Cycling KSI rates are rising in Northern Ireland

Official statistics in Northern Ireland appear to show a worrying trend in road danger. Headline figures show overall rates of people killed, seriously or slightly injured on Northern Ireland’s roads continue to drop. But one group of road users is facing rising casualty rates – cyclists.

Any death on our roads is one too many, and behind the headline grabbing figures, many more people suffer minor or serious injuries each year travelling in Northern Ireland. Government bodies such as Department for Regional Development (DRD), Roads Service, the Department of the Environment (DOE) and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) work hard to create safer road conditions and awareness of road user behaviour which causes accidents.

Recently released figures from PSNI showed that in 2011 there was a slight reduction in road casualties, a 2% annual drop to 8,760. There were 59 fatalities in 2011, a slight rise from 55 in 2010 which was the fewest number since records began in 1931. Wesley Johnston analyses why, despite great reductions over the last few decades, people are still dying on our roads.

What grabbed the attention was a sharp increase in cyclists casualties, an annual rise of 19% to 255 in 2011. The only other group to show a significant annual increase was pedestrians, up 13% to 834.

Looking at two years in isolation doesn’t give an accurate reflection of road safety, so to find some more general trends, I took the Police Recorded Injury Road Traffic Collisions and Casualties figures for ten years from 2002 to 2011 for pedestrians, drivers, passengers, cyclists and motorcyclists. To give some context to the figures – factoring in changing travel patterns – I added data from the DRD Northern Ireland Travel Survey for the same modes, showing miles and journeys per person per year from 1999-2002 to 2008-2011. The travel survey is based on a rolling 3 year average – I matched the latest year to the same year for the PSNI figures eg 2011 road casualties against 2009-2011 travel levels and so on.

The figures appear to show a worrying trend in Northern Ireland – while overall safety continues to improve, the situation for cyclists seems to be deteriorating.

Cyclists

Cyclists in Northern Ireland appear to be the only group with a strong upward trend in casualties over the last ten years. This is coupled with a rise in the average miles cycled per person per year, yet it is difficult to draw a conclusion that the two are directly linked, especially when the opposite appears true for drivers.

Pedestrians

Pedestrian casualties have fluctuated over the last decade, with an upward trend from 2005, but overall the figures remain generally constant. What is perhaps more concerning is the steady decrease in the number of walking journeys people are taking.

Motorcyclists

The figures for motorcyclists throw up some interesting points. From 2006 there has been a marked decrease in miles per person per year, coupled with a reduction in number of journeys. Someone with more insight into motorcycling may have an explanation for this, but it may be that the downward trend in casualty rates is more to do with less motorcyclists on the road than anything else.

Drivers

The bigger success stories in road safety are accounted for by drivers and passengers. We see that driver casualties remain in a downward trend over the decade, despite miles travelled per person per year increasing over the same period. Naturally much of the focus of DOE Road Safety campaigns has been on drivers, and the causes of accidents, and it appears some progress is being made.

Passengers

Passenger casualties, like that of drivers, continues a downward trend over the decade. But both indicators for travel show a decrease as well – what is most interesting here is the suggestion that there may be a shift away from shared travel to individual travel, but this is only speculation at this level of detail.

Why is cycling bucking Northern Ireland road safety trends?

This is the worrying question which needs better analysis than I can provide. The two strongest upward trends for miles and journeys are for drivers and cyclists, yet the casualty figures are sharply divergent for these two groups. If it is true that cycling is becoming a more popular form of travel in Northern Ireland, then this may explain some of the rise – more cyclists = more accidents.

There is also the question of whether government is investing enough to match rising cycling rates. In 2010-11, Roads Service expenditure on cycling measures as a proportion of the total roads budget was just 0.16%, against a general modal share of about 1% (NI) or 3% (Belfast). If the figures and commentary presented above pass scrutiny, it raises difficult questions on Northern Ireland’s commitment to cycling as a form of transport, and the understanding of the dangers faced by cyclists on our roads.

The forthcoming Active Travel Strategy for Northern Ireland contains an ‘aspiration’ to increase cycling levels to 1.5% by 2020 (I know), but to achieve this may require a large urban centre such as Belfast to double its cycling levels. It is not unrealistic to suggest that Belfast may come close to a 10% modal share by 2020, but do our road planners and politicians have any idea what a 10% share would look like on our streets, especially if the current poor infrastructure provision is not addressed?

