Bikefast’s official consultation response to the Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan consists of a generally positive response and five main objections.
Objection two is based on methodology – specifically a lack of one behind the odd selection of routes. If cycling is to thrive in Belfast, if a better mix of street life is to be enabled and motor vehicles are to be constrained to allow it, a better methodology needs to be employed.
Back in pre-consultation, the word from the Cycling Unit was the route plan would effectively be along eight points of the compass radiating from the city centre to suburbs.
The additional three ring routes will be the focus of another objection article. But the headline act was always going to be the arterial streets – the places people visit and travel through every day – and the Cycling Unit fudged it.
Why did they avoid these streets? Fear seemed to be the reason, but neither this nor any other explicit reason was explained in the Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan.
Sure, there are the five “Criteria for route selection” and 26 sub-criteria, but nothing concrete to explain the reasons behind arterial avoidance and the attempted creation of a wholly new travel network within the city. The closest sub-criteria question is:
“Is the route circuitous (more direct or less direct) compared to using the public road?”
Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan
Strong application of this criteria might have seen every main ‘public road’ with a cycleway, but that’s the opposite of what we got.
It’s time to create a better method.
Working backwards from the other end
Let’s begin where the Cycling Unit should have started – let’s make cycleways on arterial routes the default position (as perhaps it should be in a modern city) and work backwards from there.
To help, Bikefast has mocked up a Transit Map of Belfast, with 16 key corridors identified and the types of transport supported on each. Apart from motorways and rail, pedestrian activity permeates the entire city.
Most arterial streets in Belfast are a complex mix of residential housing, commercial units, community hubs. Most act as both general use streets and commuter corridors. We’ve added the Motorway-class roads (forgive us for upgrading the A2 past the airport and the Westlink around the centre, but they’re closer to motorways than any other roads in Belfast), the rail network, ordinary bus routes and the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes opening next year.
There’s also some dedicated cycle routes, but not many – hence why we have a Bicycle Network Plan.
Of all the spokes on this bicycle wheel representing Belfast’s transit system, only the Shankill Road features on the Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan – and as mentioned, this may not mean a roadside cycleway.
Question: Are there streets where space or other alternatives to private cars make the importance of a cycleway more or less necessary than others?
We can start with BRT corridors. Road widening works have already made these routes capable of carrying the high-specification vehicles on extended priority bus lanes. Cycling will still be permitted on these, but the availability of a high quality public transport system will alleviate some demand for longer cycling journeys, and space is almost impossible to find now without significantly degrading the pedestrian experience. So dedicated cycleways could be deemed as less critical.
If this is the case, then providing alternative and integrated journey options in close parallel is extremely important.
Luckily along the Newtownards Road BRT corridor, the Comber Greenway provides a natural parallel dedicated space for bicycles. It places an added emphasis on putting bicycle infrastructure on the Belmont Road on the opposite side to the Greenway.
In the west, the proposed Bog Meadows Greenway can provide a parallel bicycle-focused arterial corridor. In both cases providing safe cycling links between the BRT corridor and bicycle corridor are critical.
After that, any urban transport planner will struggle to argue why safe space for cycling shouldn’t be planned to support people on bicycles along our critical city corridors.
The Cycling Unit have chosen this approach; they are under an obligation to share the method they chosen to determine this (lack of) priority; they haven’t given us one to judge.
Are there streets where parallel provision of strategic roads or dedicated public transport make priority for cars less necessary than others?
One strange quirk of recent INRIX congestion reporting is that the Lisburn Road is the most congested evening rush hour road in the UK (outside of London). This is the same Lisburn Road which has a SIX LANE MOTORWAY running in parallel as well as the southern commuter and intercity railway line into Belfast.
Go on, read that paragraph again.
Realistically, with those cards up the sleeve, the Lisburn Road is a prime candidate for reducing through traffic and improving facilities for walking and cycling.
All our Transport Department has been moved to do in recent years is tinker around the edges in response to a public (see: business) outcry over tickets for unlawful parking. The effects have been to further hamper the experience of cycling and public transport, while still not grasping the nettle of looking at what damage rampant traffic is doing to the life of the Lisburn Road neighbourhood as a whole.
Three arterial streets in Belfast – the Lisburn Road, Shore Road and Holywood Road – have such excellent alternative options for through-travel that vehicle journey priority should be firmly below the experience for walking and cycling.
But, in Belfast, that is verboten.
All of the other corridors, which have few strategic alternatives – where private vehicles, buses, bicycles and pedestrians must mix in some ratio – are a toss-up for the best layout and priority.
So what should the basic Transit Map look like? Bikefast humbly submits its starting point for discussion.
Pedestrian access everywhere; cycling facilities everywhere (unless BRT makes space impossible to find); public transport options on all route corridors.
And then we can begin the discussion on how to balance individual streets to suit the needs of everyone – not just the car commuter who refuses to look beyond the end of their own nose.
Primary, secondary or whole solution?
Without an over-arching methodology for bicycle provision, we’ve been handed a Network Plan that is actually only half a plan:
“The Primary network will be adjacent or close to the majority of Belfast communities, initially giving better access to all. The secondary network will reach further into communities and will provide access to services and other key destinations. This secondary network will carry varying volumes of bicycles depending on the population density and destination. It will have varying levels of separation from motor traffic depending upon the context and character of the area. As we view it at present, it will mainly be comprised of cycle lanes, contraflow lanes, quiet routes and bicycle priority shared lanes.
