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.
Now Road Service are about to reward this behaviour by redesigning the junction opposite St George’s Market to enable two full lanes of traffic to continue towards Cromac Street. This will be accomplished by shortening the new Belfast on the Move bus lane.
How does this impact cycling? The majority of cyclists using East Bridge Street are attempting to get to the city centre via either Hamilton Street or May Street. Both of these manoeuvres require a cyclist to get from the left hand lane (funnelled there by the bus lane and gate) across to the adjacent lane.
What the Belfast on the Move redesign did well was to give the left hand lane continuous priority towards Cromac, allowing cyclists to position themselves into the start of the right hand Cromac lane (picture below) to filter into the Hamilton St turning box or even to nip safely into the big red bus lane continuing round to May Street.
Road Service have now marked out a lane divider from the Oxford St junction, meaning left hand lane traffic (and most cyclists) will now have to indicate and give way to traffic on their right to make an attempt to reach the city centre; traffic in the ‘outside’ lane which is generally faster and less patient than the left hand lane (see videos). Cyclists will have to negotiate two lanes instead of one.
The green advanced stop line cycling box at the Oxford St junction is notoriously difficult to reach (just half of all red lights), so relying on this to get cyclists safely out of the left hand lane is a red herring.
Experienced cyclists may be prepared to handle this extra hassle, but for the large group of people who’ve recently taken up cycling and those we want to encourage to swap out of the car, this is a major backward step in the feeling of safety and confidence. Bad junctions simply stop people from choosing to cycle.
Instead of attempting to better design the junction and approach (“Get in lane” sign, soft bollard separation, anyone?) Roads Service are holding their hands up and designing to the needs of general traffic at the expense of cyclists (and buses to a lesser extent). Very un-Belfast on the Move.
Without targets, why should Roads Service care?
I asked a local active travel organisation a very stupid question about this plan, “Has Roads Service consulted cycling groups about the change?” Once the laughter dies down, you’re left with the realisation that Roads Service is a fundamentally conservative organisation incapable of catering for the fastest growing personal transport form in Belfast.
Never mind that the Northern Ireland Executive doesn’t have targets to grow cycling (outside of a woolly target for school children based mainly on walking); without the whip-crack of a DRD internal target and ownership of the intent to grow cycling as a part of modern Belfast, Roads Service will continue to design our roads for vehicles at the expense of cycling.
The woeful cycle lane featured in the picture above shows the limit of Roads Service ambition and thinking:
- we’ve found a piece of road space we don’t really need
- throw it to the cycling team for a cycle lane, it looks good on the annual council report
- make sure it stops before vehicles need space again! (130m long, ending on a bad bend)
- it must be an advisory lane for no good reason (also known as “not a cycle lane”)
- it might look like it goes nowhere, but it actually gets cyclists into the city centre..
- ..just stop, dismount on a busy road and walk over the pedestrian crossings (this is true)
- most of us have never cycled a day in our lives, but this is all probably fine
This is also going to be one of the main routes (Central Station to City Centre) for Belfast Bike Hire, the flagship policy for DRD and Belfast City Council when it comes to cycling. How many people want their first experience of city cycling to be a cutthroat exchange with impatient vehicles?
You can have all the dreams you want of Dutch-style separation on major routes, a perfectly feasible and realistic goal for Belfast. But leave one major junction where cyclists are left to dice with danger or forced to dismount, it’s no longer a viable option for most people.
Roads Service have to do better than this – they must stay the course on Belfast on the Move measures, they must consult cycling groups on these seemingly small but fundamental changes, and they must be set on a challenging path by our politicians. Or they continue to fail, as they do.