Belfast Bicycle Network

I’ll start by saying that bicycle infrastructure doesn’t ring my bell. There’s been little to get excited about over the past 2–3 decades. ‘Bike lanes’ are usually rolled out under the cover of darkness, at a pace of 100m per year with no public consultation.

However, things seemed to have changed. Danny Kennedy cycled his road to Damascus and returned a fully paid up Fréd. A dedicated Cycling Unit was established within the Department of Infrastructure and a major conference followed shortly afterward. In September 2016 Chris Hazzard (Infrastructure Minister) maintained the momentum by releasing this latest proposal for consultation. It was greeted with much enthusiasm. The headlines were positive:

  • 128km of cycle network (primary and secondary);
  • 2/3 of Belfast City residents within 400m of primary network.

Pushing off

Infrastructure involves multi agencies and multi million pound budgets. Once the wheels are in motion there’s little opportunity to pull the brakes and make a quick change in direction. Getting this wrong will not only doom the bicycle as a viable transport solution (for at least a few generations) in Belfast but also across Northern Ireland.

For what it’s worth we’ve responded to the questions set out in the “Have your say” document and dropped in some comments along the way. (BTW I would have loved to have seen a condensed version of this produced specifically for primary and secondary schools)

1. Do you agree that producing a Bicycle Network for Belfast is an important element of developing a bicycle friendly city? If so what timeframe do you think it should cover?

Yes - a network is undoubtedly key in developing a bicycle friendly city. However, a badly designed network will have the opposite effect - you won’t get a second bite of the cherry. If Belfast wishes to become a bike friendly city like Berlin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen even Dublin - and it certainly has the potential to be one - planning must be more ambitious and the timeframe much shorter.

2. Do you agree that the following five criteria are still valid for the development of a network for Belfast? If not what do you consider the criteria should be? Coherence, Directness, Attractiveness, Safety and Comfort

Yes - but start with directness as a cornerstone. Everyone wants to go from A-B in the shortest distance regardless of mode. Directness for cycling means segregated cycle lanes. Directness means arterial routes (Ormeau Rd, Newtownards Rd, Lisburn Rd, Falls Rd, Antrim Rd). That in turn automatically builds in safety which ensures coherence, attractiveness and comfort. This proposed network will have the opposite of direct. Avoiding the most direct (and yes, contentious) routes means you get to skimp on safety which in turn undermines coherence and compromises attractiveness.

Network v Heatmap

3. Do you agree that the development of a Belfast Bicycle Network is a key element in giving those who would like to cycle freedom and confidence to do so?

Yes - but freedom means the ability to access schools, work, leisure, shopping, medical, community, entertainment etc. Below is an image of the current network proposal (blue lines) in East Belfast. The dots represent Active Places - in this case they are schools, community centres, leisure centres, parks etc. The Newtownards Road and Castlereagh road are avoided in favour of the Comber and Connswater Greenways leaving massive holes in the Net(work).

“Active Places” overlaid on the proposed network:
4. Do you agree that the following objectives should be applied to the Belfast Bicycle Network? If not what objectives do you think should be set?
Develop a comprehensive bicycle network for commuter, amenity & recreational cycling; Bring good quality cycling routes within reach of most people in the city; To ensure a consistent level of service in the design of safe infrastructure; Encourage use of bicycle and promote safe cycling

Yes - but the network laid out in the proposal won’t achieve these objectives. Compare the image above with Strava’s Heatmap (below) for the same area. Heatmaps are generated by cyclists running the Strava App. This shows the roads that cyclists already choose to cycle on. The darker the colour the more popular the route. Cyclists have been mapping out the network for several years - the current proposal amounts to one large, annoying diversion sign. The danger is cyclists will ignore the network. I know I would.

Strava Heatmap from East Belfast:

Below are the two maps superimposed on the each other. The inclusion of the Newtownards Rd, Grand Parade and part of the Castlereagh Rd links communities to the places they need to go.

Where they THINK people might cycle v where people already CHOOSE to cycle.

Arterial Routes

5. Do you agree that the primary network should be based on the concept of arterial and orbital routes? If no please state reason.
15. With reference to the appendices in the Bicycle Network please set out your views if any on the proposed routes. We are interested in both the positives or negatives associated with the various sections of the proposed routes.
17. What other alternative routes are available?

The lack of any meaningful arterial routes relegates the proposed ‘orbital’ routes to some curious tourist trail. Arterial roads are key - Ormeau, Lisburn, Antrim, Falls, Newtownards. People identify with those main roads. People say they ‘live off the Antrim Road” or “I live up the Lisburn Rd” even if it’s 3–4 streets off those main roads. They are the focal point of each community. All quiet residential streets flow onto these main roads. Bus networks are designed around this idea. The cycle network must do the same if it is to work. Arterial roads have an embarrassment of space dedicated to the car - 6 lanes in cases where you factor in on-street parking. They connect schools, leisure facilities, residential, work, shops, entertainment. The Dept of Infrastructure needs to have the courage to spend whatever political capital it needs on targeting those roads and commit to making these the backbone of network.

