81% of people in Belfast want more protected bike routes to make cycling safer, even when this could mean less space for other road traffic, the UK’s biggest assessment of cycling in cities has revealed.
Belfast is one of seven UK cities taking part in the Bike Life project which reports every two years on cycle infrastructure provision, travel habits, attitudes towards cycling, and the impact of cycling more widely, produced by Sustrans in partnership with the Department for Infrastructure.
Almost three-quarters of Belfast residents surveyed support more investment in cycling, with 71% saying Belfast would be a better place to live and work if more people cycled.
Bicycles currently take nearly 7,000 cars off Belfast roads every day. Parking all these cars would take up the space of almost eight City Hall grounds and if all these cars were in a traffic jam this would equate to 21 miles – the distance from Belfast to Craigavon (as the crow flies).
This year’s report reveals that out of the 1,100 people surveyed in Belfast, 65% would cycle more if segregated on-road cycle routes were created – these are usually physically separated from both motor traffic and pedestrians with kerbs and bollards.
In fact people who said they never ride a bike still overwhelmingly support the provision of segregated routes (79%) even when this could mean less space for other traffic.
The report found there are 53 miles of routes segregated from vehicles in Belfast, an increase of only 3 miles from 2015. Only 30% of people think cycling safety in Belfast is good but as many as 54% said they would like to start riding a bike or could cycle more.
There are a paltry 56 railway station parking spaces for bikes, equivalent to one parking space for every 274 passengers per day, while the 769 public bike parking spaces in the city centre includes only 50 added since 2015.
Belfast Lord Mayor, Nuala McAllister who is helping to launch the report said:
“This project provides us with important analysis of cycling and helps us to improve infrastructure and the conditions to make travelling by bike possible for more of us.
“The report shows we still have a long way to go to increase the number of people cycling in Belfast, to make it a really bike-friendly city but Belfast’s first Bike Share Scheme has really helped promote cycling and normalise it as a way of travelling in our city.”
Gordon Clarke, Sustrans Northern Ireland Director said:
“Bike Life shows that most people in Belfast think cycling is a good thing and are far more supportive of bold and ambitious plans for cycling than decision makers often think. They want dedicated space for people on bicycles even when this means taking space away from cars.”
Peter May, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Infrastructure said:
“An increase in the number of people walking and cycling is one of the important elements contained in the draft Programme for Government. This report has gathered some key data that will help guide the ongoing development and operation of the bicycle infrastructure and associated engagement programmes over the coming years.
“It sets out what we have improved and also highlights the things we need to focus on to give people the freedom and confidence to travel by bicycle for their everyday journeys.”
Mary Black, Assistant Director of Health and Social Wellbeing Improvement with the Public Health Agency (PHA), said:
“Physical activity is a great way to improve your health. Recent research by the University of Glasgow, published in the British Medical Journal, found that commuters who cycled were associated with a 41% lower risk of premature death.
“Being more physically active can reduce your risk of developing chronic conditions including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, respiratory conditions and dementia. It also improves sleep, helps maintain a healthy weight and reduces stress and anxiety.”
Key stats Belfast Bike Life 2017
£16million is the total annual benefit to Belfast from people riding bikes for transport and leisure
6.7 million trips made by bike in Belfast in past year
5% of Belfast residents usually cycle to and from work
Bicycles take up to 6,939 cars off Belfast’s roads each day, equal to a 21 mile tailback
People cycling in Belfast saves the NHS £392,000 annually, equivalent to the cost of 17 nurses’ salaries
The original Bike Life report was published in 2015. It reported that a majority of people (75%) supported £26 per head investment in cycle infrastructure.
Bike Life mirrors the Copenhagen Bicycle Account which outlines the development in cycling, identifies challenges and informs planning. The Danish capital of Copenhagen is the most-bicycle friendly city in the world with investment since 2004 of over £35 per head on cycling and a network of segregated cycle routes on almost all main roads and bridges across the city. In 2016, 62% of Copenhagener’s trips to work and education in the city were made by bike, and 76% said they felt safe when cycling (Copenhagen Bike Account, 2016. Copenhagen City of Cyclists).
The headlines are good and the survey findings makes sense (again) – but is anyone at the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) prepared to back it with commitment, capital, priority or (God forbid) space on arterial roads to deliver a safe city network for cycling?
One problem is, the Cycling Unit within DfI is not where the power lies. Those who have power see bus lanes as the future. It’s the default position on the current plans for Belfast’s Transport Hub, and a view horribly out-of-time and out-of-step with public opinion.
Shamefully (and this is straight from the horse's mouth) bus lanes are central to cycle planning within those two orgs (by those who matter)
Will the convenience of bus lanes for planners of major road schemes continue to override the clear view of those who we need to cycle in great numbers – that bus lanes should not be viewed as a cycling intervention? Or shared pavements, while we’re listening to tthe public?
What we need to focus on is the overall net benefit to society from getting many people out of their cars and onto bicycles:
82p per mile net benefit for each mile cycled instead of driven
Only from that point, and admitting that Bus Rapid Transit will only be capable of tackling a small portion of our city’s chronic congestion, can cross-departmental leverage be brought to bear on investing in cycling as a priority.
The draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan is mired in consultation limbo, with the Cycling Unit seemingly unable to see a way past a hard-bunkered departmental intransigence on cycling. That resistance means no arterial cycle routes, no chance of “more protected bike routes to make cycling safer, even when this could mean less space for other road traffic”.
Bike Life 2017 Belfast is a great report, but it must not be used by DfI as a PR smokescreen to gloss over continuing under-investment in everyday cycling. It should be the wind that blows down the barriers to everyday cycling development in Belfast; barriers which really only exist within Clarence Court.
A review of the popular but embattled Coca-Cola Zero Belfast Bikes scheme will see a major shift to the south of the city at the expense of less popular city centre docks.
Five of the public hire bicycle docking stations will be removed from the existing scheme layout. The footprint of the Belfast Bikes system is concentrated in the centre of the city, which crucially lacks a major resident population. The move is aimed at generating more journeys and subscriptions from commuters.
“The new locations have been identified through feedback from the Belfast Bikes survey and from scheme users, as well as requests from the public. They also are in areas of high residential density or footfall, for part of a supporting network and are in close proximity to the existing cycling infrastructure.”
Belfast City Council
This is essentially a rebalancing exercise, and Belfast City Council will want to see many new subscribers coming on board from the Ormeau and Stranmillis areas. True expansion across the city, of brand new stations and rental bicycle numbers, many depend on the success of this move.
You’d hope that a £175M public investment in a Transport Hub to revolutionise city transport would mean a step forward for active travel in Belfast. Instead the big beasts of transport planning have once more prioritised car travel in an urban setting, with the needs of pedestrians and bicycle users and, shockingly, even Belfast Rapid Transit left to play second fiddle.
Described by Translink as a new gateway for the city, “a 21st century passenger experience designed to provide commuters, visitors and residents with a best in class transport experience“, the impressive new station architecture and integration of services stand in sharp contrast to the external elements – typical, stubbornly mediocre transport planning. The scheme, going through planning consultation on planningni.gov.uk, includes these main elements:
“New integrated transport interchange comprising; station concourse, 26 bus stands, 8 railway platforms, bus maintenance and parking, track and signalling enhancements, bus access bridge, cycle and taxi provision, car parking, new public square, public realm improvements, highway improvements, infrastructure improvements.”
“The team we’ve assembled will bring innovative, fresh thinking to the complexities of Belfast’s transportation challenges.”
A scheme being driven and funded by the government-owned company Translink, with the final decision on planning permission lying with the Department for Infrastructure (DfI, who do the government-owning bit), shouldhave some revolutionary cycling infrastructure and facilities at its heart.
Except this is Belfast, where transport planners have got away with serving up crap for so long, they’ve no incentive to change. The “innovative, fresh thinking” on how to incorporate the bicycle into the newly re-branded “Weaver’s Cross” area stinks of reheated slop from 1990s.
The scheme boundaries include a whopping 1.5km of surrounding streets and 1km of new internal streets. Portions of Grosvenor Road, Howard Street, College Square East, Great Victoria Street, Glengall Street, Durham Street and Hope Street are all being altered significantly to address traffic impact of the new Hub. For every mode of transport except the bicycle.
So how do those promised “measures that will provide enhanced access to the proposed development by sustainable modes of transport” actually manifest on the scheme maps?
No Transport Hub Greenway
The Bikefast idea to carve out a southern approach urban greenway isn’t happening.
“An opportunity exists to provide a segregated cycleway to connect the hub site to the southwest, utilising the path from the corner of Donegall Road and Roden Street.
