The Draft Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland needs your input. A public consultation is running until Friday 21st November 2014, and your views will help to determine the path which DRD will plot over the next 25 years to deliver the Cycling Revolution™ in Northern Ireland.

drd_bicycle_consultation_event
DRD Cycling Unit Head Andrew Grieve at the Belfast consultation event

You can read the full Draft Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland by downloading it from the DRD website. You can respond to the Draft Strategy a number of ways, listed at the end of this article.

So, what are the hot topics for @nigreenways in the Draft Strategy?

That headline vision statement

“To establish a cycling culture in Northern Ireland to give people the freedom and confidence to travel by bicycle, and where all road users can safely share space with mutual respect.”

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Confusing pre-Bicycle Strategy outbreak of everyday cycling; ignore this..

A decent start, but it’s a few tweaks away from perfection..

Don’t repeat the past mistake of positioning the Bicycle Strategy as a government-led attempt to cold start growth in cycling. Credit is due to DRD for your work over the last year to create the Cycling Unit and this Strategy, but you are pedalling furiously to catch up with the reality on the ground.

TronBelfast

Cycling is on a clear growth curve, even if it remains quite niche as a province-wide activity. An inspired and serious government intervention is needed to push cycling into the mass market. Take this obvious opportunity to put the Bicycle Strategy on the front foot and present a far more efficient vision statement..

“To build on the developing cycling culture in Northern Ireland and create the conditions to give everyone the freedom and confidence to travel by bicycle.”

Sorry, but the twelve words after “bicycle” in your vision is meaningless fillerIt sounds like a really bad DOE road safety advert (and there are many of those) and I genuinely believe the DRD Cycling Unit is better than that. Drop it. Inspire us.

Bicycle Strategy or Cycling Strategy?

“We feel that it is significant that this document is called a ‘Bicycle Strategy’ rather than a ‘Cycling Strategy’ as it presents a clear signal that we are planning for a mode of transport, rather than simply the activity of ‘cycling’.”

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Two bicycle riders in Belfast arguing about the title of the strategy

It’s astounding how much precious time and oxygen was wasted at stakeholder consultation events discussing this. Knock yourself out. Moving on..

Design for everyone, or no-one

One section of the Draft Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland caught the attention (and ire) of cycling campaigners across the UK and Europe:

designing_for_bicycle_users

Northern Ireland’s very own Dutch cycling expert Cargobike Dad put it perfectly in his own takedown of this section:

“The table has been adapted from the English Department for Transport, published in 2007 .. if we want to look at best practice we should not look to England 7 years ago. It would better to hold them up as an example of how not to implement a cycling strategy.”

As for those fast commuters, alarm bells should be ringing at DRD when everyday bicycle commuters with decades of experience can’t take the hassle on Belfast’s busiest roads any more..

What are the logical outcomes of designing for types of cyclists when DRD considers future route development plans? That high-quality separated cycling infrastructure is less likely around workplaces, or on arterial routes? That it’s more likely around schools? How do you measure the demand among different groups in any particular area? Good luck showing me an area in Belfast that is purely dominated by one of these types, especially if the Cycling Revolution™ actually happens.

This section got a roasting back in August..

profiles

I was planning to write a pithy tirade detailed explanation of why the inclusion of user profiles is a very bad idea, but I’ll give you a 100% guarantee that this section of the Draft Strategy is going to be quietly dropped for the final version. Why? Fast forward to November and everything changed..

bricycle

And who is @bricycle? He’s Brian Deegan, Principal Technical Planner at Transport for London who’s worked in project management on the London Cycle Network for the past six years – and one of the speakers at the recent Changing Gear conference, organised by (wait for it) the DRD Cycling Unit..

The simple principle behind the world’s best cycling infrastructure (also highlighted by Brian Deegan at the conference as being in The Netherlands) is that cycling infrastructure should be designed for everyone to use. To plan a Bicycle Strategy on any other basis puts compromise at the heart of the next 25 years of development.

Cross-government buy-in

“Our ‘cycling future’ is interrelated with a number of other factors .. responsibility for some of these areas sits with other Government Departments or public bodies. For this reason we feel it is vitally important that we work across the sectors to develop and implement this strategy to make sure that the greatest benefits are delivered for everyone.”

This is crucial to success – access to the power and influence of the shocking number of government organisations with responsibility for cycling here will determine positive outcomes. Understanding of the needs of cycling development is patchy – eg the Public Health Agency definitely gets it, but the Department for Social Development (leading on public realm projects) does not..

Along with finding guaranteed annual funding for this grand vision, how well the DRD Cycling Unit and the Minister can marshal and direct cycling activities across government will determine the Bicycle Strategy’s success. Which leads us neatly on to..

Aiming.. where exactly?

“We have consciously chosen not to set an arbitrary Northern Ireland wide target for the percentage of people cycling by a nominal date as we do not think it will be useful in encouraging people to use the bicycle as a mode of transport at local level. The Delivery Plan [to follow] will contain a series of specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound objectives, policies and actions. This will form the basis for the monitoring undertaken on the progress made by the Strategy.”

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Cycling growth evident in winter rush hour, but cycling still pushed to the margins (by DSD again)

After many discussions I understand (and to some extent sympathise with) DRD’s rationale for not placing an over-arching target within this strategy. The subsequent Delivery Plan, city and local area masterplans will carry the SMART objectives and targets. Grand, and the campaigning corps can’t wait to get its teeth into those plans.

Having no big target(s) may lend flexibility to your work, or could be the biggest flaw in the foundations of the Bicycle Strategy. A big target certainly isn’t “useful in encouraging people to use the bicycle” but it is close to essential in navigating the political stream for 25 long years.

