Belfast’s Middlepath scheme – almost there

The Department for Infrastructure’s (DfI) latest high-profile cycling scheme grasps the cycling revolution by the collar and gives it a much-needed shake. Taking away a vehicle lane in favour of a kerb-separated cycleway is a great sign for the forthcoming Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, but a few issues need to be corrected as the design consultation closes.

Overall this scheme will be a critical link between East Belfast and the city centre and is warmly welcomed by Bikefast. It will enable many new types of journeys to be completed on bicycles by new users – young and old, experienced and not yet. It’s a brave first move and is a credit to the Department’s staff and the Minister who brought it to public consultation.

There are three main areas which Bikefast believes must be addressed before the scheme goes ahead.

Queen Elizabeth Bridge

This may technically sit outside the scope of the current plan, but should be given full consideration. The cycleway terminates before the bridge, with the plan to divert users over a toucan crossing to the northern footway. As pointed out in more detail in this article, less than half of journeys will desire to be shunted over the road here.

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The majority will be accessing the city centre and southern destinations using the cycleway on Ann Street or past the Waterfront. As such, these users will face an unnecessary double crossing at both ends of the bridge or (as will happen in real life) simply take to the southern footway ignoring the crossings.

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Ironically DfI’s own Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan clarifies the problem here:

“Routes need to flow and must take account of how users actually behave: routes need to be as direct and continuous as possible. The big advantage of a journey by bicycle is that delays are at a minimum. A long detour or obstruction will mean that people will not use the infrastructure but resort to using the footway or carriageway.”

The southern footway is too tight (and cluttered with lighting poles) to safely accommodate increasing cycling traffic and existing pedestrian movements. Continuing the cycleway across the bridge by taking away the outside (fourth) vehicle lane, as with Middlepath Street, would be a far more sensible option at this stage.

Simplifying a tight turn behind loading bays

The loading bays outside the businesses situated behind the railway bridge will be essential for trade. However the design for the kink in the cycleway is far too tight. People cycling in an eastbound direction will potentially be unsighted by large lorries and may naturally drift to the right of the cycleway, leading to conflict.

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From the design it appears one sharp corner will also include a hump – not a great idea. Instead more gradual turns should be designed in to smooth movements across this section.

Prioritising grassy spaces over user safety

The section between the railway bridge and the crossing at Titanic Quarter Station is planned to be a shared footway. This is the major mistake in the scheme (as bounded in the consultation) and should be addressed urgently.

There is ample room to create a dedicated cycleway alongside the footway by eating into the grassy area beside the flyover, and room to work with by the park and ride facility.

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The Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan lists shared use paths as only the fourth best option when considering the types of facility to be used:

“Proper segregation is the preferred form of infrastructure for the primary network although this may be varied depending on both the volume and speed of other traffic.”

“Shared use path or track: a path physically separated from motor traffic and designated for shared use with pedestrians (appropriate in circumstances where the volume and speed of motor traffic is relatively high but the pedestrian footfall is low).”

While the pedestrian footfall may be low here, the footway itself is extremely narrow meaning that any interactions here, whether with pedestrians or other bicycle users, will be very tight, perhaps requiring a dismount for safety.

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The speed and volume of traffic dictates that the best solution must be sought on this critical new link on the Belfast cycling network. Setting the bar high here will help to steer more contentious future schemes in the right direction.

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There is no reason (cost, time, land ownership, potential objections) not to be brave and get the job done right the first time.


Comment

Overall it’s an excellent plan which will increase the number and percentage of cycling journeys in this section of the city. It’s a stepping stone for Belfast Bikes extension, links the city centre with CS Lewis Square and the twin greenways of the east, and demonstrates the intention of the Department for Infrastructure to truly embed the bicycle into Belfast city life.


The consultation closes at 5pm on Monday 30th January 2017 – you can have your say through the methods listed on the Department for Infrastructure website.

 

New Year, new cycleway – Belfast putting itself on the map

A vehicle lane on one of Belfast’s main outbound arterial routes will be repurposed as a dedicated two-way cycleway in a revolutionary step for cycling in the city.

Middlepath Street takes strategic traffic from Belfast city centre towards the M3 motorway which links to the M1 (south), M2 (north) and A2 (northeast) and the key eastern corridor of the Newtownards Road.

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Right hand lane of Middlepath Street (going on past the bus) will become a cycleway

Middlepath Street is currently a four lane, one way road stretching from Queen Elizabeth Bridge to the Bridge End gyratory. The right hand side vehicle lane will be converted to the highest profile cycling route in the city, visible to thousands of drivers each day.

This half a kilometre scheme will consist of approximately two-thirds kerb separated cycle track with the remaining third as a shared footway. New toucan crossings will be installed to get cycleway users between the cycling space on Queen Elizabeth and Lagan Weir bridges to the west and Titanic Quarter Railway Station and the Comber Greenway to the east.

The route in detail

Starting from the eastern end, commuters, shoppers and leisure users of the Comber Greenway can access Titanic Quarter Station using the traffic-calmed Island Street. From here a recently landscaped pathway glides down to the four lane Bridge End gyratory.

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Cycling journeys from Titanic Qtr Station / Island St will use a new toucan crossing

A toucan crossing will be installed to allow users to cross to the middle of the gyratory junction. This section will be shared footway – not ideal, but also not heavily used by pedestrians at the moment. The grassy area leaves plenty of space for future upgrading to a split cycleway/footway should usage levels warrant it.

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Site of the proposed toucan crossing and the shared footway heading towards the city centre

Raised tables and visual warnings should help alert drivers accessing the Eastside Park and Ride to the possibility of cycling traffic.

Part of the reason for selecting a shared footway here is the major physical barrier presented by the railway bridge. The danger posed by placing a cycleway on the roadside would be considerable with the fast, heavy traffic swinging off the M3.

Hopefully lighting for the dark underpass will be considered to help avoid difficult interactions.

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After the underpass the footway widens and cycling users will transition to a cycle track, separated from the road by “300mm wide preformed kerb cycle segregation units”. This marks a departure from the recent use of wand separation in inner city centre schemes such as Alfred Street. Kerb separation seems ideal for this stretch, where parking demand is very low.

“This .. provides cycle lanes on the carriageway of Middlepath Street, Belfast .. to be used by cyclists only” and will “allow cycles to proceed in both directions in the cycle lanes.”
Scheme Order (PDF)

 

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Shared pavement under rail bridge will transition to a 2.5m kerb separated 2-way cycleway

The only width indication on the scheme says 2.5m with a 50cm buffer to the kerb. If so, it sounds a little tight for a two-way cycle track, but we’ll see how it’s implemented. Transport NI would do well to look at angled kerbing deployed in the Netherlands to add a more forgiving edge in case of mistakes although, with the intended use of pre-fab kerbs, options may be limited.

The cycleway snakes around loading bays which will help local businesses to live with the new cycle route.

Further along, Dalton Street – currently used as a potential for u-turn access back towards the city centre – will be stopped up to simplify the conflict zone where the cycleway and M3 on-slip meet.

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Dalton Street (on the left) will be stopped up, simplifying cycling movements over M3 slip

Low level cycle signals, of the type already being rolled out across Belfast’s new cycleways, will control movements at the M3 slip.

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Cycleway crosses M3 on-slip with dedicated cycle lights and Dalton Street stopped up

This area is quite bereft of street life at present, with the feeling of the current state of the York Street Interchange site, also with street level motorway access traffic. The cycleway will bring human movement and life back in a big way on this (new) approach to the River Lagan.

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This lane will be converted to a cycleway, on the run down to the Lagan

Going under the Dargan rail bridge and the Station Street flyover approaching Queen Elizabeth Bridge, the cycleway will have priority over the (few) vehicles entering Station Street to access the car park. A new toucan crossing will bring bicycle riders to the northern side of the bridge, currently a generously wide shared (visually separated) footway.

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This is perhaps the most disappointing section of the plan, with the scheme boundary not including the bridge itself. While this cycleway is rightly planned as part of the cross-city route which will funnel users over to High Street, Castle Place and on to the recently finished Durham/College Cycleway and on to the Westlink, many users will have their ultimate destination to the southern half of the city centre.

