Middlepath shows what’s coming for cycling in Belfast

2016 has been a year of great commitment towards cycling. This started with the building of the first stretch of the backbone of Belfast Cycle Network (BCN) – the Upper Arthur St/Alfred St cycle path; went with the change of many streets speed limit to 20 mph in the city centre; continued with the proposal of 1000km of greenways; and ended with a strong commitment from infrastructure minister Chris Hazzard on moving people instead of cars.

With all these announcements what can we expect for the new year?

Well, it started with a bang. Middlepath St cycling scheme, the most audacious proposal from the early BCN, has gone to consultation. This article is going to analyse what is presented in the proposal. Some comments might intersect with the excellent review exposed in Bikefast.

Good News

It is fantastic that the repurpose (at least partially) of the motor vehicle lane into a cycle path is going ahead. We can expect much more people to come from East Belfast by bicycle and more safely. It is also another major connection between the city centre, Connswater Greenway and the Comber Greenway.

connections
Connections from Comber and Connswater Greenway to City Center. The only link missing is the Holywood Arches nightmare

Another good part of the proposal is that the cycleway is completely separated from motor vehicle traffic (and 2/3 separated from pedestrians). This safe environment should be a great way to increase the number of people cycling.

Additionally, during the length of the loading bay, all the entrances to private properties seem to prioritise the cycle path. Hopefully, it also means priority for pedestrians and ramps for motor vehicles instead of having them in the way of cycles and pedestrians.

cyclepriority

Finally, the close of one direction in Dalton St is a great measure to prevent collisions and guarantee better safety for the most vulnerable users.

Can be improved

The first thing that caught immediately my eye is the narrow width of just 2.5m for a two-way cycle path. These early schemes are an opportunity to set a standard for the future of cycling in Northern Ireland. With this kind of proposals, we are aiming for sub-standard quality that can impair bicycle usage growth in the future. Middlepath St goes from circa 12m wide to 15m wide (measures taken in Google Maps, so might not be accurate), which means 3 to 3,75m per current motor vehicle lane. The image below also shows extra unused space that could be re-arranged to create better cycling infrastructure. The red parts polygons show areas that could be altered to arrange more space for cycling. I understand that to do such, more considerations about drainages and movement of other road users are required.

Nonetheless, all this is worth considering if we are to build a path that is safe, convenient and also future proof for people cycling.

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So much space available and, yet, cycling only gets a two-way cycle path with 2.5m width

In addition to that, it seems there is no study or expectation about the number of people potentially cycling through here. It would be great to avoid the mistakes already done in other places like London, where a narrower cycle path caused problems, arguably because of poor cycling, but also because it can’t cope with that volume safely.

The next situation that is, unfortunately, recurring around Northern Ireland is the loss of priority from vulnerable users to favour motor vehicles in private entrances or side roads.

This has been tackled in the loading bay area, as mentioned previously, but there are other places in which this has not been properly designed. The examples below, with raised tables, will probably be similar to the Ormeau Av/Alfred St junction, which means that the pedestrian and cycle flow will have to yield to motor vehicles three times. The road from which motor vehicles are turning from is a busy road, but also has a limit of 30 mph. This should be enough to make motor vehicles give way as they wish to enter side roads or private entrances.

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Proposed raised table is similar to Ormeau Avenue
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Ormeau Av raised table – priority for motor vehicles

The junctions are a place where the cyclists and pedestrians are most vulnerable. So, it is good that they are separated from motor vehicles. What I can’t understand is the reason for the lack of separation between cycling and walking. There is space for it, there is a proven safe junction design available, yet it never features in any of the proposals.

The proposed solution can lead to confusion and inconvenience, as I’ve experienced in the crossing near the Big Fish.

A possible solution would be one that continues the cycle path along the junction with exits for all the crossings. The example below would allow a visible separation between cyclist and pedestrians. The close of one of the lanes on the side road would also provide more space for this separation to continue and to provide a direct link to both sides of the bridge to people cycling. This would also future-proof the connection should the option to turn the fourth lane of the bridge as a cycle path come to live.

junction
A different approach to junctions. Making cycling more convenient

Additional Proposals

There are considerations that don’t seem to even be examined for this project. What about raising the cycle path to be midway between the motor vehicle lane and the pavement (with appropriate forgiving kerbs)? It would make easier to then create visual priority at side roads/private entrances for vulnerable users.

This is expected to be a busy commuter route for people to cycle on and, as such, it would be a great place to have the first bicycle counter in Belfast. It would help dispel myths and create more veritable statistics of how many journeys are made on that route.

Another option that should start to be investigated is to have coloured asphalt (not painted asphalt), instead of black tar. This would make it easy for people to get accustomed that a path that colour is for cycling and help motor vehicles understand when it is needed to give way.

Last, there is the documentation provided for this consultation. People want to help and be part of the construction of a better place. The document acts as the link to enable civilians to give their opinions. There should be good standards to make it easy for people to find the right files and to have adequate details in those documents. As such, here’s a list of what would make simple the life for those that have to scavenge the information from the caves of the internet:

  • Tag cycling related projects with the Cycling tag. Roads might be correct, but too generic to be helpful.
  • Provide additional measurements of pavements and vehicle lanes adjacent to the cycle paths. That helps to make better opinions.
  • Have vehicles per hour/day on relevant roads and expected cycles per hour/day on the cycle path.

In Other News

As most of you certainly heard, Northern Ireland is heading for new elections in the next months. It is a shame that we might lose a minister that has been so involved and committed to pushing for more and better sustainable transport solutions. Any prediction of events at this time is only guessing, but the one thing we must do is to keep lobbying for better conditions for the most vulnerable users. In the end, we might not need to worry much as over 2/3 of MLA’s elected in the previous election approved and committed to better cycling conditions, as Bikefast reported. Cycling conditions seems to be at top of table, as, part of Belfast Streets Ahead – phase 3, there is a prediction for the installation of cycle lanes on Fredrick St and Great Patrick St. Unfortunately, there are no more details on it, not even in the Department for Communities official documents about the Belfast Streets Ahead project.

Cycling conditions seem to be at top of table, as there is a prediction for the installation of cycle lanes on Fredrick St and Great Patrick St, according to the latest DfI Control of Traffic order related to the Belfast Streets Ahead project. Unfortunately, there are no more details on it, not even in the Department for Communities official documents about the Belfast Streets Ahead project.

Provide cycle lanes on lengths of Frederick Street and Great Patrick Street – DfI Belfast Streets Ahead Control of Traffic Document

Conclusion

We are entering 2017 in an exciting way. The project is promising and should help to get visually more bicycles entering Belfast. Though we might be in a tumultuous and uncertain time politically, we should remain hopeful that these projects are secure to go ahead and be finished during this year no matter who the heads of the department.

It is also expected that additional cycle path plans to be made available for consultation soon (High St and new Belfast Cycle Network routes), which shows what an evolving year this can be for Belfast and Northern Ireland.

 

Happy Cycling!

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