Bolt down barriers recently introduced on a controversial city centre cycle lane, infamous for the number of parked cars and bins regularly strewn across it, have allegedly been vandalised, just two weeks after the Department for Infrastructure claimed that the new protective measures would make the lane “inaccessible to cars”.
The plastic barriers were installed at the end of August on Belfast’s Hardcastle Street, replacing the flimsy plastic bollards that were in place since the pop-up cycle lane was introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic, but were pictured earlier this week dismantled and left abandoned on a piece of cycling infrastructure described by one local councillor as a “danger to those who try to use it”.
Following this week’s vandalism, Belfast City councillor Tara Brooks called on the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) to make the cycle lane on Hardcastle Street permanent, installing “robust” segregation and clamping down on car parking in the process, “before someone gets seriously hurt”.
As we have reported on several occasions on the road.cc live blog, the lane – a key route for cyclists into the city centre – has become a lightning rod for growing criticism of the Northern Ireland government’s approach to active travel, thanks to the seemingly routine sight of parked cars and vans, as well as bins from local businesses, blocking (sometimes completely) the apparently ‘protected’ cycling infrastructure.
Reports have also emerged of cyclists being ‘doored’ by motorists emerging from their vehicles along the cycle lane, and of confrontations between drivers and cyclists.
After months of increasingly vocal frustration and complaints from local cyclists and campaign groups that one of Belfast’s only segregated cycle lanes was effectively a “car park”, two weeks ago the Department for Infrastructure decided – while the legislative process to make the pop-up lane permanent is still ongoing – to hastily trial new bolt down barriers, which the department claimed would curb “inconsiderate parking” and “make the cycle lane inaccessible to cars”.
However, less than a fortnight into the trial it appears that the new barriers have proved woefully ineffective when it comes to protecting cyclists using the lane or preventing it from resembling, as many locals have pointed out, the several car parks that surround it.
An quick explainer…
— CYCUL© (@cyculcc) September 7, 2023
On Thursday evening, Belfast cyclist Steve Roy posted an image on X, formerly Twitter, of the Hardcastle Street cycle lane with the caption “Going backwards”, which showed a number of the newly installed plastic barriers removed from their bases and left in heaps on different parts of the lane, along with at least three vehicles parked on the lane and adjacent pavement.
Follow commuter Dominic Bryan, an anthropology professor at nearby Queen’s University Belfast, also described the image as “depressing” and added that “it beggars belief the way cyclists and cycle infrastructure are treated in Belfast”.
Earlier in the week, Bryan had posted another photo of the “improved” cycle lane, featuring what he said was one of the four cars parked along it:
The latest from the new ‘improved’ cycle lane in Hardcastle Street. This was one of four cars that were parked in the cycle lane. 🤷🏽 @deptinfra @Bel_Cycle_Camp @SustransNI @CyclingUK_NI @NBCycleCampaign @belfastcc pic.twitter.com/kk6cNSDPAQ
— Dominic Bryan (@Domsball) September 4, 2023
“We need action,” the Belfast Cycling Campaign also tweeted. “Parking should not be free in a city centre, let alone parking in a cycle lane having no consequences.”
Tara Brooks, an Alliance Party councillor for Balmoral, told road.cc that the current situation on Hardcastle Street is a symptom of the failure to deliver protected cycling infrastructure in Belfast, and called on the Department for Infrastructure to “recognise their responsibility” to keep people on bikes safe.
“The cycling infrastructure in Belfast is clearly not a priority for the Department for Infrastructure, who have failed to deliver safe and accessible cycling infrastructure within the city,” Brooks told road.cc.
“The Hardcastle cycle lane is a good example of this. It was installed as a ‘pop up’ cycle lane during the pandemic, but there is no way to enforce the lane or punish those who park there.
“As it stands the cycle lane is a danger to those who try to use it – I have heard of people being accidentally hit by car doors, or ‘doored’, and verbally abused after asking drivers to move. DfI did promise to install better barriers, but these have recently been vandalised.”
> “If they can’t build cycle lanes, devolve bloody powers to us and we’ll do it”: Belfast Council slams Northern Ireland government’s “joke” delivery of cycling infrastructure – as just 2.8km of bike lanes installed in two years
She continued: “I wish that, as a councillor, I had the power to go in and sort this out but sadly this is not the case. I call on DfI to recognise their responsibility to keep the users of Belfast’s cycle infrastructure safe, and install a permanent, robust barrier between the cycle lane and the road that cannot be taken apart in a matter of minutes.
“When I wrote to DfI about this, suggesting a double yellow line the length of the cycle lane, they replied to say that ‘Resources would be better directed to the development of a permanent solution, which would have separate legislation to enable parking enforcement to be undertaken’.
“I am asking DfI now to do this, to commit the resources to sorting out this cycle lane in terms of physical infrastructure and enforcement legislation, before someone gets seriously hurt.”
