Not fit for purpose – East Bridge Street and the Department

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The Department for Infrastructure’s Roads Eastern Division sidelined pro-cycling voices in its controversial realignment of East Bridge Street as part of what appears to be a long-standing grievance over how “the cycling lobby” successfully stopped the same change from happening in 2013. Instead, a handful of public complaints, nearly half of which dated back six years, which also included internal pressure from Departmental colleagues, were used to justify a scheme whose detriments to cycling were clearly understood by the scheme designers but for which no data on cycling usage were collected, or risks assessed before the change.

On 14 November 2019 new lane markings appeared without warning on Belfast’s East Bridge Street junction. On 18 November 2019 a Bikefast article laid out why this was a terrible change for cycling, downgrading both commuter access to the city centre and the perception of cycling safety.

In a letter to a member of the public seven months before that article, obtained in an information request by Bikefast, the Department summed the issue up with remarkable clarity:

“The road markings in East Bridge Street were altered significantly approximately 6-7 years ago when the bus lane was introduced on the approach to Cromac Street (city bound towards Victoria Street).

“At this time we became aware that cyclists considered this new road layout would be safer for them if they could approach the traffic signals on East Bridge Street, at the junction of Oxford Street, in the inside lane (lane one) and then cycle towards, and access, the new bus lane without having to change lanes.

“The resulting road layout means that traffic in the inside lane on East Bridge Street, at the Oxford Street junction, have the choice of using either lane one or two towards Cromac Street and beyond towards Ormeau Road. This left hand lane will also give you access to Hamilton Street.”
DfI Roads Eastern Division letter to Complainant A, 15 April 2019

Department for Infrastructure (DfI) Roads Eastern Division clearly knew what they were removing from cyclists, but it has emerged that no cycling advocacy groups were approached for input ahead of the change.

Bikefast and Sustrans secured a meeting with the DfI Roads Eastern Division scheme owners on 29 November 2019. A fraught meeting overran by an hour as there was no meeting of minds on the main issues.

Information requests sent to the Department were answered in January 2020 and have moved the story on significantly.

Cyclists negotiating the new East Bridge Street layout in Belfast

The spark – How many complaints does it take to motivate DfI Roads?

A frustrating feature of local work on active travel is:

..but furiously focused action when a handful of complaints are received about:

The last category appears to be at play on East Bridge Street.

“Given the complex nature of the junction, with multiple lanes feeding into the area (three from the Albertbridge Road direction and two from Oxford Street), it has been difficult to provide a satisfactory road marking layout for all road users. In this regard, we have received a number of complaints from both drivers and cyclists who have experienced near misses, associated with drivers being unsure about which lane they should use.

“As a result, we have amended the road markings on numerous occasions to try and remove any misunderstanding whilst meeting the requirements of all road users. This involved localised changes to the road markings and more recently, we introduced road marking text denoting the proposed destination for each of the lanes approaching the junction of East Bridge Street and Oxford Street.

“However, even after all these amendments we still received complaints and enquiries relating to the road layout. As a result, on Thursday 14 November 2019 we implemented further changes to the road markings which we considered removed any ambiguity and which provided a safer environment for all road users.”
DfI Roads Eastern Division letter to Bikefast, 9 December 2019

So were the issues of cycling safety, lane discipline or user confusion so widely held that DfI Road Eastern Division were being inundated with complaints?


Information obtained from the Department shows that the changes which happened on 14 November 2019, which affects safety for thousands of cycling movements each week, was triggered by just nine “complaints and enquiries”. And that’s not all:

  • Four of the enquiries were from complainants whose last correspondence dated from 2014.
  • Two of those 2014 complaints were from internal staff (at that time the Department for Regional Development).
  • Four were complaints about turning from Oxford Street, not directly impacting the key East Bridge Street cycling safety issue.
  • Just three complaints were received “after all these amendments” (more on these shortly).

It’s important to note that in one month after the markings changed, fourteen complaints were received – more than the total number of complaints about the junction in the previous six years.

But don’t expect DfI Roads Eastern Division to jump into action – remember, a simple desk-based review of the Alfred Street cycleway was put into motion with an email from Bikefast on 13 September 2018 and has still not been completed as we enter February 2020.

