Two student accommodation blocks approved by Belfast City Council planners promise a radical shift towards bicycle use in the city.

The two buildings on Great Patrick Street and York Street, just beside the new Ulster University Campus on the northern tip of Belfast City Centre and due to open in 2018, will provide just 18 car parking spaces for over 1,000 residents.

Instead, along with a heavy reliance on walking, the Metro network and proximity to York Street railway station, a remarkable 345 secure bicycle parking spaces will form the backbone of the transport needs of students.


28-30 Great Patrick Street

This 11 storey building will provide 475 student rooms. The ground floor will include a retail unit and a parking area. The plan is for just 12 car parking spaces (2 of which are disabled accessible) and a whopping 194 bicycle parking spaces.

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12 car spaces at the top, 194 cycle spaces at the bottom

The developer intends to:

“have the project finished for when the University campus opens in September 2018 to provide accommodation for some of the 15,000 students who be studying at the new completed facility.”

The transport section of the Student Management Plan is clear on the intent behind the balance of the parking provision:

“We actively encourage the use of alternative travel methods than the car. There will be a provision of secure bicycle storage spaces for the student accommodation. This storage will have secure access arrangements and CCTV coverage to enhance levels of security and safety.

“Well managed and secure bike storage is proving more popular within student accommodation and we are currently developing relationships with bike hire and sales companies to enhance this offering.”

Find more information on the 28-30 Great Patrick Street development on:


101 – 107 York Street

This 14 storey development will provide 682 individual purpose built en-suite bedrooms and studios. On the ground floor there will be two retail units and a secure parking area. However just six car parking spaces (one disabled accessible) are included, with a very decent 151 cycle spaces for students and staff.

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Six car parking spaces on the left, 151 cycle spaces at the bottom

The proposals aim:

“to reduce the number and length of motorised journeys and help encourage alternative means of travel with less environmental impact than private car usage.

“Measures for student residents and staff are therefore more oriented towards supporting alternatives to private car use by providing incentives through the purchase of bicycles or public transport travel cards to encourage student residents and staff use of alternate travel modes.”

The developers recognise that:

“further cycle enhancements to the roads network currently being considered by Transport NI include the provision of contra-flow facilities on York Street, providing a dedicated cycle lane towards Belfast City centre from York Road.”

The developers are promising to go beyond just putting in parking facilities, by adding ongoing support for anyone wanting to cycle regularly:

“Student residents will be encouraged to continue the use of bikes for primary travel through the provision of annual maintenance workshops. These workshops will be located within the incurtilage parking facilities and will be arranged annually by the Travel Co-ordinator. The costs of cycle maintenance staff will be met by the employers whilst students will pay for any service parts required for their individual cycles.”

Find more information on the 101-107 York Street development on:


It will be interesting to see if one cycle space per accommodation unit might be a better policy for this type of student development – time will tell and the car spaces are there for conversion. 😉 However the direction of travel for this area of Belfast is clear – the bicycle is being established as a normal, everyday mode of transport for a large proportion of the thousands of students due to take up residence from 2018.

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Future plan for the York Street junction at the UU campus with pre-lobbying cycle markings

The successful Belfast Bikes hire scheme will expand to cover this entire section of Belfast over the next few years, while relentless and incisive lobbying has ensured some excellent cycling provision in the adjacent York Street Interchange scheme. The message to government is clear – you need to start funding and creating high quality space for the cycling journeys being created here. It’s no longer some abstract hope – this is a culture shift in action.

Seeing private developers promoting cycling above the private motor car in flagship new builds shows there’s a slow and inescapable evolution of Belfast underway. Over to the big ticket Cycling Revolution projects now..

The early and perhaps surprising success of Coca-Cola Zero Belfast Bikes has seen continual demands for expansion. Before Belfast City Council announces the official ‘Phase 2’ of the project, expansion is already being driven by a series of partnerships with organisations across the public, private and academic sectors. Northern Ireland Greenways can now reveal firm plans to grow the bike hire scheme to at least 45 stations across Belfast.

Belfast_Bikes_campus

Belfast Bikes launched in April 2015 with 300 bicycles and 30 stations dotted around the inner core of Belfast. The capital costs of £1.1m were provided by the Department for Regional Development (DRD), with Belfast City Council committing to administer the scheme until 2020. Nextbike were chosen to provide the bicycles, station infrastructure and systems, while NSL won a 3-year contract to run the day-to-day operations. Coca-Cola Zero are providing £100k a year to sponsor Belfast Bikes for the first 3 years.

https://twitter.com/sammydouglasmla/status/592933969810821120

The initial scheme layout faced some criticism for its city centre limitation, although in Belfast the geographical coverage of any major public investment can be sensitive. The decision to focus on the inner city, driven mostly by the need keep a dense pattern of stations within 300-500 metres of their neighbours, paid off when user numbers and usage levels grew steadily over the summer of 2015.

