LanyonBikePark

Census figures have given a boost to active travel in Belfast, showing a strong rise in the level of cycling in the city. In the ten years up to the 2011 Census, there has been a 60% rise in the number of Belfast residents using a bike as their main form of transport between their home and place of work.

Broad modal share for commuter cycling in Belfast has also jumped up by just over 50%, with cyclists now accounting for 2.1% of travel to work share, up from 1.4% in 2001.

The tables below show the method of travel to work for the employed working age population. I’ve compared the Northern Ireland headline figures with a split between Belfast Council area and the rest of NI excluding Belfast.

Method of travel to work (resident population) 2011
All persons (16-74 years) in employment and currently working

ShareTravelToWorkNI

Belfast has a much lower reliance on private motorised travel (Motorcycle, scooter, moped, car or van driver or passenger, can or van pool or taxi) than the rest of Northern Ireland, with greater usage of public transport (train, bus or minibus), walking, and now significantly over three times the rate of cycle commuting than the rest of Northern Ireland.

Change in method of travel to work (resident population) between 2001 and 2011
All persons (16-74 years) in employment and currently working

ChangeTravelToWorkNI

The headline Northern Ireland figure shows a rise in bicycle commuters of 5% between 2001 and 2011, but delving deeper shows that Belfast is starting to leave the rest of Northern Ireland behind in modal shift terms. Belfast has seen a massive 60% increase in cycle commuters, while the rest of NI has seen a fall of 12%. While this poses some difficult questions of NI-wide policies, there is a clear challenge to allow Belfast to forge ahead with a wholly separate strategy for urban utility and commuter cycling.

Private motorised travel to work, while on the rise in Northern Ireland as a whole, has stagnated in Belfast in the last decade. Yet interestingly, car or van pooling showed the biggest increase of any transport method in Belfast (80%) in part pointing to good work and outcomes from the Travelwise NI campaign.

Public transport has also seen a dip in numbers of commuters, mostly due to a reduction in bus passengers. The number of Belfast residents travelling to work by train has risen by 72%, but interestingly more than twice as many people living in Belfast cycle to work than take the train. Similarly train commuters have risen by 63% across NI, obscured in the public transport category by a 15% drop in bus commuters, a much larger group.

For more detailed information you can access the supporting data tables through the Census 2011: Key Statistics for Northern Ireland Statistics Bulletin on the NISRA website (PDF).

Belfast cycling on a different path

One of the main points for future policy is the growing divergence between cycling levels in Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland. Data gathered by Roads Service from cycle counters in Belfast has shown a quiet groundswell of cycling uptake over ten years from 2000 to 2010. Over this period, cycle usage at key locations in Belfast has risen by a staggering 152%, with some of the most popular areas (Stranmillis Embankment, Albertbridge Road) showing increases well above 200%. The early indications are pointing to real year on year progress in Belfast cycling levels.

The census figures show, perhaps surprisingly, overall numbers of commuter cyclists have decreased in 19 of 26 district council areas in Northern Ireland since 2001. Of the top ten council areas by number of cycling workers, six have seen a decrease.

Top 10 councils by number of persons using a bicycle as main method of travel to work 2011
All persons  (16-74 years) in employment and currently working (resident population)

BikeToWorkCouncils

The Belfast Metropolitan Area (Belfast, Castlereagh, Carrickfergus, Lisburn, Newtownabbey and North Down councils) has seen a 30% rise in cycling as the main form of transport, but this is mostly due to Belfast adding 853 new cycle commuters against just 47 in the other five council areas combined.

Antrim, which had the fourth highest number of commuter cyclists in 2001, has seen a significant reduction of 42% in the last decade.

Taxis in bus lanes – the twist?

Recently DRD have signalled their intention to allow all taxis the use of bus lanes. A consultation received an overwhelmingly negative response, but DRD plan to press ahead. The majority of bus lanes in Northern Ireland are in Belfast. It is interesting to note that in the ten years to 2011, the number of people using taxis as a main mode of travel to work has decreased by 8% across Northern Ireland and by 24% in Belfast. This is compared to commuter cyclists rising by 5% across Northern Ireland and by 60% in Belfast. Comparing the absolute numbers, Belfast taxi commuters have dropped from 4,000 to 3,000, while commuter cyclists have increased from 1,400 to 2,300. This goes a little way to exposing the flawed reasoning as DRD move to prioritise taxi movements in bus lanes, to the expressed detriment of cyclists.

