Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Should you try cycling in town? On your bike!

Belfast's bicycle lanes are meant to protect cyclists. But they're really just the road to nowhere, says Michael Wolsey

Amelia Street was once the centre of Belfast's most notorious red light district. Today, it is a pleasant little street with the Crown Bar at one end and a small plaza at the other.

In between, there are a couple of takeaway restaurants, an off-licence and a busy taxi rank. It also has a cycle lane.

Council workers arrived about a year ago and painted a green track with bicycle markings along half the length of this short street.

Recently, they have re-painted it. It wasn't bicycles that wore away the paint, I can assure you.

Cyclists have almost no chance of getting into this lane. Taxis park in it, as do private cars and delivery vans.

On summer evenings, customers spill out of the Crown and stand chatting in it. Sometimes there are wheelie bins in it.

But the one thing you will never see there is a bicycle, even if the lane is not blocked. And that's hardly surprising.

You can walk the length of Amelia Street in less than two minutes and you could cycle the length of this green track in 30 seconds.

But who on earth would want to cycle for 20 metres on a lane that begins halfway down a street and joins up with nothing at all?

There are cycle lanes like this all over Belfast, starting nowhere in particular and leading to nowhere of any importance. They appear to have been allocated at random by someone with a surplus of green paint.

A glance at Belfast City Council's website gives a different impression. The city appears to have quite a generous allocation of cycle tracks and, although they don't link up with each other, they do loop and wind through a good few miles.

But look more closely and you will see that most of these lanes are in parks, beside walkways, or down by the river. They are for leisure cycling.

When it comes to commuter cycle lanes, the sort that would bring a cyclist to work anywhere around the city centre, the situation is farcical, with little bits of lanes popping up here and vanishing there, and no attempt at anything like co-ordination.

A right turn at the end of Amelia Street leads to Franklin Street. It's a narrow thoroughfare that runs parallel with Howard Street and May Street. It crosses Bedford Street, changes its name to Hamilton Street and eventually comes out onto Cromac Street at a busy junction.

About nine-tenths of the way down this route, after it has crossed the major roads and become Hamilton Street, a cycle lane suddenly appears. It is on one side of the road only, the left-hand side if you're coming from the city centre. It runs for about 100 metres and ends at Cromac Street.

So what's the thinking here? Who are these lanes meant to benefit

Clearly, they would be very helpful for a cyclist who has managed somehow to land in the city centre complete with bike and decides to carry it to Amelia Street, push it halfway down the street and ride it for 30 seconds before dismounting and walking down Franklin Street, pushing the bike again.

After half-a-mile or so, this cyclist would obviously be feeling tired and would be delighted to cycle for another whole minute. Fully recovered, they could then start pushing again at Cromac Street.

Is that who the council has in mind?

Or do the city planners think Franklin Street and Hamilton Street are perfectly safe for cyclists along most of their length, but present mysterious hazards along one small stretch on one side only? Do the city planners think about cyclists at all?

Since we are down in that part of town, consider the oddity of the cycle lane that suddenly appears on East Bridge Street, opposite St George's Market. This runs for an even shorter distance than the Hamilton Street lane and again ends at Cromac Street.

It's on the left-hand side of the road if you're heading into the city centre.

To get there you've probably come from the east side of town. So let's see now. You've carried your bike from Ballymacarret. You took advantage of a little bit of cycle lane on the Albertbridge Road.

Then you got back on your feet, carried the bike over the bridge, huffed and puffed past Central Station and then, wow, you discovered the chance for some serious pedalling at last. Wasn't it good of the council to provide you with 50 metres of safe cycling?

That brief track ends at a hazardous junction. There are green markings in the middle of the road which appear to mean either that cyclists should dismount and walk across at the lights, or that they should cut across several lanes of traffic and position themselves to turn left or right.

I have never seen a cyclist perform this hazardous manoeuvre and I don't blame them.

Bicycle lanes are meant to protect cyclists. Belfast's green lanes will, at worst, lead them into danger; at best, up the garden path.

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