This would formalise an existing desire line for cyclists, providing enhance safety measures for both bus and cycle movements along the bus way, connecting into the proposed Belfast Bicycle Network. As shown in figure 1.63, there are a number of proposed shared surface areas on the surrounding highway infrastructure, where pedestrian and cyclist can both utilise the footway space.”
Design And Access Statement June 2017
A “segregated cycleway” sounds great, until you pick your way into the specifics and see there’s nothing of the sort. There isan access proposed from existing pathways in Blythfield Park which links with… the Transport Hub busway. Yes, back to cycling on a road.
Commuters, shoppers, kids and families will be expected to share the road within the bounds of the Transport Hub site instead of enjoying dedicated space for cycling.
People in Belfast very clearly see space shared with buses as the worst option for cycling (other than with general traffic) – and this will be Belfast’s busiest set of bus lanes, with hundreds of movements each day.
Instead of planning in a greenway path, cycling and walking access is an afterthought. There’s space galore for car parking and even lines of trees within the operational boundaries of the Hub – just not for high-quality safe space for cycling.
Actually the term “cycle hub” issprinkled throughout the planning documents.
It’s the first case of misappropriation of the language of good cycling provision to mask poor cycle provision.
Here’s our summary of what a cycle hub at a major transport interchange means to the rest of the world:
An indoor area providing secure bicycle parking for large numbers of customers; a 24 hour staffed facility providing security for users in the evening and bicycle maintenance services by day; paid parking services on a daily / weekly / monthly / annual rate basis; secure changing, showering and locker facilities can be incorporated.
The cycle parking facilities will be adjacent to the main entrance of the hub and the Station Square, but details are sketchy.
Indeed, over different planning documents the cycle parking is shown in different locations (one version being opposite the number 7 in the above diagram) while additional cycle stands appear in the surrounding streets – most appearing to be outdoor, uncovered and one suspects very insecure.
This was Belfast’s big chance to leverage major public investment to deliver a huge step forward for that end-of-journey worry – bicycle security. A major cycle hub at such a prime and central location would have attracted users from across the city, and not necessarily public transport users.
That last point is none of Translink’s business you might say, but it’s certainly DfI’s business and part of that joined-up government approach everyone likes to talk about but never bothers to do anything with, even faced with this open goal.
“The quantum and location of cycle and car parking has been discussed and agreed with Transport NI during the Pre-Application Discussion process.”
Belfast Transport Hub Sustainability Statement June 2017
Transport NI are an executive agency of DfI. Ah well.
No space for cycling
“[Cycle parking at the Transport Hub] will be well linked with the surrounding cycle network and the existing cycle route facilities on Glengall Street, Grosvenor Road and Great Victoria Street being maintained. Additionally, a shared footway/cycleway is proposed on the eastern side of the A12 Westlink, along the outskirts of the site, in the vicinity of the bus way. Provision of additional bus lane infrastructure associated with development of the Hub will assist permeability for cyclists.”
Belfast Transport Hub Travel Plan June 2017
There are no protected cycleways on this plan, new or existing. Incredibly, the scheme actually reduces the dedicated cycling space in the city, removing (albeit crap and unloved) facilities on Glengall Street and Great Victoria Street.
This is despite a protected lane leading into the scheme footprint on the far side of Durham Street, something a progressive city would seize upon to expand and upgrade.
Even the “shared footway/cycleway is proposed on the eastern side of the A12 Westlink” (which would be awful in real life) is a confused proposal – it appears here:
But then magically disappears from the main scheme illustration:
And then reappears elsewhere – like the cycle parking, its nearly impossible to get a handle on what’s actually planned. Handy, should space become an issue later.
With a strong, independent body retaining the final say over the planning application, you might expect it would be pulled up here:
“Planning permission will only be granted for development .. where the needs of cyclists are taken into account. Where appropriate provision of the following may be required:
(a) safe and convenient cycle access;
(b) safe, convenient and secure cycle parking having regard to the Department’s published standards; and
(c) safe and convenient cycle links to existing or programmed cycle networks where they adjoin the development site.”
Planning Policy Statement 3: Access, Movement and Parking
Bikefast maintains the plans for the Transport Hub should fail each one of these tests, with particular emphasis on the last point. Will DfI agree? Or have they already been consulted on, and agree to, the surrounding street layout?
The street space being redesigned and reprioritised as part of the plan is extensive – and not one inch of new dedicated cycleway being considered.
The external street plan and changes to accommodate the Transport Hub again represent a unique opportunity to weave in the kind of dense, protected cycling network which will encourage people who don’t cycle now to consider shifting modes.
So what is the use of a Bicycle Strategy, a Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, even the DfI Cycling Unit itself, if the more important people within the Department can simply ignore them?
We’re left with the classic Catch-22 situation which cycling campaigners know only too well, and which serves transport planners who see the bicycle as an inconvenience to their big ticket plans:
Can we have a cycleway to support journeys on this existing road? “Sorry it’s too costly and disruptive and space is at a premium – if only we could have planned it in from the start.”
Can we have a cycleway on this blank slate plan? “Sorry, space is at a premium and the demand doesn’t justify it – but don’t worry, we can always retro-fit it in the future.”
Or to use a more parochial phrase, never, never, never, never…
Advanced Cycleway Stop Lines
There are 19 advanced stop lines (ASL) in the plan, spreading like a rash.
ASLs are the little green boxes which road engineers put at junctions to mock cyclists at the lack of safe cycling infrastructure provision.
The ASL was erased from the Draft Belfast Bicycle Nework Plan through lobbying by Bikefast and others. But here we are anyway.
Note the insidious appropriation of the language of safe cycling infrastructure, with the ASL now designated as the “Advanced CyclewayStop Line”.
There are no cycleways in the plan. You didn’t put any “cycleways” onto your maps, so you don’t get to use that term.
Of the 19 ASLs, just one has a cycle lane which leads into it, at least allowing some sense of safe access past traffic. A painted cycle lane. Which exists today on the Grosvenor Road. Like 14 of these 19 ASLs do too.
This is all progress, apparently.
And… that’s it for street side cycling facilities.
We’re not joking, even if Translink and their “innovative” team seem to be.
The tyranny of shared space
“It is proposed that Glengall Street will offer cycle connectivity to the city centre, enabling segregation for cyclists from city centre vehicle traffic. The proposals offer connectivity from all directions, with the permeable site layout offering an enhanced sense of place and segregation for the cyclist.”
Belfast Transport Hub Design and Access Statement June 2017
There it is – there’s your “innovative, fresh thinking”. A city which is planning a reasonable network of separated cycleways and a sizeable increase in bicycle usage is planning to lump bicycles and pedestrians on the same footways. In some of the busiest streets in the city.
“The street will have vehicular use limited to taxis, use as drop off and for deliveries.”
Design and Access Statement June 2017
Cutting through the bull, that means not limited at all. Through access for vehicles will be unrestricted and Glengall Street will act as a vehicle trip generator, purely to accommodate a new city centre pick up / drop off zone.
Glengall Street should be stopped up entirely to through traffic, with limited access for logistics, servicing and emergency vehicles. But not in car sick Belfast.
“Pavement cycling” is probably the number one complaint relating to cycling in Belfast these days – and here’s a publicly funded and government approved area scheme actively planning this crap in. This mind-bendingly stupid arrangement is being pushed as a positive aspect, themajor active travel benefit of the plan.
Cycling groups don’t want this type of shared space and neither do those representing people with mobility and visual impairments.
No-one seems to have thought about the real world consequences of funnelling bicycle traffic down a shared pavement towards a super crossing at Great Victoria Street.
Once over that crossing, to access the city centre it’s either left to Howard Street or right to Amelia Street, on the footway. This footway:
The Great Victoria Street pavement, cluttered with street furniture and café street extensions, won’t be widened, because (wait for it) vehicle parking.
If the best you can offer for active travel is tight, busy, shared pavements, you’re going out of your way to suppress everyday cycling at the expense of pedestrian safety – and don’t dare try to claim you’re promoting active travel.
And it gets worse..
Car travel prioritised over everyone
What’s at the heart of all of this? Is it just plain ignorance of best practice in providing high-quality cycling and pedestrian links within an urban context?
One thing that shines out from the plans is an almost obsessive need to retain, and expand and improve where possible, space for vehicle travel.
On Durham Street, car drop-off zones and taxi ranks on both sides of the street veto the possibility of a continuous cycleway in front of Station Square.
On Great Victoria Street, the belt is loosened on traffic at all the key points – before and after junctions – to load up vehicles and artificially reduce the effects of congestion. It also reduces bus priority and reliability and again eliminates the possibility of cycling-protected junctions.