Consider this statement by Minister Danny Kennedy at the Regional Development Committee on Wednesday 12th November 2014 (28:03 onwards):

“The Chair and this Committee will know about the challenging financial position that we find ourselves in, particularly next year. But this is a Programme for Government commitment (it’s also a commitment that I’m committed to) and so the necessary finance will have to be effectively ring-fenced for this project to be carried forward. And that is a challenge for this Department, and it’s a challenge for me, but I have to rise to that challenge. And I’ve no doubt that I would rise to the challenge with the support of this Committee, with Executive colleagues, with the Assembly in general and with public opinion..”

Imagine a future Transport Minister defending DRD Cycling Unit infrastructure plans with this robust certainty. This particular issue was about a railway upgrade plan in difficulty, but because it’s in the Programme for Government (PfG) there’s no argument about “if”, just “how”.

Cycling needs its own place among the PfG targets. Splitting by urban/rural, or Belfast/rest of NI makes a lot of sense given the diverging cycling environments. But if cycling infrastructure planning and/or an over-arching growth target is in there after the next election, a mainstream budget will be easier to embed, and suddenly cycling climbs one more step above the day-to-day political fray.

Will a series of area plans with targets and budgets make into the PfG? That’s highly doubtful. Does this risk leaving each plan to fight tooth and nail for survival in a hostile political environment?

So make sure you’re being smart about that target decision, and think about the realpolitik in 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years from now. Can you make it politically super difficult for the next Minister to roll back on commitments made in the Bicycle Strategy? Can ambitious headline targets foster competition between political parties to build reputations, policy commitments and delivery on cycling? Or will you be kicking yourselves as the vision and aspirations slowly evaporate over the years?

I welcome the Draft Strategy, but more importantly I have faith in the quality of the people who are working in the DRD Cycling Unit. This is a once-in-25 years opportunity to get it right..

What do you think?

Those were just a few of the key topics covered by the Draft Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland. Please do take the time to read it and send your thoughts to the DRD Cycling Unit. For more perspectives on the document you should also:

How to respond

Anne Burke
Cycling Unit
Department for Regional Development
Clarence Court
10-18 Adelaide Street
Belfast

Telephone: 028 9054 0179
Fax: 028 9054 0662
Minicom/ TextPhone: (028) 9054 0642
Text Relay Service: (028) 9054 0179
(prefix 18001)

Email: cycling.unit@drdni.gov.uk

It’s very clear that people who cycle in Belfast do not want 4,000+ taxis to hassle them in bus lanes. But the elephant in the room in this debate is sizeable – a £100m elephant in the shape of the forthcoming Bus Rapid Transit system. Now that we know just how wrong the public consultation on bus lanes was, isn’t it time to re-evaluate the effect on the largest group of bus lane users – bus passengers?

BRT

Image owned by RobertG and is licensed for reuse under the GNU Free Documentation License version 1.2. See this image’s original location on Wikipedia Commons.

Infrastructure work on the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system for Belfast has already begun. The new routes are due to begin operation in 2017, with bold promises from the Department for Regional Development (DRD) on the change they will bring for the city:

“BRT will create a new and dynamic bus-based public transport system for Belfast. [It] will provide a modern, safe, efficient and high quality service which encourages people to travel by public transport instead of car.” [DRD]

Bus transit was chosen over light rail/tram due to cost and flexibility (among other factors) but one thing that stands out about the Belfast system is that it will be almost exclusively on-road, sharing space with general traffic. Many BRT systems around the world use dedicated (even guided) running tracks, giving the system a guaranteed time advantage over general traffic.

[vimeo 12472119 w=600 h=450]

Bus Rapid Transit: Bogotá from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

The speed, reliability and comfort of the BRT services will provide an attractive alternative to private car use.” [DRD]

In a sense this is a qualified £100m gamble by DRD – a Rapid Transit-light or Metro-plus option whose success will be almost entirely based on the attractiveness, speed and reliability brought by off-board ticketing, junction priority and clear bus lanes. A BBC News report in January 2014 on BRT public awareness events became an unfortunately ironic reminder of the current issues with taxis in bus lanes:

So what is the purpose of a bus lane?

Bus lanes are provided primarily for buses to afford them some priority on the road network in recognition of the fact that the stop/start nature of the operation increases journey times making it unattractive as a mode of transport. Bus lanes provide a better level of service for those choosing to use a more sustainable mode of travel. They are also a very visible indication of our commitment to public transport.” [DRD consultation (PDF, 1.15MB)]

Given the locations in Belfast and current operating times, it might be fair to boil it down to a much more simple level – getting people to and from work. Comparing the importance of buses and taxis in this regard in Belfast is revealing. Bus (+ minibus & coach) commuters outnumber taxi commuters by almost 6 to 1 in Belfast, but the ratio of Metro buses to taxis in the city is 1 to 15:

BelfastCommuters

BRT will naturally target a wider audience through the day, but with vehicles planned to be 18 metre articulated buses with a capacity of around 100 people, and all of the infrastructure works and heavy promotion expected, the number of bus commuters in Belfast should grow. So what will 15 taxis for every Metro bus do to average journey times in Belfast, and the future Rapid Transit system?