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Southern footway of Queen Elizabeth Bridge will be a cycling short cut to/from the south

This is where a little foresight could have seen the bridge roadway reduced to the same three lanes as Middlepath Street, to enable the cycleway to be extended to Ann Street.

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Current layout means two controlled crossings for southbound cycling
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Taking away the fourth vehicle lane on the bridge would mean a better journey option

As it stands, perhaps half of journeys to/from the city centre will require two controlled crossing at either end of the bridge – slow and frustrating. It should be expected that the tighter southern footway will become an unofficial cycling short cut, to the detriment of pedestrians.


This a very much a dedicated cycleway scheme, not meant to be a handy waiting area for vehicles – as the enforcement provisions lay out:

Anyone “causing or permitting any vehicle other than a cycle to wait in a cycle lane .. shall be liable to a penalty charge (£90).”
Scheme Order (PDF)

You can download the Middlepath scheme map from the Department for Infrastructure website (PDF, 591K).

You can feed in to the consultation by writing to the Department for Infrastructure or by emailing traffic.eastern@infrastructure-ni.gov.uk before 30 January 2017.


Comment

The Department have started 2017 with a bang, setting out plans for the most visible new scheme of its Cycling Revolution. Nerves will be a little frayed waiting for any negative reactions from irate radio callers or car business “lobbying” groups.

Not only will it help many thousands of people make the switch from car or bus to the bicycle between East Belfast and the city centre, but in the regular heavy congestion of the Bridge End gyratory it will serve as a reminder to many drivers of the possibility offered by the bicycle in Belfast.

It also supports the latest expansion of the Belfast Bikes public hire scheme which now extends almost a mile to the east of this cycleway.

We should see the last piece of this particular jigsaw fall into place with the High Street section shortly (hold onto your hats for that one) which actually creates a traffic-free/calmed 12 mile cycle route from the Monagh Bypass in West Belfast all the way to Comber.

And all of this is before the announcement of the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, due before the end of this month. What a time to be cycling in our city.


widgetBikefast is a volunteer effort sustained by hundreds of followers, thousands of viewers and a lot of spare time and cash. In 2017 we need to renew web hosting and continue to improve upon what Bikefast can do – from campaigning for better cycling infrastructure to more investigative reporting on issues which affect the future of cycling in our city. Any support you can offer towards these goals is appreciated.

Pedestrianised areas “too large” for Belfast says traders’ body

Following calls for bus lanes to be scrapped, Bikefast can reveal that Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce (BCTC) is calling for some pedestrianised areas of Belfast to be opened to private cars.

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Is this a future vision for Ann Street?

Two days ago Bikefast broke the story that BCTC has called for an experimental removal of most bus lanes in Belfast. Yesterday we revealed that Translink’s own Business Development Manager is sitting on the Executive Council of BCTC.

BCTC launched its “Belfast Manifesto” back in September 2016 as a “clear and concise blueprint for the next 10 years for Northern Ireland’s capital city”.

It received standard coverage in local media outlets focusing on the headline talking points. But did journalists actually take the time to read it thoroughly, including this section?

Reinvent the City Centre

“to fully pedestrianise Donegall Place but make other parts of the City Centre open to private cars. The pedestrianised area in the City Centre is too large for a city of the size of Belfast. This inhibits non-retail uses and is a cause of the lack of activity in the evening”

The Belfast Manifesto, BCTC

Just let that sink in for a second.

Donegall Place in front of the Belfast City Hall has been mooted for pedestrianisation to give Belfast a European-style traffic-free square at its heart. BCTC support for this stalled scheme is most welcome.

But BCTC goes on to suggest that we have too many pedestrianised areas and (it surely must follow) some of our pedestrian streets are the “parts” to be opened to private cars.

Cities around the world are pursuing the goal of removing traffic from their centres to make them more pleasant environments for shopping, eating and living. Is Belfast about to launch an experiment in the opposite direction?

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Is Victoria Square’s open pedestrian plaza one big barrier to car traffic?

To be fair, perhaps we’ve misunderstood BCTC’s roundabout wording, so we sought clarification – is the Chamber really calling for pedestrian streets to be opened to vehicles?

Bikefast asked BCTC back in September 2016 what pedestrianised streets it envisaged being turned over to car traffic. Three months on and we haven’t received a reply.

Yesterday we asked businesses with locations on or beside pedestrianised streets, who also happen to have representatives on BCTC’s Executive Council, whether they support their streets being opened to private cars. The businesses included:

No-one had responded by time of publication.

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Are these shoppers just temporary placeholders for private car traffic?

Bikefast has also approached Belfast City Council to clarify their relationship with BCTC and what the Council’s thoughts were on the idea to open some pedestrianised areas of the city to cars. A spokesperson said:

“Belfast City Council is not a member of the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce. The Council has not been asked to consider any proposals for the return of pedestrian areas to use by vehicles. Belfast City Council was not directly involved with the creation or the review of the Belfast Manifesto and did not have a say in the final content.”

Interestingly, as of 15th December 2016, BCTC still has Belfast City Council on it’s “Membership List” pages.

It’s not hard to imagine Arthur Square at Cornmarket as a bustling roundabout to regulate car movements through the city – that’s exactly what it used to be..

Perhaps the Troubles legacy of a relatively car-free city centre is a bad thing? It’s not that long ago that cars could drive along and park in Victoria Square or Ann Street:

Turning bus lanes and pedestrian streets over to private car traffic – BCTC have certainly introduced some hot topics for discussion in Belfast. Perhaps there are important lessons to be learned from Norwich’s experience of pedestrianisation..


Read more: Business body wants Belfast bus lanes binned

Read more: Trade body in ‘scrap bus lanes’ call (BBC)

Read more: Translink, the Belfast Chamber and bus lanes

Read more: Motorists’ fury at shocking rise in bus lanes fines stories

Read more: Rapid Transit? | Taxis in bus lanes

Translink, the Belfast Chamber and bus lanes

Translink’s Business Development Manager is sitting on the Executive Council of the business body calling for Belfast bus lanes to be scrapped, Bikefast can exclusively reveal.

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Yesterday Bikefast broke the story that the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce (BCTC) has called for an experimental removal of most bus lanes in Belfast. This would leave the majority of arterial routes in the city with no bus priority measures. Only three routes which are due to carry Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) from 2018 should retain bus lanes, according to BCTC’s proposal.

Translink is the operational brand name of the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company, a public corporation which operates public transport in the province. Translink’s services include Metro and Ulsterbus, which both rely on bus lanes for journey reliability and speed when avoiding rush hour congestion through Belfast.

Translink will also be operating the BRT system.

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During the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Infrastructure session when the bus lane proposal was raised, BCTC President Gordon McElroy answered a question from Kellie Armstrong MLA on any discussions BCTC had had with the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) on public transport improvements:

“We have not had any direct contact with the Department. This is our opportunity to have contact with the Department. We understand that you are the Committee, and we are trying to make our representations to the Department, I suppose, through you.

“We have regular and frequent communication with public transport by working closely with Translink. Norman Maynes, who is a senior executive in Translink, is a former president of the chamber, so we work hand in glove.”

Gordon McElroy, at the Committee for Infrastructure, Wed 7th Dec 2016

According to the BCTC website, Norman Maynes was elected to the Executive Council of the Chamber in summer 2016. He is recorded as representing “Translink” on the list of Executive Council members. Although no clarification on Mr Mayne’s job role was offered by Translink, a recent press release describes him as the “Head of Business Development”.

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A Translink statement to Bikefast in September 2016 about the issues of bus lanes raised in the BCTC “Belfast Manifesto” clarified the relationship between Translink and BCTC:

“Translink is a member of Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce and work closely with them as a key stakeholder.

“Bus lanes play an important role in the overall success of our transport network in terms of making bus travel more attractive and making the best use of the road space available.

“We would not advocate the removal of bus lanes in Belfast.”

Translink was awarded a public service contract in October 2015 to be the main provider of public transport services with exclusive rights to operate the timetabled network in Northern Ireland for five years.

Along with fares collected from passengers, Translink receives direct funding from the Department for Infrastructure, expected to be £60.8m in 2015/16.