Why is there a left turn from Great Victoria Street into Grosvenor Road? With a one-way street behind it, it only serves to let traffic from the Europa Hotel and Glengall Street access the Westlink. Vehicles can access it earlier via Hope Street or later via Divis Street. Again, priority for vehicle journeys over the possibility of cycle routing or better junction protection.
The bare-faced cheek of it all is best shown up on Howard Street. Despite this street corridor – running 2km from the BT Tower to the Royal Victoria Hospital – maintaining two vehicles lanes along its entire length (save for the Westlink on-slip) planners have insisted upon maintaining threevehicle lanes at this junction.
With a new dedicated Bus Rapid Transit bus lane to fit in, space is squeezed. The lazy simple solution? Take away up to three metres of footway. The photo below, but with one more vehicle lane cutting into the pavement.
Vehicle travel must be prioritised at all costs – this is the major lesson. Cycling space and pedestrian space be damned. You give the impression in your marketing of the opposite being the case – and you expect to get away with it, because who really looks at the street maps and the thinking behind them?
This is all par for course when it comes to pedestrians and cyclists – the usual thinking. But surely no-one will compromise on city bus service priority and integration?
Being managed respectively by, and in partnership with, Translink and DfI, we’re going to bring these two massive projects together, aren’t we? It says so here:
“Combining bus and rail termini with interfaces to private car, taxi, bus and cycle modes, The Hub will also connect into the proposed Belfast Rapid Transit network.”
Belfast Transport Hub Design and Access Statement June 2017
No. No, it won’t.
The two will not be integrated. Despite being on either side of a single city block, we’re planning each to sit in perfect isolation.
Observe the rotting heart of how we “plan” transport in this country.
“It should also be noted that in consultation with the Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) design team, they have stressed that the proposed BRT routes will not be incorporated into the Transport Hub development or the immediate vicinity of the Transport Hub site.”
Belfast Transport Hub Environmental Statement June 2017
Or, if you wanted a funnier summary:
As a modern, multi-modal, transport interchange, the Proposed Development will ensure the right infrastructure is in place to attract more people to use public transport and active travel modes by combining bus and rail termini with interfaces to private car, taxi, bus and cycle modes whilst acknowledging Metro bus and the Belfast Rapid Transit.
Belfast Transport Hub Sustainability Statement June 2017
Instead of Rapid Transit pulling up at the front door of the Hub, a passenger from Dublin with mobility issues will have BRT stops 379m away (for the Falls Road) or 540m away (for Titanic or East Belfast).
Nor (as an aside) will Hub passengers find it easy to jump on anycity bus service:
“Translink do not intend to integrate the existing Belfast Metro bus services directly into the Belfast Transport Hub development, and these services will remain unaltered from their existing routings around Belfast City Hall.”
Belfast Transport Hub Environmental Statement June 2017
With the footprint of the streets within the scope, they (Translink, DfI) couldhave routed fully-dedicated and prioritised busways around an anti clockwise Grosvenor-Durham-Gt Vic loop to put BRT at the Hub front door.
But they baulked, and presumably it goes back to the previous point – the impact upon the common motorist would be too great. Despite having every means at their disposal to make it happen if they wanted to.
It’s amazing that what Belfast could get so right a century ago, can be so recklessly dismissed in 2017. Sorry, not dismissed, “acknowledged”…
This is an angry post. That anger stems from having to fight battles which had apparently already been won, but we’re clearly destined to repeat ad nauseam.
DfI have a Bicycle Strategy and a Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan. There is a Cycling Unit within DfI working on fine policies which their peers appear to treat with contempt – and more, are allowed to demonstrate that contempt publicly in a major transport investment plan.
What is the Bicycle Strategy good for within DfI? An oversized coaster? A door stop? Something to prop under a wobbling table?
The galling part of this is that problems are understood, and are laid out in black and white in the Hub plans:
“Cycling in Belfast is currently more difficult than walking, in terms of uninterrupted dedicated routes. The current facilities often come to an end without warning, requiring frequent stopping for cycles, and can vary significantly in style, colour and signage.”
Environmental Statement (Transport) June 2017
Translink, DfI and their consultants had a chance to do something about this. Instead, they embraced the safety of status quo.
That mediocrity is shameful.
No doubt Translink and DfI can turn around and demonstrate how all of the cycling elements meet policy and design requirements. Adhering to Transport Assessments, Planning Policy Statements, Area Plans, Transport Strategies and the rest are not a guarantee of quality, and certainly shouldn’t be used to sweep away criticism. Instead, they set standards which you are allowed to build upon and exceed, if you can be bothered.
Instead the Transport Hub Plans offer the absolute bare minimum for cycling, the path of least resistance. Austerity of imagination, austerity of vision, austerity of wit. And then you market it as a step forward for cycling, shilling your mediocrity as “measures that will provide enhanced access to the proposed development by sustainable modes of transport”.
That statement is demonstrably nonsense. Belfast deserves better.
Keeping BRT separate from the Transport Hub is a massive fail. Letting the reconfiguration of an entire city quarter slip by with no rolling out of safe cycling infrastructure is a massive fail. Enabling at least the existing volume of vehicle traffic to circulate this area, and by design or error inviting even more, is a massive fail.
This is an angry post because the final decision on the planning application will be decided by DfI who, according to the planning documents, have already had significant input into some of the worst aspects of the plan – leaving a gaping hole of accountability on poor planning.
This is an angry post because these plans won’t alter without honest self-reflection within DfI, and cutting the crap when it comes to cycling. And I just don’t think that’s possible anymore.
Please note: direct links to planning documents are not available – to view the Transport Hub documents please visit planningni.gov.uk and search for ref: LA04/2017/1388/F. You can also comment on the application and raise an objection.
Translink seems to be on the cusp of making a significant investment in passenger bicycle parking facilities, by the look of developments at Holywood NIR station.
Bikefast was alerted by one reader last week to a new secure bicycle compound on the Belfast-bound platform at Holywood:
“These fantastic new secure bike racks at Holywood railway station are going to make all the difference in opening up the town and its surrounds to the bike commute. Good work.”
It certainly looks like an upgrade from the current, half-decent sheltered cycle parking common at many NIR stations.
The new facility looks as though it may require users to register and get a key fob to access it.
The lighting is impressive at night and there are 18 fixed racks for upright storage of bicycles – these look a little challenging for anyone not using a lighter racing bicycle.
However there are 12 more accessible spaces on the far wall, six at floor level and six more on top with a pull mechanism to store and access your bicycle. We weren’t able to these this out to see if they are gas-assisted.
It’s a welcome move and will hopefully encourage many more people to cycle to the station for an onward journey. Lack of secure cycle parking is a big barrier to many people, and it’s great to see Translink investing in this standard of storage.
And Holywood station may not be the last either, as a spokesperson for Translink explained:
“The secure cycle shelter at Holywood is due to be launched in coming weeks.
“Translink is installing new and upgraded cycle facilities at almost 40 locations, for customers and staff as we try to promote a healthier lifestyle and encourage more people to leave the car at home and “Get on Board” our trains and buses.
“There will be signage on the compound at Holywood station, giving advice on how to access the facility.
“The Holywood cycle compound will be opened once testing works have been completed.”
The frozen political situation in Northern Ireland is affecting many aspects of public life and cycling infrastructure development appears to be slowing too.
The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has been without a fully empowered Minister since the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive in January 2017. With uncertainty over budgets, and the Department running under the stewardship of a Permanent Secretary unable to make substantial changes to policy and spending, the roll out of the Bicycle Strategy has been drifting.
It’s not for the want of effort and focus from DfI, who have ensured active travel is central to its Corporate Plan 2017-2021 and Business Plan 2017-2018, released on Monday.
In the business plan to the end of this financial year, under the outcome to “increase the % of journeys that are made by walking, cycling and public transport”, there are three major cycling infrastructure actions:
introduce a capital grant scheme for greenways
publishing an agreed Belfast Bicycle Network Plan
completing the High Street and Middlepath Street bicycle infrastructure schemes
Bikefast asked the Department if these three priorities would proceed regardless of whether or not there’s a Minister in post during the remainder of 2017-18:
“The Department is continuing to work on the development of a Capital Grants Programme for Greenways and the Belfast Bicycle Network plan. We hope to be in a position to publish them by 31st March 2018, subject to resolving issues raised in the consultation and Ministerial agreement.
Work is also continuing on the High Street and Middlepath Street schemes where we are still working through the consultation process.”
The cautious response is understandable in the circumstances. In practical terms it could be more than 17 months between the November 2016 launch of the Greenway Strategy and the launch of a Capital Grants Programme to fund construction if a Minister is in place by that time.
