Cyclists' joy as minister commissions study for a car-free Lagan bridge
Imagine heading along the towpath at lunchtime, strolling across the Lagan on a footbridge and eating your sandwiches in Ormeau Park.
The idea of a bridge across the River Lagan for walkers and cyclists has been mooted for years, but seemed like it had long run out of steam – until now.
Now Transport Minister Danny Kennedy has surprised everyone with an announcement that he would be commissioning a feasibility study into proposals for a bridge connecting the Gasworks to Ormeau Park.
It would mean cyclists commuting into the city centre from east Belfast would no longer have to contend with horrendous traffic on the Ormeau and Albert Bridges, while Ormeau Park would effectively become a city centre park where workers could spend a pleasant hour over lunchtime before returning to the grind.
The idea of a Gasworks Bridge was proposed years ago by Laganside Corporation, was included in the Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan and was suggested as part of the National Stadium proposal for Ormeau Park. But somehow it never happened.
A Department of Regional Development spokesman confirmed: "DRD Minister Danny Kennedy MLA announced at the Cycling Touring Club public meeting on Wednesday night that he has instructed officials to commission a feasibility study into the Lagan Bridge cycle/pedestrian bridge proposal.
"There is no start date at this stage but the minister sees this as a priority going forward."
The project has been estimated to cost in the region of £4m to £8m, and spanning the 140 metres between the Lagan entrance to the Gasworks sites and the Ravenhill Reach car park beside Ormeau Park.
According to cycling campaigner Jonathan Hobbs, the project would make a huge difference to physically disconnected wards in east Belfast such as Woodstock and Ballynafeigh, where commuters are deterred from walking to work in the city centre by the long diversions needed to get to their destination.
More than 40% of commuters from Shaftesbury and Botanic wards travel by foot but in Woodstock and Ballynafeigh wards the share is down to 25% and in Ravenhill it's only 20%.
However, Woodstock, Ravenhill and Ballynafeigh are the top three wards in the whole of Northern Ireland by cycling commuter share at 5-6%.
"A startling 51% of households in Woodstock have no access to a car or van, over double the rate of Northern Ireland as a whole.
"Direct traffic-free access into the city centre is both desirable and necessary here," Mr Hobbs said.
"Belfast has seen a 60% rise in cycling commuters between 2001 and 2011. If a Gasworks Bridge contributed to a doubling of cycling levels in these top three wards by 2021, cycling levels would outstrip even bus commuting here, which begins to fundamentally change the inner city transport dynamics.
"By upgrading cycling routes beyond Ormeau Park, across traffic-calmed residential streets towards Cregagh and Castlereagh Roads and the two Greenways, a genuine and attractive alternative to car travel becomes possible for a large part of South East Belfast. A positive impact on inner city traffic levels must be considered a key element of the bridge's benefit.
"The existing connections between the city centre and the suburbs of South and East Belfast have become scenes of cycling commuter stress and conflict. The area is poorly served by just two main access points across the Lagan a mile apart, the Ormeau Bridge and the Albert Bridge."
"For travelling into town, the Ormeau Bridge and Albert Bridge are congested and very intimidating places to cycle and not particularly pleasant for walking. Traffic-free routes are popular and this traffic-free bridge would provide a safe pleasant connection between the city centre and east Belfast. I think particularly from the cycling point of view, particularly for women and children and the more vulnerable cyclists who don't feel safe in bus lanes, it would provide a higher quality traffic free route."
Steven Patterson, Northern Ireland director of Sustrans who has been lobbying for a Gasworks Bridge for 10 years.