Next generation bicycle parking arriving at Translink stations

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.

Existing cycle parking at Holywood station, not very secure

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.”

Good stuff.

Cycling Department struggles on without Executive

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.”

And the language introduced by the last DfI Minister Chris Hazzard appears to have embedded itself into a strategic direction away from car travel:

“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.”

Download the full DfI Corporate Plan 2017-2021 and Business Plan 2017-2018 (PDF, 1.5MB).

Date set for Ciclovia Belfast 2017

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:

Get more information about the event on the Ciclovia Belfast website.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail

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 how you've reached this opinion, you haven't said why it'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 that would have been helpful.

Naturally you’ll rectify that error asap so 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 control to 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

People will ignore your new crossing in droves, especially as it appears to still be offset from the direct desire line between Lombard Street and Cornmarket.

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.

That strikes me as a very courageous decision.

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.

And never mind that this critical decision on a Castle Place crossing is buried in a consultation on a High Street scheme. In fact, Castle Place isn't mentioned in the consultation article on the Department website.

Nor, in fact, is it mentioned in the draft Order The Control of Traffic (High Street, Belfast) Order (Northern Ireland) 2017, which I suspect makes the process of removing the crossing from the scheme due to this objection rather quite easy.

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
Eastern Division

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
Eastern Division

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 😛

Cycling investment and the DUP Deal

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?

Part of the financial package has been specifically earmarked for “infrastructure development” to be delivered by the Department for Infrastructure (DfI):

“The UK government will allocate £200m per year for two years and with sufficient flexibility as to the choice of project to ensure the Executive is able to deliver the York Street Interchange Project and other priorities.”
UK government financial support for Northern Ireland (GOV.UK)

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

Over on Slugger O’Toole, Andy Boal gives a realistic assessment of how the £400m in chips may fall on a road-and-rail blinkered transport investment strategy. For a long list of roads projects in early planning or likely to evolve following this announcement, you’d do well to consult the excellent NI Roads site. For rail options check out the consultation paper on the Railway Investment Prioritisation Strategy from 2014.

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.

Belfast regularly features as one of the worst cities for congestion in the UK and Europe – and our politicians and planners seem to be accepting that building roads isn’t going to solve that problem.

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.

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 or investing in public and active travel to move more people.

A £90m investment in Belfast Rapid Transit will see a genuine alternative to private motoring debut in the city by September 2018, as long as sense prevails through the maddening stupidity of the taxis in bus lanes issue.

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..

..while at the same time extra-curricular responsibilities have been piled on. The Cycling Unit official title is now “The Cycling and Inland Waterways Unit”, and based on the branding on the DfI website looks likely to be renamed the Active Travel Unit in the near future. It’s classic civil service “death by a thousand cuts”.

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.

This is a bellwether project – if you see this confirmed in the first 100 days, you’ll know the Executive is deadly serious about delivery on active travel.

Prioritise a revision of the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan

The Belfast Bicycle Network Plan was launched in the teeth of the 2017 Assembly Election, and uncertainty over future government has somewhat stalled the subsequent consultation process.

Two clear issues which the public fed back need to be quickly addressed by a Minister confident in their vision for combating congestion in our city:

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.

Launch the Greenways Capital Grants Programme

The Strategic Plan for Greenways was launched in November 2016 by Minister Hazzard. It’s a 25 year vision to create 1,000km of greenways across the region, with a suggested £150m price tag – less than the York Street Interchange but who’s comparing? 😉

The wheels are in motion on getting local councils to create feasibility studies and business plans through a DfI small grants competition.

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.

At present though all we have is a press release and no meat on the bones. Whoever takes up the Infrastructure portfolio should get this strategy out to consultation asap to allow spending across the department (in this time of accelerated work) to be informed and directed by it.

Life and death of the Stranmillis Gyratory

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.

This is why Bikefast is pushing for a Congestion Plan for Belfast to radically reshape how our city plans for mobility - something to shake up the cosy status quo within the Department for Infrastructure and force radical change.

But where exactly to start this uncomfortable conversation? That fell into our lap with a call for action on cycling safety at the Stranmillis Roundabout:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

It acts as a series of relief corridors for cross-city traffic which (in the immortal words of Department for Infrastructure's Ciarán de Búrca) is "not stopping because they have no business there, going from one side of the city to the other and using it as a short cut".