Similarly the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan could spend over 14 months in consultation and revision before being finalised if a Minister is in place by that time.
This is the first confirmation that the overall timescales for the Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland (August 2015) have begun to drift. Initial routes on the ‘spines’ of both the greenway network and the Belfast cycling network were pencilled in to have started halfway to 2020.
Continuing progress on the High Street and Middlepath schemes is welcome and with planning having been initiated before the collapse of the Executive, Bikefast expects these projects will be funded in 2017-18 without the need for Ministerial approval.
The vision for active travel within the Corporate Plan sounds encouraging:
“We compete economically, not just for markets and investment but also skills and talent. In developing our programmes and plans we recognise the need to focus on the wider impact, to ensure our infrastructure contributes to building attractive sustainable environments, communities and town centres that people want to live, work and socialise in. Vibrant urban areas where pedestrians and cyclists have priority are key to attracting the talent and skills we will need. Both Belfast and Derry will be our regional drivers and key to achieving this.”
“The road network is currently operating at capacity in some areas. Relying on the building of new roads alone will not be sufficient to address the demands placed on the road network and to reduce congestion. In parallel, we will continue to encourage more people to use public transport as an alternative to the car for longer journeys, and walking or cycling for shorter journeys. This will reduce demand on the road network allowing it to work more efficiently; assist in the better movement of freight; reduce emissions and improve health by increasing levels of physical activity.”
The popular Ciclovia Belfast event, backed by Belfast City Council, returns to the city streets this autumn. Once more a mile of roads from Botanic Avenue to Belfast City Hall will be closed to traffic but opened up to street life in many forms.
The third annual running of the event will be on Sunday 24th September 2017 with roads closed to vehicles from 9.30am to 12.30pm.
“The route will be the same as before, including the two hubs at Botanic Gardens and Belfast City Hall; Botanic Avenue, Shaftesbury Square, Bedford Street, Donegall Square West onto the front of the City Hall. There will once again be a range of different activities taking place along the route as well as at the City Hall and Botanic Gardens hubs.”
Ciclovia Belfast Team
What is Ciclovia Belfast all about? Find out with this lovely video from 2015:
A reply to the Department of Infrastructure in defense of Belfast city centre pedestrians
Many thanks for your email of 5 July 2017. I've included the relevant pieces of our correspondence at the bottom of the article.
To summarise, as part of a welcome and revolutionary cycling scheme on Belfast's High Street, you've oddly tacked on a proposal to scrap a zebra crossing on nearby Castle Place. This is likely to be the country's busiest* dedicated pedestrian crossing, and you intend to replace it with.. a signal-controlled crossing which will necessarily prioritise vehicle movements compared to the current situation.
Despite (access-only) traffic levels not expected to change as a result of the overall scheme, you've presented a recipe for constant conflict and the clear downgrading of pedestrian experience.
And while you've briefly skimmed over the technical process of howyou've reached this opinion, you haven't said whyit's even on the agenda.
That's why you have an objection from Bikefast. And it's not going away.
“I trust that this information is helpful”
Actually your note of 5 July 2017 may have been the least helpful email I’ve ever received from the Department of Infrastructure (DfI) or your predecessor Department for Regional Development. Repeating a single sentence and adding one more to say “we did an assessment” wasn’t your finest hour.
A copy of that assessment, made under “Local Transport Note 1/95 – The Assessment of Pedestrian Crossings” attached to your reply – now thatwould have been helpful.
Naturally you’ll rectify that error asapso that we can discuss the matter face-to-face on something of an equal footing. It’s likely to be of wider public interest at this stage, as it will surely include usage levels on the crossing by pedestrians, buses and access vehicles.
I am mindful that my objection may by holding up the wider High Street cycling scheme, so I’m going to make things crystal clear for you:
I am not objecting to the High Street cycling scheme.
I am fully in support of the High Street cycling scheme.
I am objecting to the inclusion of the Castle Place pedestrian crossing in the High Street cycling scheme.
There is a clear distinction between the two areas and you’ll need to provide some exceptional justification for its inclusion, because:
This crossing has nothing to do with the High Street cycling scheme.
It doesn’t interact with any of the proposed High Street cycling infrastructure.
Pedestrian and vehicle volumes on this crossing will not change significantly as a result of the High Street cycling scheme.
Extraordinary change requires extraordinary reasons and you haven’t come close so far.
"The Department would be of the opinion that [this is] the most appropriate means of control"
That last word reveals everything about the vehicle-addicted thinking still rattling around DfI. Old habits and all that..
This is a big messy city centre crossing point with wonderfully messy movements between key pedestrianised areas. That's what pedestrians do when they feel safe to roam - make lots of movements which bamboozle traffic engineers.
Yes, vehicle drivers have to wait a little longer than they'd prefer. One exception to a country-wide system where pedestrians play a subordinate role.
And you want to bring controlto that mess. Control the pedestrian mess. In the heart of a city centre pedestrian area.
The initial consultation talked of this change helping to "improve pedestrian safety & traffic movements" yet you still haven't addressed the so-obvious-it's-painful rebuttal to that point:
"People will cross despite the light phases in their hundreds throughout the day. Traffic will be emboldened to travel at a higher speed than currently. This is a pro-car measure in an otherwise wonderfully pro-people plan and needs to be thrown out." Revolution on the High Street, Bikefast - 29 March 2017
You will create more conflict. You will reduce safety.
It's worth reflecting on the fact you're attempting to downgrade the country's busiest dedicated pedestrian junction while your Department (under the last Minister) has signalled its intention to launch a Walking Strategy.
Also, remember the hierarchy of road users in the Bicycle Strategy? Maybe the irony is lost on you that pedestrians will get dumped down the pecking order on one of the first major cycling schemes under that strategy.
Regardless, given all of the above, I doubt you can reasonably stand over the level of scrutiny you've afforded to this small but significant change.
"I look forward to your reply"
Based on the lack of information provided, the headlong rush to reduce pedestrian priority and safety - and the startlingly stubborn nature of consultation correspondence - you're demonstrating the Department lacks the in-house expertise to manage this crossing.
It's a classic traffic engineering solution searching for a problem which doesn't exist. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If change is needed, it should proceed from a place-making standpoint, focusing first on whether there's a need for vehicles to be travelling through here at all.
The balance is currently right - thousands of pedestrians moving freely between traffic-free areas while a handful vehicles pass through in turn. Making thousands of people wait for permission to cross will lead to a vast bulk ignoring your control "solution" and continuing on their own desire lines. And that's a failure of design.
So let's have that face-to-face meeting I've asked for since April, but the message is clear - the objection from Bikefast remains firmly in place. Regardless, I would be grateful if you could reply in writing to confirm if you are prepared discard this institutional obstruction to getting on with the important job of modernising High Street.
Correspondence to date
Bikefast email to DfI, 24 April 2017
I'm writing to comment upon the proposed scheme on High Street. I greatly welcome the scheme and the work which has been done to date, but I strongly suggest changes are made before the scheme is finalised. These can be summarised as follows:
b. changing the Castle Place pedestrian crossing from zebra to puffin is an unacceptable reduction of pedestrian priority [objection]
More detail is available on the Bikefast.org website and I'd be happy to meet to discuss the implications of issues identified in the current design and the benefits of amendments.
DfI email to Bikefast, 1 June 2017
Network Traffic, Street Lighting and Transportation
BELFAST CYCLE NETWORK (BCN) SCHEME 4 - HIGH STREET, BELFAST
THE CONTROL OF TRAFFIC (HIGH STREET, BELFAST) ORDER (NORTHERN IRELAND)
Thank you for your email dated 24 April 2017 regarding the above scheme proposal and objections associated with the scheme.
Firstly can I thank you for the words of support for the work being undertaken by the Department in Developing the Belfast Cycle Network, it is appreciated.
With regard to the points raised within your email I can respond as follows:
b. The Department would be of the opinion that the use of PCats (Pedestrian Countdown at Traffic Signals) or a Puffin crossing would be the most appropriate means of control, safety and balances the needs of pedestrians / cyclists and motorists / public transport.
I would be grateful if you could reply in writing to us .. by 23 June 2017 to confirm if you are prepared to withdraw your objections.
I trust that this information is helpful and I look forward to your reply.
Bikefast email to DfI, 19 June 2017
Many thanks for your letter.
While few of my points have been reasonably addressed, I can appreciate some of the constraints which are involved. However point b with regards to the change from a zebra crossing to a controlled crossing is very far from a design constraint but a choice. And very clearly the wrong choice to prioritise vehicles movements.