Because, cyclists.

Now for the fun part of redesigning based on those three complaints received “even after all these amendments”..

Cyclists negotiating the new East Bridge Street layout in Belfast

The trick – Consult, but don’t listen

We’ve established that there were nine complaints over six years which triggered this scheme. DfI sent a letter to all complainants on 31 July 2019 setting out the changes which would eventually happen on 14 November 2019.

“Before we finalised the proposal for this new road layout we consulted with everyone who had contacted us about a lack of lane discipline on East Bridge Street.”
DfI Roads Eastern Division letter to Bikefast, 9 December 2019

Just three complainants responded to that letter to comment on the plan and, remarkably, all three either had serious concerns about the new plan or disagreed with it.

“Whilst I appreciate something is being done to resolve the issues at this dangerous junctions, I do question the proposed plan.”

“If all you are planning to do is change the road markings then you may as well not bother.”
Email to DfI from Complainant A, 1 August 2019

“To make matters even worse I noticed this morning that someone has actually painted some white dashes on the road showing that the middle lane should go towards Ormeau Road.”

Email to DfI from Complainant A, 5 November 2019

“It is disappointing that .. Eastern Division have decided to change the lane options at the junction – simply because drivers are unable to adhere to the lane markings added.”
Email to DfI from Complainant C, 31 July 2019

“As a cyclist using East Bridge Street for the last 6 years I would say that the current layout [August 2019] with the clear markings on the road to show which lane motorists should use is the safest version yet. I can safely cycle down the bus lanes and stay in ‘lane 1’ which then allows me to enter Hamilton Street without too much danger. Of course there are always vehicles which travel in ‘lane 2’ and cross over but at least I know I am in the correct lane and they are not and these incidents have reduced considerably since the road markings were out in place.

“I have concerns that if you allow vehicles in ‘lane 2’ to cross traffic and head towards Ormeau Road then this will only cause more confusion and make cyclist’s journeys more dangerous. Heading down East Bridge Street vehicles are travelling at a considerable speed and it is extremely difficult to cross from ‘lane 1’ into ‘lane 2’ in order to access Hamilton Street. The current road markings have only been in place for a few months at the most. Surely they need to be there for much longer before any decisions can be taken about their effect.”

“I would strongly oppose any further changes to East Bridge Street.”
Email to DfI from Complainant I, 1 August 2019

It’s barely believable that DfI Roads Eastern Division took 100% negative feedback on their design and implemented it anyway. It does nothing to dispel the perception of government using consultations as cover for predetermined outcomes.

The fact of a consultation having taken place is not proof in itself of a good consultation process.

Complainant I foreshadowed much of the criticism which erupted when the public saw the lane changes. They even made a key suggestion:

“The best way for [you] to understand the dangers/safety of this junction is cycle through it during rush hour traffic for a few weeks.”
Email to DfI from Complainant I, 1 August 2019

Without knowing this had already been suggested, Bikefast and Sustrans naturally asked the scheme designers at the face-to-face meeting on 29 November 2019. They confirmed they had not cycled the route.

This fact is now all the more remarkable given that it was brought up in consultation in one of the complaints DfI Roads Eastern Division used to justify changing the lane markings, a complaint which just happened to firmly oppose the change.

What is the point of seeking the views of “stakeholders” if you don’t actively listen to what they’ve said and respond accordingly?

nigreenways article on East Bridge Street from August 2013

The crux – Avoid a hard ‘no’ by avoiding ‘the cycling lobby’

If DfI Roads Eastern Division spent almost a year working through a “consultation process” why were the key active travel stakeholders not involved?

“We have had a range of comments relating to our proposed changes for East Bridge Street as part of our consultation process.”

“Our consultation has also included the Department’s Walking & Cycling Unit and the PSNI, both of whom have agreed our proposal is an improvement.”
DfI Roads Eastern Division letter to Complainant I, 18 September 2019

Complainant I gave the most detailed response as to why the change would be harmful to cycling safety and access options. The comments above amount to DfI Roads Eastern Division minimising, even dismissing, the concerns of Complainant I by using big hitting trump cards.