Arguments about road space reallocation are fraught with controversy, as we have seen with Belfast On The Move, and it may be unrealistic to call for sweeping changes at present, given the tiny proportion of modal share. But if cycling rates continue to rise in line with expectations, aspirations and the upturn we see every day, and government has no plan or inclination to invest in cycling-focused infrastructural safety improvements, cycling casualties may continue to rise.

Bicycle Parking sign at Tesco Castlereagh Road

New Tesco Superstore on the Castlereagh Road

The new Tesco Superstore on the Castlereagh Road opens on Thursday 4th October, but it’s hoping to attract more than the traditional supermarket customers. At the north entrance a sign has been erected to target passing cyclists. A lot of local supermarkets have developed facilities such as disabled parking, parent and child parking, but it’s the first time I’ve seen such a prominent advert for bicycle parking.

Bicycle Parking sign at Tesco Castlereagh Road

There are a number of reasons why this is a good move by Tesco. Beyond the anecdotal evidence of increasing numbers of cyclists on Belfast streets, the Castlereagh Road benefits from half decent cycling provision. There is a long city-bound bus lane for the morning rush hour, and an equally long advisory cycle lane with urban clearway restrictions running countrybound. Even if the cycle lane is usually just one long car park during rush hour, it’s a start.

Cycle lane by Tesco on Castlereagh Road

The cycle lane was first obstructed then removed during the construction phase, but has now been reinstated on the new widened road section – a huge improvement on the former bone-shaking surface. Although only an advisory lane, it has been afforded the rare position of a continual marking across the Tesco access and at Orby Link, hopefully improving driver awareness and caution when exiting these two junctions.

How many cyclists will stop by for groceries? Let’s be honest, not a great many, as Belfast doesn’t have more than 3% of journeys on bike at present. But this move sends out an important message to both local residents with bikes, and a challenge to independent retailers in Belfast – a short trip to the shops doesn’t always need to be by car. And Tesco will be more than aware of the unique position of the site, bordered as it is by the Loop River. The Connswater Community Greenway project will see East Belfast linked by a 9km linear park, running right past Tesco.

Connswater Community Greenway will run near Tesco

What’s slightly disappointing here is the continued use of an advisory cycle lane, the default position for Roads Service in Belfast. Roads Service doesn’t favour mandatory lanes as their “introduction…can be a contentious issue and would generally lead to a displacement of parking, often to other locations that are less able to accommodate it, such as residential streets in the general vicinity.” This doesn’t apply to this section as roadside parking is unnecessary given the large car park, and anyone parking here would create a danger for passing motorists, cyclists and crossing pedestrians. A bit of foresight, creativity and bravery from Roads Service could have seen some sections made mandatory, even kerb separated here to provide extra safety for all road users, and completely discouraging countrybound roadside parking.

Bus stop outside Castlereagh Road Tesco

To be fair, observing traffic movements since the cycle lane reopened, it seems to be working well enough. The new surface makes the road marking stand out, and the addition of a new pedestrian crossing just north of the bus stop will help to slow traffic flows around the usually fast bend.

Opening a large superstore in this relatively quiet arterial route will cause some increase in traffic levels and disruption, not to mention difficulties it will cause to local independent retailers. But by actively seeking out a new market, and encouraging local shoppers to go for ‘less car, more bike’, Tesco have to be commended.

In July 2012 Belfast cyclists joined together to highlight the problem of the city’s blocked cycle lanes. QUB researchers analysed the data from 69 journeys, with a typical commuter trip blocked 5 times, or 4.5 illegal blockages per km of supposedly parking-restricted lanes. The issue was highlighted in the media, to politicians, the Regional Development Committee at the NI Assembly and DRD / Roads Service. Now that Roads Service have provided their response it’s time to review a busy month for the Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes report.

Blocked cycle lane

The media response

The story was picked up by two big fish in the local newspaper market, the Belfast Telegraph under the headline Cyclists demand action on illegally parked car chaos  and also in the Irish News with their story Cycle lane investment ‘wasted public money’. In particular the Belfast Telegraph’s comments sections provided a great opportunity for feedback and discussion, and 40 comments here showed the depth of feeling – worth a read!

The lovely people at View TV Belfast ran with a report Cycle lanes a waste of public money including some actual survey footage from the Springfield Road, coincidently the worst performing road in the survey.

NI Greenways  somehow managed to blag its way on on to Radio Ulster’s Talkback show, where even black taxi drivers were phoning in to support cyclists!

