Ten practical improvements for cycling in Belfast

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

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

A serviced city centre bike hub with secure parking

A major problem for many people commuting or visiting the city centre for shopping or a coffee is the lack of safe parking. If you’re not confident that your bike will be there when you return, you’re much less likely to cycle in the first place. Belfast has plenty of commercial space available and growing demand for cycling facilities – why not open a cycle hub right in the middle of the city? Top up the income by offering services like bike maintenance, cleaning, paid secure parking, coffee, craic etc like the McDonalds Cycle Centre in Chicago. We may never will never match Groningen for cycling, but the NI Executive need to be thinking about a large cycle park in the current planning for Belfast’s new integrated transport hub. Who can step up to the plate here – Belfast City Council, Sustrans, a co-operative or social enterprise?

Chicago Cycle Centre - image reproduced under Creative Commons Licence, by Diego Ibarra Argelery

CCTV enforcement of the bus lane outside Central Station

The bus lane outside Central Station is meant for buses and bicycles only (see the sign). Taxis are excluded to keep the bus lane free at all times. Tell that to taxi drivers who park there every day. A dedicated taxi rank built as part of a £6m upgrade in 2002 now provides a competitive advantage for anyone parking illegally at the door. Meanwhile outside, cyclists have to filter in and out of traffic, avoid opening doors; buses are regularly held up in traffic. DRD have washed their hands of the problem; strangely traffic wardens don’t patrol here (check any Enterprise train arrival, it’s not difficult). The solution is very simple. CCTV cameras could catch anyone illegally using the bus lane, whether it’s taxis or the inevitable copycat car drivers, and we’ll have an efficient bus and cycle lane back again.

Bike racks on Translink buses

An important part of making Belfast cycle-friendly is true integration with public transport. Our train policies are too inflexible (or are they?) especially for tourists hiring bikes. Unlike Copenhagen you’re unlikely to get a bike carried by taxi. Taking inspiration from Vancouver, Translink and Ulsterbus could fit bike racks to the front of buses to allow seamlessly integrated journeys within and outside the city. Simple enough in Northern Ireland where bus public transport is wholly government owned? Not so, apparently. Translink apparently assessed bike racks on buses in 2010, and said no. So that’s the end of that then? Not really, we could make regulations now that bike racks must be integrated into the design of all ongoing replacement vehicles, and within about 15 years all buses would be bike-ready.

As for those visibility worries, it’s a wonder these buses don’t crash all the time. This video is funny because it’s by Translink 🙂

Better bike parking beside local shops

Belfast retail isn’t just about the centre – for historic reasons we have many thriving and crucial community shopping hubs dotted around the city. It’s hardly even worth mentioning that cycling shoppers can be as important as those driving, but some local retail interests hear that as white noise. But if even the arterial roads in Belfast are trying to compete with out of town centres on the basis of vehicle access and parking, they’re barking up the wrong tree and are in serious trouble. Arterial roads filled with parked cars and congested with noisy traffic are not nice places to spend any length of time. We need to attract people, especially locals, by making it easy to walk and cycle to our nearby shops. Start with a generous addition of cycle stands and think about converting some vehicle parking spaces into x10 cycle parking spaces, like this example from San Francisco.

Belfast city centre bike racks

Regular Council-led bike events

Recent events like Bike Week and Sustrans’ Pedal on Belfast have shown a good demand for cycling events. Simple things like the bike breakfast at City Hall on Bike Week, or occasional PSNI bike security marking sessions at City Hall have had a great response. Belfast City Council should consider holding regular branded events to encourage people to cycle to work, to shop or to socialise in the City. This could be something as small as social cycles, monthly history trails, or something really big and transformative like closing sections of the city to motor traffic (see Bristol’s Make Sundays Special initiative for inspiration) for mini festivals.

Bike Week Ride on Belfast

Businesses targeting cyclists with discounts

Last year saw a shambolic reaction by Belfast Chamber of Trade to new bus lanes, quickly followed by a quiet climb-down. Instead of being antagonistic towards bus passengers and cyclists (two groups with a similar spend profile as car drivers) shops should be offering discounts for cyclists parking outside their shops (see ‘Better bike parking’ rant above) or on production of a valid Metro day ticket. It might double as a useful piece of ongoing market research to begin to gauge how many city centre customers are private motorists (what, isn’t it 100%?) and play a more active part in making the Belfast on the Move changes work even better.

