Belfast cycling can go Dutch

Belfast cyclists who’ve visited cities in the Netherlands can’t help but be impressed by the dedicated, separated cycling infrastructure. We despair at the state of our own urban roads, with funny green coloured car parks called cycle lanes, and the ‘shared space’ of bus lanes about to be opened up to taxis. When we suggest Dutch-style separated cycle tracks, we’re told there isn’t enough road space, it’s too expensive, or there isn’t the demand.

Aaron Coulter’s fantastic mini series on Bicycling Belfast argues that some of Belfast’s roads are quite narrow, and to expect a fully separate network across the city isn’t realistic, at least in the short term. Certainly in Northern Ireland’s car-dominated society, with alternative urban transport spending being mainly focused on buses, priority for cycling isn’t currently on the agenda.

But these broad generalisations about space and cost mask something important. What about roads where space is not the main issue? Are there opportunities to actually implement sections of high quality separated cycle tracks in areas of Belfast?

Belfast ignoring Dutch cycling lessons

The following video shows a junction on a dual carriageway in ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch), with a typical separate cycle track.

There are a few things to note here:

  • the location is quite central in Den Bosch
  • the speed limit on the dual carriageway is 50kph (31mph)
  • the majority of cyclists are school children as this is a Friday afternoon
  • there is a pedestrian pathway on the right hand side of the road

What strikes me about the scene is the space and priority given to cyclists during interactions with vehicles. Cycling on the track appears to be quite a serene experience. No-one has to pedal hard to keep up with vehicular traffic, and people are able to chat and relax. Vehicles accessing the side roads wait patiently for prioritised cyclists to pass. Not anything you would associate with road cycling in Belfast. You’d have to use the Comber Greenway, Lagan Towpath or Lough Shore routes to get close, but these are rarely complete A – B routes, and are not cycle tracks developed in parallel with the road network, save for a 1km section on the Stranmillis embankment.

What was really striking was how similar the road looked to somewhere in Belfast – the Upper Knockbreda Road. This is part of the A55 Outer Ring road in the city, providing a strategic link for traffic to the south and east of the city to avoid the centre for longer journeys.

Some of the noted similarities:

  • Dual carriageway with a reduced urban speed limit (40mph in Belfast)
  • Turning junctions crossing the carriageway
  • Sections of off slips at junctions
  • Bus stops
  • Nearby schools (Knockbreda High, Lagan College, Grosvenor Grammar, Newtownbreda High)
  • Dedicated cycling provision*
  • Similar width (approx 30m Belfast, 35m Den Bosch)

* Yes, the Belfast road has dedicated cycling provision! In fact, cycle lanes were first put on stretches of this road over 10 years ago. So how does the experience of cycling this dual carriageway stack up against the Den Bosch example? I took a journey with my video camera on a 2.6km stretch from the Castlereagh Road to the Saintfield Road:

This cycle route has been classically bolted on the existing road and pavement, with minimum thought or budget given to the actual needs of cycle users. The confusing jumps between shared pavement (two-way) and on-road (one way) cycling betrays a lack of care in planning. When on-road, cyclists are too close to fast moving traffic for comfort. When on the shared pavement, hazards include road signs, uncertainty about give way markings, and conflict with pedestrians – usually the understandable complaint of pedestrians intimidated by fast moving cyclists.

The arguments will rage over priority and demand – obviously far more people travel on this road in motor vehicles than cycle or walk. The classic argument is that people make rational choices on their method of travel, and if motor vehicles are the dominant mode, they must have priority.

Of course, as this road and most in Belfast show, the choice between cycling and driving is not an equal choice. The comfort and (perception of) safety of a car for a short journey will usually win out over fear of physical danger on a bad cycle route. Fear of traffic is a major barrier, and is not addressed properly in this example. People are not encouraged to cycle on this route so much as tolerated.

While on the periphery of the city, there are several important destinations along the Outer Ring which would greatly benefit from being connected by a high quality cycle route: the schools mentioned before, the Comber Greenway, the Lagan towpath, Belvoir Forest Park, the forthcoming Connswater Community Greenway, Cregagh Glen, the Forestside shopping complex, Knockbreda Healthcare Centre, and many more community connections and key arterial corridors.