Bikefast isn’t aware of the PSNI’s road engineering expertise pertaining to everyday cycling, but DfI’s Walking & Cycling Unit are not an independent voice in this process – they are fully reliant on the goodwill of DfI Roads Eastern Division to prioritise, design and build cycling schemes in the Greater Belfast area (the current barrier to progress on cycling across the whole country).

A process described as a “consultation” where the views of the public were sought and the time was taken to involve an outside body in the PSNI. A scheme which DfI Roads Eastern Division were well aware had a particular impact upon cycling:

“We understand that this will have an effect on those cyclists who wish to access Hamilton Street without changing lanes on East Bridge Street.”
DfI Roads Eastern Division letter to all complainants, 31 July 2019

So why on earth were Sustrans (the trusted expert third sector partner in the active travel field in Northern Ireland) or Cycling UK (who have become more active locally since 2019) not consulted on the proposed changes?

Bikefast / NI Greenways was also not consulted on the changes. This may seem wholly irrelevant, and instinctively it did to us too (this is a voluntary campaign, not a constituted organisation), but documents obtained from DfI show that the scheme owners should have treated us as a direct stakeholder.

DfI Roads Eastern Division were well aware that the same proposed set of changes which disadvantaged cyclists was halted by controversy and lobbying made through this article in August 2013, as this remarkably candid and insightful internal correspondence makes clear:

“We had a more comprehensive scheme proposed to ensure better compliance with the carriageway marking and lane discipline but the cycling lobby didn’t like it. They complained to the Minister/SPAD and we had to modify/reduce the number of carriageway markings – hence it isn’t as good as we would like it to be.”
DRD letter to Complainant E (DRD Staff), 25 September 2014

“We were not permitted to provide all the cw [carriageway] marking we had wanted because of lobbying to Minister/SPAD by cyclists.
DRD letter to Complainant G (DRD staff), 19 September 2014

The Minister referenced was Danny Kennedy and the SPAD was Rodney McCune, together the architects of the Cycling Unit and the “cycling revolution”. Over the years it has become clear that toes were stepped on in the creation of the Cycling Unit, resentment was caused at a transfer of powers and budget to a dedicated active travel team. This is perhaps the first documentary evidence of such simmering discontent.

And the only lobbying at that time was from Bikefast / NI Greenways. On the simplest reading, the August 2013 article was handled as a complaint by a member of the public and raised as high as Ministerial level at the time. And yet, as we have shown, four public complaints from around the same time period were weaved into this 2019 “consultation” – half of which were internal colleagues. The article and the stakeholders behind the “lobbying” at the were not contacted this time around.

It gets worse. That 2013 article references that Sustrans were not consulted on the originally planned change in 2013 either.

There is no learning. There is no progress.

Given that DfI staff were aware that the cycling lobby were specifically opposed to this change, and had a stake in how this junction was designed, it’s difficult to see how this omission was anything but a deliberate choice not to contact Bikefast / NI Greenways, Sustrans or even Cycling UK ahead of time. It was a hard “no” in 2013/14 and DfI Roads Eastern Division would have been expecting the same answer again, only from quarters not as easy to dismiss as three complaints from the public.

This all raises serious questions about how active travel concerns are weaved into road projects.

Worst of all, DRD staff put the blame on cyclists for the inadequacy of the junction post-2013, as the letters above to Complainants E and G show (“but the cycling lobby didn’t like it” and “We were not permitted .. because of lobbying to Minister/SPAD by cyclists”) and this third one demonstrate:

“The recent amendments seen in Oxford Street were the second part of a proposal to increase the capacity in Oxford Street and East Bridge Street, especially at peak times.”

“However, we were restricted in the amount of changes we could make because of concerns regarding cyclists approaching from Central Station and progressing to Hamilton Street.”
DRD letter to Complainant D, 22 October 2014

Six years on, the same faces in the Department, and what was DfI Roads Eastern Division’s solution for fixing a problem which was internally felt that cyclists had caused by objecting to their original design choice? Implement that design choice now anyway, but make sure not to approach the cycling lobby for input.

Revenge is a dish best served cold (or reheated after six years).