Local retailers to supply practical bikes

I’m trying my hardest at the moment to source a Dutch bike through local retailers on the Cycle to Work Scheme, so I declare an interest. Belfast even has a physical store of the world’s largest online bike retailer Chain Reaction Cycles, but authentic ‘Dutch’ style bike brands are almost impossible to source in Belfast. Our choice locally is limited to road bikes, mountain bikes and hybrids, and all of the compromises that brings for practical transport. Maybe the sporty models we have to choose from play some part in suppressing numbers of female cyclists? Yet bicycle racks at workplaces are filling up with heavier bikes these days – the demand is growing. We might not have Dutch cycle tracks on our streets, but that shouldn’t stop us having a choice of practical bikes designed to get us shopping, socialising, commuting, cycling the school run..

By ProfDEH (Original photograph) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Traffic wardens compelled to keep the cycle network clear

In the city centre traffic wardens ensure a churn of vehicles on designated spaces, which is good for business. They prevent dangerous or illegal parking in the city centre, which is good for safety. They also work on arterial routes, but why? Apparently to stop parking on urban clearways, which creates congestion at rush hour. But DRD don’t track warden movements, so who knows where the wardens go and how effective they are? Apparently Belfast’s parking cycle network has 81km of on-road cycle lanes, compared to just 51km of bus lanes. I know, weird! But the vast majority are advisory, meaning no-one’s getting a ticket unless there’s a live urban clearway (in other words, at rush hour). Wardens could be cyclists’ biggest ally, if they had a specific target to keep the city’s cycling network free of illegal parking during rush hour – with the knock -on effect of reducing overall congestion. Or we could just scrap the whole box-ticking concept of the advisory lane..

Traffic wardens clearing Cregagh Road - Reclaim Belfast's Cycle Lanes July 2012

Spontaneity and innovation

What frustrates as much as anything in Belfast is the sense that other cities are moving quicker than us and able to be more inventive about cycling schemes. Okay so New York’s protected cycle lanes take advantage of the type of road space not available everywhere in Belfast, and many cities leading the way for cycling have autonomy of planning and executive budget to implement schemes, while we have NI-wide Roads Service. Dublin City Council has a great example with DCC Beta projects, taking innovative an crowd-sourced ideas and running beta schemes to evaluate their potential. Fast, low-cost, interesting. Janette Sadik-Khan’s TED talk is worth watching to see how just trying out ideas, rather than taking years of grinding bureaucratic processes, can reap amazing results. Do we have the spontaneity in us? Could we trial the Ravenhill Cycling Corridor with planters or temporary kerbing?

New cycling unit to take Dutch lessons

The simplest way to increase cycling levels is by creating safe dedicated #space4cycling. All of the great cycling cities have this in one form or another, and the blueprint for Belfast’s cycling ‘network’ doesn’t feature heavily in best practice. Here’s exactly how it could be done in one road in Belfast, and it’s transferable to most other main roads. A cycling revolution without this as its aim is doomed from the outset. Dutch cycle tracks are great, but if they disappeared approaching junctions like all of Belfast’s do, they’d be pretty useless too. The Dutch set the standards for designing junctions to incorporate cycling. But all of this isn’t going to happen overnight, so isn’t very practical. Buthiring expertise from successful cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Groningen, Utrecht or Seville to lead the change we need is practical, sensible and probably necessary (see Cyclesaurus again). It happened here with Ciarán de Búrca leading the development of Belfast Bus Rapid Transit and Belfast on the Move, bringing his experience from Dublin, so why not do the same for cycling?

Those are just 10 simple ideas which could make a big impression on Belfast. What do you think, and do you have any better ideas? Get into the comments, and get your thoughts over to your politicians and DRD. We need great ideas to make a great city!

Thanks for the input:


11 thoughts on “Ten practical improvements for cycling in Belfast

  1. Business Rates discounts for business providing secure and accessible bike storage, and, changing, shower and locker facilities for bike users. Legal requirement to wear protective head gear. Proper policing of cycle lanes, and, on the spot fines for cyclists riding on footways.

