junction with York Street, continuing along Clifton Street to the Crumlin Road and ending at the Agnes Street junction.”

This corridor is one of the major access points between Belfast city centre and the north of the city, two areas disconnected and blighted by the Westlink multi-lane urban highway. It contains one mammoth roundabout – so big there are parking spaces on it – and a huge interchange with Belfast’s inner ring road.

The record of DfC (and its predecessor Departments) on incorporating viable and high quality cycling routes into public realm schemes isn’t just patchy, it’s virtually non-existent. For example:

Carlisle Circus at the heart of the Clifton Gateway scheme. with parking bays on the roundabout

With partnership working between DfC, consultants and the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) in this new era of silo-less Programme for Government shared objectives, would this project – with Carlisle Circus at its heart, through which funnels a high proportion of North Belfast traffic – be any different?

Bikefast looks at the plans, with the help of all project documents which lay out the “discussions and decisions to include (or not) design considerations for cycling” obtained through information requests from DfC and DfI.

Clifton Gateway scheme background and aims

Objective: “to strengthen the cycling/walking connections between the City Centre and the major, DfC-owned, Girdwood Park site and encourage further development on the site.”
Objective 2 in the Clifton Gateway Strategic Outline Case Design Development, dropped for the MAG review and the public consultation documents

The Clifton Gateway project has been floating around since 2011, stymied by funding and priorities focused elsewhere.

In June 2017 the Department for Communities (DfC) appointed AECOM as a landscape design led multi-disciplinary team to design this £5 million public realm improvement scheme.

The project’s Strategic Outline Case Design Development document made clear that improving the realities on the ground for cycling was central to the scheme:

“In 2015 Belfast City Council produced the Belfast City Centre Regeneration & Investment Strategy (BCCRIS). It identified the following core principles for the regeneration of Belfast city centre and surrounding areas:

  • Create a green, walkable, cycleable centre
  • Connect to the city around

The objectives for the project are:

  • to address the severance between the communities in the Crumlin/Ardoyne and in the Inner North Neighbourhood Renewal Areas (NRA) and city centre
  • to strengthen the cycling/walking connections between the City Centre and the major, DfC-owned, Girdwood Park site and encourage further development on the site
  • to design and deliver the infrastructure necessary to accommodate future sustainable transport (e.g. quality bus corridor, Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT)) requirements within the project area
  • to design and deliver the infrastructure necessary to accommodate the Belfast Cycle Network Programme”
    Clifton Gateway Strategic Outline Case Design Development

This would address the total lack of safe cycling provision and route options across the site at present.

The only current cycle lane within the project area, constantly blocked by parked cars

Currently the only cycling space is a painted “advisory” cycle lane going westbound only up the Crumlin Road from Carlisle Circus. Although a DfI engineer noted in a preliminary project meeting in September 2017 that “advisory cycle lanes are in place which double as parking bays during off peak time”, this is a generous assessment – no urban clearway signs (as of May 2018) means a constant parking free-for-all opposite the Mater Hospital, and an utterly useless cycle route.

Knowing this from the early stages, knowing the Programme for Government targets, knowing the fractured nature of the area providing a hostile environment for active travel, what would DfC’s solutions be? 

What Clifton Gateway delivers for cycling

“[It is] noted that full segregation for cyclists not proposed. Schemes such as Durham Street / Alfred Street / College Square North represent the aspirations that daily cyclists within the city desire.”
Department for Infrastructure Traffic Management, September 2018

The brutal truth is, the Clifton Gateway plans deliver nothing for cycling. Based on the plans being consulted on, what you see today is what you’ll see at project completion.

Here’s a handy visual guide:

So we’re left with nothing to evaluate and dissect other than another massive failure by a local government department to do its job and design for cycling.