Based on all the information from Heatmaps, Active Places, residential areas, business (+ bike shops) and shopping districts we see a Network of approx. 2 miles in radius. This could be doubled at very little cost with some smart integration (see 8).

How the network might look based on Strava Heatmaps and Active Places.
6. Do you agree that the network should be developed in Primary and Secondary stages as outlined? If not how should it be developed?

No - the network might be better planned and completed in two stages.

East of the Lagan - this is the path of least resistance. The bike has already traction. What infrastructure there is in Belfast has been concentrated East of the Lagan and this has probably created the conditions for the growth in cycling. Build quickly on that success and deliver a network worthy of Holland or Denmark. Learn from mistakes, gather the data and prove that the bicycle is a viable option before heading West of the river.

West of the Lagan - the bike has some way to go. It may be topographic but it’s more than likely cultural. Traffic on the Lisburn Road moves with the pace of tectonic plates. The Falls Road isn’t much better with an even greater reliance on private taxis. Reallocation of space away from the car west of the Lagan will need a lot more political support backed up with hard evidence. The solutions of the East of the river may not be easily tranported across without the endorsement of retailers, businesses and residents East of the river.

7. Do you agree that we should consider requirements of likely users on a scheme by scheme basis eg routes which will primarily be used by children on the school journey may be best served as a shared track? Please provide comments.

No — we feel that slicing and dicing cyclists into different categories (4.3–4.9) depending on the style of bicycle they ride, clothes they wear, age, speed, experience is counter productive. For the network to be coherent, attractive and safe it must stop thinking about “types of cyclists” and start thinking about an average cyclist moving around the city in a consistent, coherent way. Designing for ‘types’ is devisive and exclusive. Design for the average cyclist and everyone wins.

8. Are there any other types of bicycle infrastructure that should be considered? If yes what are they? Do you have any views on which types of infrastructure if any should be favoured in developing a network for Belfast.

The Proposal fails to mention integrating the bicycle into the existing transport infrastructure. For people living outside the immediate ‘network’ it is crucial that both trains and buses become more adaptable at carrying bicycles - throughout the day. This would double or even triple the size of the network for little cost. It would also create the conditions to make cycling a possibility for people living in the more hillier sections of Belfast (North Belfast). Translink seem steadfast in their opposition to carrying bikes on buses and trains but perhaps a trial on the Antrim Rd/Crumlin Rd and trains pre 7.30am would provide the hard evidence needed to start introducing this city wide.

9. Do you support the use of the network requirements as detailed at paragraph 5.1?

Yes — the principles outlined are central to the uptake and growth of the network. The spacing of the “magic wands” in Alfred St highlight what happens when those guiding principles are undermined.

10. Do you agree with the addition of ‘Adaptability’ as a network requirement? What other requirement would you like to see included.
11. Do you agree that the routes should be planned and the facilities designed with the achievement of increasing numbers of people cycling in mind?

Adaptability is good as long as it favours the cyclist at all times. The proposal of running a shuttle bus up the Comber Greenway is the wrong type of adaptability! The network should be planned to take advantage of the “induced demand” that will result from a bold, sensible design on arterial routes. Running the network on arterial roads will generate more views per day than all the car v bike youTube clips combined. Building small stretches/sections dotted across Belfast using signs and paint over a period of 10 years won’t induce demand and the 20% targets laid out in the proposal will remain a pipe dream.

16. What are the specific issues that may arise if bicycle infrastructure was constructed along the proposed route?

This simply won’t convince people out of their cars. It’s neither safe, coherent or attractive. People who already cycle will ignore it and choose the routes they already use (see heatmap). It won’t address congestion on main arterial routes because it fails to re-allocate space away from cars and back to people. It may increase cycling numbers by a few percentage points east of the Lagan but beyond that it’s a fudge and will fail.

The job of the designers is to design the BEST network POSSIBLE and explain its many benefits (in plain English) to the political representatives of greater Belfast. It is then the job of those politicians to sell the benefits to their local communities.

My guess is the Cycling Unit produced a first draft similar to the Network above using all the arterial routes. However, like the network they’re designing they‘re fighting for space within their own department. They need the same backing the Pros from Dover get. Only they’re not demolishing houses, relocating communities, and piping in over 300,000 cars a day. They’re knitting communities together, removing cars and creating space for people.


3.9 …To encourage use of the bicycle and promote safe cycling through increasing the amount of bicycle parking, providing more cycling education programmes for both young people and adults, supporting events to promote cycling.

We’ve been organising The Fréd Festival in Belfast for the past 5 years on a shoestring budget with the help of some very dedicated volunteers. Funding for cycle events is still only available during bike week and in a very roundabout fashion. We need to see a more transparent funding model available for the other 51 weeks in the year. If you’d like some culture on your infrastructure - then you need to support it.