Translink has declined to comment on the annual membership fee it pays to BCTC.

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The “Lobbying” prospectus on the BCTC website raises key questions about the wisdom of Translink’s membership and how its views (and by extension those of bus passengers) are being represented by BCTC:

“Lobbying and representation are very important aspects of BCTC membership. We lobby locally, regionally and nationally with Government and other authorities on issues that are of concern to our members.

“Members’ views are actively sought and expressed, and we ensure that your opinions and demands are recognised.”

Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce website, What We Do

Translink’s views on bus priority are easily found in its current Corporate Plan and appear misaligned with those being expressed through its membership of BCTC:

“Improvements in bus priority in Belfast city centre have been beneficial for Metro services with early evidence of operational efficiency improving and travel behaviour switching from private car use in the city centre to passenger transport, cycling and walking or to routes bypassing the city centre.

“Further measures are necessary, particularly outside the city centre, to continue to deliver punctual and fast services for customers. While operational improvement has been evident in the city centre, congestion and low average speeds continue to be an issue throughout the city, impacting punctuality, performance and reliability.

“We will continue to work in partnership with (led by) Transport NI to implement an ongoing programme of bus priority in greater Belfast to address the issues of reducing bus speeds and congestion.”

The Translink Corporate Plan 2015/16 – 2017/18 & Business Plan 2015/16

Some of the objectives laid out in Translink’s Annual Report and Accounts 2015/16 appear to be incompatible with the removal of the majority of bus lanes in Belfast:

“Maintaining High Punctuality and Reliability Standards
We have set challenging goals to ensure that more than 95% of our services are on time and more than 99.5% of services operate reliably.

“Journey Time and other External Factors
To deliver excellent punctuality and reliability requires a partnership approach with all our stakeholders to address external factors which can impact on our services such as congestion, traffic accidents, road works and track trespass.

“Congestion is Costing our Economy
Translink will work with all key stakeholders to tackle this issue and support the development of a Transport Strategy for our cities and towns”

The Translink Annual Report and Accounts 2015/16

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Bikefast asked a series of questions of Translink to clarify its position with regard to the Chamber’s recently expressed views on bus lanes:

  • How much does Translink pay to BCTC as an annual membership fee?
  • Was Mr Maynes directly involved in the creation of the Belfast Manifesto launched earlier this year and did he ‘sign off’ on this report in his position on the Executive Council?
  • Did Mr Maynes have sight of / input into the briefing given by BCTC to the Infrastructure Committee last week?
  • How has Mr Maynes expressed Translink’s position on the retention of bus lanes in Belfast through BCTC?
  • Will Translink be considering its membership of BCTC in light of the comments made at the Infrastructure Committee last week and the potential for a perception of a conflict of interest to develop with a Translink representative on the Executive Council of a body actively advocating for the removal of bus lanes in Belfast?

In response, a Translink spokesperson said:

“Bus priority, or better phrased bus passengers’ priority, makes bus travel more attractive. This is clearly demonstrated by the strong growth of over 15% in Metro passengers over the last decade with over 500k journeys every week.

“As well as supporting the growth of public transport and active travel, a key outcome of the draft Programme for Government, there are also many other societal benefits such as enabling a strong economy, helping to reduce congestion and keeping Belfast moving, improving our local environment by improving air quality for people who work, visit, study and live in the city.

“Translink continues to work with all stakeholders, including Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce on bus and wider transport infrastructure.

“The Belfast Manifesto provides a balanced approach, which is supportive of the development of public transport, including the Belfast Hub and BRT while also recognising the place of the private car. Translink had an active role into the input of the manifesto, which takes on the many views of stakeholders and aims to make Belfast into the most vibrant, thriving city possible”.

Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce were approached for comment and clarification on several points but regrettably had not responded by the time of publication.


Read more: Business body wants Belfast bus lanes binned

Read more: Trade body in ‘scrap bus lanes’ call (BBC)

Read more: Motorists’ fury at shocking rise in bus lanes fines stories

Read more: Rapid Transit? | Taxis in bus lanes

Business body wants Belfast bus lanes binned

Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce (BCTC) has called for bus lanes across the city to be scrapped, as part of its vision to see Belfast develop “a world-class sustainable transport system.”

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Buses snarled on East Bridge Street with no evening bus lane – a  vision of the future city?

In a remarkable submission to the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Infrastructure last week, Chamber President Gordon McElroy set out BCTC’s view on the progress of the ‘Belfast on the Move‘ scheme and how the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) should “be more radical” in its policies:

“One of the criticisms of the city that the chamber hears most often is that there is difficulty in accessing it. This is a constant and ongoing criticism of Belfast. We regularly hear that clients and customers avoid coming to Belfast because of access issues. Some of that may be perception but some of it is real.

There are things that create perceptions, such as the introduction of the 20 mph zone and the bus lane cameras and the press attention on the amount of revenue that is being generated from them. Those things frighten people from coming into the city.”

“Our members and the people who deal with them are most concerned about the amount of confusion that is being created by the bus lanes in Belfast. They are concerned that the bus lanes are operating at different times. Corporation Street, for example, has a bus lane but only one bus service up and down it and there is never congestion on it. The layout on Oxford Street is another concern. These are all things that are detrimental to people moving around the city.

“It does not mean that there should not be bus lanes or lanes set aside for specific types of traffic to improve transport flow. We really support the introduction of Belfast rapid transit, and the bus lanes that serve it should be there.

We propose to the Department that it be more radical and remove the non-BRT-related bus lanes as an experiment, as was done in Liverpool, where it was found that traffic was freed up and moved much more easily through the city.”
Gordon McElroy, at the Committee for Infrastructure, Wed 7th Dec 2016

Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) is not due to become operational until late 2018, but it’s unclear when BCTC want existing bus lanes to be removed.

BRT will run along the Falls corridor to the west, the Newtownards corridor to the east and a spur to the Titanic Quarter. BCTC’s suggestion would leave North and West Belfast with only one arterial route with any operational bus lanes. That’s a courageous call considering these are the two parliamentary constituencies with the highest percentage of bus commuters, taxi commuters (West) and lowest levels of car commuting in Northern Ireland, according the the 2011 Census.

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DfI’s Bus Rapid Transit route map now also the limit of BCTC’s vision for bus priority

A vast swathe of the south and east of the city would be left with no public transport priority measures at all, including the vital Ormeau / Saintfield Quality Bus Corridor which would leave the popular Cairnshill Park & Ride facility cut adrift.

The bus lanes in Belfast which aren’t part of the BRT network, and therefore assumed as targeted by BCTC to be ripped up, include:

Antrim Road
Ballygowan Road
Ballyhenry Road
Botanic Avenue
Castle Street
Castlereagh Road
Corporation Street / Garmoyle Street
Cregagh Road
Cromac Street
Crumlin Road
Donegall Road
Donegall Square East
Donegall Square West
Duncrue Street
Glen Road
Great Victoria Street
Holywood Road
Kingsway
Lisburn Road
M1 hard shoulder
M2 hard shoulder
Malone Road
Nelson Street
Ormeau Road
Queens Street
Queensway / Kingsway
Saintfield Road
Shaftesbury Square
Shankill Road
Shore Road
Stranmillis Road
Upper Lisburn Road
Upper Malone Road
Upper Queen Street
Westlink
Whitewell Road
Woodstock Road
York Road
York Street

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No more quiet bus lanes for buses, bicycles, motorcycles and permitted taxis?

This submission comes quickly after the launch of BCTC’s Belfast Manifesto which set out some more detail on the Chamber’s attitude to bus lanes. While stating that:

“Belfast needs a world-class sustainable transport system if it is to achieve the growth that is planned in future years”

..and welcoming the the planned BRT system, the document went on to call for:

“a proper and independent review of the bus lanes, speed limits and car parking in the City Centre. People in cars should not be seen as the enemy, rather as potential clients, customers, investors and visitors”.

Transport NI (the executive arm of DfI) were urged to:

“standardise the times of bus lanes to weekday and peak times only”

..and somewhat strangely to:

“specify and advertise arterial routes that are free of bus lanes”.

