Moving people well across traffic intersections is fundamental to keep the traffic flowing as steady as possible. For motor vehicle traffic it is sometimes complicated (and expensive) to build such infrastructure, as shown in the York Street interchange.
Fortunately, for cycling, the needs are different and easier to attain. The solutions are similar to motor vehicles (bridges and underpasses), but the mass and volume difference between both modes means that cycling is far easier to provide. The creation of connections and links that will enable a grid-like network makes it a much less inexpensive investment and promotes more the use of a bicycle for movement, due to the lower interaction with motor vehicles.
Bridges are sometimes the best solution to go across some terrain. The topography and infrastructure already existing do not allow a different approach, like the proposed Gasworks-Ormeau Park bridge.
However, bridges have some drawbacks. They require people to climb first and descend after, which involves a bigger effort at the beginning. This is contrary to the steady speed of riding a bicycle and to conform to it lengthy approaches to the bridges are needed.
On the other hand, underpasses can be built with much less footprint and provide a more flat terrain that requires little extra effort than usual.
The main issue with underpasses is the potential for unsocial behaviour. This is a real concern and needs to be tackled adequately. From an infrastructure perspective, it is ideal to provide the underpass as much lighting as possible. This can be achieved by having the walls to recede towards the top and if it goes under a roundabout to open up its centre. For night-time, if possible, it would also be an advantage to have artificial lighting to increase safety.
How is it used in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands, there are multiple examples, from an underpass to continue a canal route to one that goes underneath busy junctions/roundabouts.
Some examples from the Netherland show how effortless and with good levels of social safety underpasses can be built. Note the separation between pedestrian and cycle infrastructure.
What about Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland current infrastructure can’t be compared with the one from the Netherlands.
Belfast is a mixed bag. The Tyllisburn roundabout underpass is airy and allows plenty of light in the middle of the roundabout. The underpasses themselves appear quite narrow but seem short enough for that to not constitute a problem. Also worth noting the separation between cycling and pedestrian infrastructure and the lack of maintenance.
On the other hand, there are plenty of box type underpasses. These do not have enough light coming in and some are even shared with motor vehicles, like the access to Victoria Park in the video below (around minute 2:57).
Another example is Craigavon. Around the city, there is a nice cycle network that goes under main roads. Because of that, it also as a few number of underpasses to allow continuous cycling and walking. At the 40 seconds of the video below, there is a good example of how to build them with the walls receded towards the top.
What about crime?
Crime is important and should be prevented as much as it is possible. With good lighting and adequate space, an underpass can be made less attractive for anti-social behaviour. Nonetheless, data is already available for this and during the past year only four incidents were registered near the underpass praised above at Craigavon.
However, if some places are becoming, unfortunately, popular, adequate enforcement to discourage such practices should be an active option.
Belfast Bicycle Network Plan
We are on the eve of the response to the Belfast Bicycle Network Plan consultation. This can represent a great modal shift if done properly. On the subject of moving people without traffic interaction, there have been new proposed underpasses in the Ormeau Bridge and Kings Bridge junction and reopening underpasses at Kings Road and Abbey Road. However, one new possibility has been overlooked.
On the route 4 east (which has a very difficult climb on Beechil Rd – 1km (0,6mi) at 4,4% average and 19% maximum gradients), there is a very interesting idea of connecting the Cairnshill Park and Ride to the city centre via the Lagan Towpath and a new path to be constructed along the Belvoir Forest Park. The new path is expected to reach the outer ring road much above than it actually needs. This will lead to a less safe, convenient and direct route than it can actually be.
A different option would be to avoid the existing footpath bridge (which is not very suitable for the route) and move the route more in front of Beechil Rd and create an underpass in that area. A satellite image shows that there are already existing paths directly in front of Beechil Rd and it would be much straight forward for people cycling and walking to just cross the Outer Ring Road through an easy access underpass.
This is a golden opportunity to provide better access for cycling (and walking) and to make it safer, easier and more convenient for vulnerable users to cross large roads with plenty of motor traffic in it.
This seemed to be considered (in terms of underpass infrastructure) above my expectations and it is a welcoming feature in the plan.
Nonetheless, as above is an example that was overlooked additional examples might be found; and existing infrastructure should also be improved.
It is also important to note that wherever there is a case where a major infrastructure redevelopment is happening, it is a massive opportunity to make life safer and more convenient for people willing to cycle and walk in every point of the network.