The taxis in bus lanes consultation (which cutely avoided any reference to Bus Rapid Transit) was surprisingly clear on the effect:

Allowing all taxis into bus lanes would see the number of vehicles using bus lanes increase. It is highly likely that this will impact on the performance of bus lanes in terms of bus speeds and journey times.” [DRD consultation (PDF, 1.15MB)]

It’s a sensible assessment – taxis allowed in bus lanes will be stopping to collect passengers (BRT’s East and West routes run along mixed residential and commercial streets), stopping to drop off passengers while settling fares, and there will be an increased weight of bus lane traffic queued at junctions. Regardless of this, DRD ploughed ahead with their option to allow all taxis into bus lanes, prioritising taxi customers to the disadvantage of bus passengers and inexplicably gifting the taxi sector a competitive advantage over Bus Rapid Transit.

The Consumer Council’s response to the Taxis in bus lanes consultation (PDF, 488k) strikes at the heart of DRD’s £100m gamble. While neither agreeing or disagreeing with DRD’s proposals, the Council felt the journey time issue hadn’t been thought through:

For [DRD] to implement these proposals whilst recognising they have the potential to increase journey times for public transport passengers appears to contradict aims and targets set by the Department in the Regional Transportation Strategy along with other policies and schemes such as ‘Belfast on the Move’. Any perceived benefit for taxi passengers these proposals may provide must also be considered in light of the potential negative impact on cyclists, users of current public transport services and potential users of the proposed Rapid Transit system proposed for Belfast.

And remember, this is based on the assumption of just 2,000 taxis being allowed in Belfast bus lanes..

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em..

No reference was made to Belfast Rapid Transit in the DRD consultation. No reference was made to similar BRT systems operating in shared space with a significant taxi fleet. No care seems to be given to bus passengers’ journey times and the overall aims of providing a compelling “alternative to private car use”. Just as with the concerns for cycling, DRD seems oddly happy to make a blind raise on bus lane access for thousands of taxis to solve an immediate problem, while gleefully ignoring any long-term negative impacts.

The consultation process does not stand up to serious scrutiny; Belfast taxi fleet numbers assessment only told half the story. The sensible move, given the level of public investment in BRT at this time of austerity, would be to shelve the plan to allow all taxis into bus lanes until BRT has a number of years to bed in. Potential impacts of sharing space with taxis can be assessed in real-time, based on a retaining the hackney cab/wheelchair accessible fleet to operate in bus lanes alongside BRT.

Judging by the reaction to every challenge to their consultation process (during and after) Departmental officials clearly don’t see an issue here. DRD are showing a remarkable poker face, given the incredibly weak hand they’re holding. But who can call their bluff?

There is cause for optimism and much to applaud in the Department for Regional Development (DRD) strategy document for cycling in Northern Ireland. Here are some highlights, slightly trimmed for space:

“..to provide greater choice in the way people travel [we] will work .. to reduce the need for longer journeys and to increase the opportunity for travel by bicycle. This will entail the development of high quality local cycle facilities within new developments and the provision of links with other urban cycle networks, public transport interchanges, the National Cycle Network and the countryside.”

The “..strategy identifies a range of measures that will seek to improve conditions for cyclists and establish a pro-cycling culture. If more people are to be encouraged to cycle, a fundamental shift in attitude will be needed in every part of our society. An increase in safe utility, recreational, tourist and competitive cycling can have economic, health and environmental benefits for society as a whole.”

“Concerns about road safety and our climate are often quoted as reasons why few people cycle in Northern Ireland. However, significant increases in cycling have been achieved through pro-active policies and actions in other European countries having similar weather conditions.”

The “..creation of a cycle-friendly road network is important if more people are to be encouraged to cycle. The traffic management measures needed to improve conditions for cyclists .. will involve the re-allocation of road space from the motorist to the cyclist, however, this will require a fundamental shift in attitude on the part of transport and infrastructure providers and the support of the general public.”

“Our long-term infrastructure objective is to create a network of high quality cycle routes .. [these] may be on-road or off-road and will include dedicated cycle tracks, shared use surfaces, traffic calmed roads and may make use of paths across parks and other open spaces.”

The “..conversion of footways and footpaths to shared use by cyclists and pedestrians will only be considered where there is no other opportunity to improve conditions safely for cyclists on the carriageway or elsewhere.”

We will “..implement an ongoing programme of secure, convenient and, where appropriate, covered cycle parking provision at new and existing main public transport interchanges and park and ride sites .. [and] in main town centres.”

We will:

  • develop local cycling targets and strategies that will encourage more people to cycle
  • implement a programme of traffic calming schemes and 20 mph zones and afford greater priority to collisions involving cyclists in the prioritisation of these schemes;
  • monitor road traffic collisions in which cyclists are involved and initiate appropriate remedial action
  • improve cycle access in towns by the development of planned urban cycle networks and provide at least an additional 50 miles of urban cycle route
  • adopt recognised good practice in cycle-friendly provision and apply detailed cycle audit procedures to ensure that pro-cycle facilities are actively considered during the design of road schemes
  • apply cycle review procedures to major commuter corridors in Belfast and Londonderry

“In developing an action plan to address these issues, the objective will be to achieve a shift in the perception and behaviour of a large section of the general public.”

Targets:

  • double the number of trips by cycle in 5 years
  • quadruple the number of trips by cycle in 15 years

The “..strategy represents a significant commitment to cycling by Government.”

The strategy contains some excellent and progressive content, setting a strong commitment to embedding cycling firmly within the transport mix in Northern Ireland. There’s even recognition that “dedicated cycling tracks” are needed in urban areas which will take road space away from motor vehicles. It talks the talks, and promises to walk the walk – just what a progressive cycling strategy needs to be in 2014.

Except (if you haven’t it figured out by now) this isn’t from the new draft Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland 2014.

