Perhaps the Belfast Harbour Commissioners don’t yet realise the significance of what they’ve created on Sydenham Road.

In a sense their separate cycle path (arguably the best stretch in the city) is an interesting symbol of the changing nature of Belfast’s Harbour Estate. The area is moving further away from the days of heavy industry to a clever future mix of innovation, education, high skilled jobs with big inward investors, start-up hubs, urban sport parks, education campuses, signature tourism and leisure facilities. With a new resident population growing in hi-spec apartment space, and commuter traffic growing, the area needs a smart, modern transport mix to thrive.

Peloton travelling along Sydenham Road to the opening of the Sam Thompson Bridge

The path was constructed in spring 2013, part of better defined road space. Two extremely wide lanes were split into 4 with the additional space used to create a wide 2-way cycle path, fully kerb separated. Although general traffic capacity was technically doubled, this was still a remarkable example of taking road space away from motor vehicles for cycling – on private land as well.

Who better to get on with the relatively insignificant job of road space reallocation than the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. This organisation, and their forebears, moved heaven and (literally) earth to create and shape a great port city from the sandy shallows of a lough which used to be named after Carrickfergus, the former primary settlement.

Belfast Harbour sits at the junction of 4 great cycling routes – the Lagan Towpath, Loughshore Path, Comber Greenway and Connswater Greenway. With the new Sam Thompson Bridge sited within the Harbour Estate and the ongoing positive reception for the Connswater project, Belfast Harbour is now a key link in Belfast’s active travel chain.

Some clever touches at the points of greatest potential conflict on the Sydenham road cycle path (such as the car showroom access) show there has been real thought about safety and comfort of all road users:

Yet, the Sydenham Road cycle path is in danger of being the Harbour’s high-water mark, as current expansion work and outstanding issues mean the quality of the route is beginning to recede. So what are the problems and potential solutions to the Sydenham Road route?

New shared pavement at Dee Street roundabout

Rumours of works to the Sydenham Road route drew me down to the area in May, and it was disappointing to see a shared footpath solution being constructed at the Dee Street roundabout. From excellent separate #space4cycling to an awful compromise within metres. This is the classic approach to cycle design in Belfast; a cycle lane (and a magnificent one in this case) built where space is easy to take from general traffic, but at major junctions cycling space must disappear to meet the needs of motor vehicles.

Sydenham Road transition from cycle path to shared footway
From high quality separate cycle path to shared footway (with bus stop pole at transition)

More worrying is the lack of thought about the curve to access the new crossing to Airport Road. After passing a prominent electricity box, a high brick wall obscures the view on a turn which greater than 90 degrees. Faster bicycle traffic will mix with pedestrians here, and the potential for collisions at peak times is now very high.

A surprisingly busy (now shared-use) blind corner with a difficult mix of users

As nice as the brick wall is, Belfast Harbour could remove it to create more space for dedicated separated cycling and walking space on this roundabout. (Update 26 Jun 14 – reliably informed this wall belongs to a tenant company, so “..Belfast Harbour could approach them to remove it..”) Alternatively, a three-lane roundabout can afford to have enough space clipped off to provide a more continuous cycle route – plenty of examples of best practice exist in the Netherlands.

Smarter investment in altering the roundabout design would also go some way to solving the maddening problem of citybound access to the cycle path from Dee Street and the Sydenham Bypass. If you’re confident enough to have crossed a double roundabout (with very heavy traffic) you have to get from one side of a fast and noisy 4 lane carriageway to the other. It’s utterly impractical and quite dangerous (even when dismounting and trying to walk) for families or inexperience cyclists.

No controlled crossing at the start of the cycle path – a 4 lane nightmare to traverse

Belfast Harbour had a great chance to make a vast improvement on the Odyssey to Victoria Park route; instead the Dee Street roundabout area remains its weakest link.


A big favourite with patrons of the Belfast Cycling Study Tour, the ramps on the cycle path made little sense, especially given the harsh angles which lead many people to use the road instead. Even at low speed, these provide a hefty jolt to bicycle and rider.

Badly engineered ramps mean bicycles and riders take a thumping

Many people wondered why these traffic calming speed humps were missing from the main road.. 😉

Following complaints, Belfast Harbour (to their credit) have altered the approaches on the ‘bus stop ramp’ to allow a smooth transit.