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Controversial bus lane on Donegall Square East and one of its many signs

The call to strip Belfast of the majority of its bus lanes comes despite the Belfast on the Move scheme being hailed a success by DfI. In a “before and after” assessment of travel habits following the roll-out of bus lanes, DfI found that there was an overall increase in people accessing Belfast city centre despite around 11,000 fewer vehicles entering the city core each day.

“More than half (53%) of the people entering the city centre in October 2013 did so using public transport, taxis, walking or cycling – compared to less than half (47%) in 2011.”
Assessing the impact of Belfast on the Move – 2013 surveys (DfI)

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One of the key bus lanes in Belfast on Great Victoria Street, targeted for removal by BCTC

One of the bus lanes which appears to be on BCTC’s hit list is Great Victoria Street, which has been highlighted by DfI as a particular success:

“Great Victoria Street bus lane is now carrying two thirds of commuters in the morning peak, yet it only takes up one half of the available road space.”

Gordon Clarke, Northern Ireland Director for Sustrans said:

“We are very concerned at this proposal by Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce. Removing bus lanes is a retrogressive step especially when many of these bus lanes will be required for the future proposed expansion of the Belfast Rapid Transit network.

“Bus lanes are also protected routes for cyclists and are therefore vitally important for bike commuters until such times as there is better infrastructure. Belfast Bike Life report found that people want more segregated cycle lanes and significant investment. Sustrans’ recent survey of commuters in east Belfast for the CHIPS project found a lot of people are keen to cycle to work but are put off by the sheer volume of cars on our roads.

“We have reached saturation point at peak times in the city for car traffic which is a major cause of air pollution. Belfast is trying to tackle this problem with four air quality management areas in the city centre. Removing bus lanes and encouraging more cars in the city centre will cause air quality to deteriorate further and is off-putting for people living and working in the city. This is finally being recognised as a serious health issue with cities such as Paris proposing a ban on diesel cars by 2025.”

DfI’s own recent assessment of the progress of Belfast on the Move may give a clue as to the chances of success for BCTC’s lobbying efforts to remove bus lanes:

“About 40% of households in Belfast do not have access to a private car – the Department’s transport policy therefore remains focused on the movement of people, rather than vehicles, at peak times. It is therefore important that the allocation of road space is proportionate.

Bus lanes form the backbone of the Metro bus network in Belfast. They have improved bus service reliability and passengers are enjoying a reduction in journey times, helping to reduce congestion and make the city more accessible.”

Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce were approached for comment and clarification on several points but regrettably had not responded by the time of publication.


Read more: Part two – Translink, the Belfast Chamber and bus lanes

Read more: Motorists’ fury at shocking rise in bus lanes fines stories

Design. Consult. Ignore. Repeat?

Belfast city centre’s new flagship protected cycleway has been in place for just ten months, successfully supporting cycling journeys into the heart of the city. But behind the headline success, serious drawbacks threaten to cast a shadow over future city cycling network development.

[ LONG READ ]

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The Alfred Street / Upper Arthur Street cycleway was launched by former Regional Development Minister Michelle McIlveen to great fanfare in March 2016. It promised to develop as a template for a new generation of protected urban cycle routes, aimed at encouraging more people to ditch the car for the bicycle in our congested city.

Alfred Street was reduced to one-way for vehicles with a two-way cycle track installed. This runs for half a kilometre from Ormeau Avenue to Chichester Street, linking the National Cycle Network at the Gasworks to the pedestrianised shopping streets of the city centre. It represents both an extension of an existing short section of protected cycle track, but also a break from the traditional bolt-on approach to cycling measures.

It was a major road scheme with cycling as both the trigger and central design factor.

Officially classed as a pilot project, it has been used to observe how all road users interact with this new type of facility in Belfast. If major problems were identified, these could be quickly resolved with design changes by Transport NI, DRD’s executive arms length body. lessons learned would inform future design options in other parts of the city.

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The original cycleway plans entered a period of consultation over the summer of 2015. Many aspects were keenly debated (which side of the road, kerb or wand separation, junction safety) and the Department’s new Cycling Unit responded with impressive openness and flexibility to suggestions. Following the traditional winter moratorium on road works the scheme proceeded to construction at the end of January 2016.

And then everything changed.

Bikefast delivers a verdict on ten months of real world usage and calls for some obvious and overdue alterations – and for DRD’s successor Department for Infrastructure (DfI) to take a hard look at the transparency of decisions on schemes where public participation has been encouraged.

Magic disappearing wands

The fundamental change from the old “Bin Lane” set-up of Upper Arthur Street was the decision to move away from simple kerb separation in favour of plastic bollards or “wands”.

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Kerb of old “Bin Lane” on Upper Arthur Street being broken up during construction

This may seem like a step-down in quality but was a design decision informed by daily experience of cycle lane use. In this area of high demand for parking and loading, kerbs alone posed no barrier to those determined to (unlawfully) block the cycle lane. Users faced daily competition with lorries, vans and cars and little apparent support from parking attendants.

The case had been made strongly for years that additional impediments – bollards,  wands, planters – were required on top of the kerbs as an idiot-proof measure to prevent misuse. Transport NI (TNI) officials had been observing the blockage problems and were convinced of the need for a new approach..

TNI’s new cycleway proposals abandoned kerbs in favour of a line of wand to protect the cycleway. Consultation documents showed these arranged in a tight line with gaps of just three metres – not enough space for a car to turn into.

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Although at side streets and entrances there would still be a possibility of vehicles accessing the cycle track, this was to be closely monitored. A wand could be placed as a gatekeeper in the middle of the cycle track, but with a potential to hamper access for cargobikes and trailers this wasn’t preferred.

There was some excitement as the old Bin Lane was ripped away in January 2016 and groundwork began on the new cycleway. Although the wands may have the appearance of a “temporary” measure, thought had clearly gone in to ensuring longevity. Concrete foundations were laid to make a stronger base for the wand bolts than tarmac could provide.

These were pictured being drilled into the new surface, spaced at the agreed three metre intervals:

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Foundation holes being drilled at 3m intervals at top of Alfred Street

After a period of line painting and surface treatment, the wands themselves were installed. And immediately it seemed that a horrible error had been made along the way – instead of using all of the foundation points, wands were placed on every other marker – leaving much wider SIX METRE gaps.

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6m gaps between wands given context by a helpful driver

As time went on it was clear this wasn’t an error. A decision had been made along the way to change the layout which had (apparently) been agreed in the public consultation.

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While people were prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to the new set-up, it was very clear from the outset what was going to happen with gaps which provided easy access for drivers.

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Not a day goes by without a car, van or truck turning, reversing or driving in to the cycleway. The protected cycleway.

A Freedom of Information request to DRD / DfI on all documents relating to this change was met simply with the minutes of a steering group:

Network Traffic Section – Cycling Programme Board

03 Nov 2015
“Discussion centred on the type of bollard and spacing between each one. It was decided by all present to use the way finding type bollard with a 5 metre spacing, however this spacing will be finalised on site.”

01 Dec 2015
“Asked the contractor for a bollard spacing of 3m and also a 250mm solid white line.”

23 Feb 2016
“It was agreed that 6m bollard spacing would be implemented initially, with the possibility of changing to a 3m spacing if required.”

20 Apr 2016
“The group discussed the possibility of altering the wand spacing from 6m to 5m for future schemes. The group decided to stick with the 6m spacing in future schemes.”

EIR: DRD/2016-0133

Did TNI’s Network Traffic Section (who actually implemented the scheme) overrule the Cycling Unit, whose designs at public consultation included more than 120 wands, not the 62 which are in place today?

While the Cycling Unit produce plans and run consultations, it seems they retain only an advisory role during implementation by the Network Traffic Section. It seems unlikely that the Cycling Unit would hamstring their own scheme, so who overruled the agreed design? And why?

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Even vans can easily turn through the 6m gaps between wands

The openness of the consultation exercise led by the Cycling Unit was generally held to be one of the best aspects of the process. That a decision to ignore that process was subsequently taken, with no explanation forthcoming, and no idea of who to approach to get the decision reversed, makes a mockery of that exercise – and undermines trust in future scheme control.