BicycleStrategyNI

This is all lifted from the Northern Ireland Cycling Strategy 2000 (PDF, 8.56MB) published back when the politician at the DRD helm was the future First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson (to this day a regular cyclist). Technically, it’s still the framework for cycling in Northern Ireland (that second target was to 2015).

PeterRobinsonCycling

This isn’t a full autopsy on the 2000 strategy to determine its failures and successes; for the most part, that will be obvious with even a basic knowledge of current cycling conditions here. In reading DRD’s new strategy, it’s important to remember our history, so that we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes.

I’m not even going to critique the new draft Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland line by line – smart heads in DRD have kept it light and punchy, easy to read – so go and draw your own conclusions (PDF, 699K). It’s in consultation until Friday 21st November, so if you have even a passing interest in seeing cycling conditions improve in Northern Ireland please send your views to cycling.unit@drdni.gov.uk. I’ll publish my submission when it’s sent.

Cargobike Dad tackles the new strategy and matches my own positive thoughts on how its shaping up. However, this includes the concerning use of cyclist ‘user profiles’ to influence future route design. Dutch cycle network design principles and density means everyone can cycle everywhere. DRD want to be “visionary in our approach and we want to embrace innovation” so why this rush to compromise at the outset? Hopefully concerns will be taken on board.

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In the encounters I’ve had with DRD staff who wrote the strategy (the new Cycling Policy Unit) I’ve found them to be genuine, passionate, open, honest, pragmatic but genuinely open to ideas, savvy operators in a tough Departmental environment and (should it matter) all normal everyday cyclists – the right people in the right place at (hopefully) the right time. They deserve a chance to make a difference.

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What I’m looking for in the new Bicycle Strategy are signs that DRD thinking has moved on from the previous strategy:

  • that best practice in infrastructure design and network density from established cycling countries will factor in plans and, crucially (given past experience) that cycling plans won’t be vetoed within DRD / Transport NI by more influential voices
  • that DRD recognises and wants to grasp the unique opportunity and tools of centralised government executive powers to set Northern Ireland on a course to surpass other areas of the UK and Ireland, not coast in the wake of their failure (in comparison to Netherlands / Denmark etc)

Despite the hyperbole of Danny Kennedy’s call for a “cycling revolution”, I am sold on the Minister’s commitment (and that of his advisors and staff) to what cycling investment can deliver for his department and for Northern Ireland.

Yet two things might override these good intentions:

  • elections in May 2016 which will almost certainly see a new Minister in place (likely from a different political party) who may not share the developing vision for cycling
  • an over-reliance on ‘gambling’ for monitoring round money to deliver cycling projects, rather than a fixed proportion of central funding

Austerity is beginning to rain down hard on budget rounds, and only half of DRD’s £2m capital bids for cycling in June were approved. What chance will cycling have during future budget squeezes, without reliable core ring-fenced funding?

One sentence from the new strategy shows why this is fundamental to success, and why the old strategy didn’t achieve much:

Since 2002 the Department has invested over £10 million in the development and expansion of cycle lanes and on cycling infrastructure measures.

Which broadly speaking means DRD committed around 50p per head of Northern Ireland population each year for most of the lifetime of the 2000 strategy, compared to €24 in the Netherlands. And the headline result*?

NI bicycle journey share in 2000? 1%.

NI bicycle journey share in 2013? 1%.

In hindsight it’s fortunate that the 2000 strategy tried to “encourage cyclists to wear helmets” because that’s 14 years of head-butting brick walls. However there are some encouraging recent signs of cycling growth in Belfast especially, and DRD’s future plan to raise annual per head spending to £4 may begin to make some impact.

It’s important to set the new Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland in this context – it’s a positive high-level vision, but words don’t guarantee significant change, as the 2000 document shows. The devil will be in the detail of delivery plans, local masterplans, securing continuous funding and retaining political will. Hopefully this time round things are different, and I wish DRD well at the start of their new journey.

*DRD NI Travel Survey: Average number of journeys per person per year

Northern Ireland’s much heralded Cycling Revolution™ is going to need some great promotion to become a reality. Step forward our Department of the Environment (DOE), where local road safety promotion sits in isolation from the road builders (and revolutionary vanguard) over at the Department for Regional Development (DRD).

Recently DOE launched their first ever cycling safety video Respect everyone’s journey. It was a reasonable first effort, notwithstanding plenty of valid criticism. At least they wisely stayed away from the schlock-horror of their usual road safety adverts (see the international viral “hit” Shame on You).

ChrisErin

A follow-up cycling video has been uploaded to YouTube, which shows how far DOE has slipped in just 3 months, and manages to perfectly capture how poor the cycling conditions and expectations are in Northern Ireland:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJ40bHE1OPA?rel=0&w=600&h=450]

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Comments on YouTube are (wisely) switched off, but the video has already attracted scorn and ridicule on social media.

Here’s 10 of the top reasons why it’s so bad, in no particular order:

#1 That target audience?

It’s difficult to see who the video is trying to patronise reach. But on closer inspection..

“Cycling’s a great way to get around .. but that doesn’t mean you can forget about hazards, or who you share the space with .. we all have to respect everyone’s journey, whether you’re on the road, or in a cycle lane”

So it’s those death-wish cyclists with no regard for the rules of the road, who put themselves and others in danger, and generally don’t give a damn about respect – they’re the target audience. I reckon DOE’s instinct that a twee instructional video will make them think again is spot on.

#2 Image quality

As with DOE’s previous video, I’m already struggling to see cycling as normal because of the awful music. Simple Minds behind the scenes – indeed. And Chris and Erin seem dressed and ready to appear in a James Bond opening title sequence rather than going for a cycle, because NO-ONE DRESSES FOR CYCLING LIKE THAT. EVER.