Advisory cycle lanes are the worst type of cycling intervention, effectively sharing the carriageway with vehicles, legitimising otherwise lethally close passes, and typically with no enforcement possible to prevent rampant parking – rendering them useless. And that’s the case here, with high demand for parking outside the Mater Hospital putting the cycle lane almost permanently out of action.

Despite that quoted reference in September 2017, no further discussion appears to have taken place on the impact this has on people cycling, or plans to address it through this project either by design, enforcement, or partnership working with the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust.

There is no usable cycle route now which fulfils the aims of the Programme for Government, and DfC’s Clifton Gateway plans aim no higher than the status quo of failure.

Worse still, the old habits of trying to squeeze cycling into sub-optimal areas surfaced again and again in project discussions, including shared space and DfI’s default method of encouraging cycling among all ages – sharing space with buses like our rapid transit Glider:

“DfI were looking at options in [Donegall Street] recently. A shared footway was an option they would like to develop.”

“Discussion took place on provision of a shared cycleway / pedestrian route along Clifton Street. Noted if dedicated bus lane then this can also be utilised by cyclists and footway is kept free for pedestrians.”
CGPR meeting 28 September 2018

These defaults are the comfort blanket which engineers and consultants turn to when faced with having to do something seen as too radical for Belfast  – dedicated and protected cycle routes, which even DfI recognise are the only thing capable of breathing life into cycling levels among all ages and all sections of society.

They’re no longer acceptable, they’re no longer fit for purpose, and their continued use is a sign of lazy, disinterested thinking.

What went wrong?

“There are a number of options which could improve accessibility for NMUs [non motorised users], but these could have a detrimental effect on the overall capacity for motor vehicles.”
Department for Infrastructure Roads, September 2018

That should be a motto hung over the entrance to the Department for Infrastructure’s HQ.

Reading through two years of Clifton Gateway documents which relate to cycling, some things are clear. Cycling was an afterthought, mentioned but not prioritised. It took almost a year and a half for anyone to even involve the DfI Cycling Unit in the scheme, by which time the outline plans appear to have been set in stone.

The DfI Cycling Unit to their credit made all the right noises – continuous routes, protection, Dutch roundabout, raising cycling levels, wider strategies, Programme for Government targets – but it’s a demonstration of their lack of power and influence within DfI that nothing substantial changed. It appears that DfI’s Glider team and Roads division very much have the final say, perhaps even a veto, over anything to do with spatial requirements for active travel.

The parking bays on the roundabout are even retained. Where do you even start with that decision?

No space for cycling but space for parking cars on a roundabout retained

This appears to be a classic piece of astroturfing cycling into a major urban realm project – make a big play of it in the scheme documents and objectives, keep pointing to that and proudly list it as a win, all of which distracts from the fact that nothing has actually been done.

And even that assessment leads us into strange territory. Remember that original scheme objective mentioned above?

  • to strengthen the cycling/walking connections between the City Centre and the major, DfC-owned, Girdwood Park site and encourage further development on the site

That objective remarkably went missing from the final project plan which went out to consultation. Have a look at the Clifton Gateway Consultation Presentation Drawing – all the others are there, but not that one. It leaves a massive question of why it was dropped and who dropped it?

And another thing..

Ministerial Advisory Group’s cycling blind spot

The final plans were to be checked over by the Ministerial Advisory Group before they went to consultation, who were handed a chance to haul DfC and DfI over the coals for doing nothing about cycling:

“A MAG Review is planned for 10 December 2018. A panel of 4 members will review the project design proposals and provide a report to MO’D. The key issues for consideration proposed are:

  • Pedestrian/ cyclist priority within the project designs including how the design proposals strengthen the cycling/walking connections between the City Centre and communities.
  • Proposals for integration of DfI designs for Carrick Hill junction at Technical Design stage
  • Stakeholder and Community engagement
  • Integration of public art into the latest iteration of the project

The Board agreed with this approach.”
Belfast Streets Ahead Public Realm Project Management Board, November 2018