Specifically on this point I cannot withdraw my objection. I would appreciate if you can facilitate a meeting to discuss the issue (perhaps in partnership with my colleagues in Sustrans and IMTAC) to find a way forward.
DfI email to Bikefast, 5 July 2017
Network Traffic, Street Lighting and Transportation
BELFAST CYCLE NETWORK (BCN) SCHEME 4 - HIGH STREET, BELFAST
THE CONTROL OF TRAFFIC (HIGH STREET, BELFAST) ORDER (NORTHERN IRELAND)
Thank you for your email dated 19 June 2017, in relation to Belfast Cycle Network (BCN) Scheme 4 - High Street.
During the design stage of the scheme this crossing point at Castle Place, Belfast was assessed in accordance with the Local Transport Note 1/95 - The Assessment of Pedestrian Crossings. As a result of this, the Department would be of the opinion that the use of PCats (Pedestrian Countdown at Traffic Signals) or a Puffin crossing would be the most appropriate means of control, safety and balances the needs of pedestrians / cyclists and motorists / public transport.
In relation to your meeting request, the Department would be willing to have a meeting with you to discuss your objection to the scheme and a suitable date / time can be arranged.
Regardless, I would be grateful if you could reply in writing to us at the address above by 26 July 2017, to confirm if you are prepared to withdraw your objection.
I trust that this information is helpful and I look forward to your reply.
*It could also very possibly be the crossing at the Europa Hotel on Great Victoria Street, but let's not split hairs 😛
So the confidence and supply deal is done and the DUP have brought home the bacon – £1.5 billion for Northern Ireland in exchange for propping up Theresa May’s minority government. And a whack of cash is listed under infrastructure, but will active travel continue to live off scraps, or can this critical policy area move from the fringes to the mainstream?
I am hoping today is a good day for the Northern Ireland cycling unit and their plans to make Belfast a cycling capital.
Transport-wise, eyes will be lighting up thinking of the big-ticket road and rail possibilities. Setting aside the £120m–£165m York Street Interchange, which will take up a big chunk of the cash, off the top of my head the priorities might be:
A5 and A6 road projects into the west of the province
Widening the Sydenham bypass east of Belfast
Newry Southern Relief Road
M1/A1 Sprucefield Bypass
Transport Hubs in Belfast and Derry~Londonderry
Rail links to our three international airports
Upgrading the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise rail service, with possible electrification
Undoubtedly some of these projects will now progress quickly with additional investment available, and dormant road schemes will have the dust blown off.
What is less certain, as always, is where active travel fits in.
With a few exceptions, active travel hasn’t featured in the headline discussions of where to spend the windfall. Why would it? Investment in walking and cycling has always been the poor relation of the high-prestige ribbon-cutting road projects. And yet the mood music seems to have changed in the last few years.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the York Street Interchange – and it’s clearly going ahead – while it may smooth traffic flow around the city, it certainly won’t solve Belfast’s systemic congestion. There are simply too many people driving too many cars through too small a space in the city.
Interchange funds wld b much better invested in public transport+cycle infrastructure. No long game – only short term thinking by DfI.
The last Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard put this clarity to the front of policy discussion – talking of the stark choice between demolishing rows of houses on our arterial streets to widen roads for cars orinvesting in public and active travel to move more people.
Yet cycling investment still, stubbornly, has not advanced as hoped.
To make everyday cycling a viable option for people in Belfast, in other urban centres and along potential greenway corridors, the Executive needs to be putting around £20 million a year, every year, into active travel.
It doesn’t even come close at the moment, despite the constant chorus of support.
In two successive Assembly elections in 2016 and 2017, The Election Cycle campaign run by Cycling UK, Sustrans and Bikefast saw around three quarters of returned MLAs pledging their support to fund cycling at this level.
The incoming Minister will have the numbers in the Assembly to back them – but will they have personal, party and Executive colleagues’ commitment?
Of course, there is still one more critical deal to be done – getting that Executive up and running after a six month hiatus. While the numbers say the next Infrastructure Minister is likely to be from either the DUP or Sinn Féin, any of the five main parties could conceivably take the portfolio depending on decisions about forming an opposition.
The DUP Deal has whipped the media into a frenzy looking at infrastructure shopping lists as if hundreds of millions of pounds is burning a hole in our pocket. There are some projects such as the traffic-free Gasworks Bridge which are shovel-ready and should be part of the windfall discussions.
But, in general terms the £400m infrastructure boost is a distraction for cycling. We shouldn’t be chasing it.
Cycling and active travel has long suffered from being seen as an area suited to short-term boosts, holding out for crumbs from monitoring rounds or dedicated projects. What we need is a carved-out place within the annual DfI budget, capital and resource, which allows for long-term planning.
What the DUP Deal does do is free up pressures on that annual budget, taking some big-ticket items off the table and allowing a realistic discussion on the level at which consistent annual funding for cycling should be set.
Getting people travelling actively in large numbers over short distances must be at the heart of the next Executive. Few other investments bring such strong and varied paybacks in terms of combating congestion, improving public health, tackling fuel and income poverty, making more liveable urban environments, and straying into major economic payback in tourism spend and employment when we extend to building greenways.
The next Minister, with three quarters of the Assembly wanting £10 per head annual cycling investment – remarkable cross-party political backing – can begin the active travel revolution on day one. The DUP Deal makes things easier but don’t get distracted expecting it to transform cycling – ongoing mainstream government investment is the real goal and if it doesn’t happen now, it never will.
New Infrastructure Minister’s first 100 days
With the extra spending powers open to the Department for Infrastructure, it will be a popular portfolio when (if?) D’Hondt is run to decide the shape of the new Executive. It’s now or never for cycling and active travel, so here is Bikefast’s view on five priorities for the new Minister’s first 100 days by which we can gauge their seriousness.
Additional staff for a shrinking Cycling Unit
One of the key moves to embed cycling within our centralised transport planning was the creation of a Cycling Unit in late 2013. While from the outside other regions have looked on with envy, the sad truth is that the potential of this Unit is being squandered.
Since its creation, staffing levels have been gradually run down..
Strong Ministerial support is needed for this group and its core aims – embedding the bicycle within everyday transport planning and usage – with enough staff to allow them to create plans, deliver on schemes and drive forward the Cycling Revolution™.
Go-ahead for the Gasworks Bridge
This is a perfect fit for the windfall from the DUP Deal – it’s shovel-ready, with planning permission secured, and just needs a £7m capital injection. It’s the lynchpin of the (draft) Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, creating a range of new active travel journey options for Belfast, many away from roads altogether.
The new Minister will have the clout to steer a revised document down the difficult road which officials have been reluctant to tread. A new five year vision, which isn’t afraid to tackle vehicle hegemony, is a must in the short term – along with cycling funding mainstreamed in the DfI budget at around £7.5m per annum from 2018-19 onwards.
The next phase is making capital available to match council-funded investment to actually start building the individual projects.
Ideally this should start high at around £5m a year available from 2018-19 onwards, when it’s possible the first projects could be ready to break ground. This needs to be a consistent annual capital budget line of around £3m stretching to 2040, but kick-starting it with a small lump sum from the DUP Deal would be a good sign of intent.
“3-five-10” plan unveiled
The tenure of Chris Hazzard at DfI was shaping up to be of great interest for active travel, before the Assembly collapsed in January 2017. One of the plans being worked on in the background was called “3-five-10”, aimed at prioritising investment and planning for:
walking for journeys up to 3km
cycling for journeys up to 5km
public transport for journeys up to 10km
Bikefast reckons “2-five-10” would be a much better fit, but this plan has the potential to shake up the current obesogenic status quo where the car dominates across those distances.
50% of all journeys under 2 miles are by car. 50% of all journeys under 2 miles are by car. 50% of all journeys under 2 miles are by car… https://t.co/hRHM1EcwUx
Cycling infrastructure enables people of all ages and abilities to get about safely and confidently by bicycle. It's what we need more of right across Belfast. But it's only half the story to making Belfast a healthier city through active travel.
The other half requires a very uncomfortable conversation. How do we go about making private motor travel less attractive? Can we actively reduce car journeys as a policy goal?
We excel at carrot-based strategies and plans to support active and public transport but no-one ever really talks stick. Bus lanes are a pet hate, but they're just tinkering at the edges of an otherwise untouched road system. Reducing vehicle journeys in the here and now, not in some forever distant future - is that front and centre of anyone's agenda?
Regardless of active travel infrastructure, if a city's street network is entirely permeable for motor vehicles, every other mode has to play second fiddle - and that usually means suppressed to the margins, as walking and cycling are in Belfast.