Hiya DOE, here’s a modern image of cycling in Belfast, ironically taken the same day your video was published:

GrandParade

#3 Cycle tracks

Using the Stranmillis Embankment is an interesting choice. It’s by far and away the best on-road cycling space in Belfast, and was only just beaten into 2nd place by Derry’s Peace Bridge as NI’s best cycling infrastructure in the 2013 Fréd Awards.

It’s also wholly unrepresentative of the typical cycling experience here. In fact, there are just 3 separate cycle tracks in Belfast, totally just 2.5km in length. Making a video to explain how to use a cycle track (and generally how to interact with other humans) is overkill.

The Giro d’Italia passed along here in May 2014, but just weeks before the event, DRD’s Roads Service introduced another user to compete with cyclists – a variable message sign (and they got mildly arsey when people complained). Share the road indeed!

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#4 “A good tip is to try and avoid the busiest times on your route; it’ll make your journey quicker, and smoother.”

According to DOE, cycling is not something you should be doing during rush hour; grow up and get a car for that, kids. It’s not like anyone would want to cycle to work, or to the shops in the morning, or hop on the bike for a 9am appointment etc.

If you’re daft enough to try it, expect a slow, rough journey. Hmm. Now you mention it, that’s a scarily accurate representation of cycling in Belfast’s rush hour. Finally some feckin’ honesty and insight – chapeau!

#5 Promoting shambolic infrastructure

At 3.42 and 4.35 I became convinced that the video was a scalpel-sharp piece of satire – you got me DOE! It’s one thing that the Ormeau Road Bus Shelter and University contra-flow lane were voted in the top 5 worst pieces of infrastructure in the 2013 Fréd Awards (beaten only by a dinosaur tail – true story), but quite another for the government to then think it appropriate to use them in a cycling promotion video.

Plonking a bus shelter in the middle of a shared use path is a nightmare for everyone using the space, more so for families with children or elderly people walking around the back. Don’t tell us how to navigate crap design, tell DRD how to redesign it!

This is also NI’s first attempt on video to promote the contra-flow cycle lane concept, or at least DRD’s awfully executed attempt. If you need to use the phrases “But the danger is..” and “This is where you really need to be on high alert..” you’re admitting it’s dangerous crap, so just get rid of it!

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#6 Those reflectors

While being thoroughly patronised by this video, I knew I’d have to admit that DOE had all their facts sewn up, that their advice was legally watertight and all information presented would be factually correct. Every scene shows someone cycling in daylight hours, not between sunset and sunrise. So it’s safe to assume when Erin says ‘by law, you must have a red rear reflector and amber pedal reflectors” that means not just when the sun’s gone down, right?

#7 “Bus lanes are there .. to make your journey smoother and faster, but because they’re shared with buses, permitted taxis and motorbikes, they can be extremely busy”

Damn right bus lanes are busy – by January 2015 DOE will create a single tier taxi system which will force the number of taxis in Belfast bus lanes up from 500 to around 4,000. Good idea to gloss over the destruction of cycling subjective safety at rush hour (hiya point #4).

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#8 “Before you make any move .. always look around you, especially behind, and give a signal if necessary”

NoSignal

..says Erin at 4.20. Meanwhile, back in the mists of time at 4.10, the girl in the video makes a ridiculous move without signalling her intent to the Renault Clio. All happy smiles and waves in the video; try that in the real world, and there’s more chance she’d end up in A+E.

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#9 “By the way, footpaths (as the name suggests) are for feet”

Can you say ‘Equality Impact Assessment’? Wheelchair users and those on mobility scooters might have a few things to say about your interpretation here, DOE. While riding on many footways is illegal (footway or footpath – check those legals again) and generally frowned upon (never mind slower, bumpier and probably more dangerous) it’s a symptom of poor infrastructure – people are scared away from traffic, and want to cycle in what seems like a safer place. Build better routes and more protected cycling space, then people will simply choose the better alternative.

#10 “Respect other road users, because we all share the same space”

This is exactly the problem. The whole video is one long excuse for bad infrastructure, glossing over decades of under-investment in cycling. Countries with the highest cycling levels separate cycling as a transport mode distinct from motor vehicles and pedestrians, or unravels (high quality) cycling routes from the the busiest roads altogether.

DOE admits (whether knowingly or not) that trying to ride a bike around Belfast is made difficult and dangerous because cycling is not properly catered for, because we have to compete with cars, lorries, buses, taxis – and then offers up some random methods for coping, to varying degrees of usefulness.

* * * * *

Really, this only scratches the surface of the things which are obviously wrong with this video, and the swathes of underlying assumptions and daft language which other ‘road users’ are not subject to, like:

It’s a truly ill-advised piece of nonsense which does nothing to advance cycling promotion in Northern Ireland. Perhaps it’s time for DOE to fully hand over the reigns on this function to DRD’s Cycling Unit, who (from personal experience) actually know a thing or two about urban cycling.

Is this the WORST cycling safety/promotion video in the world?

Posted by Bikefast on Saturday, July 19, 2014

 

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”

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!

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)

Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy is in the final stages of considering whether to allow all taxis into bus lanes in Northern Ireland. What appeared just weeks ago to be a done deal in favour of the taxi lobby, has been thrown into the mix again by vocal opposition from ordinary commuters in Belfast. But are Departmental officials giving enough weight to the perception of safety among current cyclists, and crucially the thousands of people Belfast needs to convince to switch to the bike?