We’re left with (literally) a half-done job masquerading as a state-of-the-art cycleway. The issue can’t be cost, because contractors installed (presumably) 120 foundation blocks, half of which now lie unused. Can it really just be personal preference?

It leaves a farcical situation where a protected cycleway relies on enforcement to ensure unlawful parking doesn’t take place. Instead of foolproof passive enforcement by a few wands placed to prevent vehicle access, instead DfI has placed the onus on contracted parking attendants and the police to regularly check the cycle lane.

A single – and so far unaccountable – decision within DfI has led to an unnecessary and wasteful use of resources in external organisations – albeit unlikely to be an issue as wardens and police would (rightly) have many other higher priorities.

The problem with this kind of courageous decision is, that without clear information about why it was made and by whom, public criticism gets aimed higher up – not such a smart move with successive Ministers sticking their neck on the line for active travel.

Missing gatekeepers

The issue of vehicle access to the cycleway isn’t limited to this baffling decision on separation wands. While that primarily permits access for illicit parking anywhere along the length of the route, many drivers are actually using the cycleway to drive along.

There are two primary ways this highly dangerous situation develops:

  • drivers who’ve (unlawfully) parked in the cycleway driving out
  • drivers turning left from side streets mistaking the cycleway for a left hand lane

 

The fix for this situation is simple, undesirable for those cycling but necessary at this stage. “Gatekeeper” wands are needed at access roads, in the middle of the cycleway, as a visual barrier to confused drivers and chancer parkers alike. These are already in place at either end of the cycleway.

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Would gatekeeper wands be a good safety compromise?

The major problem with the old bollards placed in the Bin Lane were the tightness restricting access for certain cargobikes and trailers, and the critical inability of street cleaning vehicles to negotiate around – leaving broken glass and debris constantly in the middle of the cycle lane.

With the extra width of the new cycleway, access for users wouldn’t be an issue, and a simple placement trick would help with this and the cleaning vehicle problem – offsetting the gatekeeper wand a metre or so from the final wand would give extra space for permitted users (and council cleaners) while keeping large vehicles out.

If you can drive a bus down a protected cycleway, something has to change.

Pick a side or (whisper this) do we need a cycleway?

One of the main decisions at the initial public consultation was whether to run the new cycle track on the east or west side of the street. Several drawbacks to both options were in play:

On the east side

This was understood to be the Cycling Unit’s favoured option at the outset, effectively moving the cycle track from the existing footprint of the Bin Lane across the road.

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The main reason for this proposed move was to ensure the flow of users between the Gasworks site and the cycle track did not have to cross Alfred Street at the junction with Ormeau Road. Secondary to this was the easier solution to the crossing at May Street, where cycling traffic would enjoy a signal phase with no potential for conflict as May Street traffic waited at a red light.

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The main drawback with this option was a difficult transition from the cycle track on Upper Arthur Street to the junction with Chichester Street. First, cycle users would face constant conflict with cars turning right into Arthur Lane to access the multi storey car park. Just after this it was proposed to add a cycle crossing on the street, with no clear sense of where priority would lie (see diagram above). It was a very unsatisfactory end to the route.

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Difficulties with parking directly outside St Malachy’s Church, which might impede funerals and other significant occasions but would certainly create daily conflict, was a severe disadvantage for the local community.

On the west side

This was our preferred option and the one selected by TNI following the public consultation. The case was made that retaining the cycle track on the same side as before would help with users expectations. Any existing parking problems would be eliminated by the tight 3 metre wand separation, leaving only two uncontrolled junctions to navigate – the same number on the east side.

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While in this configuration users would have to negotiate a messy entrance at the Ormeau Avenue end, all users here would have the benefit of clear sight lines and eye contact when conflict might occur – a definite advantage over the Upper Arthur Street crossing proposed in the east side option.

While the conflict with the church was replaced with the car park entrance to the Department of Infrastructure, it was felt users here would have a keen interest in road safety.

On balance following consultation the west side option was selected. But everyone was blindsided by an unexpected problem.

May Street

If there was one outstanding issue it was the potential for conflict at May Street. Previously the cycle track ended here are a first of soap poles. [Epic typo which will be retained, mostly because I can’t actually work out what I meant to say – Ed] Bicycles had to cross on the pedestrian light phase, while vehicles emerging from Alfred Street had a dedicated phase to either turn left onto May Street or continue straight to Upper Arthur Street.

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By unravelling pedestrian and cycling movements with a continuous cycleway across the junction, the question of light phasing to accommodate cycling trips and vehicle movements was problematic. However the TNI proposal was to run a dedicated cycle phase and vehicle phase simultaneously, but forcing vehicles to travel ahead only with a left turn restriction – hence eliminating the conflict and solving the problem.

This kind of junction priority was beyond expectations for a cycling project (in Belfast) and was readily accepted. The problem arose because it relies on human nature and trust that people won’t turn left when told, but not physically prevented. Where there’s a will (or no fear of being caught) there’s a way.

Drivers continue to make this unlawful turn every day, through the day. Note that the vehicles are turning across the green-lit two-way cycleway, leading to dangerous conflicts and angry exchanges.

This section holds the biggest regret for everyone involved – for TNI staff who despair at the daily insistence on rule breaking by drivers, and those cycling along the route whose lives are put in danger by selfish behaviour.

Is there a solution?

There are several options which could be deployed:

Passive (CCTV) enforcement

This is probably counter-productive given the rabid campaign the Belfast Telegraph and better media outlets are leading against bus lane enforcement. Drivers blaming their £45-£90 fines on “the cyclists” isn’t going to help with the hearts and minds campaign.

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Enough clues that you can’t turn left when driving here?

Reworked signal phasing

It is possible to split the light phases to allow left turning out of Alfred Street. This would be difficult and would disadvantage all other users of the junction in favour of those emerging from Alfred Street. It would involve less time for general traffic running along May Street, more complex crossing phases for pedestrians and cyclists. An all-green option for all non-motorised users could be a solution, but at the cost of pedestrian / cycling conflict at every phase.

Stopping up Alfred Street and Upper Arthur Street to through-traffic

This was the first point submitted from Bikefast in consultation – cycleways of this nature are inappropriate on streets like these, where traffic reduction or removal should be looked at first.

Somewhat understandably the wheels were in motion on the scheme and large-scale street closure were never likely to be the first project for the Cycling Unit. But this would be the simplest solution to the junction problem and be the beginning of real change on Belfast’s streets.

Closing the May Street exit of Alfred Street to form a cul-de-sac, only for the benefit of service vehicles requiring access, would take an entire signal phase out of the May Street junction.

Further, closing general traffic access to Upper Arthur Street at May Street would have the additional benefit of creating a new pedestrianised area for the city. Bars, restaurants and cafes like AM:PM, The Chubby Cherub, Dina Dina, Arthur’s Coffee House could extend their businesses onto the street. Meanwhile loss of on-street parking isn’t an issue with a multi-storey car parking overshadowing the street, and essential servicing and delivery vehicles could have access until 11am from Chichester Street.

The cycleway on Upper Arthur Street could – and perhaps should – be redundant already.

Junction protection – cautious or radical?

This was going to be a problem either side of the street, but with the cycleway installed on the east side there is a reasonable solution.

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Yikes!

Cyclesaurus was the name given to the daft little dinosaur tail cycle lane which used to hover over the junction of Franklin Street and Alfred Street. It was ridiculed and feared as a piece of infrastructure that did more harm than good when attempting to add clarity to an already confusing mesh of competing movements.

Extending the cycleway down to Ormeau Avenue obliterated this weird experiment. But it didn’t remove the fundamental issue of a two-way cycleway crossing a highly prized city centre rat run suffering from poor sight lines.

Bicycle users have three different directions to be wary of (four if counting cars naughtily emerging from a car park the wrong way) and a fearful right turn into Hamilton Street where conflict is coming from left, right and over your shoulder.

Cargobike Dad’s excellent article on this cycleway’s problems points out that TNI’s skimping on wands (as discussed earlier) has directly impacted on junction safety – fewer wands near the junctions allows a wider turning circle for vehicles whose drivers can take the turn at higher speed.

But there is a simpler if more radical solution which chimes with the wider plans to make the Linen Quarter more liveable and reduce rat running traffic through Belfast city centre.