Simple assessments of cycling success in The Netherlands sometimes miss this point - yes, the dense cycling infrastructure is of fundamental importance, but how roads are defined and the types of traffic which they cater for also play a crucial role in making certain journeys less attractive by car.
Knowing this junction very well, whacking in a small, calming, mode-separated Dutch-style roundabout was our obvious knee-jerk, junction-focussed fix. Put vulnerable users first and improve safety.
But looking at the wider picture, why is the traffic speed and volume so great here? Focussing on the roundabout is to miss the significance of a weird feature just yards away - a leafy riverside handed over to a large urban gyratory system which attracts a high volume of through-traffic into its orbit from as far away as the Falls and Holywood Roads.
When single junctions have problems, traffic engineers focus on the micro solution and aren't compelled to look at the macro problems. That approach must change to make Belfast a fit, healthy and attractive place to live. If we follow the logic of the problems in this area back to their sources and propose alternatives, it leads to some interesting outcomes.
So welcome to the death of the Stranmillis Gyratory, purging unnecessary through-traffic from an entire city district, and the massive benefits Belfast's riverside and residents could enjoy in its place (long read).
What is the Stranmillis Gyratory?
Stranmillis is in a funny spot. It's a desirable postcode, a leafy suburban backwater in Belfast hemmed in by the River Lagan, the countryside of the Lagan Meadows, several university campuses and Botanic Gardens. Stranmillis Road is not a traditional arterial route - it's a 2.3km crescent shaped loop off the Malone Road.
There are two relaxed village-style hubs where cafe culture mixes with art galleries, restaurants and high-end shops:
Stranmillis Village with its established businesses built on student population
Lockview with 5A, Cutter's Wharf, the boat clubs and tennis club
The Lyric Theatre provides a cultural hub, nestled below terraced streets filled with students and with a prime view over Botanic Gardens.
And yet, Stranmillis is awash with vehicles busying through, a high proportion with no purpose along the way. Why is this?
The Stranmillis Roundabout feels like it's at the centre of this traffic flow. It's a bloated version of what should be a small residential area junction:
a double lane roundabout where a single lane would suffice
five arms creating a dicey injection even for drivers at busy periods
poor sight lines especially on the countryside arm of Stranmillis Road
traffic - lots and lots of traffic
Signs point to far off destinations like the M1 motorway 4km to the west. But despite its over-capacity, the roundabout isn't generating that traffic. Look beyond to the river and the culprit is hidden in plain sight.
Two double lane vehicle bridges sitting 300 metres apart - Governor's and King's - and multiple lane roads connecting them on each bank. A clockwise one-way gyratory system spinning traffic into and out of six access points at its corners.
As shown in the diagram below, it's divorced from the main arterial road system, sitting perfectly in the middle spot between Malone and Ormeau. Yet the capacity and permeability of the street system around it leads to several clear and definable - if unsigned and informal - through-routes which have developed over the decades.
Two dominant flows cross over:
A route between northeast and southwest bringing significant portions of east Belfast within striking distance of the M1 motorway without having to take the Outer Ring or the M3 cross harbour bridge and Westlink. This axis also provides an alternative route for southwest Belfast traffic accessing the eastern part of the city centre and Titanic Quarter while avoiding arterial congestion.
A route between northwest and southeast, a trail from the Falls along Broadway/Donegall Road, up Tates Avenue, along Eglinton Avenue, Chlorine Gardens, Stranmillis Village, Ridgeway Street and across the river to any number of options. This same axis sees traffic from the Saintfield Road direction able to access the University Quarter and city centre while avoiding the Ormeau Road.
Moreover, with very few junctions and control points, a lot of the journeys are definitely quicker than the place-appropriate alternative - using arterial roads and ring routes for cross-city travel.
Curbing its capacity and permeability
Having identified that a giant turbo roundabout of sorts is dragging vehicle traffic into its vortex, the next step is to find a way to disentangle the flows of through-traffic and local access traffic - eliminating the former while supporting (as much as possible) the latter.
Whatever the future of mobility in Belfast, when vehicle journeys are concerned there should be a simple model for streets and roads which is easy to understand - both for planners and users.
"To the Dutch the most ideal situation is when roads and streets have only one single purpose. To achieve this mono-functionality a hierarchy of roads was introduced.
1. Through Roads for high volumes of fast traffic on longer distances.
2. Local Access Roads from which end destinations can be reached.
3. Distributer Roads which connect through roads and local access roads.
All Dutch streets and roads have been classified (under a legal obligation) and are or will be re-designed to the Sustainable Safety principles by the road managers. This led to areas where people stay (residential areas and areas for shopping/sporting/theatre etc.) and designated space used for the flow of traffic in order to transport people from A to B. Under the Dutch vision these functions cannot be mixed." Sustainable safety (Bicycle Dutch)
In South Belfast things get a little more mixed than the Dutch would like. However, we can begin to build a similar hierarchy of street purpose using the arterial routes as our distributor roads, the Outer and Inner Rings as our through roads, and everything inbetween as our local access roads.
In the context of the Stranmillis Gyratory problem, we have two distributor roads in the Ormeau and Malone linked to the south by a through road in the Outer Ring. The Stranmillis Road as a looping offshoot of the Malone Road should be serving little more that access traffic - but the gyratory system holds it at distributor level.
Give road engineers a challenge to devise ways to calm this gyratory system would likely lead to conservative junction fixes - signal phase changes, lane realignment, altered signage etc. Marginal changes which bring short-term effects but would quickly return to the status quo as drivers adapt.
But the nature of the journeys which gravitate towards this area requires more than the tools road engineers can bring to the table. We need to look a full two miles to the north and a mile to south.
A radical approach to pushing through-traffic back onto more appropriate through-roads looks like this..
This is the launch point for southbound traffic from the areas surrounding the massive junction system at Short Strand. From the Ravenhill Road to Ormeau Road the Embankment runs as a full mile of road unhindered by significant junctions or traffic control - quite remarkable in the middle of a decent-sized city.
On the other side of river there is no road between Ormeau and city centre, a legacy of the sprawling former gasworks site and current rail corridor. A hugely important and popular active travel corridor has developed instead, one link in a chain all the way from Lisburn to Newtownabbey.
Ormeau Park itself has been around for almost 150 years, but the embankment road wasn't always there:
"The park was designed by Timothy Hevey and opened to the public in 1871. The opening was marked with a parade from Carlisle Circus through Belfast which attracted a large crowd and finished with speeches in the park. The present day park still roughly follows his design but with several alterations, for example, in the 1920’s, the embankment road cut off the river frontage from the park." Planning NI
The river slip at Ravenhill Reach, the Ozone complex and riverside apartments all require vehicle access, but there is no other purpose to the Ormeau Embankment other than as a distributor road.
So, we'd lift the road from here to Ormeau Bridge. Gone.
Plans to build a traffic-free bridge linking from the proposed end of the Ormeau Embankment mean there will be a very practical new east-west route opened in place of the north-south vehicle carriageway. Original options for the bridge included an extended bridge over the road to link safely into the park. Cutting the road offers a very simple solution to this problem.
Removing the remainder of the roadway to Ormeau Bridge would reconnect the park with the river bank. A greenway path would nicely replace the road, keeping movements options open for people, if not cars.
The Ormeau Road would benefit from the four-way intersection at the park gates being reduced to three-way. General traffic flows get a little boost while a continuous countrybound bus lane could be protected from the remaining Ormeau Embankment light phase. Cycling and pedestrian movements from Lower Ormeau to the park would encounter no major road crossing.
This immediately gets rid of the short cut to the M1 from beyond Ravenhill, while local traffic still can drive between Ravenhill and Ormeau using either the Park Road route or across the Albert Bridge.
Stranmillis Embankment (Holylands and Botanic)
The current quickest way to the Stranmillis Gyratory from the Lower Ormeau is to turn off the Ormeau Road at the northern end of the Ormeau Bridge. It's a difficult junction for anyone trying to turn, with no traffic control save for a toucan pedestrian crossing just beside it.
The residential Holylands streets just off the embankment are well served by access from the Ormeau Road and University Street. Moves over the years to cut the rat run from Botanic through to the embankment have been somewhat successful, but the logical endpoint is removing vehicle access to the river altogether.
The only frontages with access needs sit with the apartment block and cottages beside the Botanic Park playground. Utilising the ramp down from Harrow Street is one option, keeping the residents fully connected to the Holylands. Another would be a 300m extension of the access road needed from King's Bridge to the Queen's Sport Centre car park, disconnected as that may feel.
Instead of the current two-lane road with free parking, something innovative could be installed in its footprint - perhaps a public use running track linking the physical activity of the PEC out onto the waterfront. There's a very nice 400m stretch within the area from Botanic Gardens to the Ormeau Road.