BBrentals

By October 2015 the signs of success were clear – 100,000 hires within 6 months, with a favourable comparison to Glasgow’s scheme taking 14 months to reach the same total with more stations, bicycles and subscribers. Belfast had a genuine good news story and the political support to green-light expansion plans.

Before undertaking a major expansion with ‘Phase 2’ (plans expected to reach Council by Summer 2016) Belfast City Council have been able to partner with external organisations to provide an interim expansion of docking stations. This saw Queen’s University fund the establishing of 2 stations within its grounds, and Titanic Quarter Limited doing the same for a dock near Titanic Belfast. All 3 stations opened in November 2015 and 30 extra bikes brought Belfast’s total fleet up to 330 by the start of 2016.

But further expansion is on the cards with more organisations offering capital funds to create new stations. Negotiations are underway between the Council and Belfast Health and Social Care Trust (BHSCT) to provide stations at its 3 main hospitals. Sustrans has already launched its offer of free on-road cycle training for BHSCT staff to encourage Belfast Bike Hire registrations. These docking stations should be approved by the Council’s Strategic Policy and Resources Committee (SP&R) on Friday 22nd January 2016 with shovels breaking ground within months.

The Department for Social Development (DSD) also wants Belfast Bikes to form a key part of their inner city regeneration schemes, Building Successful Communities (BSC), in the north and west of the city.

BelfastBikesExpansion

The DSD schemes on the Lower Falls and Lower Shankill are also expected to be approved by the SP&R Committee this Friday. However the Lower Oldpark proposal could be shifted closer to the city centre (and within a workable range of the main Belfast Bikes footprint) by switching focus to the new Girdwood Community Hub beside the Mater Hospital and Crumlin Road Gaol. The lead time is likely to be slower for the DSD proposals with further approvals needed by the 3 individual BSC Forums.

Another sign of the success and importance of the Belfast Bikes scheme is growing private sector interest. The approved planning application for a new Allstate NI office beside Belfast Central Station includes a £25,000 commitment for the establishment of a Bike Hire station at Maysfield. Allstate has form as a company promoting sustainable transport in Belfast, winning the 2014 Fréd Festival Award for Best Large Employer for Cycling.

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Possible Belfast Bikes location at new Allstate NI building (beside Dutch bridge)

With various regeneration schemes and new builds around the city over the next few years, expect many more organisations to step in, taking some of the capital funding burden away from ratepayers in a win-win arrangement for the city.

As we near election time the shining success of Belfast Bikes can only help to highlight the demand for cycling in Belfast and with it the need for investment in safer, dedicated infrastructure. Seeing big employers recognising the value of cheap, flexible and congestion-busting transport around Belfast is heartening too. Belfast City Council’s next step into ‘Phase 2’ holds risks, but the popularity of Coca-Cola Zero Belfast Bikes cannot be doubted and should justify a bold expansion over the next 18 months.

For more analysis of the Belfast Bikes scheme see this excellent report by Niall McCracken at The Detail – The gaps in Belfast’s cycling network – from November 2015.

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ROBblog

 

 

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On Friday 20th June 2014, the second annual Ride On Belfast event took to the city streets. Last year, around 70 people rode from the Gasworks to the City Hall, inspired by and assembled under the banner of The Fréd Festival. This year the theme was ruthless expansion, with the twin aims of:

  • being the biggest peloton in Belfast since the Giro d’Italia
  • encouraging people not used to cycle commuting to try it out

That was the simplest expression of what Ride On Belfast is about – people riding bicycles in Belfast for their own reasons, whether being the most practical way to work, for the school run, for their health or just the enjoyment. It’s not a protest, it’s not ‘taking back’ the roads, it’s not causing aggro to others – just riding a bike.

But to make this year really special, we needed some new, innovative tactics..

The Weather Underground

Belfast is used to long arid summers, heatwaves lasting months and emergency air-drops of Mr Frostie supplies, but Fréd and his goons needed to be sure that precipitation wasn’t going to affect Ride On Belfast. There was nothing for it – with a brass neck, we tweet-bombed all of the finest weather presenters on local television, and Frank Mitchell too.

And by jove, the BBC crew got into the spirit, with Angie Phillips retweeting, Barra Best tweeting his own predictions, and the fabulous Cecilia Daly (the new darling of Belfast cycling) going the extra mile..

And so, the day before Ride On Belfast gathered, we got our first official ‘national’ weather forecast!