Belfast – a cycling city on the rise

The census figures released this week are broad headline travel to work statistics. As a previous blog post shows, we wait for a more detailed analysis of methods of travel to work by distance. For example in the South Belfast Parliamentary Constituency Area in 2001, cycling modal share for commuting journeys between 2-5km was already above 3%.

The rise to 2.1% for cycling as a method of travel to work is just the beginning for Belfast. The question we must ask of government departments, politicians and Belfast City Council is: do you want to build upon this, and how far will you commit to seeing it happen? These rises are set against soft policies of advisory cycle lanes, advanced stop line cycle boxes, education and awareness campaigns and a nascent cycle to work tax relief scheme. We even have a city bike hire scheme in the pipeline.

Supercharging these already impressive rises over the next ten years is possible with the right commitment to budget and priority. More hard measures such as quality cycle corridors instead of piecemeal unenforced/unenforceable cycle lanes, the Gasworks Bridge, junction priority and redesign can start to send a message to reluctant possible cyclists. Most importantly, better engagement and consultation with the daily cycle commuters can only help to identify the areas of greatest weakness, and boost the chances of working together to improve the city. DRD and Roads Service must recognise the growing importance of cycling as a form of urban transport in Belfast, and give much needed weight to our issues within the city’s network planning.

Notes to census figures

There are some comparability issues with the 2001 Census – more information can be downloaded from the NISRA website (PDF).

More detailed Travel to Work data will be released over the next 18 months. This will allow a more detailed look at cycling modal share increases over typical commuting journey ranges. 

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.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAYjUHKlH9k]

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.

[googlemaps https://maps.google.co.uk/maps?hl=en&ie=UTF8&t=h&layer=c&panoid=KVWInB5n9XFFd6BfkGdz2g&cbll=54.577064,-5.875565&cbp=13,64.67,,0,4.08&source=embed&ll=34.994004,4.746094&spn=21.525048,105.46875&z=3&output=svembed&w=600&h=150]

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:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8t85wvEE1xI]

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:

[googlemaps https://maps.google.co.uk/?ie=UTF8&t=m&layer=c&panoid=fg0apcjHMzTbSrUO37Ea-w&cbll=54.576167,-5.87766&cbp=13,14.27,,0,11&source=embed&ll=4.039618,15.117188&spn=66.155769,210.9375&z=2&output=svembed&w=600&h=200]

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.

Fed up with your cycle route in Belfast being blocked by illegally parked cars? Is your daily commute is made much more dangerous than it should be? Take part in a unique survey to highlight the problem! Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes 2 hits the streets of Belfast on the week beginning Monday 5th November 2012!

Last time..

The original running of Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes was in July this year. Nine volunteers found that a typical rush hour cycling journey in Belfast was blocked five times by illegally parked vehicles, or 4.5 blocks for every kilometre of restricted lanes. One journey even had 36 cars blocking a single cycle lane! The evidence shows right across Belfast, people cycling during rush hour are facing dangerous road conditions.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyUXs3YkDGw]

This was a unique effort of independent civic action between private individuals – people who choose to travel between work and home on a bike – and researchers at the Centre of Excellence for Public Health at Queen’s University Belfast.

The report made it into the press, and following engagement with Belfast councillors, MLAs, Roads Service, the DRD Minister and the Regional Development Committee, the issue got….absolutely nowhere. If you weren’t sure how Northern Ireland’s politicians felt about the problems of cycling as transport, the indifference is very clear to see.

In response to the first survey report, Roads Service maintain that 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.” Does this match your experience of Belfast’s cycle lanes?

So we must keep the pressure on! It’s November, it’s cold, it may be wet, but many hundreds of commuter cyclists will still be on our roads at rush hour. This time we need to expand the number of volunteers, and the route coverage to see what the problem is like across the whole of Belfast.