Credit: North Belfast Cycle Campaign
When approached by road.cc for comment, a DfI spokesperson said that the government department “is committed to improving our active travel and public transport infrastructure as a crucial way of reducing car dependency”, and that further measures will be introduced to prevent motorists from parking on Hardcastle Street.
“The Department has for many years worked with partners across all sectors to deliver better active travel infrastructure and a range of measures are being implemented. This included a number of pop-up cycle lanes in Belfast City centre such as the one at Hardcastle Street, which were introduced during the Covid pandemic,” the spokesperson said.
“The Traffic Management (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 only gives the department the power to issue Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs) when a vehicle is detected parked on a legislated Mandatory Cycle Lane.
“However, it is the department’s intention to carry out a consultation for a permanent cycle lane along this pop-up route which would bring forward legislation to enforce the current inconsiderate parking taking place.
“The department recognises the frustration caused by inconsiderate parking on cycle lanes across the city. While the legislative process to make the pop-up cycle permanent is ongoing, the department undertook a trial of new bolt down barriers at Hardcastle Street as a method of making the cycle lanes inaccessible to cars, however drivers have continued to access and obstruct the lanes. “We are now taking steps to implement further measures to avoid this happening again and continue to appeal to drivers to respect everyone’s journey and think before you park.”
Despite the DfI’s latest commitment to introducing more protection for cyclists on Hardcastle Street, the ongoing failure to prevent motorists from using one of Belfast’s relatively few ‘segregated’ bike lanes will do little to quell the belief that the Northern Ireland government’s stance on active travel is rooted in inaction.
In February we reported that active travel charity Sustrans had described the situation on Hardcastle Street as “disgraceful – every single day, no action”.
“This is one of Belfast's ONLY ‘separated’ cycle lanes,” the North Belfast Cycle Campaign also noted. “This is the ONLY safe route across town. How is this acceptable?”
The introduction of the plastic bollards on Hardcastle Street in August also came in the same week Northern Ireland’s All Party Cycling Group outlined its vision for a “better cycling future”, and just days after councillors in Belfast launched a scathing attack on the currently mothballed Stormont executive and what they describe as its “joke” approach to cycling infrastructure.
At the All Party Cycling Group meeting, calls were made for the DfI “to step up and build infrastructure and maintain the paltry infrastructure that does exist” to make active travel safer and more accessible, while Cycling UK emphasised the business case for installing more cycle lanes.
Cycling UK’s Andrew McClean also proposed painting double yellow lines on cycle lanes in a bid to stop motorists from parking in them.
“The DfI said that’s not a bad idea... it’s such an obvious solution but now they are only considering it,” McClean said, before adding that the group agreed that “one of the most important things we can do is enforce existing laws”.
At a meeting of Belfast City Council’s Growth and Regeneration Committee, Brooks’ fellow Alliance Party councillor Micky Murray said: “There is quite a lot going to DfI but not a lot coming back from DfI, especially with cycling network plans.
“As a major stakeholder/deliverer of cycling infrastructure, we are doing our bit in terms of cycling enabling infrastructure. But the information DfI is coming back with on their plan is a bit of a joke. The information just isn’t adequate.”
Green councillor Anthony Flynn was equally scathing about the lack of delivery stemming from the government’s cycle network plans, which he described as “incredibly frustrating” and “ridiculous”.
“With £700,000 they have delivered 2.8 kilometres in the last two years,” he said. “I am exasperated with that, to be honest. We had the Belfast Cycling Network Delivery Plan two years ago – there was an £11 million budget, and again we are left with little to no delivery, which is incredibly frustrating.
“Where are the roadblocks? What are the roadblocks? And if they cannot do it, devolve bloody powers to us and we will do it.
“We are talking about an active travel spend per capita in Northern Ireland of £7.20, while in Scotland it is £20 per head. We are a significant outlier in the United Kingdom. DfI is the department that should be coming up with results when it comes to active travel spend per head, and they are not doing it. 2.8 kilometres in the last two years – ridiculous.
“We need answers from them because there is an underspend here also. And most of the budget was spent on the signalling upgrade. So, where are the cycling lanes?”
Responding to road.cc’s questions concerning the widespread criticism of the department’s active travel delivery, the DfI spokesperson said: “On wider improvements for cyclists the department is working closely with councils to better understand their five-year Active Travel programme and developing an appropriate grant and support framework for the delivery of Greenways.
“We have commissioned a Northern Ireland-wide Active Travel Network Delivery plan which, when complete, will provide a firm basis for the prioritisation of the delivery of high quality active travel infrastructure within and connecting our towns and cities, this is due for consultation in 2024.
“The plan will complement and take account of the Belfast Cycle Network Delivery Plan and the greenways network. Other developments in the current year include the opening of Strathfoyle Greenway which the department co-funded, engagement on the development of the West Belfast Greenway, opening of the Coleraine Ring Road enhancing provisions for active travel, and a major upgrade to Jane’s Shore co-funded by the department.”
Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.