[gigya src=”https://abfiles.s3.amazonaws.com/swf/default_player_10.swf” style=”background-color:transparent; display:block; box-shadow:0 0 1px 1px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.15); min-width:349px; max-width:700px;” flashvars=”image_option=small&imgURL=https%3A%2F%2Fd15mj6e6qmt1na.cloudfront.net%2Fi%2F9638374%2F300x300%2Fc&link_color=%23c70067&mp3Author=nigreenways&mp3Duration=45505.0&mp3LinkURL=https%3A%2F%2Faudioboo.fm%2Fboos%2F2273070-ride-on-belfast-gets-a-personalised-weather-forecast&mp3Time=11.43pm+21+Jun+2014&mp3Title=Ride+On+Belfast+gets+a+personalised+weather+forecast&mp3URL=https%3A%2F%2Faudioboo.fm%2Fboos%2F2273070-ride-on-belfast-gets-a-personalised-weather-forecast.mp3%3Fsource%3Dwordpress&player_theme=dark&rootID=boo_player_1&show_title=true&waveimgURL=https%3A%2F%2Fd15mj6e6qmt1na.cloudfront.net%2Fi%2Fw%2F724171″ width=”600″ height=”150″ allowFullScreen=”true” wmode=”transparent”]

And as it turned out, the weather was just about perfect on the day..

 

The Gathering

https://twitter.com/ellenfromnowon/status/479874513573019648

This year’s Ride On Belfast was helped by some last minute news from Translink, as their early morning ban on bicycles on trains was eased to accommodate those travelling for the event:

This was a most welcome nod to active travel, and hopefully will give Translink and DRD pause to consider trialling this over a longer period.

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The gathering crowd was impressed to see Northern Ireland’s Transport Minister Danny Kennedy ride into the bunch with his new Cycling Unit in tow. Regular cyclist and MLA Sammy Douglas also joined in.

Minister Danny Kennedy arrives with his bicycle outrides
Minister Danny Kennedy arrives with his bicycle outriders

 

The Grand Départ

Under severe pressure from hungry commuters, the peloton set off a little earlier than planned. With a tight first turn from the Gasworks green onto the road, the Minister seized his opportunity and put in a devastating early kick. This split the peloton at the Ormeau Road crossing, and the breakaway group was never caught again. Apparently, Danny Kennedy’s sprint finish down Donegall Place was a phenomenal sight.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbGdaI6zEqc?rel=0&w=600&h=338]

 

On The Open Road

This year Ride On Belfast took an extended trip around Belfast, leading to an iconic roll down Royal Avenue towards the City Hall. The PSNI officers took a relaxed back seat this year, yet the busier junctions were taken with ease. Notable pinch points (again) were the length of time to traverse Shaftesbury Square (not great for cycling at all) and the bus lane at Great Victoria Street (still not great for buses, never mind cycling). Holding the outside lane along Carrick Hill worked to control what was expected to be the busiest and fastest traffic of the ride. The traffic-restricted streets of the city centre were a joy.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uxRPmcbSYY?rel=0&w=600&h=338]

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Selfie On Belfast

After the last year with Máirtín Ó Muilleoir as Lord Mayor, Belfast has fallen in love with the selfie. As well as people just taking them for the craic, See.Sense also ran a competition for the best selfie taken by their stand at Belfast City Hall..

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City Hall and well-earned grub

A huge thank you again to Travelwise and Belfast City Council for providing a free breakfast at the Bobbin Cafe (and the new option of a free coffee at Javaman) for those who completed Ride On Belfast. The City Hall grounds became a sea of bicycles for the morning, while local cycle lighting tech firm See.Sense showed off their wares and PSNI bike officers were busy security-marking bicycles for the punters.

Inside the City Hall, the breakfast queue stretched out the door (which is testament to the rise in participation at Ride On Belfast) and we’re all grateful to the Bobbin staff for coping under severe pressure.

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The Media

Straight after the event, our Twitter traffic was enough to set #RideOnBelfast trending locally – maybe next year “sectarianism” can be beaten by cycling? Little steps..

Paul Reilly brought the UTV cameras down to see what all the fuss was about, and importantly set the day in context with a reminder of the shocking scene of a child’s bicycle under a truck at Ballyhackamore the day before. Along with the tragic death of 5 year old Conor O’Neill 9 days before, Bike Week had a strong focus on road safety and infrastructure improvement this year.

DKROB

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The Irish News covered the event in its Saturday edition. Might need to check that ear-to-shorthand connection though, as ‘enthusiast’ (a word I’m almost violently resistant to when it comes to practical cycling) somehow crept into a quote. And “giro d’italia” needs capitals. #facepalm

 

The Aftermath

Ride On Belfast turned out to be a really positive, fun event and this was reflected in social media comments directly afterwards. We had new cycling commuters, people trying out cycling for the first time in years, as well as familiar faces.