“In each neighbourhood, the secondary network will be shaped by individual projects, community input, and the goals of this document. The delivery of the network will require years of coordination and commitment and will be constructed incrementally.”
Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan
So all the bits in-between the high-profile cycleways are not being considered in detail right now. Indeed, at the public consultation events it was clear they won’t be detailed and shared for public discussion for a number of years.
The cycling network risks becoming a bolt-on to the city if measures to promote the bicycle are not taken hand-in-hand with measures to simultaneously deter, restrict or de-prioritise private car travel on the “last half mile” of journeys.
Without running cycleways along arterial streets, the Network Plan is already a Secondary network – pushing bicycle journeys to the margins, giving a submissive role for cycling in the city.
To then ignore the ‘quieter’ streets in residential areas – where a high proportion of schools happen to sit – will leave many inexperienced and nervous ‘would-be’ cyclists with the same safety dilemma as today.
These streets are flooded with vehicles making through-journeys every day. Route options for car travel is rarely less direct than for walking and cycling. Restrictions to 20mph (or slower) are few and far between. Children playing on streets outside their homes was a common feature of Belfast in years gone past – not any more.
The Primary and Secondary networks are two sides of the same coin – users’ journey choices will be determined by interplay of both. Ploughing on with one while kicking the other into the long grass is wrong. It make also be realpolitik – and we’ll deal with that in our final objection article on Isolation.
If we want to make Belfast safe for cycling in greater numbers (and for all road users) while determining the types of infrastructural interventions required in different areas – to create safer, livelier, healthier streets – we should be looking to employ the best methodology available.
Sustainable Safety is the name for the Dutch approach to achieving safer roads. It is not about creating cycleways alone, but instead categorises streets, users, speeds and volumes of traffic along five lines:
- Functionality (of roads)
- Homogeneity (of mass, speed and direction of users)
- Predictability (of streets and user behaviour by recognisable design)
- Forgivingness (of both environment and users)
- State awareness (by users)
It’s worth reading Mark Wagenbuur’s excellent summary of Sustainable Safety to see the purpose and achievements. As a framework it’s not primarily focused on bicycle infrastructure, but a clear outworking is determining the level of intervention required wherever bicycle users go – which in The Netherlands as in Belfast is everywhere people go.
“The approach began with establishing that the road system was inherently unsafe. The goal was to fundamentally change the system by taking a person as a yardstick. The guidelines for design were to be the physical vulnerability of a person, but also what a person can and wants to do (humans make mistakes and don’t always follow rules). There is now an integral approach to the road system which refers to ‘human’ (behavior), ‘vehicle’ (including bicycles!) and ‘road’ (design). Roads and vehicles must be adapted to the human capabilities and the human has to be educated enough to be able to operate a vehicle on a road in a safe manner. The approach is pro-active, it wants to remedy gaps and mistakes in the traffic system before crashes occur. So Sustainable Safety is about a lot more than just infrastructure.”
Sustainable Safety, Bicycle Dutch
A Sustainable Safety-based approach to mapping out the street network of Belfast would provide a systematic and objective way to prioritise usage needs and interventions required to adequately support those needs.
We could apply more radical snipping of through journeys for vehicles between the arterial streets of the city. We could prioritise the most vulnerable users in all places, especially where volume and speed of vehicles is highest – which in Belfast happens to be the same arterial streets where life tries to thrive, many times in conflict with the needs of vehicle traffic.
And rather than tacking on a bicycle network on its own terms, unlikely to match users needs, we can design liveable streets where bicycles can play an important role.
Bikefast agrees that most of the Plan is acceptable, but the route map is the central error and needs to be scrapped. What we replace it with and how those new lines are decided will set Belfast on a course for either a future streetscape designed around people and vulnerable road users, or continuing to submit to the motor car’s voracious appetite for space.
We can’t detect the Cycling Unit’s method. Have they even looked at population density, and does that matter in such a small city? Have they looked at current cycling levels across the city and planned accordingly? And if so, which way has that influenced their decisions – infrastructure prioritised to low uptake areas or building upon already successful areas, or a balance of both? We can’t assess or make arguments on any of these kind of issues without their method explained.
Consultation respondents have been encouraged to suggest their own routes – which puts us into a cul-de-sac of a popularity contest. Instead the Cycling Unit, supported by fellow forward-thinking stakeholders, should methodically determine the needs and safety of bicycle users, and by extension all road users, across the city.
The keen-eyed among you may be wondering how far from a critique of the Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan is Bikefast straying here? The problem with launching a 130km city bicycle network suggestion is that it is attempting alter the travel patterns of anything up to half a million people on a good day. The scope is huge but the vision is desperately narrow.
We want to change that. We think we need to change that. We think Belfast deserves better.
A healthy modern city should actively encourage walking and cycling everywhere; prioritise public transport on key corridors; and do its best to harness private motor vehicles which do so much damage to the other modes and city life in general.
You simply can’t build for the bicycle in isolation of other travel forms.
But that’s the subject for our fifth objection – next up is our view on the proposed timescale..
For more information on Bikefast’s full response to the Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan consultation (closing Thursday 13th April 2017) see the following articles: