The Department for Regional Development are about to deliver another quiet kick in the teeth to cyclists in Belfast, by rolling back a new bus lane in order to reward bad driving.

East Bridge Street is one of the top two roads for cycling traffic in Northern Ireland, with the Albert Bridge acting as a funnel for most citybound journeys from East Belfast. It already suffers from the dangerous Albert Bridge itself dissuading cyclists, illegal taxi parking in a bus lane, and a dangerous junction caused by drivers queue-jumping and fancying a late swerve onto Cromac Street.

Continue reading “DRD's nightmare on East Bridge Street”

Diarmuid is a teacher at Grosvenor Grammar School in Belfast, a father of 3 and a wheelchair user for nearly 30 years. He talks about how handcycling has revolutionised his daily routine to the point where he’s sold his own car. His unique experience of travelling around Belfast challenges many myths about cycling as a viable form of transport, for people of all abilities..

While in university in 1984 I suffered a spinal injury in a hill walking accident. I was at university preparing to go into teaching, so I was lucky that after taking a year out the adjustments I had to make in life didn’t throw me off my career path. I’ve been teaching in Grosvenor Grammar School in Belfast for about 20 years now. It’s really encouraging to see Grosvenor trying to get a cycle to work scheme organised for the staff.

Diarmuid - Why I Cycle

Continue reading “Diarmuid: Why I Cycle”

With the Gasworks Bridge back on the agenda for Belfast, regular cycling may become a serious transport option for many people in southeast Belfast. Yet the current barriers to cycling must be overcome to extract maximum benefit for the people of Belfast. The Ravenhill Road may become the focal point to set a new Belfast standard for designing roads for people, not vehicles. By looking at best practice from the Netherlands, a simple plan can be set out to revolutionise the experience of cycling in Belfast, and provide the backbone for a new high density active travel network.

Ravenhill1
Ravenhill Road layout at Cherryvale Park entrance, central island dominates the road

Ravenhill is a ‘B’ road which suffers from being the most direct route between the northern and southern sections of Belfast’s ring road. Yet it’s also a narrow, leafy residential road, with two major parks, large schools and a handful of locally-focused businesses – a quiet backwater in contrast to the bustling parallel Ormeau and Cregagh Roads.

It also runs through the highest density of cycling commuters in Northern Ireland, with around 5% of residents from Ormeau to Cregagh choosing to regularly bike to work. Yet there is little evidence of a wider cycling culture here outside of the typical commuter profile. The current advisory cycle lanes send out the message that cycling is for commuters only, and contributes to the unhealthy gender profile of Belfast cyclists.

To open up journeys to everyone – young and old, men and women, families, shopping trips, leisure rides, all day and night – needs a tried and tested simple solution, dutch-style separation. If your instinct says this is too radical for Belfast, you might be surprised to know an example of high quality separation is just 200 metres away.

RavenhillOverview

Planning for the Ravenhill Road to become an important link in many journeys between suburbs and centre, and between parallel greenways, requires 3 simple steps.

Separation

Whether through lack of funding, commitment or vision, Belfast’s cycle network has been allowed to develop as a series of disjointed on-road lanes. Worse still, they are designed around the needs of motor traffic – exceptional at keeping cyclists out of the way of cars, vans and trucks in higher speed sections where conflict isn’t necessarily an issue, and removed when cyclists’ needs are greatest, at junctions and roundabouts.

OrmeauRoundabout

Predictably the cycle lanes disappear at the approach to the Ormeau Road roundabout. Less forgivable is the disappearance at the other end of the Ravenhill Road, solely to cater for traffic using a major city rat run at My Lady’s Road (see video).

The issues with advisory cycle lanes in Belfast are well known to readers of this blog, and the Ravenhill Road has featured on the Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes two surveys. Each side of the road has an urban clearway for 1.5 hours each weekday, which means for 96% of the week parking is perfectly legal; these spaces cannot truthfully be described as “cycle lanes”.

The following video shows how the quiet adjacent Park Road has a high quality separate lane, while the busier Ravenhill Road has much poorer facilities in comparison.

Paint on the road will not encourage parents to let children ride to school alone, parents to take small kids to nursery on bikes, those too afraid to cycle into the city centre to work, or for short trips to the shops. This approach has delivered little more than 2% of traffic on bikes across Belfast. It’s time to take a bold step –  redesign a major road with fully separate cycling infrastructure.

Redesigning Ravenhill Road

The current road layout is quite standard for Belfast, with:

  • a fairly consistent 16.5m span
  • roomy footpaths
  • on-road advisory cycle lanes
  • 2 traffic running lanes
  • a central island lane running almost the full length to aide turning movements

RavenhillLayout

Taking inspiration from Haarlem in the Netherlands, a reworked configuration would see the central island lane removed. Two running lanes are retained at approximately 3 metres each way, with 2 metre footpaths and 2 metre cycle tracks with a standard 0.5 metre kerb separation from the carriageway.

Separation benefits cyclist not just through actual safety and the perception of safety, but also removes limitations of being part of traffic. Short side road to side road trips are possible on a two-way cycle track on either side of the road, allowing many children to cycle to school without having to cross a road to join traffic.

Haarlem
Balanced roadspace allocation in Haarlem on similar road footprint

What about the tough places where the cycle lanes disappear? Again the Netherlands have decades of experience when it comes to junction design. The Ormeau Road roundabout may be jealously guarded by road engineers, but the Park Road/Ravenhill Park junction is ripe for a Dutch-style experiment, and the Ormeau Embankment junction could benefit from a southbound pass-through lane and better separation on the other approaches.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlApbxLz6pA&w=640&h=360]

Traffic calming

Ravenhill Road

The loss of right hand turning boxes may be the most controversial suggestion, but consider how Roads Service balance the needs of all roads users with this central island. Running between Ravenhill Avenue and Rosetta Park (1.8km) there are 22 turning spaces for vehicles, compared to just 7 pedestrian crossings, and only two of those give pedestrian priority (pelican crossings). Vehicle needs and safety trumping those of vulnerable road users.

RavenhillCrossing

For the majority of desire lines (at more than 20 side roads and paths) there is no direct crossing, so people are forced to wait for a break in the traffic to cross, or make a long diversion.

Creating a series of zebra crossings on the redesigned road to cater for more pedestrians and cyclist crossing is essential. The needs of through-traffic from the south of Belfast and beyond to the city centre must be placed second to the needs of local users, especially those walking or cycling the school run.

In rural areas the right hand turning box is primarily a safety feature. In a 30mph urban/residential road it is there to enable the efficient flow of traffic around turning cars. It’s time to consider whether high average traffic speed should be the goal of urban road design, especially if it suppresses other transport needs and more liveable streets.

Side streets

The success of cycling in the Netherlands isn’t solely about separation. There is the understanding and empathy fostered by virtually the entire population cycling, and sustainable safety principles governing all aspects of design, not least at junctions and side roads.

Looking at the example below, cycle tracks and footpaths continue across side roads, giving priority to the more vulnerable users, but also a strong visual cue that you’re entering a different classification of road, and the sense of needing to adjust speed.

HaarlemExample
How side road access could be reworked on Ravenhill and pedestrian crossing example

You might think road regulations won’t allow for such a design in Northern Ireland; you may not be right.

The rat run at My Lady’s Road is a blog post in itself for another time, and London Road and Ravenhill Avenue don’t suffer from particularly heavy traffic flows – traditional calming methods could be easily deployed to discourage through-traffic.

Conall McDevitt’s 20mph Bill will be debated in the Assembly in the Autumn, and is understood not to be supported by the Department for Regional Development. Blanket 20mph limits on the residential streets here would be a great boost to active travel.

Ravenhill Park

To develop a high quality east-west cycling corridor with Ravenhill Road as the axis requires one major piece of road management. Linking the Connswater Greenway at Cregagh to the Ormeau Park and Lagan Towpath is possible by creating a traffic-calmed route along Ravenhill Park.

At the moment Ravenhill Park is one-way going west, which makes it a fast popular rat run route for traffic trying to reach the Ormeau Road from East Belfast. It’s also an unnecessary barrier to eastbound cycling journeys using the Park Road cycle lane – even (illegal) footpath cycling against the traffic isn’t possible due to high kerbs.

A simple, if radical, solution would be making Ravenhill Park and Onslow Parade 2-way again, but placing a barrier to vehicles beside Ravenhill Rugby Ground – removing all through traffic, calming speeds to solely residential users, and opening a new cycling corridor. Retractable bollards would be an ideal solution to allow fully flexible traffic management for Ulster Rugby matches and events at the new Ravenhill Rugby Ground. The Onslow side has a natural cul-de-sac turning circle at the stadium, and the nearby Ravenhill Park Gardens junction could provide a similar function on the park side.

Ravenhill Park Small

Eastbound rat run traffic is unlikely to divert to Ardenlee Avenue, reverting to the more suitable Mount Merrion corridor. Westbound traffic wishing to use Park Road and Ardenlee as a cut-through from Ormeau to Cregagh can be discouraged by the lack of right turning boxes, changing the design of Ardenlee to a more residential style with raised entrances and cycle track priority, and further traffic calming.

Ormeau Park cycleways

Ormeau Park actually creates a minor barrier to the success of the future Gasworks Bridge. To be a truly transformative active transport corridor, new cycleways across the park, with lighting for the winter months, would be needed to for the most efficient journeys.

The lack of a bridge over the Lagan means there are no direct ‘desire line’ paths going east-west across the park. The ‘cage gate’ entrances designed to discourage cycling and prevent motorcycles accessing the park must be replaced with a better solution.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZEum3RpJ8I&w=640&h=360]

Belfast City Council’s parks opening hours (7.30am in the morning until sunset, as early as 5pm in the winter) would also cut into a large portion of homeward ‘rush hour’ and the potential to drive citybound evening economy journeys. Diverting people around the park would make the corridor and cycling less attractive. Ormeau Park would need a new 6am to midnight year-round policy.

Re-imagine Belfast and demand better

The potential Gasworks Bridge opens a range of possibilities and the chance for new thinking on how to move people around Belfast. Our streets are dominated by vehicles, but this is as much down to road design as to personal preference. Ideas and discussion are important to changing mindsets and building the space for active travel. In a city with rising congestion, falling car ownership, troubling levels of obesity and a more dangerous environment for cycling, tacking little bits of advisory cycle lane onto intimidating roads is no longer an acceptable waste use of public money.

Northern Ireland must learn from and implement best practice from the Netherlands for how to develop the safest and most attractive cycling space. This is how London is approaching its cycling vision, and Belfast realistically has an opportunity to lead the United Kingdom in cycling uptake, given the natural advantages for cycling. Belfast Bike Hire, the Giro D’Italia, rising commuter levels, the Gasworks Bridge – the stars are aligning for something truly special to happen in our city.

Give the people safe space to cycle and they will choose to do so in droves. Continue to pretend that Belfast’s roads are fit to promote as an genuine active travel option and we will all lose.

Recently a group of 16 cyclists from Belfast showed that the city’s cycle ‘network’ is effectively a car park. Over 5 days they encountered 878 illegally parked vehicles blocking their commuting journeys. That was an illegally parked car blocking a cycle lane every 250m. This was raised with the Department for Regional Development, the Stormont Regional Development Committee and Belfast MLAs and Councillors.

Blocked lane

This was actually the second illegal parking survey conducted by Belfast cyclists, and we received a terribly poor response last year (red light jumping – really?!). This time around, the Department have spent even less time addressing the survey, with another crushingly boring letter (with press office written all over it) ignoring the problem. The full response is attached below, but is perfectly summarised by the final sentence:

“Following your e-mail [the traffic warden contractor] NSL has been directed to continue to take enforcement action as necessary on their routine patrols during clearway periods.”

This can reasonably be boiled down to:

We are acting upon this information by doing nothing different.

DRD makes a big deal of it’s online and telephone contact points to report issues as they happen, but when faced with criticism of their system of enforcement, they’re unwilling to engage. Sitting 6 months down the line and very little has changed; night after night the same problems occur.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvqGnlhWHGs?rel=0]

The circumstances may be slightly different, but look 100 miles down the road to the Dublin City Council Beta Projects and despair that DRD can’t be more open to this kind of innovative public engagement.

Frustration is building that DRD have no interest in looking at this issue, and by association, no interest in the safe operation of the existing cycle lane ‘network’. The survey team will be seeking a meeting with DRD to address cyclists’ real concerns, to try to move the issue forward:

  • Does DRD recognise there is a particular issue of importance being raised here?
  • Does DRD feel it is acceptable for the level of illegal blocking of cycle lanes to be happening under its watch?
  • What is the typical number of NSL staff deployed to patrol the city centre parking zone each weekday (09.00-18.00)?
  • By comparison what is the typical number of NSL staff deployed on arterial routes each weekday evening during urban clearway operation (16.30-18.00)?
  • How does DRD/NSL track the operational coverage of wardens on arterial routes?
  • How are the effectiveness of the new scooter wardens / clamp and tow truck assessed?
  • What are the performance measures for NSL?
  • What is being done to address the ‘hot spots’ identified in the 2 surveys, for example Shankill, Springfield, Castlereagh, Cregagh and Crumlin roads?
  • What further engagement with local businesses on arterial urban clearway routes has happened / is planned since the Parking Do’s and Don’ts leaflet?

Although no-one’s betting the house on that meeting happening..

DRD / NSL Clamp and Tow Truck

The Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes team and a growing number of local cyclists are not championing on-road advisory cycle lanes – in fact they are increasingly recognised as outdated, unsafe, and do nothing to encourage more people to cycle. Indeed the urban clearways rules, as referenced in DRD’s letter, mean it’s perfectly fine to block a cycle lane for 2 minutes at a time to set down / pick up passengers. These may be cycle lanes by name, but they are crafted around the needs of motor vehicles and cyclists are not the most important users.

However, until DRD open their eyes to best practice from the Netherlands, Copenhagen and others, it’s practically all we have. If DRD want to crow about their £9 million investment in Belfast cycling infrastructure, then along with Roads Service and NSL they have a responsibility to keep the lanes clear when they’re meant to carry cyclists. No-one is prepared to admit the problem, so no-one is taking responsibility to sort it out.

……………………………………………………………………………………………

Illegal Parking in Cycle Lanes

Thank you for your recent email about illegal parking in cycle lanes in Belfast during morning and evening clearway periods.

As you will be aware, NSL provides parking enforcement on behalf of Roads Service and routinely deploys Traffic Attendants to patrol the main arterial routes in Belfast during the morning and evening clearway periods. Traffic Attendants will take enforcement action if they detect vehicles parked in contravention of enforceable restrictions.

Roads Service’s records for Belfast show that in 2012, during clearway periods, 5528 Penalty Charge Notices (Parking Tickets) were issued to vehicles parked on the carriageway and a further 363 to vehicles parked on the footway. It is not possible to separate Parking Tickets issued to vehicles parked in cycle lanes as they would be issued for the clearway contravention.

During clearway periods vehicles are permitted to set down and pick up passengers, however they cannot simply park. If a vehicle is detected by a Traffic Attendant as parked during clearway times and the driver is in the vehicle they will be afforded the opportunity to drive away and park legally elsewhere, however, unattended vehicles should be issued with a Parking Ticket.

During clearway periods it can be difficult for Traffic Attendants to deal with short term parking as vehicles often park for a few minutes only, or they may drive away before a Parking Ticket is issued, or the Traffic Attendant may be patrolling another location when these vehicles park.

As part of the new Parking Enforcement contract which commenced in October 2012 Roads Service has also introduced a number of new initiatives including;

  • The distribution of parking information leaflets to the public detailing the Do’s and Don’ts when parking their vehicle, including clearways, bus lanes and cycle lanes. (copy attached)
  • The development of a Parking Enforcement Protocol, which provides the public with detailed information on all the parking contraventions, including bus lanes, cycle lanes and clearways, this is available on NI Direct website: Travel, transport and Roads / Parking and parking enforcement section.
  •  The Introduction of scooters specifically for clearway enforcement patrols. These provide greater flexibility, can cover greater distances and should provide more effective enforcement.

Roads Service does respond to requests for additional enforcement, subject to resources, if there are locations where there is persistent parking during clearway periods. Following your e-mail NSL has been directed to continue to take enforcement action as necessary on their routine patrols during clearway periods.

I trust this information is of assistance to you.

Parking Enforcement Manager (Acting)

Belfast cyclists have again demonstrated that illegal parking on cycle lanes is creating danger on our roads and wasting public money.

16 volunteers – ordinary everyday people getting to work – logged 143 journeys over 5 days in November 2012, encountering 878 illegally parked vehicles along the way.

The Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes 2 survey shows that a typical cycling trip has an illegally parked vehicle blocking every 5 minutes or 3 times per journey. But what concerns cyclists most, and remains ignored by DRD, is that Belfast’s rush hour cycle lanes are blocked every 250 metres by an illegally parked vehicle.

It may be difficult to grasp the scale and difficulties caused by this problem if you don’t cycle in rush hour. Participants took video footage of some journeys during the survey week so that you can share the experience:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvqGnlhWHGs]

.

The survey has grown to be city-wide, but some areas have regular and stubborn clusters of illegal parking on cycle lanes. Here were the worst 5 roads by average number of blocks per trip:

  1. Shankill Road – 49
  2. Springfield Road – 27
  3. Castlereagh Road – 15
  4. Crumlin Road – 15
  5. Cregagh Road – 7

A new Belfast record was set on the Shankill Road with 53 illegally parked cars blocking the cycle lane on one trip. The survey shows once more the useless nature of advisory cycle lanes, legally unenforceable except during urban clearway times. DRD compromise this ‘cycling’  infrastructure from the start to allow parking outside rush hour, but fail to make them available to cyclists during rush hour.

Reclaim Belfast's Cycle Lanes growing coverage

The outcome of the first survey in July 2012 was largely ignored. DRD promises of reviewed parking enforcement making a difference have not borne fruit.

Belfast commuter cycling grew 60% in the decade to 2011; there are thousands of cyclists on the city’s roads every day. Belfast is in the top 10 UK cities for cycle commuting increases. The Department for Regional Development (DRD) say they have spent millions on Belfast cycling, but they are not providing a cycle network – they’ve created a network of parking lanes. This is against a backdrop of cycling casualties continuing to rise, which bucks the trend of safer roads in Northern Ireland.

Reclaiming our cycle network is important for many reasons:

Pressure must be brought on DRD and Minister Danny Kennedy to stop ignoring the problems which hold down sustainable transport in Belfast . Lack of DRD enforcement is putting some of the most vulnerable road users in harm’s way every day.

Our piecemeal cycle network lies useless, while at the same time DRD plans to flood Belfast’s bus lanes with over 2,000 taxis. DRD only pay lip service to sustainable transport. Belfast cyclists are determined to change this.

Let your MPs, MLAs, Councillors, DRD and Roads Service know how your cycling journey is made more dangerous by illegal parking. Only through concerted action can we hope to see real change.

The people behind Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes are:

Download the Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes 2 data report

With numbers of regular cyclists in Northern Ireland rising, especially in Belfast, 2013 should be a year of steady progress on cycling issues. However ongoing government spending cuts, alongside the natural disinterest of the authorities to transport and utility cycling, mean radical ‘big ticket’ cycling projects are unlikely to be pedalling up the agenda.

Rising numbers of cyclists, most visible at major Belfast junctionsBut instead of being deterred, we need to organise and innovate! Since I started blogging about Belfast cycling I’ve seen amazing resourcefulness and passion among local people who choose to get around by bike. New community connections are being built every day, and spawning innovative action such as Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes 1 and 2. It is among the people who ride our streets every day that we will find creative solutions to change the experience and perception of cycling here.

Continue reading “13 ideas to improve Northern Ireland cycling in 2013”

Safer roads were on the agenda at Stomont on Monday 19th November 2012. Questions to the Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy included the topics of Conall McDevitt’s forthcoming Private Members’ Bill on 20mph zones, and a subject currently close to the heart of the NI Greenways blog, illegal parking in cycle lanes.

Excerpts from the Official Report of Assembly Business:

Judith Cochrane, Alliance MLA for Belfast East - Parliamentary copyright: image is reproduced with the permission of Northern Ireland Assembly CommissionMrs Cochrane asked the Minister for Regional Development what action his Department is taking to address illegal parking in cycle lanes. (AQO 2876/11-15)

Mr Kennedy: I want to begin by saying that I fully appreciate the concerns and frustration of cyclists caused by vehicles that park in cycle lanes during their operational hours. Motorists should be mindful and considerate towards cyclists when using our roads and should not park illegally in cycle lanes.

Roads Service has advised that a traffic attendant can issue a penalty charge notice to a vehicle that is parked on a mandatory cycle lane. However, a penalty charge notice cannot be issued to a vehicle that is parked on an advisory cycle lane, unless other parking restrictions apply; for example, clearway restrictions or bus lanes. When a traffic attendant observes a vehicle parked in a cycle lane in contravention of a restriction, the appropriate enforcement action will be taken.

NI Greenways comment: While welcoming the question, this answer does little to address what Belfast cyclists see as a persistent problem which still isn’t being “tackled” with focus or priority. A July survey by commuter cyclists showed that for every km of restricted lane in Belfast there are 4.5 vehicles illegally parked during rush hour. Advisory cycle lanes with urban clearway restrictions are the dominant form of cycle space in Belfast, with mandatory lanes few and far between, with no recurring reports of illegal parking problems. Refusing to recognise a special problem in some areas of the city means the issue can continue to be largely ignored.

Mrs Cochrane: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he also give us an update on the parking enforcement awareness programme that was due to commence on 30 October?

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member. Obviously, the Department encourages cycling. We are committed to providing safer roads for the growing number of cyclists and pedestrians. We have done that through a range of measures such as road safety engineering, traffic calming and the enhancement of the pedestrian and cycling network. All these initiatives, including those brought forward by Travelwise, are key elements of the sustainable travel options involving cycling and its promotion.

Conall McDevitt, SDLP MLA for Belfast South - Parliamentary copyright: image is reproduced with the permission of Northern Ireland Assembly CommissionMr McDevitt: I thank the Minister for his ongoing commitment to cycling. Given that it is the beginning of road safety week, will the Minister indicate to the House whether he is willing to strongly consider the merits of introducing 20 mph zones on a statutory basis or to support the private Member’s Bill due before the House in the coming months that will do so?

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. I know that he is a keen and very active cyclist. I am aware of the private Members’ Bill and of the representations made by those in favour of introducing 20 mph schemes. Although I am not opposed to such schemes, the issue seems to be one of enforcement: how such limits are to be enforced, whether the PSNI can commit the necessary resources and whether responsible motorists and vehicle users will be prepared to accept the restrictions that are placed upon them. That is an ongoing discussion that I am having with my officials, and we will see what emerges.

NI Greenways comment: The level of commitment from MLAs to seeing this important measure gaining passage through the Assembly remains uncertain. The issue of enforcement is one that pops up time and again in 20mph zones debates, and is dealt with along with other weak arguments against on the 20’s Plenty For Us website.

Fed up with your cycle route in Belfast being blocked by illegally parked cars? Is your daily commute is made much more dangerous than it should be? Take part in a unique survey to highlight the problem! Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes 2 hits the streets of Belfast on the week beginning Monday 5th November 2012!

Last time..

The original running of Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes was in July this year. Nine volunteers found that a typical rush hour cycling journey in Belfast was blocked five times by illegally parked vehicles, or 4.5 blocks for every kilometre of restricted lanes. One journey even had 36 cars blocking a single cycle lane! The evidence shows right across Belfast, people cycling during rush hour are facing dangerous road conditions.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyUXs3YkDGw]

This was a unique effort of independent civic action between private individuals – people who choose to travel between work and home on a bike – and researchers at the Centre of Excellence for Public Health at Queen’s University Belfast.

The report made it into the press, and following engagement with Belfast councillors, MLAs, Roads Service, the DRD Minister and the Regional Development Committee, the issue got….absolutely nowhere. If you weren’t sure how Northern Ireland’s politicians felt about the problems of cycling as transport, the indifference is very clear to see.

In response to the first survey report, Roads Service maintain that cycle lanes mean rush hour “cyclists effectively have their own road space. This makes cycling safer, and at times of congestion, allows cyclists to make time savings.” Does this match your experience of Belfast’s cycle lanes?

So we must keep the pressure on! It’s November, it’s cold, it may be wet, but many hundreds of commuter cyclists will still be on our roads at rush hour. This time we need to expand the number of volunteers, and the route coverage to see what the problem is like across the whole of Belfast.

More and more people in Belfast are choosing a bicycle as their main form of commuting, and are encountering problems on our roads. Cycling in Northern Ireland is becoming more dangerous. Parked cars on cycle and bus lanes may be just an inconvenience to most road users, but they pose real dangers to cyclists. Let’s pile up the evidence again, and start to shame the authorities into meaningful action.

How to get involved

Join a growing community of Belfast commuter cyclists in this unique research project, and participate in some constructive public action. Send an email to nigreenways AT gmail.com with your name and usual commuting route. You can download the information pack here, with more detailed instructions and survey sheet:

Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes survey sheet and information

You can help the effort by mentioning to friends or work colleagues who cycle at rush hour, and encourage them to join, Why not print off some copies of the information pack for others? You don’t have to cover every single day of the week, you don’t even have to be on a bike to help out – let’s all do what we can!

Let’s really get Belfast on the move, and help to put an end to illegal parking in cycle lanes!

Cyclists’ concerns of increasing road danger and wasted public investment due to illegal parking were put to the Regional Development Committee at Stormont this week. The Committee has a statutory oversight and scrutiny role for matters relating to roads, infrastructure and transport in Northern Ireland. Despite presenting clear evidence of the problem, and conclusions on the causes, the briefing on the Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes report was given short shrift, and harsh treatment.

Reproduced under Creative Commons licence from niassembly

Presented on behalf of the survey participants, the “10 minute presentation” was cut short at 6 minutes (the previous presenter ran to nearly 14 minutes, unchallenged). The first comment from Committee Chair Jimmy Spratt set a bizarre and disappointing tone:

“I often see cyclists, at traffic lights, and what have you, going through red traffic lights, and what have you, so, very often cyclists don’t exactly endear themselves to other members of the public in terms of road usage, and I have to say that that happens on a fairly regular basis. We take the points that you make in relation to parking and stuff like that…”

Listen for yourself, and to the response (File 5, 04:45 onwards)

Following criticism of not being an organisation (beware private individuals engaging in the political process) questions moved back to more constructive areas of road safety and parking warden deployment.

Roads Service officials were next up in front of the Committee to respond to the issues raised by the report, and received a series of very tough questions. Yet Belfast commuter cyclists may be interested to note that neither cycling nor cycle lanes were specifically raised in questioning. The issue of the day was the concerns of Lisburn Road traders and the impact of priority patrolling there – so cycling got a little lost.

What was of relevance to the survey was a Roads Service response to Jimmy Spratt’s welcome idea of equal coverage of parking wardens across Belfast:

“If we go to a road and there’s no traffic problems there, there’s no point in us wasting resources putting them there, if there’s no difficulty”.

So Roads Service don’t consider cyclists’ problems to be traffic problems, and don’t care that the report highlights we are facing difficulty each night, all across Belfast. Belfast cyclists are not motorised traffic and therefore don’t count.

Belfast commuter cyclists are fully aware, each day, of how valued they are on our roads – we see this in lack of infrastructure, dangerous junctions, and blocked cycle lanes. If Roads Service and the Department for Regional Development, and disappointingly the Committee which scrutinises their work, are not open to these concerns, where do we go?

With this in mind, the date for Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes 2 will be the week of 5th November 2012 – bigger, better, and a louder voice? Let’s see what we can do..

That briefing in full

You can also listen to the cut short briefing on the NI Assembly website (file 4, 26:00 onwards)

Thank you Chairperson, and I’d like to thank the Committee for the invitation to present this briefing today.

By way of explaining the origins of the survey, I’ll start with a little background on the NI Greenways blog. I started compiling it in April this year as a way of highlighting opportunities to open around 600 miles of disused former railways across the province, in the model of the Comber Greenway. My intention is to raise local awareness by mapping these potential traffic-free walking and cycling paths for commuting, leisure and tourism, and as a resource for Northern Ireland to combat our worsening obesity problems.

As a commuter cyclist in Belfast for over 10 years, the social media connections I made through this blog brought me to discussion on the daily issues people face cycling to work on our roads. Alongside criticisms of lack of quality infrastructure, and general physical dangers, the major gripe was around cycle lanes in Belfast being blocked by parked vehicles.

My own route has what’s termed as an advisory cycle lane running for 800m, yet every night during urban clearway operation it is blocked by anything from 10 to 30 vehicles. In June I raised a complaint with Roads Service, but received a less than encouraging response. In the 12 months to April, just 11 Penalty Charge Notices were issued on the affected section of my commuting route. To my experience, and as the survey would later bear out, this is the level of illegal parking per night. Roads Service informed me that records are not kept of deployment of patrols per road, leading to obvious questions about how they evaluate the level of illegal parking across the city, and therefore the effectiveness of patrol deployment.

The idea for a city-wide survey came from Mark Tully, a lecturer in Public Health at Queen’s University, who unfortunately cannot be here today due to a prior commitment.

Put simply, we could draw on the time and experience of commuter cyclists to record the number of illegally parked vehicles in cycle lanes, and bus lanes, during their morning and evening commutes. Safety was paramount and volunteers were encouraged to mentally note the figures, and jot them down at the end of their journey. Volunteers were also reminded not to challenge or single out people who were illegally parked, to avoid any unhelpful confrontation or aggravation. Some participants also took cycle camera video recordings both as evidence of the accuracy of figures, but also to allow our unique point of view to be experienced, and some footage is available to view through the blog.

We set the survey for 5 working days on the week beginning 23rd July, and managed to get 9 volunteers. It should be noted that 4 of the participants were female, not a bad percentage for the survey, given that 2001 census figures put female cyclists at just 0.2% of all commuters in Belfast.

At least one arterial route in each geographic quarter of the city was covered.

After analysis by the team at Queens, the results for 69 qualifying journeys were released in the report which you all have a copy of. For a typical journey in Belfast, a cyclist will face 5 illegally parked vehicles blocking restricted lanes, or 4.5 for every kilometre of the city’s cycle and bus lanes. The worst performing route was the Springfield / Grosvenor Road corridor, with 26 vehicles illegally blocking cyclists on a typical journey.

Evening journeys were worse than mornings – typically 6.2 per km or 7 per journey during evening rush hour against 2.9 per km or 4 per journey in the morning. It’s difficult to draw conclusions about this difference, but some of the factors at work may be more shopping trips to local stores on the way home, better driver understanding of bus lane rules, and driver confusion over the operation of the relatively new phenomenon of advisory cycle lanes on urban clearways.

The survey puts clear evidence of this problem into the hands of frustrated commuters – it’s not just another grumble about our roads which can be easily dismissed.

Why does any of this matter? The frustration of commuter cyclists is not due to any sense of entitlement to this road space but rather from the perception and experience of increased road danger which illegally parked vehicles create. Cyclists have to filter in and out of general traffic unnecessarily – the Committee will understand this is about to become a source of increased danger as we approach the winter months and dark journeys home.  Each parked vehicle is a potential door opening accident risk. Road sides which should be clear have illegal visual obstacles increasing the risk of crossing pedestrians coming into conflict with other road users. As we’re the slowest road users, mixing with general traffic leads to pressure on cyclists and many dangerous overtakes by equally, and perhaps understandably, frustrated motorists.

Recently released PSNI road casualty figures show a jump in cyclists killed or seriously injured in Northern Ireland, 49 in each of the last two years against a baseline measure of 28. Looking at the trends for all road casualties, road safety has significantly improved in Northern Ireland over the past 10 years, with casualties for drivers, passengers, pedestrians and motorcyclists all down. Cyclists are the only group to with an upward trend in casualties, a worrying and underreported development.

Just last week one of the survey participants was involved in a road collision with a car crossing a cycle lane through stationary traffic in Belfast. If they had been driving a car, this would have been a minor prang with insurance details swapped – it landed the cyclist in A+E and wrote off their main form of transport – luckily and importantly, no lasting damage was done to the cyclist. We are among the most vulnerable road users, and taking steps to eliminate a fairly straightforward problem such as illegal parking can make a big difference to the experience and safety of cycling in Belfast.

What should concern the Committee, and all road users in Belfast, is that cycle lanes which are blocked every day at rush hour represent wasted public investment. We have notional targets to increase cycling levels in Northern Ireland, yet when paint is put down to mark out a city cycle network, regardless of how fractured and inadequate it remains in reality, cyclists are unable to use it. It fails to provide the separation of transport modes it sets out to achieve, fails to improve safety for all road users – in fact does the exact opposite while this problem persists. And crucially fails to properly sell the benefits of an alternative, yet viable form of commuter transport in our small city.

To put Northern Ireland’s cycling under-investment levels into perspective, in 2010-11 just 0.16% of Roads Service budget was put into cycling measures,

CUT SHORT

or 18p per head of population. Compare this against The Netherlands where €30 per head is spent. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison to make – on another day I’ll make a forceful argument about increasing our spending on cycling – but how can we start that debate when our 18p is going down the pan?

The survey group contacted Minister Kennedy to highlight the report, and we received a letter from Roads Service, and Committee members should have a copy in their briefing papers. The resounding verdict from participants was that the response was inadequate given the nature of the issue raised. To receive an, albeit informal survey report, yet backed by analysis from Queen’s University, and to respond with five long paragraphs explaining what a cycle lane is, felt somewhat patronising. [Read that response in full here]

Indeed the letter became a little surreal when Roads Service stated that cycle lanes mean “cyclists effectively have their own road space. This makes cycling safer, and at times of congestion, allows cyclists to make time savings”. This is quite an absurd statement given the report which prompted the response. There was no acceptance that illegal parking is a major problem for cyclists, or that Roads Service bears some responsibility for ineffective enforcement.

What was encouraging from the response are the changes proposed under the new contract with NSL, which Committee members have heard about from Ciarán de Búrca and the Minister in the past few weeks. The new protocol and associated awareness campaign should go some way to tackling illegal parking. The new tow and clamp policy, while potentially seeming like another stick to beat Belfast motorists with, will probably sharpen minds in the short term. These and other measures are to be welcomed as evidence of proactive traffic management. But, there is still one major worry running through from my initial complaint, to the survey, to the official response, and the new NSL contract.