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Current layout with seven vehicle movements and three cycleway danger points

By simply stopping up the small stretch of Franklin Street to the side of DfI’s headquarters, immediately the movements at the adjacent junction are reduced from seven (with four crossing the cycleway) to just three with none interacting with the increasingly popular cycleway.

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Proposed layout closing Franklin St – just three vehicle movements, no danger points

Just like the idea to stop-up Upper Arthur Street, this tests the limits of the ambition of TNI and the clout of the Cycling Unit to go beyond ‘cycling schemes’ and implement ‘complete streets’ solutions.

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Overall this would eliminate use of Hamilton Street as a short cut to the back of City Hall or towards the Dublin Road, forcing drivers to use the more appropriate ‘strategic’ routes of May Street and Cromac Street.


Six month assessment conclusions

The Alfred Street / Upper Arthur Street Cycleway is an admirable dry run for infrastructure which will extend outward from city centre to suburbs over the next few years. It allows for real-world testing of usage and issues which can crop up and will go a long way to ensuring future schemes are safer for all users.

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Similar vehicle access issues repeated on subsequent College Square North scheme

It is unclear if the review of the project will involve external stakeholders. This is probably essential because it’s unclear if the TNI verdict is anywhere close to the Bikefast verdict – it’s a flawed scheme in the wrong place at the right time.

When we are developing an overall cycling travel plan for Belfast we need to be taking direct lessons from the Dutch approach. Their sustainable safety principles look at traffic type, volume and speed to determine the level of cycling safety measures which need to be deployed. Alfred Street and Upper Arthur Street simply do not have the intensity of traffic volume or speed to justify any type of separated cycling facilities.

That is not making a case for ripping out the cycleway and going back to the former ‘sharing’ approach. What we have for now – however flawed – we hold.

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Instead we need to have difficult conversations about removal and constraint of traffic. The two main flows of traffic which interact with the Alfred Street cycleway are vehicles using Hamilton Street to avoid the bus-prioritised city centre – classic rat-running – and a significant volume of drivers circulating to look for on-street parking, adding an element of distraction.

Wider policy plans are beginning to determine the future direction for the Linen Quarter overall, with overlapping responsibilities of Belfast City Council and the Department for Infrastructure. The general thrust is less vehicular traffic within the inner ring, less on-street parking, consolidated off-street parking on the approaches to the inner ring, and even more priority for public transport, pedestrians and cycling within the core.

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To achieve the kind of streetscapes which would be quiet enough to render separate cycling space unnecessary requires eliminating easy access. There has been talk of cellularisation of the Linen Quarter – stopping up streets and making one-way systems so that vehicles must double back on themselves – but little in the way of concrete planning or action.

Let’s celebrate the successes – the key daily problems of bin blocking and invasion of delivery vehicles have largely vanished. This can be put down to the pressure of pride in a high-quality facility, constant usage by cyclists providing a shame factor, and the key addition of new loading space on Upper Arthur Street.

The surface treatment is a wonderfully smooth experience, making it a pleasure to cycle along. It takes a decent cut out of many journeys and provides a protected cycling experience. It links handily with the National Cycle Network.

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And the huge numbers of people using the cycleway all day every day is a joy to behold showing what can be achieved by the simple idea to support cycling with dedicated facilities – unless you’re TV’s Frank Mitchell..

The vision for this and other streets within Belfast city centre is simple:

  • severely limit on-street parking which attracts hundreds of searching vehicles
  • prioritising the provision of delivery and taxi loading bays and disabled parking
  • vehicles which do require access restricted to one-way cellularised travel
  • pedestrian and cycling space opened out with no restrictions on travel
  • space reclaimed from vehicles opened out to use by local communities and traders
  • enable good ring road facilities to give vehicle traffic attractive options to avoid core
  • improve (private & public) off street parking outside inner core at fair market rates

Let’s allow the Cycling Unit to be bolder chasing the vision set out in the Bicycle Stragegy for Northern Ireland. Cycling is one part of an overall mix of attempting to reduce Belfast’s reliance on the car. Making streets right for cycling and walking sometimes requires a braver solution than a cycleway. The Belfast Bicycle Network Plan due soon will no doubt require this kind of separate, dedicated cycleway on Belfast’s main arterial routes – implement it where appropriate, learn these lessons and get it right. And where we don’t need cars, make those tougher calls without fear of external criticism or internal resistance.


Read more? (fair play to you)

Alfred St – Upper Arthur St cycle path (NI Cycles, 01 Apr 16)

Alfred Street Junction Design (Cargobike Dad, 12 Mar 16)

The shape of things to come

Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard has been in post since May 2016. In that time you may not have had the chance to gauge how progressive a Transport Minister he plans to be.

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You might have been impressed by his predecessors Danny Kennedy and Michelle McIlveen’s committment to active travel. You might have recently seen that fantastic greenways announcement, but maybe you’re waiting to see what effect the Belfast Telegraph’s bus lane fetish has on policy formation.

If you have had any doubts about where Belfast is headed in terms of transport planning, this might help – a response during Infrastructure Questions on Monday 28th November 2016:

“I would not have stood in the House recently and made the decision to proceed with the York Street Interchange if I did not accept the arguments that it is a strategic piece of infrastructure that not just the city of Belfast but the economy as a whole requires.

When looking at the economy .. we continue to talk in the House and on the public airwaves about moving cars. We need to talk about moving people.

Moving people in and out of Belfast city is good for business; moving cars is not.

What are we to do after York Street? Are we to bulldoze half of Great Victoria Street because we need two extra lanes in Great Victoria Street? Are we to demolish Belfast City Hall because we need a bigger roundabout at Belfast City Hall?

We need to talk about moving people, not cars, in and out of Belfast.”

Minister Chris Hazzard at Infrastructure Questions 28 Nov 2016

Meanwhile, Sammy Douglas MLA kicked off a discussion around greenways, where the thorny issue of the excellent Connswater Greenway highlighting the need for investment in the adjoining Comber Greenway raised more interesting news:

“My Department will shortly undertake a public consultation on the Belfast Bicycle Network, which includes the Comber Greenway. The consultation will seek views on a number of improvements to the greenway, including lighting part of the route.

Following consultation on the network, consideration will be given to whether lighting is appropriate on parts of the route, taking into account environmental concerns and the needs of the adjacent properties and neighbours.”

Minister Chris Hazzard at Infrastructure Questions 28 Nov 2016

Looking to the wider greenway network development (queston by Jenny Palmer MLA) it turns out the Minister is a big fan of the Lagan Towpath:

“I am a regular user of the Lagan Towpath in particular. It has great heritage and also great potential for the future. You only have to go on to it at the weekend to see that it is absolutely buzzing. It is like a high street in the town.

It is great to see. The long-term vision of the Lagan linking into the restoration of the Ulster Canal and even further is a project that is worth good attention in the years ahead.

I only wish that I had the money to start work tomorrow.”

Minister Chris Hazzard at Infrastructure Questions 28 Nov 2016

What potential does the greenway network announcement have beyond active travel, looking specifically at the tourism sector? (question by Nichola Mallon MLA)

“I was delighted and privileged to launch the greenway plan just outside Dundrum on the old Belfast and County Down Railway line, which used to bring hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists from Belfast to north and south Down, including to Newcastle, my part of the world. There is no reason why we cannot extend out for active travel and cycling.

When you talk to anyone involved in the tourism industry, they tell you that they want active tourism or activities that take people out of the city to destinations such as Newcastle. This can definitely be part of that. Some of the schemes for the Glens and another one to link Carlingford lough and Lough Neagh are very exciting. There are some great schemes for us to be excited about over the next five to 10 years.”

Minister Chris Hazzard at Infrastructure Questions 28 Nov 2016

Urban greenway development may have seen subsumed within in the mostly rural network announcement, but it’s very much on the agenda: (question by Paula Bradshaw MLA)

“The [Carryduff Greenway] scheme first came on to my horizon when the Finance Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, talked about it. As someone who knows the lay of the land in that part of the world, I think that it would be a fantastic asset.

It could also play a vital role in alleviating congestion from the city, considering the success of the Cairnshill park-and-ride facility. A greenway there from Carryduff through Belvoir Forest would be a great asset.