The group’s observations were on the right track, but didn’t follow through on its logic for cycling – in fact (feigns shock) the entire observation section didn’t even contain the word “cycling”:

“The existing character of the Crumlin Road and Clifton Street is car dominated, as a result of both the high levels of through-traffic and the extensive kerbside parking, with the sense that pedestrians are forced to the edge. The proposals offer the opportunity to challenge and change the area in terms of its perception by motorists and pedestrians. However this will require significant alterations to the public realm so that the priority between cars and pedestrians is rebalanced. The various alterations should be judged against this objective. The speed of vehicles sets a critical parameter for the design of both the highway and pedestrian areas. With this in mind the Panel suggest the Project Team question and challenge the assumption that a 30mph speed limit along the entire length of the site is maintained.”
MAG Clifton Gateway, Belfast – Pre-Planning Briefing Review, December 2018

If the group had spent less time looking at the MAG review document’s impressive 17 page appendix dedicated to public art considerations, and perhaps properly digested the  Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee’s (IMTAC) conclusions on pedestrian considerations – with an emphasis on the needs of disabled people and older people – they might have felt moved to actually comment on the scheme’s failure to “strengthen the cycling/walking connections”:

“Perhaps the biggest barrier to pedestrian journeys are traffic levels in the area.

As part of the development of the scheme it is essential that the agencies involved examine ways to reduce the impact of and actual levels of traffic. One suggestion might be to improve public transport and cycling infrastructure along the routes to encourage more sustainable journeys. Infrastructure to promote cycling should not use shared use pedestrian and cycling facilities and should be accessible to disabled people who use non-standard or adapted cycles.”
Recommendations from Imtac on public realm proposals for the Clifton Gateway in Belfast, October 2018

So the Clifton Gateway project itself was flawed, and even the project control mechanisms were flawed. No wonder cycling doesn’t stand a chance in Belfast.

How to fix the Clifton Gateway

“I realise that unless the whole environment of the road is re-evaluated, there will not be an easy solution.”
Department for Infrastructure Cycling Unit, September 2018

What has become clear is that this process to drive forward the Clifton Gateway is flawed and out of sync. It’s a £5 million scheme which does very little more than put down nice paving, claim significant alterations of side roads where vehicles retain full priority and enjoy the same ludicrously swept turns, and bake in car dominance in a city crying out to be weaned off the habit.

It’s being pushed now when a final decision has yet to be made on whether Glider Phase Two will be routed through Clifton Street, Carlisle Circus and the Antrim Road, or via the Shore Road instead – either option having fundamental implications for the junction capacities, priorities and available space for public realm enhancements.

It’s being pushed now when the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan is still in draft, and worryingly is being used to suit the ends of road development as DfI sees fit, as long as cycling infrastructure can be side-lined. For example, see how no major cycling route plans have been commissioned while the Network Plan awaits ministerial sign-off – and some plans which had been progressing have vanished without a trace, such as High Street. Meanwhile the Plan’s inadequate indicative routes map, which avoided all major arterials, can be used by DfI and DfC to demonstrate that there is no policy requirement to include cycling infrastructure in areas like the Crumlin Road and Antrim Road. Touché.

By finalising the kerb lines and road widths now, placing expensive paving at widths which don’t try to account for dedicated space for cycling now or later, there is no future discussion on cycling routes. It’s a fait accompli.

So the solution is simple. Put the project on hold.

Take time to properly coordinate between Departments, and with outside stakeholders, to create a more holistic project which properly re-balances the scheme towards walking, towards public transport when the needs are known, and towards cycling as part of a wider network.

Specifically the plans should be revised in 5 key ways:

1. Through cycling routes

Get a safe, protected cycle route between the city centre and Crumlin Road as a minimum – no gaps and no use of bus lanes as a shortcut to cover a lack of design imagination and skill. People – especially kids, the elderly and disabled cyclists – should be able to cycle safely from the city side of the inner ring to the Mater Hospital, Girdwood Hub and St. Malachy’s College, and residents in the vicinity of Carlisle Circus and outward should have safe access to the city core.