    1. Thanks for the comment Ciaran. Security of bikes seems to be a big barrier as many Belfast workers have no choice but to lock up their bikes on the street, risking theft or damage. I fear compulsory helmet use would deter people from cycling (as has been shown in other countries) and a Bill for this failed passage through the NI Assembly a few years back. Both this and pavement cycling (which is already illegal) probably point more to the lack of safe and separate (where needed) cycle facilities. In Copenhagen or most Dutch cities, neither is an issue because they’ve tackled the disease rather than the symptoms. Agree that keeping what cycle lanes we already have clear would be an easy first step.

    2. The evidence is that countires which enforce cycle helmets have a POORER record of cyclist death and injury and loose more lives through ischaemic heart disease due to the higher number of people who are put off cycling by helmet legislation. I heard an analogy some years back that made me smile – that cycling legislation was like giving condoms to rape victims.

      As for cycling on the footpath this SAVES lives -eg in the past the PSNI directed my young daughter off the cyle lane heading east on the knock dual carriageway opposite St Bernard’s church as they said the footpath was safer. I suspect they didn’t want to enforce the cyclists right of way ther over trafic turning down the rosetta road.

  2. Secure parking in the city centre would be great. Even if there was a small fee (yearly or per-use), it would still be cheaper than taking the car or bus in. I never cycle to the City Centre, but I would if I knew my bike would be there when I came back – would also make me much more likely to go into the city centre in general.

    1. Thanks Sharon. I think a bike hub could start small on a charged basis, perhaps as a social enterprise or with some council or government support. Scaling up to bigger facilities could come if demand matches expectations, but just seeing the full racks around Belfast city centre today points to the potential. Mix that with a maintenance facility (fixing your bike while you work or shop £££), cycling retail and more and I agree with you, you’d have a great service that people would be willing to pay for.

  3. Number 1 improvement – Cyclists not using adequate lighting and not wearing reflective gear whilst using the road at night should be slapped with a hefty fine and forced to go on a road safety course. Someday soon a cyclist in Belfast is going to get killed or badly hurt when some poor unsuspecting motorist mows them down because he couldn’t see the idiot cycling with no lights or reflective gear.

  4. Better ways to get onto the north foreshore route from north Belfast would make it a practical commuter route, instead of the leisure amenity it is now. There’s no way to get over the Fortwilliam roundabout/junction without fearing for your life, the York Road access is a mess and the signposted route under Yorkgate station ends in a bizarrely dangerous tangle of motorway off-roads. There are no other accesses at all between Hazelbank and the city centre, unless you count the footbridge over the M2 at Duncrue.
    I’m not sure what the answer is (I can’t see how to get over, let alone under, the M2 cheaply) but having a bike-path running alongside so much of the city’s population with no safe way to get onto it is ludicrous.

    1. Thanks Newton, it’s definitely a big drawback for practical use. The development at Giant’s Park / North Foreshore (very quiet recently) included a plan for a pedestrian / cycling bridge linking across the motorway from Loughside Park on the Shore Road: http://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/business/regeneration/northforeshore.aspx
      This would open us some more options for the pathway, but it’s still a long way to the next access at Whitehouse – ideally you might try another link to the Shore Road on the north side of the M2/M5 junction, but bridging the railway AND the M5 would be pricey.
      The docks section is a mess (see Spider’s Web/Belfast Cycling Study Tour) although the Fortwilliam roundabout is a vast sea of tarmac which could be upgraded with better space for cyclists and pedestrians. Let me just catch myself on there – this is Northern Ireland and we spend less than half a million quid a year on this stuff 😦

  5. I moved from Belfast to Utrecht a few years ago and cannot imagine *not* cycling everywhere now. I’m due to go back to Belfast to work ovr the summer and I’m told there should be a public bike share scheme in place. What I fear most is having to share the road with clumsy motorists who are unused to cyclists. The separation of cyclists and motorists is so important it cannot be stressed enough. To become a nation of cyclists we must encourage our children to cycle – but who wants to send their kids out to share the road with drivers who won’t even be aware of them?
    My children cycle everywhere here (without helmets!), and they cross busy roads and junctions and roundabouts daily. The bike lane separation and knowing that drivers are aware that cyclists are about put my mind at ease. Can Belfast say the same, or are the new bike lanes I’m hearing about just a painted line on the road that drivers ignore?

  6. It’s deeply depressing that after 3 years+ most if not all of these problems haven’t been addressed. We definitely need more commitment from government departments in the form of increased funding if we are serious about changing people’s behaviour and improving their health outcomes. “Cars are to this Century, what sewage was to the previous” Big culture change needed.

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