Fight for a cycleway to Belfast City Hall

Scheme consultations and analysis

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Department for Communities’ Five Cs project ignores cycling and may place another decades-long barrier in the way of city cycling network development, unless we act


Yet another government plan for Belfast city centre public realm investment has ignored cycling, potentially cutting off Belfast City Hall from the city’s bicycle network for decades. Your help is needed now to fight for changes in the consultation which closes on 22 December 2020.

The Department for Communities (DfC) is consulting on a proposal for public realm enhancement on five separate streets in Belfast City Centre:

  • College Avenue
  • College Street
  • College Court
  • Callender Street
  • Chichester Street

The first is primarily a paving upgrade on a small portion of a street which needs a strategic cycle route along its length – something the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) signaled its ambivalence to at a recent Belfast City Council committee meeting. The next three are welcome pedestrianisation projects on appropriate streets, which will help to humanise this portion of the city centre. You can view those four parts of the project on the consultation website.

But Chichester Street is the biggest part of the project, the one where a flagship cycling intervention is needed, where the stated aim of “prioritising active travel” would be best fulfilled. And yet..

What’s the plan?

The plan for Chichester Street has some interesting elements within a basic ‘fancy paving’ intervention. The main strategic changes are a proposal to completely stop-up the one-way exit from Upper Arthur Street to vehicles, and the same with the one-way entrance to Montgomery Street. The is a great enhancement for pedestrian movements between City Hall and the Laganside area.

On-street paid parking is replaced by a series of ‘built-in’ bays solely for disabled parking, and dedicated loading bays are included.

The north side pavements for the majority of the street are not in scope of this project, and for the eagle eyed among you, neither is the main carriageway. Which is problematic.

What’s the problem?

There is no integration of a cycle route. And worse, the plan for Chichester Street actively prevents a flagship city cycleway from being progressed.

No City Hall to Big Fish cycleway which campaigners and businesses have been banging the drum on for years:

A one-way system imposed to curtail motor traffic is left untouched, leaving in place a major barrier to a high profile cycling desire line when the chance for change is right in front of us.

But this shouldn’t be a surprise.

DfC simply does not “do” cycling. It has a strong track record of ensuring high quality cycling space is kept away from its public realm schemes. This has been the case on a number of high profile projects proposed and delivered over the last decade, or planned for the future, such as:

  • Belfast Streets Ahead 1 (Donegall Place) – which removed northbound traffic, and (with no thought) created a huge city-wide barrier to cycling movements
  • Belfast Streets Ahead 3 (Royal Avenue) – see scheme designs with sporty cyclists sharing the road, instead of a dedicated cycleway away from traffic with families cycling
  • Shankill Road Public Realm – stretches of road with “advisory” cycle lanes given fancy pedestrian paving, but left the cycling space unaddressed
  • Clifton Gateway – a project which completely ignored cycling on a critical pinch point for North Belfast, and was frozen (in part) due to the withering reaction to this failure
  • Better Bedford Street – a collaborative project (but a testbed to inform DfC’s ‘Streets Ahead 5’ thinking) used cycling as greenwash without doing a damned thing
  • Shaftesbury Square – a scheme which (for once) identified an opportunity: “The reconfiguration of the use of the space within Shaftesbury Square .. to accommodate safe and enjoyable cycle movement through it” and then proceeded to integrate its “cycle paths” within the proposed Glider G2 Rapid Transit bus lanes
Plan of a proposed road layout option for Shaftesbury Square

Plan of a proposed road layout option for Shaftesbury Square – note the greenwashing position of the “cycle paths”

The Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland, and DfI’s Active Travel Unit, were meant to ensure cross-government working to ensure opportunities for advancement of cycling aims. That Strategy could not be clearer that the Five Cs scheme should be cycle-proofed :

  • On partnership across government silos: “We will work with other Government Departments, District Councils, the voluntary and private sectors and other interested parties to ensure the Strategy is fully and optimally implemented.”
  • Its first objective: “Making urban areas in Northern Ireland more accessible for people using the bicycle – improvements to cycling infrastructure will enable more people to access facilities in our urban centres by bicycle or by multi modal journeys.”
  • On infrastructure: “The aim is to provide a primary network, linking each area of the town through the urban centre.”

Yet again a siloed approach ensures the left hand of government doesn’t know what the right hand is doing – or perhaps more accurately, the right hand doesn’t want the left hand interfering in its work.

If expensive paving is laid down now in a way which ignores cycling, then any future moves to retrofit will either be of substandard design (likely on the outside of vehicle bays), or prohibitively expensive (given the need to redesign the public realm). Most likely, taking Donegall Place as an example, it simply won’t happen.

The other main organisation with its name stamped on the consultation page is Belfast City Council, which has been praised for being more progressive on cycling matters than DfI. Here is an opportunity in the real world to establish a principle of creating cycle routes to help meet its target for cycle growth under The Belfast Agenda. To see this chance being squandered, with councillors recently roasting DfI for failures on cycling route development, is… disappointing, to say the least.

What’s the solution?

The plan needs to be revised now, and a two-way cycleway integrated into the southern side of the street – an idea which has been knocking about for more than six years:

With the two main side accesses stopped-up there is very little conflict (which might normally count against a two-way design) apart from at Seymour Street. Looking at a quick sketch of a possible revision, the cycleway would link from the City Hall across Donegall Square East, and run on the outside of the pavement, step-kerb separated from both pedestrian space and the carriageway.

The revised plans here see the road space being squeezed – currently a single bus lane and a single traffic lane take up a ridiculously generous NINE METRES of width. 

The cycleway can be designed to safely pass crossings and the Seymour Street junction using new best practice government guidance and in direct partnership with disability groups.