I encourage the council to do all that it can during the detailed design. Like other schemes that I have mentioned, it could be a huge asset.”

Minister Chris Hazzard at Infrastructure Questions 28 Nov 2016


Comment

Let’s just take a look at what the Minister is outlining here:

  • rural greenways as signature tourism projects to drive our economy
  • suburban greenways to alleviate congestion by dovetailing with public transport
  • enhancing urban greenways to help people choose the bicycle year-round
  • designing urban centres around the needs of people, not cars

This is not a result of heavy lobbying, pushing from the outside – this is coming unprompted from the new Minister.

Is Shane Ross taking in these terms? Is Chris Grayling? I’m genuinely interested to benchmark this against other administrations in these islands because it appears our Minister really gets it.

The Lion, the Witch and the Belfast Bikes

CS Lewis Square, the centrepiece of the £40 million Connswater Community Greenway in East Belfast, officially opened last night in a massive family party. Tucked away within that magic tale was another piece of a wider story arc – a bold eastward extension of the Belfast Bikes scheme.

CS Lewis Square should develop Holywood Arches into the urban heart of east Belfast, providing a space for residents and visitors to use for events and activities.

Only a few days before the launch event we got signals that a Coca-Cola Zero Belfast Bikes Station was to be installed on the site.

Belfast City Council confirmed the immediate operational launch of the station:

“The CS Lewis Square docking station is being jointly funded by the NI Executive’s Urban Villages Fund and Belfast City Council. CS Lewis Square station has 16 docking points.

“Another 10 bikes are being added for the CS Lewis Square expansion. This brings the total number of bicycles in the Coca-Cola Zero Belfast Bikes scheme to 393.

“We are launching a further three docking stations in East Belfast to link up the CS Lewis Square docking station with our existing network. Exact locations are still being negotiated.”

What makes this expansion significant is the thrust away from the original core of the scheme within the city centre; it’s the most remote station installed to date, at almost 3km distance from City Hall.

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Residents around the Holywood Arches now have a genuine commuting link with Belfast city centre by public hire bike, as do the many workers in Connswater Retail Park.

The station lies far outside the 300m-500m radius of adjoining stations which has governed location spread to date, so it’s good to see immediate supporting stations being delivered to bridge the gap.

And it seems the ‘interim’ expansion, ahead of the official Phase Two of Belfast Bikes growth, hasn’t finished yet.

“Docking stations at Falls, Carlisle Circus and Grosvenor Road still to be installed once planning approval granted. Further expansion plans still to be agreed but will be subject to funding Council approval.”

CS Lewis Square lies at the crossing point of the two Belfast greenways – Comber and Connswater – a crossroads that offers a cycling corridor 7 miles eastward to Comber, northward to Victoria Park and the North Down Coastal Path, and westward into Belfast city centre and Lisburn and Newtownabbey beyond.

The southward portion along the Connswater Greenway is still under construction, with the link across Connswater Retail Park and Avoniel expected to complete in the New Year.

Recently opened sections beyond now permit traffic-free travel from The Hollow at Beersbridge Road through Orangefield Park and the Marsh-wiggle Way as far as Braniel.

(Main image by Steven Patterson, used with permission.)

Concerted effort puts cycling at heart of York Street Interchange

One aspect perhaps overlooked in today’s announcement of progress on Belfast’s £130m York Street Interchange (YSI) project is the success in forcing engineers to place high quality cycling space at the heart of the scheme.

The scale of the YSI project – making a free-running interchange between three motorways beside the centre of Belfast – and several objections meant a Public Inquiry was held in November 2015. Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard’s announcement of progress (subject to funding) was accompanied by publication of the Inquiry Inspector’s Report.

“For an urban road project between £125m and £165m it is unacceptable in this day and age for a) the plan and b) the engineers working to those objectives to claim not to have responsibility beyond the benefits to motorised users.”
NI Greenways verbal submission to Inquiry

A lengthy critique of the original plan for the York Street (local traffic) spine running through the motorway underpasses and bridges was published in March 2015 and highlighted some main concerns from a cycling perspective:

  • poor 1.5m advisory cycle lanes
  • continuing use of defunct advanced stop lines
  • bus lanes continuing to be pushed as cycling infrastructure
  • cycle tracks not bypassing bus stops
  • inconsistent cycle provision design northbound vs southbound
  • no thought to increased ‘street life’ due to new Ulster University campus
  • poor junction designs with left turning traffic in conflict with cyclists
  • claims of a lack of space despite many separation strips as ‘dead space’

In total 33 objections were made to the (then) Department for Regional Development (DRD) / Transport NI (TNI) about the scheme – a remarkable 20 of which related to the poor cycling provision.

“I think that balance [of objections] gives some indication of how much value the people of Belfast place on being able to move around safely by bicycle.”
NI Greenways verbal submission

Several campaigners and Sustrans made written and verbal submissions to the Inquiry. A combination of scathing criticism and obviously flawed design and thinking, along with the developing Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland, and the adoption by TNI of the London Cycling Design Standards (LCDS) as its design manual for cycling schemes, meant a reworking of the scheme was deemed necessary, before the Inquiry even got going.

“The York St Interchange plan was, in essence, a blank canvas. Standard-setting, high quality cycling routes can be designed in from the beginning rather than the typically more difficult retrofitting. Instead the plans included designs which took the worst elements of Belfast cycling routes – advisory cycle lanes, bus lanes, essentially sharing with or fitting in around motor vehicles.”
NI Greenways verbal submission

What’s changed?

The biggest change occurs along the length of the York Street section. An inconsistent and outdated approach led to a northbound cycle lane designated only by paint, and a shared bus lane for most of the southbound route.

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Recognising the problems the design caused, the revised scheme separates the northbound cycle track with wands (seen in action here on Alfred Street) while the southbound section now separates cycling journeys from other bus lane users. While wands won’t be deployed southbound (as it stands) it’s a big step forward to recognise that a bus lane in itself is not cycling infrastructure and, where space is not an issue, cycling should have dedicated space.

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We also have a bus stop bypass!

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Where once buses would come into conflict with users of the on-road advisory cycle lane (above) now a dedicated cycle track winds behind the bus stop.

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And just for good measure, TNI threw in a second bus stop bypass going southbound. Ta!

The original plan had several junctions where left turning vehicles would conflict with the cycle lane hovering across the entrance. In the new plan, wand-separated cycles tracks now take cycle track users away from this point of conflict, allowing the crucial mitigation of eye contact between driver and cyclist at dedicated crossings.

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The Inspector’s Report accepts the thrust of the objections on cycling provision, and acknowledges TNI’s good work to respond:

Consideration on provision for cyclists

It was very clear from reading the earlier correspondence from Sustrans and a considerable number of other Objectors, that the original proposed provision for the cycling community was far from satisfactory. Indeed, Mr [Gordon] Clarke (Sustrans) spent some time reinforcing this point in his presentation at the Inquiry.

However, it equally apparent that a combination of dialogue between TNI and Sustrans Representatives, a willingness to make changes and the introduction of current design standards has led to a situation where most of the original issues have been resolved.

It was claimed that an earlier adoption of the higher standards could have eliminated the need to ‘retro-fit’ the design changes. However, the constraints imposed by the existing built infrastructure might still have limited the room for manoeuver by the design team.

It is not clear whether the anticipated very considerable increase in the number of cycling journeys over the next ten years has been fully assessed by TNI within the context of the YSI Scheme. It was claimed that a rise in cycling use is foreseen within the DRD Bicycling Strategy, which was published in August 2015.

The major drivers of this change would appear to be:

  • the construction of the new Ulster University complex
  • the construction and location of the new student residential accommodation
  • the future expansion of the Belfast bike hire scheme

Continued dialogue between TNI and Sustrans is clearly highly desirable in order to seek acceptable solutions to the outstanding issues.

Whilst acknowledging concerns over ‘project creep’, TNI should re-examine their proposals for the roads at the extremities of the Scheme to ensure that as far as possible the anticipated cycling and other infrastructure developments outside the footprint of the Scheme are taken into account in the YSI project.