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In the end, the various breakaway groups which started from the Gasworks numbered 150, with close to 200 registered for the bicycle breakfast at City Hall. Overall that was a doubling of participation from 2013, which is a credit to all involved – The Fréd Festival, Travelwise (DRD) and Belfast City Council.

This week in Belfast, the western bank of the Lagan River Walkway closed for two years, to allow construction of a new Conference Centre at the Waterfront Hall. This path is the traffic-free walking and cycling spine of Belfast, part of the National Cycle Network, and crucial to the success of the city’s cycling revolution. So why isn’t the path being maintained through the works, and why are the proposed diversion routes not up to standard?

The Waterfront extension works were announced in January, part of a £29.5 million upgrade to attract international conferences and exhibitions. Disruption to the Lagan Walkway route was expected, as the new structure will overhang the pathway when completed. However, it’s understood diversions were decided before the main active travel body in NI, Sustrans, was consulted. So what were the options on the table for Belfast City Council?

Waterfront Hall barrier
Confusion and delay on day one, whether walking or cycling

Maintaining the route

It’s understood that following initial works to the edge of the river, the substantive construction work will take place closer to the existing Waterfront building for a significant period of the next 2 years. Providing a boardwalk right at the river’s edge, or perhaps even a pontoon, seemed like a viable solution for continued access during periods of low risk.

Waterfront extension -  at the river's edge
Options here for a boardwalk to maintain the route?

The river’s edge at the Waterfront includes an existing pontoon for boat access and a built-out viewing platform. A clever engineering solution (still) seems possible.

Questions need to be asked of Belfast City Council: was it their own Health and Safety assessment which ruled out this option, or did the contractors just inform them it didn’t suit?

Alternative Route 1 (via Oxford Street)

Sustrans Ranger Ellen Murray knows NCN Route 9 very well, and has tackled the issue in great detail on her blog. She took a run along this diversion heading south to see the difficulties:

Signs for the 2 main diversion routes
Signs for the 2 main diversion routes

“This proposed route brings cyclists and pedestrians around the front of the Waterfront Hall, along a fairly ambiguous path which doesn’t feel like a contiguous route. It then brings users across a cobbled section (which is slippery when wet) across a minor roundabout, and then along a quite narrow stretch of Lanyon Place. The road is flanked on the left by a construction site, leading to poor visibility at corners.

Water5
Dark, unfriendly streetscape of Laganbank Road; pinched footways, ongoing construction

This road is also significantly below the level of the adjacent East Bridge Street and is an intimidatingly dark route after hours which feels very isolated, which is likely to further affect cycle and pedestrian traffic using the route.

Rejoining the NCN9 route at the ramp alongside the railway underpass presents a significant conflict area for pedestrians and cyclists, who need to turn more than 90 degrees to continue along their journey. Along the whole proposed route, there are many crossing points for pedestrians, and a significant number of conflict areas for cyclists and pedestrians, who will now have to contend with Hilton Hotel traffic at the roundabout, and other local traffic along Lanyon Place.“

It also represents a significant detour, especially for those on foot. For anyone walking from the Albert Bridge or southern sections of the Lagan path, being diverted up East Bridge Street is a far more direct route, albeit with poor cycling connectivity to Oxford Street.

Better dedicated cycling facilities on East Bridge Street could have taken some of the strain during the next 2 years. Consideration should be given (as part of a developing cycling masterplan for Belfast) for a separate cycle path on the country-bound side.

EBSlane
#Space4Cycling possibly right under our noses on East Bridge Street?

Alternative Route 2 (The Bridges)

While a potentially shorter route, the mis-steps by Belfast City Council in rolling out this diversion have been amazing to watch. From first viewing of the map, you wonder if Belfast City Council ever bothered to check if cycling was legal on the tight, busy pedestrian footway on Queen’s Bridge.

QueensBridge
Cycling neither desirable nor legal on this busy bridge

Clearly, with the generous allocation of ‘Cyclists dismount’ signage (alongside the highly embarrassing upside-down route markers) the penny had dropped by the first day of route closure.

UpsideDown

Unfortunately the ‘Cyclists dismount’ signs then appeared on the shared use railway footbridge as well – thankfully with the intervention of Sustrans (following the tweet below) they were removed.

How much work did Belfast City Council put into considering users’ needs and journey modelling? Did anyone consider that a high percentage of users’ journeys might be towards Titanic Quarter, whether tourists, day-trippers or workers? From the south, the diversion sends bewildered users across the River Lagan fully 3 times to reach this area!