Sydenham Road ramp after works
Belfast Harbour have now eased the angles on one ramp

Yet, strangely, the final ramp near the Dee Street roundabout remains in its original spoke-snapping shape. Unlike the central ramp, which serves a pedestrian crossing to Titanic Quarter train station, the purpose here seems only to access to a bin and post box. The balance of inconveniences seem badly skewed against dozens of everyday users.

Sydenham Road ramp for post box and bin
Remaining ramp with poor angles, serving just a post box and bin

This final problem ramp needs to either be removed completely or the approaches flattened as above.

Route inconsistency

While the main separate cycle path is (bar a few minor bumps) a joy, the Odyssey to Victoria Park route is neither consistent nor continuous – the mark of great cycling infrastructure around the world. If you have to think too much about where you can or can’t be; if signage isn’t clear; if you have to take difficult and seemingly unnecessary diversions; if you inconvenience people, you are not encouraging the use of bicycles.

From the Odyssey, you either start on the footway or on the road – there is no dedicated cycling space. At the Queens Road junction you’ll meet this generously wide cycle lane.

Sydenham Road yellow line cycle lane
Possibly the worst cycle lane in Belfast, just metres from the best

Held for an eternity at the traffic lights (sustainable transport journeys really need to have some advantage over motor traffic) you move across an advisory cycle lane and up a ramp onto a shared footway. Not too bad, except coming back the other way the visual queue is to cycle against the traffic – lethal if not illegal?

Ramp invites you to cycle onto the road against the traffic

At the next junction is a similar ramp, with more confusion – cycling down the ramp onto the road doesn’t seem to be affected by the adjacent signal-controlled junction. While many would feel it’s prudent to wait, there’s nothing to caution users that cycling down into the junction is potentially dangerous – leaving a real threat of collision. Where would the responsibility lie?

Do you stop at a red light? Who has priority if you proceed?

The right hand side of the picture above says it all. If you’ve designed a dedicated route for cycling, and you feel that the road beside still needs an advanced stop line for bicycles, your design has failed.


Not only do users have to contend with several transitions between shared and dedicated space, but those transitions themselves suffer from poor implementation. A lack of drainage is causing ‘perma-puddles’ to build up. As an occasional inconvenience perhaps not too bad, but the water sits for weeks at a time (even through dry spells, as in the picture) leading to murky, muddy pools gathering dirt and moss. People commuting to work risk getting clothes dirty, and chances of slips and falls are increased.

Slippy perma-puddle on a transition ramp from road to shared footpath

Bad enough that one perma-puddle exists, but given that a new transition has just been created, lessons clearly haven’t been learnt.

Second perma-puddle – transition has a treacherous raised kerb, and a bus stop sign

Updated 17th June 2014

Remarkably (planned) work has been carried out to attempt to fix the drainage issues, as seen on the way to Stormont during Tuesday rush hour:


Hopefully this solves the drainage problems, and shows that Belfast Harbour are sensitive to the issues on this cycle route.

Belfast Harbour’s legacy wasn’t build on cheap solutions

Belfast Harbour is now firmly in the business of cycle route planning and design. If they deliver cycle space of a poor standard, it reflects badly on the neighbouring routes at Laganside and the Connswater Greenway, dragging down their potential too.

Over the long decades, generations of Harbour Commissioners and the industries and trade they’ve fostered have done things on a grand scale – city building, airplane manufacture, Hollywood film production, launching the most famous ocean liners in the world.

While NI hopes that DRD’s new Cycling Unit is learning from cycling infrastructure best practice around the world, the industry and output from Belfast Harbour has always sought to be world-leading. Why should the Harbour’s cycle space be any different?

That Sydenham Road chatter..

Fat Bloke On A Pushbike Blog: The Sydenham Road Cycle Lane – My View

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.

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.

#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.

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.


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!


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.


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.

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Related tweets

Most days cycling in Belfast to work, to the shops or back home is uneventful. But then it’s Giro d’Italia year in Belfast and magic things are happening. Even a small section of a simple journey can hold remarkable sights within the space of a few hundred metres.

Continue reading “If only every ride home could be like this..”