Recommendation

Dialogue to continue between TNI and Sustrans in order to seek acceptable solutions to the outstanding issues.

  • TNI to re-examine their proposals for the roads at the extremities of the Scheme to ensure that as far as possible the anticipated cycling and other infrastructure developments outside the footprint of the Scheme are taken into account within the YSI project.
  • TNI to reassess the implications of both the new University and emerging DRD cycling strategies on the Scheme, as it is anticipated that this will transform the area around York Street beyond recognition
  • TNI to investigate mitigation measures to provide a degree of protection to
    cyclists and pedestrians from wind and rain on the York Street Bridge

York Street Interchange Inspector’s Report

What still needs to change?

While the objectors and TNI found common ground in the revised scheme design, there was one major flaw in the revision which was picked up by the Inspector:

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“The Inspector said that it had occurred to him .. that when travelling in a northbound direction along York Street to the Brougham Street junction on a bicycle, you would be emerging from behind a bus stop and onto the lane on the carriageway and immediately encountering traffic turning left. Did that merging from two different directions not lead to a risk of accidents. There may well be buses sitting at that bus stop, so traffic passing by those buses would not see the cyclists emerging.”

“Mr Spiers [TNI] said he was content that the proposal meets current standards.”

York Street Interchange Inspector’s Report

The dotted black line is (apparently) critical to the reason why the Brougham Street slip lane wasn’t revised to safely accommodate cycling, as others have been. Technically it falls outside of the scope of the YSI project and therefore won’t be considered as part of the scheme.

This leaves a very dangerous end to an otherwise excellent northbound route, and should be urgently addressed, as suggested by the Inspector’s first recommendation.

TNI’s response to the Inspector’s third recommendation on wind and rain mitigation will be fascinating to observe 😉


Congratulations to everyone who fed into the Inquiry process through objections or submissions to improve the cycling aspects. The York Street Interchange may prove to be the pivot point for embedding cycling-as-transport into major roads schemes as a matter of course, not a matter of how loud we have to shout.

Sirocco Skyway (Restitching Belfast 4)

The Sirocco Skyway is a proposal to create an iconic elevated traffic-free pathway across the city skyline of Belfast. As part of the Restitching Belfast series, we look at creating a new route to link Central Station with Titanic Quarter and directly connect the Comber and Connswater Greenways with the city centre.

skyway

Standing on East Bridge Street looking from Central Station towards Cave Hill opens a panoramic view of the proposed 850m pathway route, linking South and East Belfast across the River Lagan.

The main access point would be from the bridge, opposite the entrance to Central Station, opening out into a wide pathway along the right hand (east) side of the railway line.

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Starting point for the Sirocco Skyway at the height of East Bridge Street

The path would sweep down on a gentle gradient to the existing car park beside the railway, and around the back of the pumping station on May’s Meadow.

Utilising the existing parapets of the railway bridge, the Skyway can be suspended over Laganbank Road to the river’s edge near El Divino nightclub, and then over the Lagan. A similar set-up currently exists on the other side of the bridge with a well-lit pedestrian walkway linking the two riverbanks.

Sunset over the Central railway bridge and possible Skyway

Crossing the Lagan hugging tight to the railway bridge, the Skyway would cross the red brick boundary wall of the Sirocco Works site.

Sirocco Works

The former Sirocco Works stood on this site from the 1880s and the industrial machinery developed here included the world’s first air conditioning systems. The now derelict Sirocco site has been in various stages of planned development over the last decade, with the economic downturn scuppering the advanced “Sirocco Quays” plan:

“Plans for the waterside development included 5,000 apartments, a hotel, an international convention centre, a supermarket, leisure facilities and other retail sites.”

Belfast Telegraph 18 February 2016

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Sirocco Skyway crossing the Lagan and rounding the edge of the Sirocco site

The site has recently been taken over by new owners. Belfast City Council are working on an “East Bank Framework” which has this area in its scope.

Sirocco Works site looking to the railway line

It’s an ideal time for public and private bodies to embed the Skyway concept as a high profile traffic-free access to benefit (and attract) users of the site.

While this is primarily envisaged as a functional commuter and access route, the addition of a major private development on the route offers possibilities for a New York Highline-style public realm enhancement along the Sirocco Works section – as well as the benefit of costs shared between the public and private sectors.

Towards Titanic and the greenways

While the river and the Sirocco site pose formidable barriers to attempting this direction of journey at present, the massive Bridge End gyratory junction also presents a woeful environment. The Skyway proposal would simply glide over these multi-lane racetracks.

Passing across Bridge End at the first railway bridge, the elevated pathway would need to carry over the service station while clinging to the railway line.

Behind this, the Eastside Park and Ride site would greatly benefit from excellent pedestrian access for passengers using Central and Titanic Quarter stations.

It would also link in with the Middlepath Street Cycleway due to be installed in early 2017. Flying over Middlepath Street, the Skyway would fall gently down to meet the existing (and recently upgraded) access path to Titanic Quarter Station.

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Sirocco Skyway descends from the bridge over Middlepath Street

Onward cycling trips would utilise the station underpass into Island Street which, with upgraded traffic calming, would lead directly to the Comber Greenway at Dee Street.

This would complete a high-quality link to the convergence of the Comber and Connswater greenways at CS Lewis Square, with its new Belfast Bikes station pointing to a future where cycling is more critical to inner city travel.

Lanyon Tunnels and Maysfield

The Skyway plan offers a chance to create a fully traffic-free interchange at East Bridge Street. The recently announced £2.6 million funding for the Lanyon Tunnels project is a major boost to the Markets area. The derelict and fenced-off archways under East Bridge Street will be redeveloped into a crèche, an employment education and training club, community space, cafe and health and fitness facility.

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View to Lanyon Place and River Lagan through the Lanyon Tunnels

“Although not in use for over 70 years, the tunnels are an important part of Belfast’s commercial heritage and were originally used by cattle traders as holding pens for cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse in nearby Stewart Street.”

Belfast City Council

Included in the plan is an access tunnel to link the Markets with the Lagan. Bringing an access ramp down to the western side of the railway line would enable direct traffic-free journeys from the Markets into Titanic Quarter and on to the Comber and Connswater greenways.

This is even more critical with the go-ahead for a £55 million office development on the brownfield site between Central Station and Stewart Street. Providing the best possible incentives for the expected 2,500 workers on this site to cycle to work can help to mitigate further parking and traffic issues which have blighted this area for years.

Main path over car park, access paths through Lanyon Tunnels either side of railway

Another (eastern) access path down to the existing street which runs through to Central Station would enable fast access to the new Concentrix and Allstate offices under construction at May’s Meadow, and on to the Laganside path heading towards the Gasworks and Ormeau.

East Bridge Street improvements

This development of a fast cycling commuter route (just one controlled crossing in the 2.6km between Oxford Street and CS Lewis Square) would need the additional support of dedicated cycling space on the run to the top of East Bridge Street.

This would provide relief to safely by-pass the hideous traffic which regularly snarls along this stretch, tipping the balance further towards cycle commuting as an attractive option. It’s also another essential step to widen the city’s cycling demographic.

The necessity for dedicated cycle space here will only be increased by Bus Rapid Transit which will run along East Bridge Street from 2018. Unravelling bicycles and ‘rapid’ buses on a tough hill for the infrequent cyclist makes sense. Even now many people take to the footway to safely avoid standing traffic, putting strain on a space filled with people hurrying to catch the train.

The Sirocco Skyway vision brings together a stunning view of the Belfast skyline with genuine possibilities for modal shift linking three of the fastest developing commercial and residential areas of Belfast – Titanic, East Bank and May’s Meadow. A partnership between Belfast City Council, the Department for Infrastructure, Translink, private developers and communities in the Lower Newtownards Road, Short Strand and The Markets could deliver an excellent facility which the whole city could be proud of – and in a very short time.


What do you think of the idea of a Sirocco Skyway? Would it make a difference to your journeys around the city? Let us know in the comments below and share the article on social media.


Amended article 5th Dec 2016: in the original article it was incorrectly stated that Arup are working on a development plan for the new owners of the Sircocco site. In fact, Arup are leading the development of the East Bank Framework for Belfast City Council.