Building unnecessary compromise into the network from the start, dooms proper development of cycling as a viable transport form. As we see from the Dutch video, good design principles of separation would see a cycle track ‘behind’ areas of conflict such as bus stops, or traffic signals like the one on this dual carriageway in Belfast:

The difficult areas in the video, when encountering (very low frequency service) bus stops, or cycle lanes on the inside of off slips, show extremely poor design. Taken from the viewpoint of making the least difficulties for general traffic, they are understandable choices – where space is judged too tight, pedestrians and cyclists lose out to traffic needs.

My own view is that separate cycle tracks are actually easy to achieve, given the right budgetary conditions and road space. It’s all of the other aspects of Dutch cycling which prevent road engineers here from implementing them – junction priorities and design, crossings, roundabout design, and strict liability principles. The design manual is either sorely lacking, or there is no willingness think creatively.

Roads Service blind to best practice

As with many of Belfast’s investments in cycling – mainly unenforceable advisory cycle lanes – this is a wasted opportunity. This section is part of a 4.7km project, with cycle lanes or shared paths mostly on both sides of the dual carriageway. The total project spend was just £77,000, very modest when compared to European norms, but money spent nonetheless – and now lost to inadequate infrastructure.

These excerpts from the Roads Service Progress Report to Castlereagh Borough Council (where this road is located) in August 2006 highlight the aspirational rhetoric on local cycling infrastructure, which isn’t matched in reality:

“Whilst usage levels of these routes are not high, they were intended to separate cyclists from other vehicles on heavily trafficked roads to increase safety.”

By any measure, the Upper Knockbreda Road is a fast and busy dual carriageway, despite the 40mph limit. Putting a mandatory cycle lane on the road is not separation, and cyclists would struggle to feel safe here.

“Other cities in GB and in Europe (including those with climatic and topographical characteristics similar to our own) have changed the transport habits of their citizens and achieved proportions of journeys made by bicycle many times higher than here. It is clear that if good facilities are provided and marketed, people will be happy to use them in very significant numbers, to their own benefit, and to the benefit the environment.”

Roads Service are keen to reference best practice from Europe here, and even go some way to knocking down a tired argument about climate being a unique barrier to cycling uptake in Belfast. But it is disingenuous to place this in a report, when the cycle facilities provided do not come close to European best practice. Interestingly, despite this being one of Belfast’s longest mandatory cycle lanes, and on a key strategic transport route, there are no cycle counters installed to measure usage. Belfast has a number of these, which have shown an overall increase of 152% during the time this particular route has been operating. But usage here remains unrecorded.

Belfast cyclists are becoming more aware of the attitudes within Roads Service to cycling as transport, ranging from indifference to hostility, laced with a lack of understanding of cycle users’ needs. Recent initiatives such as Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes are demonstrating that even our inadequate infrastructure isn’t available when it should be.

However Roads Service must maintain the appearance that active travel is core to it’s investment. The June 2002 report to Castlereagh Borough Council was fronted by an image of the redesigned Knock dual carriageway, as a high profile example of cycling needs being catered for. It speaks volumes for the understanding and importance of cycling to Roads Service that no-one had the wit to notice the two cars illegally blocking the mandatory cycle lane. This was clearly during the afternoon school run, at the very time the cycle lane should be used most (if you’d feel happy letting your children use the lane).

How long can Belfast ignore the Dutch?

There are plenty of areas in Belfast with no cycling infrastructure at all which need urgent attention. It is unreasonable to ask for a Dutch-style cycle track to be built on this road in the short term – in many ways the cycling ship has sailed on this road. For future projects with adequate road space, Roads Service need to understand that there is a better way to design cycle infrastructure. Public money is spent by Roads Service on cycling measures which are designed to fit in where possible, leaving a disjointed, confusing and muddled network, unfit for use by all ages, and failing to provide safe high quality cycle tracks to attract more people out of their cars.

Roads Service need to be directed, and empowered, by pressing targets and dedicated budget to design projects with the needs of cycle users at their core. We can’t afford to keep missing opportunities like this.

It’s no mistake that cycling levels and safety are so good in the Netherlands. It is a mistake to think that we can ignore best practice, and try to design successful cycle networks which cater for motorists’ needs rather than cyclists. While we continue down this path we waste good money, and waste chances to make a real impact on Belfast cycling.

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