More and more people in Belfast are choosing a bicycle as their main form of commuting, and are encountering problems on our roads. Cycling in Northern Ireland is becoming more dangerous. Parked cars on cycle and bus lanes may be just an inconvenience to most road users, but they pose real dangers to cyclists. Let’s pile up the evidence again, and start to shame the authorities into meaningful action.

How to get involved

Join a growing community of Belfast commuter cyclists in this unique research project, and participate in some constructive public action. Send an email to nigreenways AT gmail.com with your name and usual commuting route. You can download the information pack here, with more detailed instructions and survey sheet:

Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes survey sheet and information

You can help the effort by mentioning to friends or work colleagues who cycle at rush hour, and encourage them to join, Why not print off some copies of the information pack for others? You don’t have to cover every single day of the week, you don’t even have to be on a bike to help out – let’s all do what we can!

Let’s really get Belfast on the move, and help to put an end to illegal parking in cycle lanes!

Cyclists’ concerns of increasing road danger and wasted public investment due to illegal parking were put to the Regional Development Committee at Stormont this week. The Committee has a statutory oversight and scrutiny role for matters relating to roads, infrastructure and transport in Northern Ireland. Despite presenting clear evidence of the problem, and conclusions on the causes, the briefing on the Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes report was given short shrift, and harsh treatment.

Reproduced under Creative Commons licence from niassembly

Presented on behalf of the survey participants, the “10 minute presentation” was cut short at 6 minutes (the previous presenter ran to nearly 14 minutes, unchallenged). The first comment from Committee Chair Jimmy Spratt set a bizarre and disappointing tone:

“I often see cyclists, at traffic lights, and what have you, going through red traffic lights, and what have you, so, very often cyclists don’t exactly endear themselves to other members of the public in terms of road usage, and I have to say that that happens on a fairly regular basis. We take the points that you make in relation to parking and stuff like that…”

Listen for yourself, and to the response (File 5, 04:45 onwards)

Following criticism of not being an organisation (beware private individuals engaging in the political process) questions moved back to more constructive areas of road safety and parking warden deployment.

Roads Service officials were next up in front of the Committee to respond to the issues raised by the report, and received a series of very tough questions. Yet Belfast commuter cyclists may be interested to note that neither cycling nor cycle lanes were specifically raised in questioning. The issue of the day was the concerns of Lisburn Road traders and the impact of priority patrolling there – so cycling got a little lost.

What was of relevance to the survey was a Roads Service response to Jimmy Spratt’s welcome idea of equal coverage of parking wardens across Belfast:

“If we go to a road and there’s no traffic problems there, there’s no point in us wasting resources putting them there, if there’s no difficulty”.

So Roads Service don’t consider cyclists’ problems to be traffic problems, and don’t care that the report highlights we are facing difficulty each night, all across Belfast. Belfast cyclists are not motorised traffic and therefore don’t count.

Belfast commuter cyclists are fully aware, each day, of how valued they are on our roads – we see this in lack of infrastructure, dangerous junctions, and blocked cycle lanes. If Roads Service and the Department for Regional Development, and disappointingly the Committee which scrutinises their work, are not open to these concerns, where do we go?

With this in mind, the date for Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes 2 will be the week of 5th November 2012 – bigger, better, and a louder voice? Let’s see what we can do..

That briefing in full

You can also listen to the cut short briefing on the NI Assembly website (file 4, 26:00 onwards)

Thank you Chairperson, and I’d like to thank the Committee for the invitation to present this briefing today.

By way of explaining the origins of the survey, I’ll start with a little background on the NI Greenways blog. I started compiling it in April this year as a way of highlighting opportunities to open around 600 miles of disused former railways across the province, in the model of the Comber Greenway. My intention is to raise local awareness by mapping these potential traffic-free walking and cycling paths for commuting, leisure and tourism, and as a resource for Northern Ireland to combat our worsening obesity problems.

As a commuter cyclist in Belfast for over 10 years, the social media connections I made through this blog brought me to discussion on the daily issues people face cycling to work on our roads. Alongside criticisms of lack of quality infrastructure, and general physical dangers, the major gripe was around cycle lanes in Belfast being blocked by parked vehicles.