The case presented by the Department for Regional Development (DRD) for allowing all taxis into bus lanes is fundamentally weak. Private taxi firms are the only group lobbying for the proposal, and no compelling argument has been brought in favour. It remains the ‘easy’ solution for DRD’s dilemma posed by DOE taxi reform, yet transforms and exaggerates a small scale inconvenience for taxi drivers into a major worry for (current and potential) cyclists in bus lanes.

Taxis want access to bus lanes simply to speed past rush hour traffic – this is clear and obvious. Yet this clashes with both the requirement for an efficient, reliable and attractive bus service (DRD admit bus journey times will be slowed) and the view among cyclists that 2,000+ taxis threatens the sense and reality of safety and security on their journey.

Image supplied by DRD Travelwise

Foxes in the chicken coop

Cyclists launched a campaign against the plan with a City Hall protest and a petition, handed in to the Minister on 13th March. Among the 500+ signatories, many added personal comments to the petition – 76% quoted “safety of bus lanes” as their major concern, effectively a ‘subjective‘ view that private taxis will lessen safety. Views on this ranged from individuals reconsidering their own journey choice to the common belief that it will damage cycling across the city.

Yet to counter cyclists’ fears, DRD officials have been quoting accident statistics in bus lanes. The following was part of a Roads Service submission to the Stormont Regional Development Committee:

“The main issue that was brought up in the consultation was the adverse impact to safety of cyclists, and if I could elaborate a little bit on that … the information we have in the last 3 years up to March ’11, showed that there were very few collisions actually in bus lanes, and of the collisions that were caused in bus lanes were actually crossing manoeuvres; vehicles that were actually crossing from the main traffic flow across the bus lane, possibly into side streets. That was the main cause. In fact the information we have, no accidents that were actually caused between vehicles that were actually allowed to use the bus lane, that were permitted to be there. So from that point of view, we feel that the vehicles that actually use the bus lane and the causation of accidents in the bus lane obviously isn’t an issue … we feel that it will not, hopefully, have a detrimental effect to the safety of cyclists.”

In one sense DRD have done their job correctly here – measuring objective safety and declaring that bus lanes are demonstrably safe spaces for cyclists. But DRD have told us what we already know, and why we’re trying to retain this ‘safer’ network. Not particularly enlightening.

On the other hand, the flawed logic could be compared to a farmer who protects his hen house with a wire fence and strong lock at night. With no evidence or experience of attacks on hens, he takes it as proof that allowing foxes into the coop shouldn’t be detrimental to the safety of hens.

Perception of safety is valued by policy makers (elsewhere)

There are moves to add perception of risk and safety to transport planning in other areas, notably by the Department for Transport in Whitehall. But it seems policy makers in Northern Ireland have little to go on other than collision stats. The situation is quite different in countries where cycling as transport is valued.

Copenhagen is a city where 36% of all trips to work or places of education are made by bike, and they are aiming for 50% as their next milestone between 2015 and 2025 (Belfast has no targets). In their current bicycle strategy document, there is a clear distinction made between accidents (objective safety) and the “sense of security” (subjective safety):

Traffic safety has been greatly improved over the past few years. Statistically, the risk of being involved in a serious accident has fallen by 72% per cycled kilometre since 1996. Copenhageners’ sense of security in the traffic has also improved of late. If this sense of security is to rise even further among current cyclists and potential cyclists alike, the most important areas of focus are creating more space on the cycle tracks, making intersections safer and using behavioural campaigns to improve consideration in traffic – including on the cycle tracks. The general traffic safety efforts are also very important. For example, reducing speed limits for cars where necessary.

In the Netherlands, the principles of ‘sustainable safety’ would mean conflict between fast taxis and slower cyclists would be designed out of, not into, road policy. SWOV, the Institute for Road Safety Research, has also studied subjective safety in traffic (for all users), and points out the weak relationship between objective and subjective safety – which at the very least should lead DRD to question the role of accident statistics as the sole determining factor in the taxi decision. Recognising that at the extremes fear of traffic may affect individual travel choice, the question must be asked about the value of improving subjective safety:

If the objective is the reduction of the number of road casualties, then improving subjective safety in traffic is hardly important. If the objective is to use feelings of being unsafe as an indicator for possible dormant road safety hazards, it is important to assess the validity of these complaints and signals. If the objective is to make people feel at ease in their living environment, and to prevent them from feeling that their own mobility or that of others is impeded by feelings of being unsafe in traffic, then improving subjective safety is important.

Should DRD be using an ‘objective’ measure to dismiss a ‘subjective’ fear, especially one which has great potential to limit personal choices? If the third goal listed above extends to the desire for adding more cyclists to the transport mix in Belfast, then DRD are duty bound to research, evaluate and seek to improve subjective safety of cycling, something worryingly absent from the consultation and the rush to bow to taxi firms’ wishes.

Taxi in the right place: will safer space means more 'normal' cyclists?

And in reality, it’s not as if DRD are lacking for evidence of a problem here. The PARC study linked to the ongoing development of the Connswater Community Greenway found that 60% of people felt roads were too dangerous for cycling, and this in an area of Belfast with some of the highest concentrations of commuter cyclists. Similar findings are available from just down the road in Dublin (report) in a city where for years all taxis have been allowed in bus lanes, or ‘pipes of steel’ as many cyclists would refer to them.

DRD’s own bible for road development, the Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan 2015 (BMTP) deals with this area. If we quickly brush past embarrassing sentences like “On heavily trafficked roads cycle routes would be expected to be provided as fully segregated facilities” (Dutch-style paths in Belfast? Not on DRD’s watch!) we see that subjective criteria such as safety is considered important:

Attractiveness: Routes must be attractive to cyclists on subjective as well as objective criteria. Lighting, personal safety, aesthetics, noise and integration with the surrounding area are important (my emphasis)

But then judging by the preceding sentence, the BMTP is a wacky tome, from which planners can pick and choose as they desire (see: the largely forgotten Gasworks Bridge).