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..

Ormeau Embankment

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, Belfast

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.

© Copyright Albert 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.

This area already has the most cycling-friendly community in the country, with over 6% of workers commuting by bicycle in 2011. Building upon that foundation and removing unnecessary traffic can only spur more people to do likewise.

King's Bridge, Belfast

King's Bridge

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..

Ridgeway Street

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..

Stranmillis Embankment, Belfast

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.

© Copyright Albert Bridge

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.

© Copyright Albert Bridge

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.

Stranmillis Road (Village)

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.

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.

Stranmillis Roundabout and towards Malone

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.

Conclusion

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:

  • Outer Ring
  • Ormeau Embankment / Ridgeway Street
  • University Avenue
  • Donegall Pass
  • 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.

How would you kill off the Stranmillis Gyratory?


Footnote

Had motorway planning in the 1960s been seen through, the situation here might have been infinitely worse. The M4 motorway from Carryduff was originally planned to interchange with the Belfast Urban Motorway inner ring, ploughing its way along the banks of the Lagan.

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.

Picture courtesy of Wesley Johnston (NI Roads) / DfI

Some other copyright images (as marked) reused under Creative Commons Licence from the cherished lens of Albert Bridge.

Inclusion of all of these images does not indicate endorsement of the article.


Update 

01 August 2017

By popular demand (in the comments section) I've crafted "before and after" full scheme maps in PNG formats for your viewing and downloading pleasure!

Full map of existing road network on scheme footprint (PNG, 503K)

Full map of proposed alterations to road network (PNG, 503K)

Lagan cordon count (Ormeau Bridge)

Bikefast wanted to know what the peak rates of everyday cycling were in our city. We’ve talked a good bit about the perceived growth of cycling in our city and we’ve posted lots of encouraging pictures to Instagram – but we’re struggling to get good, granular data out of our Transport Department (DfI). So we took matters into our own hands. We pitched our intrepid bicycle counter (me – Ed) at three locations along the Laganside corridor on evenings in Autumn 2016 and Spring 2017 to get just a little sample of what a dedicated cordon count might show.

In the last of three articles we take a look at Belfast’s Ormeau Bridge, long held to be Belfast’s busiest bicycle junction – do the figures bear this out?

Count 3: Ormeau Bridge (north bank)

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.

On the southern side of the bridge the areas surrounding the Ormeau Road have the highest concentration of cycling commuters in the country. Ballynafeigh ward had a 6% cycling share of all commuting journeys at the 2011 census, a figure likely to have risen towards double figures in subsequent years.

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.

The data

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.

Footway or roadway?

In our last article we tested the anecdotal assumption that half of all cycling movements on the Albert Bridge were on the pavement – and found it was actually closer to 60%.

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.

It’s an indication of a sick road environment – unforgiving, unwelcoming and unattractive to those using bicycles. And it poses difficulty for pedestrians. It will need to be addressed as part of the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan should the Department for Infrastructure agree with the need to plan a new arterial route along the Ormeau Road corridor.

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.

Our best indication of cycling growth is at a very high level. We have the annual Travel Survey for Northern Ireland which places cycling commuting (not everyday journeys) at between 3-5% of all commuter journeys in the city.

Other than that, the Census is our most detailed look at cycling habits, but again only looks at commuting – and we’re about halfway between the 10 year gap between Census reports.

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.

We’re calling for DfI to deploy new live cycle counters in a cordon around the city to enable the growth of cycling, linked to their proposed Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, to accurately measure cycling journey levels and observe demand for new facilities.

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.

Enough is enough – taxis in bus lanes

Bikefast have called on the Department for infrastructure to take the long view on sustainable transport and protect our vital infrastructure from knee-jerk, un-evidenced decisions to hobble Belfast’s transit systems solely to benefit private taxi firms.

Earlier this year a group of Belfast’s biggest private taxi firms somehow secured the opening of some Belfast’s bus lanes to their vehicles, a “remarkable” lobbying effort which threatened to “sabotage the Belfast Rapid Transit system” a year before it launched, and threatened to kill off cycling levels.

Between 4,000 and 5,000 of their vehicles. (In truth not even DfI knows this figure, which is a huge issue in itself.)