Route

Looking at the map above, you might wonder why you need to cross two parallel bridges at all. The problem is the lack of a viable crossing – safe enough to allow pedestrians and cyclists of all abilities, people pushing prams, getting families (whether cycling or walking), those with limited mobility to safely cross four and a half lanes of fast, continuous traffic at Bridge End – as this video shows.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QK56pVvzzoQ?rel=0]

This disconnect requires urgent action. One of the poorest aspects of this whole scheme is the failure to adequately cater for disrupted journeys by actually spending money on solutions. Other European cities with a keen interest in protecting and encouraging active travel make big gestures to accomodate cycling and walking through construction projects. The boardwalk idea may have its health and safety drawbacks, but has cost been a factor? Surely not within a £29.5 million project?

Similarly, Belfast City Council should be able to find roughly £60,000 to work with DRD to add a toucan crossing at Queen’s Bridge (as recommended by Sustrans). This would improve accessibility for the duration of the project, and leave a lasting legacy to the east bank of the Lagan. This is the most pressing and necessary option which Belfast City Council must pursue to salvage some pride from this sorry episode.

Queen's Bridge with Bridge End and Station St flyover traffic
Four (and a half) lanes of busy commuting traffic, no controlled crossing

In the same week (trebles all round at the Press Office!) Belfast City Council have announced the contractor to deliver the Belfast Bike Hire scheme, which should now be operational by next spring. That’s right – the closure of Belfast’s premier traffic-free path, and the associated mess, will still be happening at least a year into the operation of Bike Hire.

There’s a disappointing sense that the needs of people who use this route everyday, and the all-important visitors to our city, were an afterthought in Belfast City Council’s Waterfront extension project. They’ve misjudged the importance of the path. It’s a route for tourists, for leisure use, for commuters, for shoppers and much more. Belfast City Council should be encouraged for it’s investments, both in the Conference Centre and in active travel projects like Bike Hire. But they cannot afford further failure on the day-to-day basics of encouraging car-free travel.

* * * * * * * * *

Related tweets

https://twitter.com/GregorClaus/status/461942212021215233

https://twitter.com/GregorClaus/status/461928466221633536

https://twitter.com/ellenfromnowon/status/461421963899326464

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https://twitter.com/chrismccorry/status/460468494069669890

https://twitter.com/ellenfromnowon/status/460202136178262016

The most interesting thing to happen to Belfast cycling this year hasn’t happened yet. The new cycling unit in the Department for Regional Development will probably get up and running in early 2014. It promises a new approach to government investment planning, embedding cycle-proofing across all departments to -prevent missed opportunities. Of course, it also means our cycling future is in the hands of the Department that brought you Cyclesaurus.

So let’s get the new Cycling Unit off to a flying start with some practical ideas which can make a big impact.  And while we’re at it, some ideas for Belfast City Council, active travel organisations, Translink and private businesses too. Regular cyclists’ practical expertise is undervalued, so feel free to pile in to the comments section. Here is your starter for ten..

Continue reading “Ten practical improvements for cycling in Belfast”

One of the benefits for Belfast of the 2014 Giro D’Italia Grande Partenza is the increasing talk of leaving a cycling legacy for the city. We already have Belfast Bike Hire on the way, and many have been surprised by the rapid rise of the Gasworks Bridge to the forefront of DRD policy in Belfast. But Belfast could signal its serious intention to accelerate cycling development by pitching to host the Velo-city cycling conference in 2017.

© Copyright Rossographer, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

The Velo-city conferences, organised by the European Cyclists’ Federation, are an international platform to address decision makers to improve the planning and provision of infrastructure for the everyday use of bicycles in urban environments. Continue reading “Belfast: Velo-city 2017?”

Belfast is in the middle of a mini active travel boom, mainly driven by rising numbers of bike commuters. But Belfast suffers from structural issues which hold back cycling development, not least the physical barrier of the River Lagan. One plan to provide relief, a new pedestrian and cycling bridge linking the Gasworks site to Ormeau Park, has been largely forgotten. Why?

River Lagan from the Gasworks side

The Gasworks Bridge would span 140m between the Lagan entrance to the Gasworks Site and the Ravenhill Reach car park beside Ormeau Park. The project cost is estimated in the region of £4million to £8million. The benefits to the city have been clear for many years:

  • greater access for people in South and East Belfast to the city centre
  • making Ormeau Park a city centre park, accessible by both residents and workers, 15 minute walk from City Hall
  • provide safer pedestrian and cycling options than Albert Bridge and Ormeau Bridge
  • increase in walking and cycling with the health, leisure and transport benefits
  • further encouraging inner city regeneration with a new signature city gateway

This would be the first standalone bridge to be built in Belfast solely for cycling and walking journeys – an important signal of intention to follow through on active travel promotion. Local residents surveys have always returned positive views, with few concerns about potential interface issues. All very positive, but it seems to have dropped off the agenda.