A much-needed underpass would safely speed active travel journeys across the Ormeau Road. What this would create is a linear park connecting Botanic Gardens to the Ormeau Park. Given the location, calling this new stretch the Holylands Embankment Park seems about right.
On the opposite bank of the river, Annadale Embankment would be retained as a road from the Ormeau Road to Sunnyside Street. With only local access traffic from the Ormeau Road using this stretch, a road diet could slim the carriageway width, allowing more space for people on the riverbank.
Again, the fast link between the Stranmillis Gyratory and Lower Ormeau is cut, but not eliminated - the opposite bank is still open, but slower due to hitting right turn signal controls on the Ormeau Bridge.
Sunnyside Street and Ballynafeigh
This is the most direct link between Stranmillis and Ormeau, and completely inappropriate for that purpose.
Sunnyside Street has the makings of a pleasant village hub with commercial units able to sustain cafes to rival the Ormeau or Stranmillis. But the constant rumble of cars sneaking through this mixed area of dense terracing and leafier streets suppresses street life.
If you think there's no design behind the Stranmillis Gyratory system, Sunnyside Street betrays a cynical favouring of drivers' needs over residential liveability.
Six speed humps are in place, but so gently angled as to barely register to anyone driving through at 30mph. The inclusion of double yellow lines to deter parking on the approach to the Ormeau Road shows this is clearly seen by traffic planners as a critical link across the city.
Blocking off access at the Ormeau Road end would immediately deter through-journeys. This could see the Sunnyside Street exit repurposed as a mini garden which could serve the adjacent Brewbot and Ambrosia with outdoor seating areas.
One blocked street in isolation would likely only displace traffic coming from Ormeau, so additional calming measures on the surrounding streets would be necessary. North of Sunnyside Street only Haywood Avenue has a viable route better than proceeding down to Ormeau Embankment, yet the squeezed street layout and immediate tight right turn give the visual impression of a cul-de-sac.
It's challenging to devise a fool proof system of defeating through-traffic without severely disadvantaging local residents. The first step is to make the whole footway along the eastern side of the upper Ormeau as a continuous pedestrian footway. This works not only as a counter vision to the current highly-swept turns of the current street exits, but is also place-appropriate to the bustling independent shopping district on the Ormeau Road.
After that, clever deployment of home zone street treatments, build outs and one-way streets can make through-travel for vehicle drivers awkward, glacially slow and undesirable.
Where Sunnyside Street meets Annadale Embankment, the current layout rewards those wanting a quick short-cut to the west with an almost free-flow exit onto the Stranmillis Gyratory. A fully signal-controlled four-way junction (with a simultaneous green pedestrian and cycling phase) would radically reduce the flow rate from all sides, and tip the risk-reward balance away from through-traffic.
And now we reach the crux, the northern side of the Stranmillis Gyratory itself. This bridge, built just before the Titanic, is the eastbound one-way funnel for vehicles.
Once across the bridge, the options for onward travel are too generous. Take an example destination like the major crossroads at Castlereagh Road / Grand Parade - from King's Bridge you can turn left, right or continue straight ahead for three different journey options all within one minute of each other, going via:
It's such a porous area you'd almost be mad not to drive. This is where major surgery is needed.
To calm the entire system, we begin by making King’s Bridge two-way with fully signal controlled junctions on either side. No free-flow slips, and an all-green pedestrian and cycling phase to simplify the junction for the most vulnerable users. Additional control adds journey time to the mental map of the surrounding streets, a discouragement in itself.
With two-way traffic continuing across the bridge, underpasses on both riverbanks would free-up many active travellers from the need to interact with vehicle traffic.
The bridge deck itself is ridiculously tight, and feels like a racetrack. Additional boardwalks over either side of the bridge would provide a calmer environment for non-motorised users.
So far, not a great change in terms of restricting traffic. But we're far from done..
This current one-way slide down to the Lagan is another fast and reliable incentive to through-travel. Pedestrians heading down the Stranmillis Road face a difficult stream of fast vehicles swinging left from behind the trees and parked cars to rush down the hill.
One option might be to stop up the street at the Stranmillis end. In reality, the obvious diversion via the roundabout would only add seconds to eastbound journeys while doing nothing to tackle westbound journeys.
Our solution is to make Ridgeway Street two-way for vehicles. Bear with us.
Where Ridgeway Street meets the Stranmillis Road, the deployment of a signal-controlled junction would restrict the current eastbound flow – never mind the reduced volume with a lack of onward destinations.
On street parking on Ridgeway itself would need to be restricted to support two-way flow. Widened, continuous footways on the northern side would improve the pedestrian link between Stranmillis Village and Botanic Gardens.
Any impact on the Lyric Theatre patronage could be easily offset by the 200-space Queen’s Sport car park only 300 metres away, and still accessible via the rump Stranmillis Embankment. The two extended disabled parking bays with dropped kerbs for Lyric patrons would still be available on Ridgeway Street.
But why enable traffic to climb westbound on Ridgeway Street? That only makes sense if..
Governor's Bridge and Stranmillis Embankment
It only makes sense if we get serious. If you were wondering why the King's Bridge was being changed to two-way travel, maybe you saw this coming.
To truly address the problems created by the Stranmillis Gyratory system, one bridge needs to close to vehicle traffic. And we favour Governor's Bridge, perhaps against instincts.
It's younger the King's Bridge at around 40 years old. It's capable of carrying heavier vehicles than King's Bridge which has a 7.5 tonne weight restriction. It has a roomier deck and is located close to the Stranmillis roundabout.
But (age apart) all of these aspects make it more attractive to fast and heavy through-traffic. Re-routing traffic along Ridgeway Street provides a handy diversion with greater distance and the visual discouragement of an acute angle turn.
Governor's Bridge itself will of course remain and can be re-purposed as a place for people - somewhere for cycling and walking journeys to continue without the constant danger of fast vehicles, likely with seating on the deck to watch the rowers cutting up and down the river. Perhaps it could even become Belfast's smaller, sensibly-priced answer to London's Garden Bridge mess.
Taking out Governor's Bridge and routing traffic onto King's Bridge isn't worth much if the Stranmillis Embankment between the roundabout and Ridgeway Street still offers a fast route for vehicles, so we propose to remove the road entirely here. Gone.
Instead, a greenway would give a more appropriate link between the forested slopes and river. All traffic between the roundabout and the east bank of the river now must use Ridgeway Street. By lifting the road from roundabout to river, we can create a new mini park.
The existing footprint is dominated by a car park owned and operated by Belfast City Council – 87 free spaces which serve no obvious purpose, given the parking within Stranmillis University grounds and at the businesses opposite.
Although a great opportunity to create a new park space in itself, if you've been watching through the maps to date, it would actually be the southern-most tip of a new 2.5km linear river park stretching (without the need to cross a single road because of new underpasses) from Stranmillis Roundabout, incorporating Botanic Gardens, the new Holylands Embankment Park and across to Ormeau Park.
Which is a wonderful concept for a riverside reclaimed from vehicles.
Annadale Avenue and Embankment
Where Annadale Avenue meets the Ormeau Road marks the southern event horizon of the Stranmillis Gyratory. This fast carriageway, with a semi-rural feel, draws in traffic from the Saintfield Road and Upper Ravenhill directions, and provides quick access to Forestside shopping complex from west of the Lagan.
Even with the changes laid out so far, getting from Forestside to the Stranmillis roundabout is still attractive - despite the diversion along King's Bridge and Ridgeway Street.
The simplest way to cut through-traffic then is to cut the road itself. There is a natural gap which can be created between developments which grew up from the 1990s onwards, Mornington and Wellington Square.
On the Mornington side, access to the allotments would be retained, but otherwise the road could be lifted to provide new green space or perhaps expand the allotments.
On the Wellington Square side, the split access road would be turned into a large roundabout, doubling up as a terminus for bus services.
The green-light for the construction of the Lagan Gateway will naturally open up improved active travel routes from this section of former road.
With the major road repurposing complete, we turn to the benefits which will accrue to Stranmillis Road itself. No longer part of a through-route, traffic levels will dramatically drop.
One key benefit of this would be the traffic engineering problem-solving rolled out over the years becomes redundant. Most significantly, with only local traffic using the road in ‘rush hour’ the need for a bus lane crawling up the hill towards Stranmillis Village disappears. This can be repurposed into a protected two-way cycleway to link the Village with Lockview.
I've always loved Stranmillis Village but, when you take a step back - it's really horribly car-choked.. pic.twitter.com/XCnLEt9XA5
The removal of significant volumes of traffic will probably increase average speeds on the road. The signalised junction at Ridgeway Street will help to calm the approach to the Village section.