At a stroke this made taxis the majority users of these sustainable transport lanes. Everyone else got four days’ notice; no chance to consult or object; no oversight from the (dissolved) Northern Ireland Assembly.

The plan had been to roll this out as a trial for six months, likely to drift into a permanent arrangement as the controversy died down.  At the 11th hour Bikefast and Sustrans convinced Minister Hazzard to cut that trial down to 12 weeks. Good to their word, the Department ended the trial in mid-May and Belfast’s bus passengers and thousands who cycle every day breathed easier.

Now the Department wants your views on the trial and the policy, as if it wasn’t made clear enough already with a widespread negative backlash. People aren’t daft – they know adding thousands of taxis to bus lanes is a case of “how much worse will the experience for cycling be”, “how much slower will the buses run” and “how much of a reduction in safety and journey times is acceptable to the Department”?

What the Department hasn’t done is launch a full consultation – this call for views isn’t even listed on their Consultations page. In 2012 a proper consultation on the same issue (with different legislation provoking it) found 86% of people disagreed with handing our bus lanes over to private taxis.

That figure still stands.

However, the big business private taxi lobby will keep chipping away at this issue until they impose their will on everyone else. So you need to make your voice heard on why public transport journey times should be paramount in Belfast transit planning and why cycling safety is so crucial to you.

And the Department need to closely examine the process of this rapidly (and quietly) developing policy. The next Minister can decide whatever they want and civil servants will have to follow – that’s a Minister’s prerogative. But the Department has a responsibility to ensure that public funds are managed with propriety and duly safeguarded.

To that, the £90m of public money poured into making Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) a success is clearly at stake. On the most basic level, can the Department honestly stand over a trial designed to measure the impact of this policy on BRT, which was conducted without BRT operating?

Can the Department stand confidently over this policy without the benefit of full party political donation transparency in Northern Ireland?

Is the Department prepared to swallow the insulting tone of the private taxi lobby – that taxis in bus lanes somehow lanced the boil of congestion, that private taxis are the “fourth emergency service”, and that “hundreds of jobs” are at stake when big taxi firms have in fact been expanding their business in the last few years?

Are the Department (or the public for that matter) happy to be treated like fools?

Is the Department confident to stand over data from a trial which clearly wasn’t fully designed ahead of time and wasn’t fit for purpose?

Questions went unanswered until a week into the trial, and even then in face-to-face meetings it was clear that the trial had been dumped in the lap of officials with so short notice as to render the whole exercise almost useless – no baseline data shared, no information on the scale of monitoring, no measurement criteria or success/failure bounds, and (truly shocking) some random monitoring of social media for incidents and attitudes included to boot.

The trial was a shambles because of the political direction – fair play to the Department’s honest hard work to make a good fist of it, but the whole thing should be discarded.

The only reasonable way forward, whatever your view on the policy, is to address the massive research deficit exposed by the botched attempt of a narrow interest group to pull the rug out from under sustainable transport.

This will need to stretch beyond the introduction of BRT next year to allow for that service to establish and thrive. This policy direction also signals an urgent need to begin the construction of the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan so that cycling can be taken out of arguments about bus lanes.

The research which needs to be conducted includes:

  • How many taxis of all categories actually operate in Belfast (including Uber) and how has this number changed annually since the introduction of bus lanes?
  • How many taxis use diesel fuel?
  • What verifiable impact on private taxi employment have bus lanes had since they were introduced (distinct from other economic factors)?
  • What verifiable impact will bus lanes have on private taxi employment in the future (distinct from other economic factors)?
  • Will prioritising private hire motor vehicles actually improve air quality in Belfast?
  • How will this potential policy change affect levels of investment in wheelchair accessible taxis and taxibus services, and linked employment?
  • Will shifting an unknown number of private hire vehicles into bus lanes reduce the number of vehicles in general traffic lanes or lead to an overall net gain through induced demand?
  • A wide survey of health care users to determine the modal access to service points – i.e. what percentage of people every day travel by public transport, private car, different classes of taxis, walking and cycling?
  • A survey of bus passenger attitudes (and Bus Rapid Transit attitudes, once launched and bedded in) to bus lane access to determine their informed view on the journey speed and reliability issues.
  • What impact will this change have on fragile cycling levels while the Belfast Bicycle Network remains unconstructed?
  • An evaluation of safety perception and outcomes for the vulnerable users of bus lanes, those on bicycles and motorcycles.
  • What is the economic case for allowing one private service industry (taxis) free utilisation of a public utility (bus lanes) over other critical private service industries (logistics, deliveries)?
  • Survey of people who cycle and monitor journeys in bus lanes.
  • Carry out a general safety audit for the mix of vehicles in bus lanes.