Why is it important?

The spine of the National Cycle Network runs along the western bank of the River Lagan here, connecting a traffic-free route stretching from Lisburn to Newtownabbey, a developing connection to the Comber Greenway (and the Connswater Greenway project) and hopefully all the way to Bangor in the future. The embankment cycle tracks and shared pathways have contributed to an upsurge in active travel, with cycling flow increases of over 250% observed between 2000-2010 (PDF, 499k).

Gasworks from Ravenhill Reach
View from Ravenhill Reach looking down Gasworks / Ormeau Avenue corridor

Adding the bridge would open up east-west journeys on the National Cycle Network, increasing the potential of the Gasworks Park pathway which links almost directly into the city centre. The Gasworks Park hosts large employers like Lloyds and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, but also the Radisson SAS Hotel. The bridge would not only be a commuter and lunchtime leisure option, but also a tourist facility.

For walking journeys to work, Shaftesbury and Botanic wards lead the way with over 40% of commuter ‘traffic’ on foot. Yet just across the river there is a sharp drop-off with Woodstock and Ballynafeigh wards around 25% and Ravenhill less than 20%. Physical disconnection is at least partly responsible, with long diversions needed to reach the main employment base in the city centre.

The communities surrounding Ormeau Park are also at the forefront of the the current cycling boom. While still quite low levels compared to proper cycling cities around the world, nonetheless Woodstock, Ravenhill and Ballynafeigh are the top 3 wards in the whole of Northern Ireland by cycling commuter share at 5-6%.

© Crown Copyright Land and Property Services / Spatial NI
Commuter cycling share in wards surrounding Gasworks bridge (Census 2011)

A startling 51% of households in Woodstock have no access to a car or van (Census 2011) over double the rate of Northern Ireland as a whole. Direct traffic-free access into the city centre is both desirable and necessary here.

Belfast has seen a 60% rise in cycling commuters between 2001 and 2011. If a Gasworks Bridge contributed to a doubling of cycling levels in these top 3 wards by 2021, cycling levels would outstrip even bus commuting here, which begins to fundamentally change the inner city transport dynamics.

By upgrading cycling routes beyond Ormeau Park, across traffic-calmed residential streets towards Cregagh and Castlereagh Roads and the two Greenways, a genuine and attractive alternative to car travel becomes possible for a large part of South East Belfast. A positive impact on inner city traffic levels must be considered a key element of the bridge’s benefit.

What are the alternative cycling commuter routes?

The existing connections between the city centre and the suburbs of South and East Belfast have become scenes of cycling commuter stress and conflict. The area is poorly served by just two main access points across the Lagan a mile apart, the Ormeau Bridge and the Albert Bridge.

Side of Albert Bridge Belfast
The Albert Bridge in Belfast, a major barrier to cycling uptake in East Belfast

The Albert Bridge is awful for cycling, with it’s narrow road space, ugly crash barriers and no safe cycle space. Roads Service estimates 50% of cyclists use the narrow footpaths rather than the road. Yet as a listed bridge (built in 1890) the options for change are apparently limited.

Ormeau Bridge Belfast
The Ormeau Bridge in Belfast, possibly the busiest cycling intersection in NI

The Ormeau Bridge has a more open feel, but again has no dedicated cycling space. The ghost bike memorial for Michael Caulfield is a stark reminder of how dangerous our roads are for cycling – more so as the Ormeau bridge and embankment intersection is probably the busiest area in Northern Ireland for commuter cycling.

Why has the project faltered before?

Planners have had their eye on a bridge here for decades, but not always for a footbridge. In the rush to build for a motorised future, 1960s plans foresaw an urban motorway running around the Gasworks site and over to Ravenhill. While the motorway plan thankfully fell away in the 70’s, the idea of a more modest distributor road bridging the Lagan and running to the Ravenhill Road lingered through to the 1990s. Along with the main plan for a southern inner ring road, currently in limbo, this has contributed to urban blight through restricted development along the Bankmore corridor.

© Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Bankmore Street, effectively abandoned to a road scheme that never happened

Lately with the recognition that a road scheme would not be viable or attractive, and the redeveloped Gasworks site opening in 2001,  the idea of a traffic-free bridge moved up the agenda. Boosted by the inclusion in the Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan 2015, it seemed obvious that the bridge would be built quickly, given the success of the wider Gasworks and Laganside projects:

“Two new pedestrian/cycle bridge crossings are proposed to serve key activity spines between the east and western sides of the River Lagan. These will improve the connection between the extension of existing riverside walkways and the more strategic sections of the pedestrian network. These bridges will be funded as part of  the regeneration of Belfast.”