My own route has what’s termed as an advisory cycle lane running for 800m, yet every night during urban clearway operation it is blocked by anything from 10 to 30 vehicles. In June I raised a complaint with Roads Service, but received a less than encouraging response. In the 12 months to April, just 11 Penalty Charge Notices were issued on the affected section of my commuting route. To my experience, and as the survey would later bear out, this is the level of illegal parking per night. Roads Service informed me that records are not kept of deployment of patrols per road, leading to obvious questions about how they evaluate the level of illegal parking across the city, and therefore the effectiveness of patrol deployment.

The idea for a city-wide survey came from Mark Tully, a lecturer in Public Health at Queen’s University, who unfortunately cannot be here today due to a prior commitment.

Put simply, we could draw on the time and experience of commuter cyclists to record the number of illegally parked vehicles in cycle lanes, and bus lanes, during their morning and evening commutes. Safety was paramount and volunteers were encouraged to mentally note the figures, and jot them down at the end of their journey. Volunteers were also reminded not to challenge or single out people who were illegally parked, to avoid any unhelpful confrontation or aggravation. Some participants also took cycle camera video recordings both as evidence of the accuracy of figures, but also to allow our unique point of view to be experienced, and some footage is available to view through the blog.

We set the survey for 5 working days on the week beginning 23rd July, and managed to get 9 volunteers. It should be noted that 4 of the participants were female, not a bad percentage for the survey, given that 2001 census figures put female cyclists at just 0.2% of all commuters in Belfast.

At least one arterial route in each geographic quarter of the city was covered.

After analysis by the team at Queens, the results for 69 qualifying journeys were released in the report which you all have a copy of. For a typical journey in Belfast, a cyclist will face 5 illegally parked vehicles blocking restricted lanes, or 4.5 for every kilometre of the city’s cycle and bus lanes. The worst performing route was the Springfield / Grosvenor Road corridor, with 26 vehicles illegally blocking cyclists on a typical journey.

Evening journeys were worse than mornings – typically 6.2 per km or 7 per journey during evening rush hour against 2.9 per km or 4 per journey in the morning. It’s difficult to draw conclusions about this difference, but some of the factors at work may be more shopping trips to local stores on the way home, better driver understanding of bus lane rules, and driver confusion over the operation of the relatively new phenomenon of advisory cycle lanes on urban clearways.

The survey puts clear evidence of this problem into the hands of frustrated commuters – it’s not just another grumble about our roads which can be easily dismissed.

Why does any of this matter? The frustration of commuter cyclists is not due to any sense of entitlement to this road space but rather from the perception and experience of increased road danger which illegally parked vehicles create. Cyclists have to filter in and out of general traffic unnecessarily – the Committee will understand this is about to become a source of increased danger as we approach the winter months and dark journeys home.  Each parked vehicle is a potential door opening accident risk. Road sides which should be clear have illegal visual obstacles increasing the risk of crossing pedestrians coming into conflict with other road users. As we’re the slowest road users, mixing with general traffic leads to pressure on cyclists and many dangerous overtakes by equally, and perhaps understandably, frustrated motorists.

Recently released PSNI road casualty figures show a jump in cyclists killed or seriously injured in Northern Ireland, 49 in each of the last two years against a baseline measure of 28. Looking at the trends for all road casualties, road safety has significantly improved in Northern Ireland over the past 10 years, with casualties for drivers, passengers, pedestrians and motorcyclists all down. Cyclists are the only group to with an upward trend in casualties, a worrying and underreported development.

Just last week one of the survey participants was involved in a road collision with a car crossing a cycle lane through stationary traffic in Belfast. If they had been driving a car, this would have been a minor prang with insurance details swapped – it landed the cyclist in A+E and wrote off their main form of transport – luckily and importantly, no lasting damage was done to the cyclist. We are among the most vulnerable road users, and taking steps to eliminate a fairly straightforward problem such as illegal parking can make a big difference to the experience and safety of cycling in Belfast.