Freeze the current bus lane access arrangement for the next five years (Buses, Class B and D taxis only, bicycles, motorcycles), let BRT bed in, build the initial cycling network and then carry out proper real-world studies.

Make public investment in sustainable transport your priority, don’t just hand the keys over to private interests.

Anything short of proper, independently researched evidence being used to direct policy, anything short of a full public consultation, anything short of rigorous fact checking of wild lobbying claims, anything short of fully evaluating the impact of this change within the context of Belfast congestion and the long-term future of city transport, and we’re left to conclude that those with “remarkable political clout“, beyond the current reach of scrutiny, can alter public policy to suit their interests over the greater good.

And shame on all of us if we let that overrule evidence-based policy making.

There is a fine balance in bus lanes right now which is continuing to support the growth of cycling and promises to support a fantastic new Rapid Transit system. People are responding to former Minister Chris Hazzard’s call for us to concentrate on moving people, not cars.

Don’t put that at risk for the sake of narrow commercial interests. When it comes to the volume of vehicles in our bus lanes, enough is enough.


What can you do?

Bikefast has partnered with Cycling UK and Sustrans to respond to the DfI trial – read our joint response here.

Read the Sustrans blog post on the case for no more taxis in Belfast’s bus lanes.

Send your views directly to the Department for Infrastructure here.

The deadline is 16th June 2017.

You can also use Cycling UK’s form to easily respond to DfI’s call for views here.

More reading

05 May 2017 – Belfast bus lane taxi trial ends (but attack on sustainable transport limps on)

20 Mar 2017 – Bus lane taxis “impede other road users, increase journey times” says.. Infrastructure Department

04 Apr 2017 – Push to keep taxis in Belfast bus lanes backfires (Irishcycle.com)

03 Apr 2017 – Belfast taxi postcard campaign in tatters

27 Feb 2017 –  DfI: Taxis in bus lanes trial will not default into a permanent arrangement

19 Feb 2017 – Survival guide to 84 days of taxis in Belfast bus lanes

18 Feb 2017 – Department declines to answer questions ahead of taxis in bus lanes “trial”

08 Oct 2014 – Reform and revolution | Taxis in bus lanes

06 Oct 2014 – Rapid transit? | Taxis in bus lanes

01 Oct 2014 – Wall of steel | Taxis in bus lanes

26 Sep 2014 – 4,000+ taxis in Belfast | Taxis in bus lanes

23 Sep 2014 – Perspective | Taxis in bus lanes

22 Sep 2014 – Fightback | Taxis in bus lanes

21 Mar 2013 – What value in the perception of cycling safety?

21 Feb 2013 – All Taxis in Bus Lanes – Why I Am Opposed (niroads.com)

07 Feb 2013 – DRD determined to halt Belfast cycling progress?

18 Sep 2012 – NI Greenways response to taxis in bus lanes consultation

05 Sep 2012 – Taxis in bus lanes a backward step for cycling

Lagan cordon count (Albert Bridge)

Bikefast wanted to know what the peak rates of everyday cycling were in our city. We’ve talked a good bit about the perceived growth of cycling in our city and we’ve posted lots of encouraging pictures to Instagram – but we’re struggling to get good, granular data out of our Transport Department (DfI). So we took matters into our own hands. We pitched our intrepid bicycle counter (me – Ed) at three locations along the Laganside corridor on evenings in Autumn 2016 and Spring 2017 to get just a little sample of what a dedicated cordon count might show.

In the second of three articles, we take a look at Belfast’s Albert Bridge, at it’s intersection with the National Cycle Network..