Fortunate timing allowed the report this media space on its own merits, ahead of the two big roads issues of the past month, the taxis in bus lanes consultation and the growing pains of the Belfast on the move project.

The Twitter response

Debate on Twitter was lively as always, with generally positive comments on the survey and the potential of making a real difference to all road users. Some of the comments:

The political response

So far so good, but this report was designed with the sole purpose of making a real difference to the experience of commuter cyclists in Belfast. So the press releases were simultaneously sent to all Belfast City councillors (those with an email address), all MLAs from Belfast constituencies, the members of the Regional Development Committee at Stormont and DRD Minister Danny Kennedy.

The response, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been sluggish. Belfast councillors expressed the greatest interest in the report, with follow up questions and suggestions of a meeting – clearly with an eye on the Belfast Bike Hire announcement just days before. But just seven councillors from 45 contacted felt moved to respond.

Only six MLAs from 35 contacted have responded, with just one MLA following up with any real action – it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which MLA that was. Assembly questions have already been raised on the report, and answered (sort by Regional Development). The Regional Development Committee noted our correspondence on 12th September, and on the same day even began to question DRD’s Ciarán de Búrca on illegally parked cars! There is yet hope!

The Roads Service response

The private office at DRD deferred to Roads Service Eastern Division for comment, and the full text is attached below. To summarise the main points:

  • Roads Service appreciates cyclists’ concerns
  • A new contract with NSL for parking enforcement will see changes
  • An awareness campaign on parking “Dos” and “Dont’s” will be launched to support a new protocol
  • Enforcement will move to ‘tow and clamp’ from early 2013

While these are interesting developments, the response itself is very disappointing. It reads like a stock response to a complaint from a member of the public. Despite five long paragraphs on the finer points of Belfast’s cycle infrastructure, the strange emphasis on mandatory lanes leaves the impression that Roads Service didn’t fully understand (or perhaps even read) the survey report. The vast majority of illegally parked cars recorded in the survey were on advisory cycle lanes during urban clearway operational hours, and clearly these rules are the most confusing for all categories of road users.

The report drew a clear conclusion that Roads Service failure lies in “inadequate parking enforcement coverage”. Roads Service and their NSL contractors have all the necessary legal instruments in place to enforce parking restrictions – it’s just that the resources to cover all of the city’s main roads during rush hour are not being made available. As this video comparison from the survey week shows, mere visibility of traffic wardens is enough to clear arterial routes of illegal parking. Roads Service completely ignores this criticism.

Indeed, while new measures are being brought in, to what extent will they cover the whole of the city? A tow truck risks adding to the impression of motorists being beaten with another ‘stick’, as seen with the current city centre bus lane controversy. But is it one truck or two, or more? If the new towing policy can only cover the same number of routes as are presently patrolled by wardens, the situation on cycle lanes may not materially improve.

So no acceptance that illegal parking is a major problem for cyclists, or that Roads Service bears some responsibility for ineffective enforcement. Just a very bland corporate line that Roads Service’s advisory cycle lanes mean rush hour “cyclists effectively have their own road space. This makes cycling safer, and at times of congestion, allows cyclists to make time savings” – a stunningly absurd statement given the report which prompted the response.

What the traffic wardens say

You learn more about the actual situation in Belfast by talking to traffic wardens. They report that perhaps five teams at most work the rush hours on arterial routes, with one or two “mobile” units with access to a car. Look at the map and make your own judgement on how many Belfast roads count as ‘arterial’, but somewhere between 14 to 22 urban roads carry clearway restrictions, many with advisory cycle lanes. To ensure a ‘spread’ of traffic wardens, priorities for coverage are assigned on a week-to-week basis. Lisburn Road is always priority #1 (which goes some way to explaining why 27% of all parking tickets in Northern Ireland are issued here) with the Newtownards Road usually a close second in importance.

If your commuter route is elsewhere, good luck to you – coverage is patchy or in some cases almost non-existent. This explains why some roads are blocked every day – many drivers are either unaware there are restrictions or have never encountered a traffic warden who might tell them otherwise.

Traffic wardens are also having fun with some new training being rolled out to volunteers – on how to use a moped. Yes, apparently 12 moped-riding red coats will form part of the new NSL arrangements in 2013, which leads me to wonder if this is evidence of people actually reading my blog?

From here to where?

