Exciting things are happening in Belfast these days. As the city increasingly becomes a ‘must visit’ destination, Belfast is moving ahead with developing active and sustainable transport on a broad front.
Impetus has been provided with the region’s draft Programme for Government (PfG), which places sustainable travel at centre stage with the key objective of increasing the number of journeys made by walking, cycling and public transport.
One of the Northern Ireland Executive’s flagship projects is Belfast Rapid Transit (the ‘Glider’, pictured) which is due to enter service in September 2018. Ten years in the gestation, this innovative and ambitious project will create a new and dynamic public transport system in the city – providing people with better access to jobs, hospitals, shops, schools, colleges, and entertainment.
Glider will offer a modern, comfortable environment for passengers in terms of space, security and on-board information. It will incorporate high quality halts with easy access to vehicles, real time information systems for easier journey planning and off-vehicle ticketing to speed up the boarding process.
Important features will include high standards of reliability with punctual service operation and predictable journey times and excellent integration with other modes of sustainable transport including secure bicycle parking facilities at key halts.
As well as providing services connecting east and west Belfast, Titanic Quarter and key locations both in the city centre and along the Glider corridors, services will be tailored to meet times of peak demand such as major sporting or entertainment events.
Feeder and complementary services will also be provided with appropriate interchange facilities and co-ordinated timetables. The speed, reliability and comfort of the Glider services will provide an attractive alternative to private car use.
That imperative of modal shift in a city where even the majority of shorter journeys are undertaken by private car is a challenge that has been embraced by both the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure and the Belfast City Council.
2017 saw the completion of the Connswater Community Greenway – a six mile linear park connecting the open and green spaces along the Connswater, Knock and Loop Rivers. The Greenway includes 10 miles of walking and cycling paths for everyday journeys and has created vibrant, attractive, safe and accessible parkland for leisure, recreation, community events and activities. It also includes significant flood alleviation measures in the design.
The Department’s Bicycle Strategy was published in August 2015. It sets out the Department’s vision for ‘a community where people have the freedom and confidence to travel by bicycle for everyday journeys’.
Central to this is the three pillar approach of building a comprehensive network for the bicycle, supporting people who choose to travel by bicycle and promoting the bicycle as a mode of transport for everyday journeys. More recently, the Department has extended this vision and approach to encourage more walking.
Over the past two years, there have been real improvements in the Bicycle Network in Belfast. In 2016, dedicated cycle tracks were opened in Arthur Street and Durham – providing dedicated cycle space to connect the city centre with existing shared paths to the south and west of the city. This year, a further dedicated track in Middlepath Street will connect the city centre more directly to the Comber Greenway and the Connswater Community Greenway in the east of the city.
Victoria Park looking East, part of the Connswater Community Greenway
Three years ago the Department provided the City Council with funding through its Active Travel Demonstration programme for a public bike share scheme. ‘Belfast Bikes’ was launched in April 2015 and its forty docking stations attract over 200,000 bike hires annually. It has proved to be a low-cost convenient way of travelling around the city for residents and visitors alike. A fitting testimony to the city where the pneumatic bicycle tyre was invented 125 years ago!
Another flagship project in Belfast is the Belfast Transport Hub. This aims to develop an integrated transport interchange comprising a station concourse, bus stands, railway platforms, bus maintenance and parking, an active travel hub, public bike hire and a new public square. The objective is to integrate together sustainable modes of travel and link the hub with the emerging Belfast Bicycle Network so that no one will have to consider using the car to make their journey.
These are some of the small steps taken to make sustainable transport the mode of choice in Belfast.
Dr Andrew Grieve is head of the Walking and Cycling Unit in the Department for Infrastructure,