It’s fair to assume most people who signed the taxis in bus lanes petition cycle regularly on roads, and the message from those who added comments was clear. 76% of people specifically mentioned bus lanes as being valuable safe space for cycling. 25% believed taxis are a uniquely dangerous form of transport, 20% were convinced the plan runs contrary to DRD policies to promote sustainable transport, and interestingly 6% of people indicated that giving up cycling as a result of this plan was a serious option.

We’re making a clear point, but is anyone listening?

The problem with collision statistics #1

DRD’s evidence showing “accidents in the bus lanes obviously isn’t an issue” is based on existing bus lane conditions, which of course doesn’t include the private hire taxis that so concern cyclists. Not only will bus lane traffic be doubled, it will be made more competitive, with new faster vehicles mixing with existing slower users. If you don’t think taxis will create more dangerous situations for cyclists in bus lanes, here’s what William McCausland from Fonacab stated after the City Hall cycling protest:

“The taxis aren’t nearly as large as the buses, so their ability to manoeuvre around the cyclists is going to be much simpler.” Source: UTV

This is exactly the type of reckless attitude that has brought us to this point of protest. Most Belfast bus lanes are at most 3 metres wide. There just isn’t the required safe clearance for a saloon car to pass a cyclist within the boundaries of a bus lane with traffic to the right. This is the type of impatient manoeuvre we so fear, and Fonacab are clearly chomping at the bit to let their drivers engage in. It’s so worrying that a ‘professional road user’ running a taxi firm would have so loose a grasp of Rule 163 of the Highway Code.

“give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you would when overtaking a car”

NI Direct: Highway Code rules 162-169: Overtaking

The problem with collision statistics #2

There is also the troubling issue of relying on collision figures as a true measure of objective road safety. Our friends from Cyclist.ie pointed to a startling piece of research was commissioned in Ireland to attempt to inform road safety policy with an idea of the under-reporting of RTCs. The report showed that the Road Safety Authority’s collision figures were grossly out of step with the numbers of people actually admitted to and discharged from hospital as a result of a RTC – which was 3.5 times greater.

However, when it came to cyclists, over the five year period from 2005-09 the RSA reported 109 seriously injured cyclists on Ireland’s roads. The number of hospital discharges for cyclists involved in a RTC in the same period was 1,050: “The difference in numbers is almost ten-fold“. This is truly shocking.

This struck me on a personal level. I was knocked down just over two years ago, by a vehicle using an operational bus lane illegally. I didn’t require hospital treatment, but at the same time I didn’t report the issue to the PSNI either. Another unreported collision, among how many every year in Northern Ireland?

Cycling in Northern Ireland becoming more dangerous?

Undeniably cycling is becoming more dangerous here, even before allowing taxis in bus lanes. Between 2004 and 2011 road safety has improved in Northern Ireland. However the rate of cyclists killed or seriously injured showed a sharp increase in 2010-11. Broadening it out to include minor casualties as well, the trend is upwards for cycling against a downward trend generally.

Comparison of road user KSI rates in NI 2004-2011 (DOE)

There’s little indication DRD have even recognised this as a particular developing problem, judging by the rush to place thousands of cyclists into conflict with thousands of taxis on tight bus lanes during the busiest periods on our roads.

Bus lanes = cycling network

How crucial are bus lanes to cycling in Belfast at present? DRD development of the Belfast arterial road network has produced a repeating pattern – citybound bus lanes for the morning commute, advisory cycle lanes mainly on the countrybound evening side, with some bus lanes substituting. According to DRD there is just 1.32 miles of segregated cycle tracks in Belfast, with many more areas shared with pedestrians, to varying degrees of usefulness/convenience/safety.

Typical citybound bus lane and countrybound cycle lane set up

But the 48km of bus lanes constitutes a vast swathe of Belfast’s commuter cycling space, especially in the highly congested morning rush. Ignoring subjective safety concerns of existing cyclists will tip the balance of risk and reward in the favour of more private car travel, and all the problems that will bring for Belfast as a city trying to keep pace with modern development – while London’s vision puts us to shame.

The gut feeling that DRD have it all wrong

Ultimately this comes down to instinct. Those of us who currently use a bike on the road make our choice based on the balance of risk and reward for cycling in rush hour, and safer spaces have been demonstrated to make a difference even in Belfast, with rises of over 200% in a decade in some areas. Belfast is still in a period of cycling growth, but there’s no guarantee this will continue without investment in safer infrastructure and signalling to non-cyclists that safety concerns are being factored into transport planning. The gut feeling that roads are not a safe place to be on a bike clearly holds so many people back from cycling, male or female, young or old, rich or poor.

It’s not all bad news from DRD; this is the department which is radically altering Belfast city centre with the goal of improving sustainable transport. And they’re providing the kick start funding for Belfast Bike Hire, which has the potential to transform the city in the long run. But for that to be a success will require many thousands of people, many who have never cycled before, to feel safe enough to pedal the roads of Belfast. If it doesn’t feel safe, it just won’t be attractive.

We are fighting to hold back the tide, with bus lanes rightly valued as some of the safest road space we have. Our low levels of cycling will tell you that bus lanes alone are not the answer, and many people simply will not cycle in traffic at all due to fear. But if we value the rises in cycling seen recently, how can we expect to build upon it when the little safe space we have is being taken away and turned into taxi expressways?