While there has been a small yet significant response to the report, it highlights the problem of so many previous cycling awareness or campaign initiatives in Belfast. Alone it’s an interesting piece of work, which quickly fades from the view of a disinterested body politic. Only by keeping the pressure on at the relevant levels can Belfast commuter cyclists hope to effect real change to an issue that causes increased physical danger, greater general traffic congestion, and discourages cycling uptake.

With that in mind, the most effective way to keep the issue high on the agenda is to run the survey again – bigger and better. If you’re interested in becoming a participant, and helping us the achieve the goal of 100% coverage of Belfast sometime in the next few months, contact NI Greenways by email or on Twitter @nigreenways.

Thanks again to all the commuter cyclists who participated in Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes, whether cycling the routes and recording data or helping to spread the message in the media or on social networks – and huge thanks to Mark Tully and his team at QUB for the main analysis.

That Roads Service response in full

I appreciate your concerns regarding the frustration caused to cyclists by vehicles that park within bus and cycle lanes during their operational hours. Perhaps it would be useful if I first outlined the type of facilities and the restrictions that apply to them.

Bus lane restrictions derive from specific legislation and prohibit the use of lanes by private cars, vans, lorries etc, during their hours of operation. Any infringements involving prohibited vehicles parking in those lanes are enforceable by Roads Service, through its contractor, NSL. Infringements involving moving vehicles within these lanes are enforceable by the PSNI.

Cycle lanes may be either advisory (which do not have supporting legislation and are not therefore enforceable) or mandatory (which have supporting legislation and are enforceable, similar to bus lanes as above). Advisory cycle lanes may be on roads that are subject to other restrictions, such as urban clearway restrictions, in which case those restrictions also apply to the cycle lanes.

We would normally use advisory lanes on roads with urban clearway regulations, so that when traffic levels and the number of cyclists are at their highest, cyclists effectively have their own road space. This makes cycling safer, and at times of congestion, allows cyclists to make time savings over those using vehicular modes.

During times when traffic levels are at their lowest, and the urban clearway restrictions do not apply, it is legally permissible to park on/across advisory cycle lanes. During these off-peak times, the levels of traffic and cyclists are at their lowest and it is therefore considered that cyclists can successfully share the remaining roads space. This arrangement is intended to provide the best balance between the needs of cyclists and the adjoining businesses/properties.

Mandatory cycle lanes (which would be marked by solid white lines) would provide a clear route for cyclists and would also restrict vehicles, subject to certain exceptions, from pairing along the road. However, the introduction of waiting restrictions, or mandatory cycle lanes, can be a contentious issue and would generally lead to a displacement of parking, often to other locations that are less able to accommodate it, such as residential streets in the general vicinity. Therefore, Roads Service does not generally use mandatory cycle lanes on roads with a mixed business/commercial/residential frontage.

Roads Service’s new parking enforcement and car park management contract with NSL Ltd will commence on 30 October 2012. In advance of this we plan to run a parking enforcement awareness campaign.

This will include the distribution of information leaflets to drivers to remind them of the importance of parking restrictions and the benefits of effective parking enforcement. The leaflet will include a number of “Dos” and “Don’ts” for drivers, advising them of where they should and should not park and it will clearly inform drivers not to park in mandatory cycle lanes.

Roads Service will also be publishing a parking enforcement protocol to provide the public with detailed information on the various parking contraventions that can be enforced by traffic attendants. This will also include information specific to mandatory cycle lanes.

Additionally, Roads Service has decided to change its enforcement policy in relation to illegally parked vehicles on bus lanes and urban clearways. Currently any vehicles parked in a bus lane or on an urban clearway will only receive a parking penalty, meaning the lane is still blocked to traffic. Following the introduction of the new contract Roads Service will also remove vehicles that are illegally in these lanes so freeing up the lane. It is hoped this change will be introduced in early 2013.

Please consider sending your own views on this issue to DRD before the deadline of Friday 21st September 2012. Details on the DRD website:

Taxis in bus lanes consultation

More detailed analysis of the impact the preferred option may have on cycling in Belfast:

Taxis in bus lanes a backward step for cycling

Response

Northern Ireland Greenways is an awareness campaign to highlight opportunities to open more dedicated traffic-free pedestrian and cycling infrastructure across Northern Ireland. The Comber Greenway model informs the potential to reopen more of Northern Ireland’s 600 miles of disused railway lines as long distance traffic-free leisure, commuting and tourist routes. Northern Ireland Greenways also campaigns for improved urban cycling infrastructure based on international best practice, putting a fair level of investment into cycling proportionate to targeted journey share, pushing for Roads Service to ensure Belfast’s existing cycling infrastructure works as intended, and lobbying for hard targets, budget and commitment from the Northern Ireland government.