East Bridge Street at daybreak

Locking the gate – Data-driven justifications after the horse has bolted

DfI Roads Eastern Division admit they did not carry out surveys of traffic movements and cycling safety before the changes were made:

“You have asked for any safety audit/risk assessments which were carried out, however these are not specifically required for localised road marking amendments and therefore none were completed. Cycling flows were not assessed as part of these works.”
DfI Roads Eastern Division letter to Bikefast, 9 December 2019

So why, after a critical article which caused a social media stink and ended up being covered as a news item on BBC Radio Ulster, did DfI Roads Eastern Division suddenly think data was crucial, if it wasn’t “specifically required”? 

“To date, we have carried out three surveys since the new road layout was introduced.”

[Thu 21 Nov 2019 0800-0910
Wed 27 Nov 2019 0750-0915
Tue 3 Dec 2019 0840-0925]

“We did not carry out a formal survey prior to the change in road layout.”
DfI information request response letter to R Reilly, 15 January 2020

All the surveys happened after the article was published (18 November) and the associated negative public reaction to the changes. And just a paltry 140 minutes of observations. With no baseline.

In fact, as relayed in the Bikefast / Sustrans / DfI meeting of 29 November 2019, no less than the Head of Eastern Division was on site the week after Bikefast’s article, perhaps overseeing one of the surveys in person.

The flurry of letters after the fact managed to successfully cover all the main bases of criticism:

“You will be interested to learn that we have carried out some on-site surveys since the introduction of our traffic management changes and during our most recent survey we recorded 73 cyclists travelling along this stretch of road during the morning peak period. We did not witness any particular issues with cyclists as they passed through the area. This of course does not mean that there are no issues as we remain committed to working in partnership with Sustrans and other stakeholders to ensure that changes to enhance the attractiveness and perceived safety of cycling are made on the best available evidence and expertise.”
Letter from Kevin Monaghan DfI Roads Eastern Division Manager to NI Assembly All Party Group on Cycling, 10 December 2019

That’s a very welcome level of interest in cycling safety issues – after the fact and in teeth of a minor public relations storm.

Hamilton Street in Belfast

Compounding the error – The mystery of Hamilton Street solved

In the 29 November 2019 meeting DfI Roads Eastern Division staff confirmed they had been actively working on options for East Bridge Street for “about a year”.

This was a curious timeline for many reasons (again, how difficult would it have been to pick up the phone to informally consult Sustrans?) but with the release of documents requested by Bikefast and members of the public the pennies started dropping.

“The decision to change the road layout on 14 November 2019 was made with other proposals for the area in mind, which we hope will improve provision for cyclists along this stretch of the network. For example, as discussed at our recent meeting, we plan to provide a new segregated cycle lane on Hamilton Street. This will require a one-way traffic system to be implemented on Hamilton Street.”

“Provision for cyclists wishing to access Hamilton Street from East Bridge Street and Cromac Street will be maintained, with new segregated pedestrian and cycle crossing facilities. This scheme will connect through, in both directions, to the existing bus lanes on East Bridge Street. It is hoped that this scheme will be completed during the next financial year, subject to successful completion of the statutory consultations and availability of funding.”
DfI Roads Eastern Division letter to Bikefast, 9 December 2019

Bikefast first picked up on the Hamilton Street idea about a year before the East Bridge Street mess happened. We were scathing then, especially given it was planned as a two-way cycleway with one-way street layout which was at that time (and remarkably, still) the subject of a formal safety review within DfI.

  • Why inconvenience residents by halving their access from Cromac Street?
  • Why put a protected cycleway on a street where through traffic removal would suit better?
  • Why cling to two way cycleways across busy side streets when the collision history on Alfred Street is so bad?
  • Why persist with this idea in the face of clear opposition from “the cycling lobby”?
  • Why roll out a Hamilton Street scheme map during the Bikefast / Sustrans meeting on 29 November 2019?

It didn’t make sense.

“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.”
Extending a cycleway along Hamilton Street?,, December 2018

Until now.

Because it enabled and justified the traffic progression scheme on East Bridge Street.