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]

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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

An announcement is due soon from Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy on allowing taxis full access to bus lanes in Northern Ireland. With Department for Regional Development (DRD) officials recommending go ahead over clear, vocal and overwhelming objections, it’s time to take quick a step back and ask how we got to this point, and why DRD’s priorities are so muddled? Here are five key issues:

Taxi in cycle lane
The harmonious taxi/cycling relationship

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Apologies to the rest of NI for another Belfast-centric post, but the vast majority of bus lanes are situated in the greater Belfast area, and one fifth of taxis currently operate here, which could rise under the new licensing regime.

How much will this damage cycling uptake?

Belfast has an ‘aspiration’ to raise the level of cycling in the city to 10% modal share by 2020. Not an official target mind you, which might bind a government department to actually delivering it. This why we fail – we still have one of the lowest modal shares in the whole of Europe.

In the decade to 2011 there has been 60% rise in the number of Belfast commuter cyclists – that’s a 2.1% modal share and almost 2,300 regular cycling commuters. Some areas of south Belfast are already upwards of 5% modal share. We need to add over 8,000 more cyclists to Belfast rush hour to get to 10% share.

This kind of massive surge hasn’t happened to date, so why would busier, more intimidating bus lanes make it more likely to happen?

And what do we lose by denying taxis the use of bus lanes? 24% less people travel to work by taxi than in 2001, down to just over 3,000 people, or a 2.9% share. If these two trends continue, cycle commuters will reach parity with taxi commuters by 2015, and by the next census, the current levels will be reversed in cycling’s favour. That would be just 3,000 cyclists by the way – if we want a total of 10,000 cyclists on our rush hour bus lanes by 2020, why threaten that aspiration for the sake of dwindling numbers of taxi users? Madness.

Why are people in Belfast dissuaded from road cycling? In a recent survey of Belfast residents, 60% of people felt roads were too dangerous for cyclingSo why is DRD salting the earth for the sake of a declining taxi commuting sector?

Taxi in cycle box
Ahh, you get the idea of these pictures… (taxi+bike=no)

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Why has DRD not listened to objections?

86% of the rubber stamp exercise consultation responses were negative, yet how did DRD choose to handle this? With a real slap in the face to those who responded with the ‘wrong’ view – lumping everyone together with one phrase, “mostly from cyclists“, and dismissing all fears as unfounded.

I’m guessing there’s a warped logic at work – if you can distill 60 objections in to one incorrect opinion, and weigh that against fully 7 (seven) responses welcoming the proposed changes, then we have a majority in favour! That’s how government works! The logic doesn’t work both ways though – just ignore the fact that the 7 (seven) positive responses were mainly from private taxi hire firms. Shhh!

Given the overwhelming negative view on the issue, how will DRD address cyclists’ safety concerns? See if you can hear it..

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/78152979″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Audio sourced from the Northern Ireland Assembly – subject to Parliamentary copyright.

If you sent an objection in to DRD, why not follow it up with a complaint that your objection has been effectively disregarded?

Northern Ireland taxis are now…sustainable? Really?!

The whole world will shortly be coming to Northern Ireland to learn how we’ve solved that pesky problem of motor vehicles wrecking the environment. A saloon car taxi (typical of the roughly 1,500 Belfast private hire vehicles) might carry an average of 1-2 passengers per fare, and yet DRD are claiming sustainability is no longer an issue! Listen to this:

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/78148272″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Audio sourced from the Northern Ireland Assembly – subject to Parliamentary copyright.

In a public policy exercise as intellectually bankrupt and dishonest as taxis in bus lanes, this marks a new low.

All those saloon cars driving around with 1-2 passengers are perfectly sustainable, as long as they are designated so by government.

DRD should pass this trick on to the Department for Finance and Personnel. Northern Ireland can dump Air Passenger Duty for short haul flights too by simply designating all aircraft as ‘sustainable’. I think Sammy Wilson might actually be game enough to try it..

Another taxi in a cycle box Belfast
Dirty polluting taxi about to magically become a sustainable vehicle

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Why damage journey times for 13.5% of commuters, for the sake of 2.9% of commuters?

There are no government targets to increase taxi usage – why would there be? Yet this entire policy seems entirely designed for that one purpose. Meanwhile, by the hard numbers from Census 2011 again, 13.5% of people use buses to get to work. In terms of sustainable objectives, reducing rush hour traffic and increasing revenue take for Translink, more bus passengers is a big goal for Belfast.

Just 2.9% of people used a taxi as their main form of transport to work in 2011, down from 4% in 2001.

Metro and Bus Rapid Transit efficiency of service will be one of the big factors which determine success of public transport in Belfast. The consultation itself recognised that taxis in bus lanes would have a negative impact on buses. A report from Amey in 2008 stated “bus lanes are currently underperforming against targets…additional vehicles in the bus lane … would probably contribute to further reduced bus journey speeds”.

How destructive can one little policy be?!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOK6mE7sdvs]

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What is really driving this policy?

Taxi firms must have some truly amazing lobbying powers. Northern Ireland’s wonderfully transparent political system doesn’t allow us the luxury of seeing donations to political parties. So we’re left to wonder why such a poorly designed policy is being railroaded through a hostile consultation exercise, and if the policy wonks have given any weight to the potential damage it could cause?

Is Minister Kennedy running the risk of fatally undermining both Belfast Rapid Transit and the city’s blossoming cycling potential? Two birds, one stone – well it’s more efficient than a Belfast bus lane.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3StCJI-tnY]

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What the people say about taxis in bus lanes