That is resourcing, and deployment – Roads Service steer clear of this point in correspondence, yet it is at the heart of the problem.

Where parking wardens do not patrol, illegal parking will take place. As a prime example, I took to the Cregagh Road during the survey week, along with an onboard video camera. My typical journey across that week had 9.5 illegally parked vehicles, except for Wednesday when there were just 3. The reason? Two NSL parking wardens patrolling the road. I doubt they needed to issue many tickets, but the mere presence of high visibility enforcement was enough to practically clear the road.

So, new towing trucks to move illegally parked vehicles – great. How many trucks? How will they be deployed? Will the current priority system remain in place, with constant patrolling of the Lisburn Road, and sporadic to no coverage elsewhere? The committee heard from Lisburn Road Traders last week, and I’ll add this one point to their criticisms – having 27% of all Northern Ireland’s clearway related tickets, on just one Belfast Road, is actually a damning indictment of the spread of enforcement across our city, especially given that it’s an arterial route supported by both the railway and motorway network.

Will there be more than the current 1 or 2 car-based warden teams, and 4 or 5 teams on foot, for a city of around 20 main road corridors? Will Road Service commit to providing a better level of service across the whole of the city, or will the status quo remain? Certainly since my original complaint in June, and 11 weeks since the survey report, my rush hour journey has not had a clear cycle lane on one evening – not one.

To conclude, all available evidence shows that cycling levels are rapidly rising in Belfast. Roads Service’s own figures from Belfast cycle counter locations show a 152% increase in cycle usage from 2000 to 2010. The DRD Travel Survey for Belfast commuters showed an increase in people declaring a bicycle as their ‘usual’ form of transport from 1% 2000-2002 to 3% 2008-2010. We now number in the thousands during rush hour across the Belfast, and if good, safe infrastructure can be maintained and promoted, people will choose to make the switch to the bike.

The volunteers, and other commuter cyclists who’ve supported us since the report, will monitor progress on this issue very closely. I appreciate the Committee’s time this morning.

Bicycle Parking sign at Tesco Castlereagh Road

New Tesco Superstore on the Castlereagh Road

The new Tesco Superstore on the Castlereagh Road opens on Thursday 4th October, but it’s hoping to attract more than the traditional supermarket customers. At the north entrance a sign has been erected to target passing cyclists. A lot of local supermarkets have developed facilities such as disabled parking, parent and child parking, but it’s the first time I’ve seen such a prominent advert for bicycle parking.

Bicycle Parking sign at Tesco Castlereagh Road

There are a number of reasons why this is a good move by Tesco. Beyond the anecdotal evidence of increasing numbers of cyclists on Belfast streets, the Castlereagh Road benefits from half decent cycling provision. There is a long city-bound bus lane for the morning rush hour, and an equally long advisory cycle lane with urban clearway restrictions running countrybound. Even if the cycle lane is usually just one long car park during rush hour, it’s a start.

Cycle lane by Tesco on Castlereagh Road

The cycle lane was first obstructed then removed during the construction phase, but has now been reinstated on the new widened road section – a huge improvement on the former bone-shaking surface. Although only an advisory lane, it has been afforded the rare position of a continual marking across the Tesco access and at Orby Link, hopefully improving driver awareness and caution when exiting these two junctions.

How many cyclists will stop by for groceries? Let’s be honest, not a great many, as Belfast doesn’t have more than 3% of journeys on bike at present. But this move sends out an important message to both local residents with bikes, and a challenge to independent retailers in Belfast – a short trip to the shops doesn’t always need to be by car. And Tesco will be more than aware of the unique position of the site, bordered as it is by the Loop River. The Connswater Community Greenway project will see East Belfast linked by a 9km linear park, running right past Tesco.

Connswater Community Greenway will run near Tesco

What’s slightly disappointing here is the continued use of an advisory cycle lane, the default position for Roads Service in Belfast. Roads Service doesn’t favour mandatory lanes as their “introduction…can be a contentious issue and would generally lead to a displacement of parking, often to other locations that are less able to accommodate it, such as residential streets in the general vicinity.” This doesn’t apply to this section as roadside parking is unnecessary given the large car park, and anyone parking here would create a danger for passing motorists, cyclists and crossing pedestrians. A bit of foresight, creativity and bravery from Roads Service could have seen some sections made mandatory, even kerb separated here to provide extra safety for all road users, and completely discouraging countrybound roadside parking.

Bus stop outside Castlereagh Road Tesco

To be fair, observing traffic movements since the cycle lane reopened, it seems to be working well enough. The new surface makes the road marking stand out, and the addition of a new pedestrian crossing just north of the bus stop will help to slow traffic flows around the usually fast bend.

Opening a large superstore in this relatively quiet arterial route will cause some increase in traffic levels and disruption, not to mention difficulties it will cause to local independent retailers. But by actively seeking out a new market, and encouraging local shoppers to go for ‘less car, more bike’, Tesco have to be commended.