I welcome the opportunity to comment on the consultation document. I also welcome the changes to taxi licensing which has brought about this proposal. A simpler system should benefit all taxi customers in Northern Ireland.

I strongly disagree with DRD’s preference for allowing all taxis to access bus lanes. This stems from DRD’s particular understanding of what ‘access’ should mean.

There are two main criticisms of the consultation document and the reasoning behind the preference for ‘Option 3’. I implore DRD not proceed on the basis of flawed reasoning, which does little to account for the potential to impact on cycling levels and accepts that bus journeys will be slowed across the city.

1. Cyclists will be dissuaded from using bus lanes

There is scant consideration given to cyclists in this consultation. As a commuter cyclist for over 10 years, I have relied upon the relative calm of bus lanes as an incentive on my commuting route. Fast cars or stationary traffic do not affect me while in an operational bus lane. Permitted taxis are infrequent, as are motorcycles. Bus drivers are generally respectful and considerate towards cyclists. It is worth noting that most Metro bus services are scheduled to operate at and average of 10mph or less, meaning cyclists mix quite well with buses in Belfast. Bus drivers benefit from a level of training and professional development which is not required of taxi drivers.

However, the new taxi system would mean a vast increase in faster, competitive users of bus lanes. The added pressure of impatient taxis behind me, which the consultation document predicts may be a common (and multiple) occurrence on a typical cycling journey in Belfast, would make me seriously consider giving up cycling to work. I would struggle to justify taking the risk of cycling in a more dangerous road environment. If an experienced and committed commuter cyclist thinks this way, you can tell the policy is flawed.

The study figures which are presented in the consultation point to a potential doubling of traffic within within bus lanes. How is this attractive to someone who wishes to ditch the car and cycle to work?

It is very clear from Belfast urban development trends that separated cycling infrastructure is not on the agenda for DRD, at least not within the next 5 years (Answer to AQW 7074). Cycling development is driven by a ‘bare minimum’ and ‘fit it in where possible’ approach, both in terms of road space and budgetary priority. So bus lanes are marketed as cycling infrastructure, and it seems that advisory cycle lanes and bus lanes are as good as it’s going to get for cycling in Belfast. (See STEM information – headline of 3.6km of new cycle lanes is in fact 1km of cycle lane and 2.6km of bus lanes)

So then why make bus lanes a less attractive option for people who may consider modal shift from private car travel? The one thing that separates cyclists from car, van, truck, bus (excepting motorcyclists) is a perception of personal danger. It is a key barrier to utility cycling. An excerpt from Belfast City Council’s response to the recent consultation on the draft Northern Ireland Active Travel Strategy is instructive. A short council staff survey on attitudes to cycling (and walking) showed that “a lack of adequate infrastructure closely coupled to personal safety issues have been the primary barriers to the uptake of active travel in Belfast” and further pointed to the Department for Transport Local Transport Note 2/08 on Cycle Infrastructure Design which “recommends that traffic volumes and speeds should be reduced where possible to create safer conditions for cycling.”

The preference to allow all taxis in bus lanes flies in the face of these points. However this is not to suggest taxis should be completely restricted from bus lanes. This is where the consultation fails to provide real choice, and confuses two fundamentally separate issues.

2. Taxis do need ‘access’ to bus lanes, but not a full right of travel along their length

The choice of options, indeed the whole direction of the consultation document, revolves around point 7.5.

The thrust of the deciding argument is that all taxis must be allowed access to bus lanes to effectively ply their trade, picking up and dropping off fares in an otherwise restricted area. I fully agree that customers expect taxis be able to stop when hailed, but I am very disappointed by the restrictive nature of the options which DRD presents.

While Option 1 would obviously be of most benefit to cyclists, it must be recognised that it is unfair to taxi drivers.

Option 2 mirrors the present situation. Given the changes in legislation it is an unworkable solution which is open to great criticism and possible challenge. DRD do a disservice by presenting this as beneficial to disabled taxi users. If bus lanes are being identified as a facility which should benefit disabled road users, why are DRD not proposing opening bus lanes to private car owners with blue badges?

Option 3 is presented as the only workable solution. Yet all of the arguments presented in favour are on a very narrow focus – the need and right to access a lane to collect or discharge passengers at the roadside. But option 3 gives taxis much more than this – the full right to travel in bus lanes, as permitted taxis have now.