We should not have to explain these fundamentals on every Belfast public realm and road project.

2. Carlisle Circus

“[The DfI Cycling Unit] suggested approach to roundabout design to incorporate cycle provision and suggested a dutch roundabout approach to be considered in design. [They] noted concern that parking spaces at edge of roundabout create additional risk to cyclists.”
Project meeting, September 2018

Either get on with redesigning a Dutch style protected roundabout, or publicly consult on a new design which scraps the roundabout and proposes a signalised junction which fairly balances the needs of (IN THIS ORDER) disabled users, pedestrians, cyclists, Glider and finally motor vehicles. 

3. Junctions prioritised for sustainable transport

Apart from Carlisle Circus, major junctions exist at the Westlink (at which bus lanes will not protect cyclists) and Carrick Hill. Again, we’ve seen early plans for cycling space at Carrick Hill, but those should have been included in this consultation for the public to have their view. Belfast is falling behind London, Manchester, even Dublin on proposing cycling protected junctions – here is our chance, and it’s being squandered.

4. Humanising Donegall Street

Donegall Street is within the ‘inner ring’ road cordon represented by Carrick Hill. It leads towards a traffic-calmed city centre while through-journeys must be prioritised along the inner ring. It is Bikefast’s understanding that any Glider extension will not be using this route. Something innovative and drastic can be considered to reduce motor traffic on this street and breathe some life into it. Whether this is through dedicated and protected cycling space, or cutting the through road and sharing space, is needs to be fleshed out in plans now, not promised for later so it can be conveniently forgotten.

5. Testing a continuous footway

The project documents make a great play of the “50/50” raised table junctions which have been deployed along the Glider route on the Falls Road, yet the Clifton Gateway scheme is primarily supposed to be a pedestrian-focused project. Looking at 50/50 examples shows highly swept turns and the same vehicle priority and speed which makes crossing intimidating for everyone. Trialling a fully continuous footway across at least one junction – ideally one such as Fleetwood Street which can be radically calmed, cutting a rat run and decimating motor vehicle access demand – can provide an evidence base for any future proposals in DfC-led public realm projects, while addressing and assuaging genuine concerns of some disability groups.

Object now, and force change

The only appropriate response to the Clifton Gateway for anyone interested in public health, increasing active travel, promoting the use of the bicycle over motor vehicles, and a more liveable city, is to officially object to the consultation in its current form.

In discussions with project staff, Bikefast has been made aware that plans do exist to try to rectify some of the failures identified above, by trying to squeeze some cycling space into the junctions and roads, but also (frustratingly) relying on bus lanes as cycling infrastructure. Of course, if there’s no public calls for changes to incorporate cycling, the project owners have no need to change anything.

These ideas should have been weaved into the plans before the public consultation went out. The process appears to be being rushed through for no good reason, and with too many alterations planned in over the course of planning applications, further design work, Glider expansion plans and implementation.

Cycling space has always lost out this way, and will continue to lose out if this is the best approach DfC can come up with.

Halt the project now, take 6 to 12 months to get all of those ducks lined up in a row and go back out to public consultation with a coherent and holistic plan which actually gets people from A to B safely by bicycle.

More information

More reading on the Clifton Gateway plans includes:

The questions which the DfC team would like you answer are:

  • If you support the principle of the proposed Clifton Gateway scheme?
  • What do you like?
  • What do you not like?
  • What improvements can be made?
  • Does the consultation process and information presented has enhanced your understanding of the scheme?
  • Would you like to see public art included?

How to respond

Email to: CliftonGateway@aecom.com

Post to:

Clifton Gateway Public Consultation
AECOM
2 Clarence Street West
Belfast
BT2 7GP

The feedback received during the consultation will be considered in the final design and submitted with the planning application.

Documents

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