Within the Village, the cycleway will need to continue through and on towards the University as Stranmillis and Malone merge again. To achieve this the free parking bays on the west side of the road would be removed, and serious consideration given to the need for any free on-road parking in this picturesque street.
The last key part of the lead-in to the Stranmillis Gyratory is the cut-through from the Lisburn Road to Stranmillis via Chlorine Gardens.
Densely packed with recently-built apartments, older large houses and university buildings, the high volumes of traffic using it daily are harmful and unwelcome. Cutting the road between the vehicle access to Chlorine Mews and the houses beside the new QUB Biological Sciences building would create two woonerfs and a pleasant central pedestrian plaza.
The five arms of the roundabout become just four with the removal of the road to Governor's Bridge and Stranmillis Embankment. The reduction in traffic means the roundabout can be retained and redesigned to better accommodate the movements of people - pedestrian and cyclist - especially between the Malone and Lockview directions to the new linear park.
The current road layout entering the roundabout from the southern end of Stranmillis Road is a bloated three lanes - two on and one off. Reducing this back to just one on one off, and getting rid of the right hand turning box into Sharman Road, means a fully protected cycleway can be run between the roundabout and Richmond Park.
This would support safe cycling journeys to be made from the Lagan direction to Stranmillis Primary School, another key element of reducing the impact of school run traffic in the area. Similarly, good access across the roundabout onto the new bus-lane-replacement cycleway up to Stranmillis Village offers not just work commuting options but serves Methodist College and Queen's University students.
There it is - a starting point for discussion with 4km of riverside roads cut down to just 2km, replaced by potentially magnificent linear parks and through-traffic all but removed from a whole city district. The Stranmillis Gyratory erased and liveable streets growing up in its place and around its former orbit.
Will this happen tomorrow? No. Will it happen ever? It's doubtful. A massive swathe of the city would be affected by these proposed changes – it would take unprecedented bravery from politicians, planners and the public to even consider it.
But this type of macro-level change is what our city needs to begin to climb out of its chronic congestion and obesity problems.
The underlying framework for movement in the city should be clear - the arterial routes of Belfast and the ring roads are the natural place for longer distance vehicle travel. While the connecting street network continues to remain entirely permeable to vehicles, drivers will continue to use them in great numbers to the detriment of local residents and to the health of the wider population.
Promotion of active travel will only get us so far when the physical space it's expected to flourish in is dominated by vehicles.
This is not to ban vehicles - routes between the Malone and Ormeau arterials are still available in this plan:
Ormeau Embankment / Ridgeway Street
Ormeau Avenue (Inner Ring)
Certain short car journeys, especially for those with accessibility and mobility needs, means retaining an appropriate level of vehicle access is important. A turbo roundabout spinning together all types of vehicle journey isn't needed, while the outlying enablers of the worst through-traffic - Ormeau Embankment, Annadale Avenue and Chlorine Gardens - would be rendered inert in this plan.
The primary vehicle usage would be by local residents accessing their properties, and active travel would get promoted through deed, not just word.
In fact, the plan actually has benefits to vehicle travel on the main roads. Ormeau Road loses two side roads with efficiency gains for traffic flow across Ormeau Bridge.
The pedestrian crossing on the northern end of Ormeau Bridge would remain, but would have significantly less usage with a bridge underpass linking the two parks.
Traffic turning in and out of Sunnyside Street would no longer cause constant conflict on the upper Ormeau. With no 'strategic' traffic flows along Annadale Avenue, that junction would become far more efficient for Ormeau traffic.
On the Stranmillis Road, local residents would enjoy a drastic reduction in fast traffic flow as they access residential streets. Stress on the Malone Road junction with Stranmillis at Broomhill would be lessened.
Reconnecting communities and our existing public gardens with the riverbanks - as well as the creation of a new linear park - can increase physical activity levels in the surrounding population. Innovative interventions such as urban beaches or public running tracks (or something entirely new created by the folk of Belfast) can fill the space vacated by fast traffic.
The theory goes that reducing road capacity and snipping drivers' short-cuts may displace vehicles elsewhere in the short term, but making public transport and active travel journeys quicker (and safer) on those old routes creates the best incentives to switch travel modes - time and convenience.
This is also just one idea out of many options for the area. It's possible the whole scheme as laid out above is ridiculous (we're prepared to hold our hands up if so) and maybe you have a simpler or better idea. The comments section is open. That's the point - starting an uncomfortable discussion on how we tackle the vehicle use that chokes our city, but that no-one is really planning to eliminate any time soon.
Unhealthy road environments sitting in plain sight have to be tackled, even if we've grown to appreciate their convenience for our driving habits.
In a revised 1969 plan shown below, having being deemed too destructive, the M4 was to terminate at Annadale Embankment - which would have mainlined strategic traffic right onto the Stranmillis Gyratory.
Today's remaining wide roads on both banks are a little contemporary echo of that half-a-century-old mode of thinking about urban travel priorities.
This is a complex junction as the Ormeau Road crosses the River Lagan. Heavy arterial vehicle flow between South Belfast and the city centre interacts with the Stranmillis Embankment on the north bank and the Annadale/Ormeau Embankment through route on the southern bank.
On the Stranmillis Embankment (north bank) a separated cycleway on the road links up, via a toucan crossing over the Ormeau Road, with the Laganside pathway toward the city centre, and the sites of our other two counts at The Gasworks and the Albert Bridge.
The evening rush hour in particular is a good time to see the concentration of cyclists heading across Ormeau Bridge to the (short) cycle lane shared with pedestrians or into Ormeau Park.
The northern end of the bridge is the ideal spot for counting bicycles given the crossing of the National Cycle Network and Belfast’s longest-established dedicated cycling route along to Stranmillis.
Placing a video camera on a large Dutch bicycle we recorded two separate periods of the evening rush hour – one in October 2016 and one in May 2017. Both days had clear weather and no major traffic incidents were reported – just normal working weekdays.
We noted the direction of bicycle travel and some characteristics of the riders (more on that later).
Over the two days we observed a total of 362 bicycle movements in a combined 68.5 minutes, giving the Albert Bridge an estimated peak flow rate of 317 bicycles per hour, or over 5 bicycles per minute. It’s not The Netherlands, but for Belfast this is pretty cool.
This is significantly higher than the rates observed at The Gasworks and Albert Bridge junctions. This is partially down to dedicated (if not 100% ideal) cycling infrastructure on 3 arms of the junction, and a dense urban population on the city centre side of the bridge in the lower Ormeau and Holylands fuelling a counter-tidal flow back towards the city centre (higher than our last two counts).
We’ve worked up a graphic to demonstrate the flow patterns.
Those cycling from the Laganside direction accounted for 48% of journeys entering the junction while 49% of people exiting the junction were travelling south across the Ormeau Bridge.
The gender imbalance is still clear, however less drastic than our other two counts – at 28% of riders being female it’s heading towards a 2:1 ratio of male to female rather than 4:1 at the Albert Bridge. It’s an indication that Belfast still has a long way to go to make cycling safe and accessible for everyone.
Was this also the case on the Ormeau Bridge? Despite the absence of barriers enclosing the roadway – perhaps perceptibly less hostile – people still don’t want to ride with busy vehicle traffic. Remarkably almost three quarters of people cycling on the bridge (in either direction) choose the footways:
43% of people cycling used the northern footway
27% of people cycling used the road
30% of people cycling used the southern footway
The narrow footways barely cope with pedestrian footfall and a significant volume of bicycles at present, and will be unlikely to safely accommodate a rise in cycling journeys.
The Ormeau Road is confirmed as the busiest bicycle junction in Belfast, and likely by extension the busiest in the country. It offers those who are engaged in planning for the bicycle in Belfast a chance to observe (in large numbers) how people cope with the limited space for cycling afforded to them, their preferences for travel in that context, and the benefits of investing in dedicated space.
Why are we doing this?
Other than being curious about the impact of the Cycling Revolution™ which, apart from some infrastructure, is still a purely organic movement in Belfast, we’re trying to highlight a big gap in government data gathering and everyday cycling insight.
We used to have a potentially excellent source for cycling journey data – the (now defunct) Department for Regional Development’s live cycle counters. These enabled the Department (now DfI) to measure growth on key corridors.
And then they were turned off. And many were removed. The boxes may still be in place but nothing is happening inside.
And we need a baseline before those cycleways are built, so counters should be going in now. And to top it all off, live roadside counter displays should be deployed in a couple of locations to demonstrate to everyone that cycling is an important and growing part of our city’s transport landscape.