This would give a non-sustainable form of transport a speed advantage over private cars, while reducing the efficiency of bus services, and scaring cyclists off the road.

What surprises and disappoints me is that DRD do not seem to have considered a true compromise, which fairly balances the needs of all bus lane users – let’s call it option 4. Taxis need access to the roadside on operational bus lanes. They would have this anyway under option 3, potentially delaying other bus lane users during short periods of waiting. I agree taxis should be allowed the right to do this. Taxis however do not need the right to travel the full length of bus lanes, and indeed the consultation presents no arguments why this is necessary.

For the very few occasions (as referenced in the consultation) that a customer hails a cab from a roadside with an operational bus lane, the taxi can pull over to collect, and then vacate the bus lane and merge back into traffic.

Providing this legislative framework would satisfy all needs without the drastic compromises presented by DRD’s 3 options. Enforcement of bus lanes would remain quite straightforward, cyclists would not be put off by faster competitive traffic, and the right for taxis to ply trade would be fairly catered for.

If taxis were allowed full right of travel, about 50% of journeys will be without passengers, with empty taxis rushing to get to the next job (perhaps pre-booked) as quickly as possible. Although now a level playing field, many taxis will still be booked by phone, and this is a very competitive market. Taxi drivers can become impatient when ‘stuck’ behind cyclists, and this can lead to conflict and potential for collision. It is an uncomfortable and off-putting experience for a cyclist to be pressured by fast vehicles in bus lanes bordered by a kerb on one side and stationary traffic on the other.

Please give serious consideration to reviewing the options you have presented, and how ‘option 4’ could be the best compromise.

Finally I would like to ask DRD to listen seriously to the concerns of cycling respondents. Belfast and Northern Ireland suffers from a lack of leadership on cycling issues, and very little information on this consultation has been highlighted by local cycling or sustainable transport organisations to the wider public. The survey you highlight in the consultation shows that cyclists, along with other bus lanes users (save for taxi drivers) clearly do not want to see bus lanes overrun by taxis. It is difficult to prioritise the needs of cyclists when there are no hard targets for uptake, but DRD must recognise the damage which could be inflicted on Belfast as a cycling city if this preference is allowed to proceed.

Northern Ireland Greenways

Roads Service are about to make Belfast roads significantly more dangerous for cyclists, and risk jeopardising  commuter cycling levels. A consultation on plans to open bus lanes to all taxis is closing shortly, but what is driving their preferred option?

Roads Service’s stated preference is to allow taxis to use bus lanes, despite presenting no evidence of an overall benefit, save to taxi firms and drivers. Meanwhile, practically the only form of city-bound cycling infrastructure in Belfast is about to get much busier, and more dangerous.

The taxi situation

Currently bus lanes are dedicated space for buses, cyclists, motorcyclists and public hire taxis (black hackney cabs and ‘taxi buses’). These taxis had a monopoly in Belfast on the ability to pick up passengers from the street. Private hire taxis were only available through prior booking, and had no access to bus lanes. Although the legislation is NI-wide, I’m focusing on Belfast, as the majority of NI’s bus lanes are on this city’s arterial routes.

From 1st September new taxi regulations came into force which effectively levelled the playing field in Northern Ireland – all taxis operate under one system, and any taxi can be hailed and pick up a fare from the roadside.

Now that the two-tier system is defunct, Roads Service are considering three options for future access to bus lanes:

  1. no access to taxis (not favoured – “removing a facility, that is currently operational without any apparent major impact, would be hard to defend”)
  2. access to wheelchair accessible taxis only (possibility – “This could be a viable option providing it does not present practical difficulties in terms of enforcement, and identifying accessible vehicles. Some potential users would view limiting access to accessible taxis only as being overly restrictive.)
  3. access to all taxis (preferred – “to preclude a section of taxis … would disadvantage both the taxi, as a business entity, and the intending passenger, who as a user may reasonably expect a taxi to stop when hailed.”)

In the absence of genuine opposition from cyclists and groups interested in sustainable travel, implementation of Option 3 will follow the consultation period.

Why does this matter to cyclists?

Belfast has very little dedicated cycling infrastructure, and commuter cyclists rely on the relative calm of bus lanes for a safer journey during rush hour. Numbers of cyclists appear to be on the increase, and although hard targets for uptake don’t exist in Northern Ireland, we have ‘aspirations’ to increase the number of journeys by bike.