Count 2: Albert Bridge (west bank)

This is a complex junction as East Bridge Street meets the Albert Bridge. Heavy arterial vehicle flow between East Belfast and the city centre interacts with roadway entry and exit points on Laganbank Road and at Maysfield – although both are restricted to with-flow movement by a central reservation. A pedestrian crossing sits between these and the bridge.

High pedestrian footfall is generated by the office blocks which have sprouted up over the last 15 years around Central Station – the region’s busiest railway station. On the east bank of the Lagan the dense communities of the Short Strand, Lower Ravenhill, Woodstock and The Mount power a strong tidal pedestrian commute.

The National Cycle Network (Route 9) through Belfast crosses East Bridge Street at this western end of the Albert Bridge.

The data

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 328 bicycle movements in a combined 84 minutes, giving the Albert Bridge an estimated peak flow rate of 236 bicycles per hour, or about 4 bicycles per minute. It’s not The Netherlands, but for Belfast this is pretty cool. The rate is almost identical to the nearby Gasworks Junction we studied in part one.

We’ve worked up a graphic to demonstrate the flow patterns.

Those cycling from the Waterfront direction accounted for 41% of journeys entering the junction while 56% of people exiting the junction were travelling east across the Albert Bridge.

Naturally for an evening rush hour, very little cycling traffic is headed towards the city centre, which lacks a dense resident population – interestingly Deliveroo riders provided a large proportion of those who were travelling that way.

As with the Gasworks there is a clear gender imbalance with 19% of those cycling being female. It’s an indication that Belfast still has a long way to go to make cycling safe and accessible for everyone.

Footway or roadway?

One aspect of the Albert Bridge which has troubled road engineers and campaigners alike is the perception of a hostile roadspace for those cycling. The tall concrete and metal vehicle restraint barriers on both sides of the four lane roadway hem you in, giving no “escape route” to the footway.

The Cycling Unit (and their predecessors) have shared anecdotal observations that about 50% of people cycling on the bridge do so on the footways rather than take to the road.

So with our handy dataset, we decided to clarify the situation a little – and Bikefast has found the majority of people cycling on the Albert Bridge use the footways, closer to 60% of all movements (in both directions):

  • 18% of people cycling used the northern footway
  • 42% of people cycling used the road
  • 40% of people cycling used the southern footway

The footways are too narrow at rush hour to accommodate high pedestrian footfall and a significant volume of bicycles. It’s an indication of a sick road environment – unforgiving, unwelcoming and unattractive to those using bicycles. And it poses difficulty for pedestrians.

While building a bridge at the Gasworks will divert some cycling journeys off the Albert Bridge, the general growth of cycling which will follow the adoption of Belfast Bicycle Network Plan requires some form of cycling adaptation here. Bikefast’s Restitching Belfast series proposed fitting additional pedestrian walkways on the outside of the bridge platform, allowing the current footways to be converted to dedicated cycleways.

Even though this section of the city was familiar to Bikefast, the level of bicycle usage was surprisingly high, especially heading away from the National Cycle Network. It adds weight to Bikefast’s view that future cycling infrastructure development must not ignore the main arterial routes of the city.

In our final article on the Lagan Cordon Count series we will look at the Ormeau Bridge – will our data bear out its long-assumed title as the top cycling junction in the country?


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.

Our best indication of cycling growth is at a very high level. We have the annual Travel Survey for Northern Ireland which places cycling commuting (not everyday journeys) at between 3-5% of all commuter journeys in the city.

Other than that, the Census is our most detailed look at cycling habits, but again only looks at commuting – and we’re about halfway between the 10 year gap between Census reports.

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.

We’re calling for DfI to deploy new live cycle counters in a cordon around the city to enable the growth of cycling, linked to their proposed Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, to accurately measure cycling journey levels and observe demand for new facilities.

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.

Lagan cordon count (Gasworks Junction)

Bikefast wanted to know what the peak rates of everyday cycling were in our city. We’ve talked a good bit about the perceived growth of cycling in our city and we’ve posted lots of encouraging pictures to Instagram – but we’re struggling to get good, granular data out of our Transport Department (DfI). So we took matters into our own hands. We pitched our intrepid bicycle counter (me – Ed) at three locations along the Laganside corridor on evenings in Autumn 2016 and Spring 2017 to get just a little sample of what a dedicated cordon count might show. In the first of three articles, here’s what we found happening at the Gasworks..