Rumblings of trouble can be seen in a Belfast City Council Development Committee report from 2005, when you look at the number of ‘stakeholders’:

  • Laganside Corporation – Gasworks and riverside regeneration
  • Department for Social Development (DSD) – public realm schemes and Laganside Corporation’s sponsor
  • Belfast City Council – owner and operator of land and facilities on both sides of the river
  • Sustrans – the National Cycle Network runs through the middle of the issue
  • Department of Regional Development (DRD) – NI transport planning and infrastructure, including active travel

Lots of interested parties, but no-one to take a clear lead. It was unfortunate timing that the Laganside Corporation was wound up within 2 years of this, having reached £1 billion of investment in the city.

Lagan looking toward the Gasworks Bridge location

The last major push was around 2009, with talk of the project even being linked to the failed national stadium bid at Ormeau Park. An application for Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) Peace III funding “fell down on its demonstration of peace and reconciliation outcomes and its ability to provide a lasting legacy to the peace programme”.

If we’re relying on a 140m river crossing to be a transformative factor in community relations and breaking down sectarian divisions, what hope is there for Northern Ireland? EU Peace funding has been practically ruled out, and the reason is clear when you cut through the ‘additional’ benefits and set out the purpose of the bridge in basic terms:

The project’s most important function is to provide a new transport corridor in Belfast.

Therefore it falls squarely within the remit of DRD and their executive agency Roads Service. A Belfast City Council Development Committee report on the potential construction and maintenance of the bridge from back in 2005 shines a troublesome light on DRD active transport thinking:

“It is obvious that responsibility for the project should be taken up by Roads Service. Initial contact with Roads Service has however been met with a lukewarm response despite the rhetoric in the BMTP etc in regard to walking and cycling as valid means of transport.”

Can DRD to demonstrate they have moved beyond this point, and take ownership of a major project exclusively for active travel? Is there a golden window of opportunity given the ongoing difficulties with the A5 road project?

What is the way forward?

The recently opened Peace Bridge in Derry~Londonderry is a fantastic local example of what can be achieved for urban cycling and walking transport. Around 2,300 people use the bridge every day, and is a challenge to Belfast to replicate or exceed this impressive performance.

PeaceBridge1
The Peace Bridge in Derry~Londonderry

For an international comparison, Copenhagen is one of the leading cities in the world for urban cycling, with a journey share of around 36%. But it’s a city still trying striving to improve, and leading this charge with urban bridge building for non-motorised traffic with the Copenhagen harbour bridges project.

Gemini Residence 3
Bryggebroen cycling and pedestrian bridge in Copenhagen

The Gasworks Bridge is a key element of re-imagining and reworking central Belfast. Council plans are afoot for sweeping regeneration from the Markets area to Sandy Row and Shaftesbury Square. The bridge would open up new possibilities for commuting, leisure, shopping and social trips that aren’t really viable today. It’s easy to overplay the significance, but the bridge even has the potential to help boost the evening economy in the city.

The Gasworks Bridge is a key part of the Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan 2015, which is still used to determine capital project priority in the current budget period. If the DRD Minister should wish to leave a legacy for Belfast which provides positive encouragement to reduce car journeys, he would struggle to find a better opportunity than the Gasworks Bridge.
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[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtjBjgHkAAM?rel=0]

What do you think about the idea of a Gasworks Bridge? Will it encourage you to ditch the car? Comments are open below..

*** UPDATE *** 20th June 2013 *** UPDATE ***

A week is a long time in politics, and one week on from this post there is stunning news. Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy, while addressing the Politically Painless Active Travel conference in Belfast, announced he is to commission a feasibility study into the Gasworks Bridge project!

Danny Kennedy Gasworks Bridge

This is great news for the local community, active travel organisations, councillors and many others who have put in the real work over a decade to see this bridge built. Hopefully DRD / Roads Service will make swift progress, and the project’s overwhelming benefits will ensure a positive outcome. The potential to transform this part of Belfast is immense – with Belfast cycling on the rise, it seems the Gasworks Bridge’s time has come!

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.

Bike Week 2013 offers people in Northern Ireland a unique opportunity to hear from active travel experts and to quiz local politicians on cycling development.

Two free public events in Derry~Londonderry and Belfast on Wednesday 19th June entitled Politically Painless Active Travel will explore the steps to get more people cycling and walking in Northern Ireland. The events are being organised by CTC, Sustrans, Travelwise and Derry City Council.

Registration is free and both events are open to the public.

You can register now for either session on the CTC website.