But what stops more people from commuting by bike? Belfast City Council’s response to a recent consultation on the draft Northern Ireland Active Travel Strategy is instructive. A short council staff survey on attitudes to cycling (and walking) showed that “a lack of adequate infrastructure closely coupled to personal safety issues have been the primary barriers to the uptake of active travel in Belfast” and further pointed to the Department for Transport Local Transport Note 2/08 on Cycle Infrastructure Design which “recommends that traffic volumes and speeds should be reduced where possible to create safer conditions for cycling.”

Allowing access to competitive commercial operators will both increase the volume of traffic and add more fast vehicles to bus lanes. How does this encourage more people to cycle, when instances of pressure from slowed taxis and dangerous overtaking attempts will increase?

The published considerations for and against

Negatives

  • “any increase in accessibility to bus lanes has the potential to impact on current usage”
  • A survey showed that on one route, public hire taxi levels were 3 per hour – adding the observed private hire taxis under the new proposed framework could see that figure jump to 20 per hour. This would represent a near doubling of combined bus and taxi traffic within this lane (but again the impact on bus efficiency is all that is of concern, not cyclists)
  • The impact will be lessened because taxis use lanes illegally now anyway (so that’s okay then)

A report commissioned from Amey in 2008 noted and recommended:

  • there should be no change to current arrangements under new licensing system i.e. only wheelchair accessible taxis be allowed in bus lanes
  • “bus lanes are currently underperforming against targets…additional vehicles in the bus lane … would probably contribute to further reduced bus journey speeds
  • “there was little evidence from other UK cities, of any movement to allow private hire vehicles into bus lanes during the hours of operation” (so Belfast is actually leading the way in suppressing sustainable transport!)
  • “there was little evidence that private hire vehicles play any role in delivering sustainable transport systems”
  • “of road user groups surveyed (motorcyclists; bus drivers; bus passengers; cyclists; car drivers; public hire taxi drivers; and, private hire taxi drivers) the only group that supported allowing private hire taxis into bus lanes was the private hire taxi drivers. The reasons given for opposing access being concerns over the impact on bus lane performance, sustainability, defeating the purpose of a bus lane and safety

Positives

  • “availability of bus lanes to all taxis would better serve the needs of all users with disabilities and not just those who use wheelchairs” (in this case, then why are blue badge holders prevented from driving private cars in operational bus lanes?)
  • “Taxi services provide an important element of the overall public transport service in the BMA”

The arguments put in favour of allowing taxis access to bus lanes reaches its nadir: “Currently these taxis will generally be moving and will only stop to set down a fare, it would be rare that they would stop to pick up. It is felt this situation may not change greatly with the change in the taxi licensing regime, regular intending passengers on the routes in question will in all probability have chosen to use the cheaper bus service. It is also felt that dropping off may be fairly rare given that the destination will generally be the city centre or somewhere else away from the bus lane.” So to summarise, taxis really really need access to bus lanes, even though we think there’ll be little business for them there.

Roads Service lays bare its complete lack of regard for cyclists – fast travelling taxis shouldn’t hamper buses too much. But where is the consideration that fast moving taxis and relatively slow cyclists, the group who we nominally want to grow, don’t mix well?

What is the best option for cyclists?

Option 1 would clearly be the best situation, if we value bus lanes as a way to encourage sustainable transport. Any slowing of bus journeys or increased conflict with vulnerable road users runs against all sense. Taxis are not a sustainable mode of transport and therefore should not enjoy a privileged position on the road.

Option 2 is effectively a continuation of the current situation. It won’t do much to improve bus journey times or cycling uptake, but is an acceptable compromise. But continuing a two-tier system risks disadvantaging taxi drivers who do not drive wheelchair accessible vehicles.

Option 3 should be rejected outright by Roads Service.

Why is Roads Service confusing the issue?

A simple and obvious option has not been included in the consultation. A less kind commentator might suggest deliberate obfuscation by Roads Service.

There is a fundamental difference between ‘right of access’ to enter a bus lane and ‘right of travel’ for the length of a bus lane. The preferred Option 3 gives taxis full right of travel, a clear advantage over private cars and commercial vehicles to skip past queues of traffic. Yet the only Roads Service arguments presented in favour of option 3 concern the right to access a bus lane to pick up or drop off passengers. These are wholly separate arguments.

The current legislation states “a person shall not…cause or permit any vehicle…to enter, proceed or wait in a bus lane”, apart from those permitted. The solution is to grant in legislation the right for taxis being hailed to enter a bus lane and temporarily stop to collect a passenger. However, the taxi must then exit the lane and continue its journey in the main traffic flow.