In the revised plan we’ve made the Seymour Street exit a pedestrian priority crossing. The volume of traffic when currently exits on a nearly blind double corner is lethal and needs to be reduced as part of this plan – no longer a fast escape route for parked cars.

This is the exact type of city centre street which requires safe cycling infrastructure to make the city work for all types of journeys, instead of grafting cycleways onto inappropriate quiet streets.

Chichester Street saw parking bays on this south side removed for a social distancing experiment during 2020. The next logical step is bringing active travel up another level on a permanent basis.

Other cities are ploughing ahead with this type of design – why is Belfast so firmly stuck in a vehicle-dominated past?

What’s lost by adding a cycleway on Chichester Street?

There are three elements in the plan which would be directly affected by a replacement cycleway – let’s look at the impact in order of importance:

Disabled parking bays
The plans indicate around 13 dedicated blue badge parking bays on the south side of Chichester Street. The alternatives are a simple switch for some to the opposite side of the street, where bays are indicated to be developed. On the south side, disabled parking bays should be (will be, and already are) prioritised on Upper Arthur Street and Montgomery Street. And on Victoria Street, part of the now defunct cycleway can be used as disabled parking. This ensures almost no degradation of parking provision, while in turn enabling journeys via adapted bicycles, tricycles and hand bikes can safely be taken to City Hall from the National Cycle Network. 

Loading spaces
The plans indicate “integrated” loading bays on the south side of Chichester Street before Upper Arthur Street and Seymour Street. This is a more formalised version of the extended pavements on “Better” Bedford Street. Poor project management and lack of foresight didn’t see loading as a problem, but vans, lorries, taxis and general traffic all merrily mounted the extended pavement which pedestrians, even today, typically avoid for fear of being run over. Suggesting this will be shared space which pedestrians will get fair use of is utopian thinking. Loading space is available on the north side of Chichester Street outside SS Moore, and potentially outside Victoria Square. Again the cycleway on Victoria Street can accommodate loading for the  businesses either side of Seymour Street, and towards Upper Arthur Street there is space to dedicate for loading on the former taxi rank on Donegall Square East.

Extra footpath width
This is the least useful part of the plan, and classic consultant speak which will never translate to the real world. The extended pavements are not essentially part of pedestrian routes, broken up by the vehicle bays above, and then with the ‘dwell’ elements in between – coined “streetscape hubs” – which will include seating. It’s almost as if the scheme designers had never set foot on Chichester Street – a noisy vehicle gutter with too much through traffic, buses terminating while belching diesel fumes, and most of the views to the north side of the street of zero architectural interest – any seated observers would be staring at the arse of Victoria Square. Encouraging dwell on Chichester Street – thinking that the best use of space is for people to sit and enjoy the atmosphere – is ludicrous. Instead, the dwell elements are best suited for the nooks created by stopping up and pedestrianising the entrances to Upper Arthur Street and Montgomery Street. The cafes, restaurants and bars here will naturally spill onto the street (in a controlled way) and is where the dwell space should be focused on. A cycleway would have far, far more practical utility than the nebulous concept of streetscape hubs.

Some bright spark within the design team might see ways to incorporate all of these elements and a two-way cycleway, but to even begin that process requires the principle of the need for high quality cycling space to be established – we’re clearly not there yet.

How do I get involved?

There are two important actions to take:

  • respond to the consultation with an objection to send a clear message to redesign Chichester Streetuse the online form
  • raise awareness by sharing this article widely on your social media and raising it directly as a concern with your local elected representatives

You can also respond in writing, either via email to fivecs@doran.co.uk, or by sending a letter to:

The Five Cs Project
Doran Consulting
Norwood House
96-102 Great Victoria Street
Belfast BT2 7BE

Put very simply, there will be no City Hall to Big Fish cycleway if you do not object. Organisations are woeful at admitting mistakes, and getting the scheme owners and designers to go back to the drawing board would likely be seen as such. Once plans like this are drawn up, it’s extremely difficult to get them changes. Objections will count in that effort. Raising your voice will matter.

Key scheme dates

The public consultation is open for responses until 5pm on Tuesday 22 December 2020.
The current plan is for the planning application to be submitted in mid-2021, with construction commencing during 2022.


Comment

While the lead organisations behind this scheme are DfC and Belfast City Council, this is a serious test for DfI and Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon. DfI holds the keys to expanding this project by condensing the road space. There are two ‘big beasts’ within the department who would have instant vetoes over reducing road space to favour cycling here – DfI Roads Eastern Division and the Public Transport side.

But the Minister put a Walking and Cycling Champion in place to ensure opportunities like this didn’t slip by, and to ensure the profile of active travel is raised by delivering “our commitment to increase the percentage of journeys made by walking and cycling .. restructuring our spaces .. increase the space available for people who want to walk and cycle by extending pavements .. changing how we use our spaces .. to work in collaboration.

A cycleway from the National Cycle Network at the Laganside to Belfast City Hall would mean direct, safe, traffic-free access to the city’s civic core from as far away as Comber, Lisburn and Newtownabbey. Families able to cycle to the CIty Hall grounds, people too nervous to cycle today encouraged and enabled to cycle tomorrow, a boost to mobility options right across society. It just takes thought, consideration, wit and a little vision – but we always have to fight for these things.

It would be easier for the project leads to sit on their hands, to see this as another Department’s problem, not to rock the boat. But Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon and Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín don’t strike me as the type of people who would shy away from a difficult decision to pause and rethink a flawed plan if there was a better outcome available. Nearly a year into the new Executive, the Five Cs project is where supportive words need to end and enabling action needs to begin.


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