Headline speakers

Dr Rachel Aldred

Rachel Aldred is a London-based cycling sociologist who teaches and researches transport.

A Senior Lecturer in Transport at Westminster University, blogger and commentator on cycling strategy, policy and culture, Dr Aldred will be speaking about how to reach a critical mass of cycling that flips cycling into the mainstream, and behavioural changes needed for individual and political acceptability.

You can follow Dr Aldred on Twitter at @RachelAldred.

Gordon Seabright

Gordon Seabright is the Chief Executive of the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC), the national cycling charity. CTC is an independent charity, with 70,000 members nationally. Gordon took up post in March 2012. He will be giving an overview of the Westminster All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group’s cycling inquiry, getting the fundamentals right and the economic benefits of cycling.

You can follow Gordon Seabright on Twitter at @GSeabright.

Lilli Matson

Lilli MatsonLilli Matson is Transport for London’s (TfL’s) Head of Delivery Planning. She leads TfL’s strategy and planning of surface transport priorities and projects – with a focus on managing freight and transport demand, planning for bus priority across London, promoting walking, cycling, accessible public transport and improving road safety. She will give insights into implementing active travel on crowded roadspace and the political leadership needed.

© Copyright laurentka and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Politically Painless Active Travel seminar

Getting more safer walking and cycling
The Guildhall, Derry~Londonderry
10am Wednesday 19 June 2013

10.00 Registration and coffee

10.20 Jimmy Spratt MLA
Welcome from the Chair of Regional Development Committee

10.25 Dr Rachel Aldred
How to reach a critical mass of cycling that flips cycling into the mainstream and behavioural changes needed for individual and political acceptability

10.50 Denise Gallanagh-Wood (An Taisce) and Michele Murphy (Sustrans)
Getting the nation walking and cycling and the success of green schools in Ireland and Bike It in Northern Ireland

11.15 Dr Willie Burke (Derry City Council) and Ross McGill (Sustrans)
Route Development and promotion in Derry~Londonderry

11.45 Break

12.00 Lilli Matson (Transport for London)
Implementing active travel on crowded roadspace and the political leadership needed

12.25 Gordon Seabright (CTC Chief Executive)
Overview of the Westminster All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group inquiry, getting the fundamentals right and the economic benefits of cycling

12.45 Questions

13.00 Finger buffet

13.30 Walk~Cycle to the Peace Bridge and Riverside Greenway to look at Derry~Londonderry’s active travel infrastructure

14.00 (back at The Guildhall) Sean Lynch MLA
The Deputy Chair of the Regional Development Committee chairs the afternoon session – a member from each of the 5 main Northern Ireland political parties gives the party view on walking and cycling, and then questions from the floor

15.15 Gordon Seabright (CTC Chief Executive)
Summing up

15.30 Close

**Anyone travelling from Belfast to The Guildhall/Peace Bridge event can take advantage of the superb rail link to the North West. Enjoy free WiFi and a relaxing trip along one of the most picturesque rail journeys in Europe. The 07.10 departure from Belfast Great Victoria Street will arrive at Derry~Londonderry at 9.25am. It’s a £17.50 day return from Belfast.

Whoever99 at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Politically Painless Active Travel public meeting

Getting more safer walking and cycling
The MAC (The Factory space), Belfast
6pm Wednesday 19 June 2013

18.00 Arrival & registration

18.10 Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy
Welcome and Minister’s comment

18.15 Gordon Seabright (CTC Chief Executive)
Overview of the Westminster All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group inquiry, getting the fundamentals right and the economic benefits of cycling

18.40 Dr Rachel Aldred
How to reach a critical mass of cycling that flips cycling into the mainstream and behavioural changes needed for individual and political acceptability

19.05 Denise Gallanagh-Wood  (An Taisce)
Getting the nation walking and cycling and the success of green schools in Ireland

19.30 Tim Edgar (CTC)
CTC Bike Club and Belfast City Council

19.45 Beth Harding (Sustrans)
The results from working in schools

20.00 Gordon Clarke (Sustrans Director Ireland)
Summing up

20.10 Questions

20.25 Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy
The Minister’s closing comments

20.30 Close

You can register now for either session on the CTC website.

Blocked cycle lane

In May I posted a video on YouTube of the Castlereagh Road ‘Cycle Lane’. Cycling daily on this route home, I can count on one hand the number of evenings where I’ve had a clear run at the full length of the new cycle lane, which has been in operation since last year.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Zr5xuDlOVQ&w=560&h=315]

A lively response to the video included an invitation from the Ulster Unionist Party to put the concerns directly in writing to the Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy. Below you can read my letter, and the response received from the Roads Service Chief Executive Geoff Allister.

Continue reading “Belfast's redundant cycle lanes”