What should concern the Committee, and all road users in Belfast, is that cycle lanes which are blocked every day at rush hour represent wasted public investment. We have notional targets to increase cycling levels in Northern Ireland, yet when paint is put down to mark out a city cycle network, regardless of how fractured and inadequate it remains in reality, cyclists are unable to use it. It fails to provide the separation of transport modes it sets out to achieve, fails to improve safety for all road users – in fact does the exact opposite while this problem persists. And crucially fails to properly sell the benefits of an alternative, yet viable form of commuter transport in our small city.

To put Northern Ireland’s cycling under-investment levels into perspective, in 2010-11 just 0.16% of Roads Service budget was put into cycling measures,

CUT SHORT

or 18p per head of population. Compare this against The Netherlands where €30 per head is spent. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison to make – on another day I’ll make a forceful argument about increasing our spending on cycling – but how can we start that debate when our 18p is going down the pan?

The survey group contacted Minister Kennedy to highlight the report, and we received a letter from Roads Service, and Committee members should have a copy in their briefing papers. The resounding verdict from participants was that the response was inadequate given the nature of the issue raised. To receive an, albeit informal survey report, yet backed by analysis from Queen’s University, and to respond with five long paragraphs explaining what a cycle lane is, felt somewhat patronising. [Read that response in full here]

Indeed the letter became a little surreal when Roads Service stated that cycle lanes mean “cyclists effectively have their own road space. This makes cycling safer, and at times of congestion, allows cyclists to make time savings”. This is quite an absurd statement given the report which prompted the response. There was no acceptance that illegal parking is a major problem for cyclists, or that Roads Service bears some responsibility for ineffective enforcement.

What was encouraging from the response are the changes proposed under the new contract with NSL, which Committee members have heard about from Ciarán de Búrca and the Minister in the past few weeks. The new protocol and associated awareness campaign should go some way to tackling illegal parking. The new tow and clamp policy, while potentially seeming like another stick to beat Belfast motorists with, will probably sharpen minds in the short term. These and other measures are to be welcomed as evidence of proactive traffic management. But, there is still one major worry running through from my initial complaint, to the survey, to the official response, and the new NSL contract.

That is resourcing, and deployment – Roads Service steer clear of this point in correspondence, yet it is at the heart of the problem.

Where parking wardens do not patrol, illegal parking will take place. As a prime example, I took to the Cregagh Road during the survey week, along with an onboard video camera. My typical journey across that week had 9.5 illegally parked vehicles, except for Wednesday when there were just 3. The reason? Two NSL parking wardens patrolling the road. I doubt they needed to issue many tickets, but the mere presence of high visibility enforcement was enough to practically clear the road.

So, new towing trucks to move illegally parked vehicles – great. How many trucks? How will they be deployed? Will the current priority system remain in place, with constant patrolling of the Lisburn Road, and sporadic to no coverage elsewhere? The committee heard from Lisburn Road Traders last week, and I’ll add this one point to their criticisms – having 27% of all Northern Ireland’s clearway related tickets, on just one Belfast Road, is actually a damning indictment of the spread of enforcement across our city, especially given that it’s an arterial route supported by both the railway and motorway network.

Will there be more than the current 1 or 2 car-based warden teams, and 4 or 5 teams on foot, for a city of around 20 main road corridors? Will Road Service commit to providing a better level of service across the whole of the city, or will the status quo remain? Certainly since my original complaint in June, and 11 weeks since the survey report, my rush hour journey has not had a clear cycle lane on one evening – not one.

To conclude, all available evidence shows that cycling levels are rapidly rising in Belfast. Roads Service’s own figures from Belfast cycle counter locations show a 152% increase in cycle usage from 2000 to 2010. The DRD Travel Survey for Belfast commuters showed an increase in people declaring a bicycle as their ‘usual’ form of transport from 1% 2000-2002 to 3% 2008-2010. We now number in the thousands during rush hour across the Belfast, and if good, safe infrastructure can be maintained and promoted, people will choose to make the switch to the bike.

The volunteers, and other commuter cyclists who’ve supported us since the report, will monitor progress on this issue very closely. I appreciate the Committee’s time this morning.

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.

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.

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