Count 1: Gasworks Junction

Why the Gasworks? Well, it was our first choice, as the central vertebrae in Belfast’s spinal cycling route, offering the shortest, safest connection to the city centre.

The National Cycle Network here earns that title in a way few other facilities in Northern Ireland do. You can cycle from Lisburn to Newtownabbey only encountering vehicle traffic when crossing a handful of roads – a shared towpath winds through Lambeg, Edenderry and Malone, before a pleasant 1.2km of kerb separated cycleway spirits you along the Stranmillis Embankment to the Ormeau Bridge.

The shared Laganside path then skims the edge of the city centre to the Albert Bridge, onward under the new Waterfront Exhibition Centre, mixing shared footways, cycleway, traffic-closed streets and out to the Loughshore Path which stretches to Whiteabbey and eventually to the Newtownabbey Greenway.

Two of the key cycle corridors across the Lagan for city centre journeys are the Albert and Ormeau Bridges, while sitting in the middle is the Gasworks Junction, providing access to the office development in Gasworks Park and a further 1km of traffic-free cycling directly to the heart of the city centre along on the Alfred Street Cycleway.

It’s the gravitational centre of cycling in Belfast.

And it should be even more important. The Gasworks Bridge, a £7m-£9m proposal to create a traffic free link at Gasworks Junction across to the Ormeau Park would truly revolutionise active travel in Belfast. It just needs an Assembly, Executive, and a capital injection from the next Finance and Infrastructure Ministers.

The data

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 – normal working weekdays.

Where the Gasworks Path meets the Laganside Path is a simple three-way junction with a short red bridge marking the point where the Blackstaff River merges with the Lagan.

We noted the direction of bicycle travel and some characteristics of the riders (more on that later). As expected, the dominant flow into the junction was from the Gasworks and Albert Bridge directions – coming from the city centre – and leaving the junction to the south – where as far back as 2011 cycling accounted for over 6% of commuting journeys by residents just across the Ormeau Bridge.

In total over the two days we observed a total of 369 bicycle movements in a combined 94 minutes, giving the Gasworks Junction an estimated peak flow rate of 236 bicycles per hour, or about 4 bicycles per minute. It’s not The Netherlands, but for Belfast this is pretty cool.

We’ve worked up a graphic to demonstrate the flow patterns.

Gasworks_graphic

Those cycling from the city centre through the Gasworks accounted for 49% of journeys entering the junction while 69% of people exiting the junction were travelling towards Ormeau.

Somewhat disappointing is the continued gender imbalance in cycling, with females accounting for less than a quarter of those cycling. That’s a better percentage than any official count we’ve seen over the last five years, but an indication that Belfast still has a long way to go to make cycling safe and accessible for everyone.

We also captured a little time-lapse video of part of the count in May to show how people are using the junction.

The 2011 Census recorded 2,282 regular cycle commuters across the whole of Belfast, which was a 60% rise since 2001. Without a baseline for this exact location for those time periods (and the ability to look beyond commuter cycling) we can’t make a judgement on cycling growth beyond 2011. But 236 bicycles per hour (peak) in one location in the city looks extremely healthy in that context.

It’s fair to say a large proportion of those heading either direction along the Laganside Path will continue their journeys across the river at either the Ormeau or Albert Bridge (and we have data to look at that aspect). Opening a fourth arm of this junction by building the Gasworks Bridge would not only serve the many people already using this junction, but with journey time saving and extended traffic-free routes through the Ormeau Park on the opposite bank, hundreds more people could be encouraged to travel actively here.

Up next we look at the Albert Bridge where the National Cycle Network crosses a key commuting corridor between East Belfast and the city centre.


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.

Our best indication of cycling growth is at a very high level. We have the annual Travel Survey for Northern Ireland which places cycling commuting (not everyday journeys) at between 3-5% of all commuter journeys in the city.

Other than that, the Census is out most detailed look at cycling habits, but again only looks at commuting – and we’re about halfway between the 10 year gap between Census reports.

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.

We’re calling for DfI to deploy new live cycle counters in a cordon around the city to enable the growth of cycling, linked to their proposed Belfast Bicycle Network Plan, to accurately measure cycling journey levels and observe demand for new facilities.

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.