Under Roads Service’s preferred option, taxis will be routinely stopping in bus lanes for this purpose anyway, holding up other permitted traffic. It’s the general usage of the lane for travelling which brings taxis directly into conflict with cyclists, something the consultation document utterly fails to address. But this is not surprising given our record on cycling measures.

Giving taxis full right of travel in bus lanes harms the effectiveness of the scheduled public transport system, dissuades current and potential cyclists from using the lanes, and makes a mockery of Northern Ireland’s sustainable travel aspirations.

Northern Ireland blind spot on cycling gets worse

I have come to the conclusion that civil servants and politicians in Northern Ireland are trying everything in their power to drive cyclists off the road. Wasting money on unenforceable advisory cycle lanes is one thing, concentrating what budget is left on cycle boxes which cyclists can’t safely get to is another. But proactively creating conditions to scare potential cycle commuters to stay in their cars, while happily accepting slower bus journey times, and making the road conditions less pleasant and more dangerous for existing cyclists is moving things on to a new level of incompetence.

Buses and cyclists are an uneasy mix in Belfast, but the current situation seems to be just about acceptable to increasing numbers of commuter cyclists. We share the bus lanes with a few motorcyclists, and the occasional black cab. Northern Ireland has been crawling slowly towards a more sustainable transport system, despite best efforts to obstruct progress. Throwing hundreds of taxis into the rush hour mix is simply crazy, but an understandable product of our current road strategy and mismanagement.

What can be done?

The consultation is open until Friday 21st September 2012. It is imperative that the views of cyclists who use bus lanes are made clearly to Roads Service. Despite the clear preference, there remains the possibility to change minds. Give your response to the consultation here, and raise the issue with your local councillors and MLAs. Take action before it’s too late.

Survey by cyclists in Belfast shows typical commuter journey is blocked 5 times by illegally parked vehicles

Belfast commuter cyclists are finding their dedicated safe space is unusable and causing additional danger for all road users at rush hour. Investment in cycle lanes by Roads Service is failing to provide a credible alternative to private vehicle journeys or public transport when many cycle lanes are treated as car parks.

Continue reading “Belfast commuter cyclists call for action on illegal parking”

Any politician will tell you they’re concerned about road safety, the environment and health, or can point to their party manifesto for clear policies on cycling issues. But what are your MLAs actually doing about improving cycling in Northern Ireland? We’ve compiled and analysed the 78 cycling related Assembly Questions asked since the last election.

Cycling up at Stormont

So you use a bike to get between home and work in Northern Ireland, or maybe pop to the shops with a basket on your handlebars. You’re frustrated by a lack of cycle lanes, or no bike parking facilities, or think the roads are too dangerous. You can’t take your bike onto the train in the morning so you end up driving to work instead. What do you do about it?

Continue reading “Cycling on the agenda at the Northern Ireland Assembly”

With all eyes on Bus Rapid Transit as the holy grail of Belfast’s transport future, simple measures to encourage cycling as a means of commuting are being ignored, for the sake of a few parked cars.

Belfast residents are currently grumbling about road works in the city centre. This is part of the Sustainable Transport Enabling Measures (STEM) redesign of the streets to accommodate the future bus rapid transit system. Bad enough are the delays associated with traffic cones and reduced road space, but motorists can see the writing on the wall – new bus lanes are taking priority away from the car.

Continue reading “What’s missing from Belfast's sustainable transport plan?”

As with so many of Roads Service cycle lane schemes in Belfast, Amelia Street shows all the hallmarks of compromised good intention. Cyclists are finding the lane blocked every day, leaving the lane useless and cyclists to dangerously negotiate a one-way street. The cycle lane itself is only 100m long, but this microcosm explains the problems Belfast faces in getting a quality cycling infrastructure.

Traffic warden doesn’t seem too bothered by the car blocking a cycle lane while on a double yellow line

Continue reading “Amelia Street: cycling woes in Belfast”

Here’s a suggestion for a powerful message to send to Belfast commuters. We’ve already seen the problems Belfast commuter cyclists face with illegal parking on cycle lanes at rush hour. Roads Service traffic wardens are not resourced to cover 100% of the city during urban clearway times, so day-to-day priorities are set, leaving many routes clogged with parked cars.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyUXs3YkDGw&w=560&h=315]

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Continue reading “Getting Belfast traffic wardens on their bikes”