You can’t downgrade cycling access there without throwing a bone to cyclists nearby. You can’t make things objectively worse on the big main road without promising for something better on a minor residential street elsewhere, in some distant future.

“The decision to change the road layout on 14 November 2019 was made with other proposals for the area in mind, which we hope will improve provision for cyclists along this stretch of the network. For example, as discussed at our recent meeting, we plan to provide a new segregated cycle lane on Hamilton Street. This will require a one-way traffic system to be implemented on Hamilton Street.

“Provision for cyclists wishing to access Hamilton Street from East Bridge Street and Cromac Street will be maintained, with new segregated pedestrian and cycle crossing facilities. This scheme will connect through, in both directions, to the existing bus lanes on East Bridge Street. It is hoped that this scheme will be completed during the next financial year, subject to successful completion of the statutory consultations and availability of funding.”
DfI Roads Eastern Division letter to Bikefast, 9 December 2019

Cycling schemes should be brought forward with the sole purpose of improving conditions for cycling, not as a way of marginalising cycling in areas where cyclists cause inconvenience to traffic and road engineers.

The Hamilton Street scheme has been aggressively pursued in the face of concerns over its purpose and despite better alternatives being available – and not taken seriously because they’re primarily about traffic removal and residents’ needs first.

The kicker will be that in the residents consultation phase, it will be presented as a cycling scheme, fostering more resentment against cyclists (for a scheme which isn’t wanted and won’t be a benefit to cycling).

DfI Roads Eastern Division’s correspondence with Bikefast, and this article, ends with an insight into patronising magical thinking on cycling which we’re going to print out, frame and forever refer to as the “DfI Roads Paradox”:

“Our proposed Hamilton Street scheme and other cycling related proposals demonstrates our commitment to meeting the draft Programme for Government outcomes.”
DfI Roads Eastern Division letter to Bikefast, 9 December 2019

Yes, our awful, ill-considered cycling scheme, created from a desire to improve general traffic flow elsewhere, enabled by a handful of public complaints who opposed our chosen remedy, strongly opposed by cycling campaigners on clearly articulated evidential grounds who we didn’t consult, will be rammed through for reasons – and this demonstrates our commitment to cycling.


While decisions not to consult the most relevant stakeholders, and not to use pre-scheme site observations to inform options, are highly questionable, it’s important to point out that no-one has broken any rules. It was the poorest of processes, with effects which will echo years into the future, but DfI will say a documented process was followed. Technically and legally I’m confident everything was done correctly, and with some good intentions alongside others.

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
Abraham Maslow, 1966

And that is just the point. This is the way. This is how the Department for Infrastructure is configured to deliver outcomes for active travel, one of their top-level Programme for Government commitments. Argumentative. Hostile to outside advice. Dismissive of genuine and important concerns. Siloed. Defending norms and fiefdoms rather than pursuing data-driven decision making and open collaboration. The Walking & Cycling Unit invoked as cover for predetermined outcomes which benefit traffic progression over increasing cycling levels. Pursuing nonsense cycling schemes to benefit a wider non-cycling agenda.

This is the way.

This mess is what happens when road engineers, whose first consideration is traffic progression (which means motor vehicle flow) are firmly in charge.

The Department for Infrastructure has moved its language in recent years to talking about moving people not moving cars, but the underlying machinery of transport delivery remains fixed on crafting our streets for vehicles and marginalising active travel.

Bikefast has begun to describe the Department for Infrastructure as “not fit for purpose” when it comes to cycling. This has been based on outcomes and discussions with those in the know. But this desperately flawed process on East Bridge Street is one of the first times the public is able to see in detail what “not fit for purpose” means.

It’s one of the reasons why Bikefast will be making the case that an active travel steering group needs to be constituted to be an independent voice for active travel and give independent oversight on how the Department operates – for both dedicated cycling schemes and road schemes where active travel needs need to be weaved in.

Until DfI Roads Eastern Division is reformed, or more usefully removed from the equation on cycling schemes and decisions to downgrade cycling on general road schemes, and active travel is delivered by a dedicated design and build team within the Department for Infrastructure with its own budget and decision-making clout, which actually puts vulnerable users first instead of just talking about it while doing the opposite, we are going nowhere.

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