Thursday, 1 March 2012

Connecting Places Mini Series: Bicycling Belfast: Part 4: Beyond Commuting - Active Travel and Local Economies

In this series, Connecting Places, we explore the spaces, places and sustainable transport systems in Belfast and beyond, with an aim to generate critical debate on the design of our towns and cities.
Series curated by Aaron Coulter 

For previous posts from this series click here

Part 4: Beyond Commuting - Active Travel and Local Economies

Active Travel and Local Economies
(Credit: Aaron Coulter)
Naturally, a lot of focus throughout this week has been placed on bicycle access to Belfast City Centre. One reason for this is the fact that most of the statistical information gathered regards commuting and 19.5% of all trips taken in Northern Ireland, by all modes, are to get to work (TSNI, P23, 2008-2010).

However, a significant percentage of journeys are also made for shopping (20.1%) and Leisure (22.5%) (TSNI, P23, 2008-2010). Tackling these trips, as well as the more obvious commuting trips, could be a highly beneficial strategy for our ailing local centres in Belfast.

In this penultimate post of Bicycling Belfast, we will investigate the potential regenerative effect of improving levels of access for both the bicycle and pedestrian to our local centres.

Joe Peach from the award winning blog This Big City tackled this issue in November of last year in the article 'Local Economic Implications of Urban Bicycle Networks', providing insight into some of the research that has been carried out,

'A study from Australia attempts to put some figures behind this thinking. Based on data from more than 1,000 survey respondents, Alison Lee found that, even though cyclists spend less on average, improvements to urban bicycle networks still bring retail benefits. Lee suggests that by replacing one car parking space with six bicycle parking facilities, the lower average spend of a cyclist could be multiplied, offering improved revenue opportunities for nearby businesses. Of course, this simple mathematical equation, whilst theoretically true, assumes enough demand to keep the bicycle parking facilities adequately full.
Despite this, Lee’s findings are remarkably similar to a study from the Dutch city of Utrecht which found that whilst bicycle-based consumers spend less per transaction, they make more visits and spend the most collectively. This isn’t the only connection - a German study found similar results, calling cyclists ‘better customers’ due to them making eleven trips per month compared to seven for motorists. And the Swiss are in on it too, where research into parking space profitability found that each square metre of bicycle parking generated €7500 compared to €6625 for cars. This seems to confirm basic logic - devoid of any significant storage space, cyclists are likely to spend less and shop more.'

Similarly, evidence from initiatives such as San Francisco's 'Pavement to Parks' programme highlights the economic importance of providing space for people to stay in an area rather than simply passing through it.

Noe Valley Parklets - San Francisco
(Source: Pavement to Parks)
So what does all of this mean for us in Belfast?

Taking the Lower Newtownards Road as a short case study we will see what provisions are made for cyclists and pedestrians posing the question, 'could improving cycling provision play a role in economic regeneration?'

While this short study is focused on a specific local centre in East Belfast, there are common traits found here that are found within the rest of the city. In this example is it clear that the dominant driver (excuse the pun) behind the design of the area is maximising provisions for the car. Let it be clear that I am not anti-car, however, when there is an over emphasis on making space for private cars at the expense of being able to move through the area by foot or bicycle then problems begin to surface, including problems regarding economic performance.

40% Vacancy Rate along Lower Newtownards Rd
(Credit: Aaron Coulter)
At present, approximately 40% of the units along the Lower Newtownards Road are vacant with this figure rising if you take into consideration the proliferation of fast food shops with shutters down until around 5pm. I am well aware that we are in the midst of hard times with regards 'retail', however when 14% vacancy is the average rate for town centres in Northern Ireland, we have to really investigate what is going so wrong in this area.

While the Lower Newtownards Rd is not a strictly town centre, it more or less functions as one for local communities and there are undoubtedly some nuances regarding this study area in particular, but the main question being asked is 'does the design of the Lower Newtownards Road effect how people use it?'.

Only 34.9% of people living in Ballymacarrett Electoral Ward area (NINIS, 2001) have access to a car, yet if you travel to the Newtownards Rd there is, almost always, a large volume of cars, many of which are simply passing through the area, not stopping, and not bringing any added economic benefit.

Due to the road's status as an arterial route, the overwhelming priority is placed on moving these cars through the area, and this is coming at a price to the local economy. The high volume of cars creates difficulty with regards pedestrian movement, especially in view of the fact that there are relatively few  crossings and when the road is not congested, it's fast moving, due to the 30mph speed limit. While it may be easy for middle aged men and women to overcome these challenges to movement, they become all the more acute as you move to either end of the age spectrum.

This is then combined with a distinct lack of invitation to stay in the area. Yes the pavements have been resurfaced, and look a lot better for it, but there are no public spaces along the route, and the impression given is that the road is somewhere to pass through rather than go to. When I say public space I am not talking about grand squares, but instead very simple and almost incidental spaces along the road that extend that invitation for people to stay in the area. Examples such as that outlined at the beginning of this article in San Francisco as well as the more obvious public plaza programme from NYC come to mind. However, we will continually fall victim to the legacy of 'designing in distrust' that has occurred throughout open spaces in Belfast, many of which have been designed in an effort to deter 'unwelcome guests' with the end result being that no-one uses the spaces.

Contender for Belfast's shortest cycle lane
(Credit: Aaron Coulter)
The 'bicycle lanes' along the road have already been mentioned this week in Part 3. However, possibly the most surprising statistic from the brief study is that there is only one bicycle rack with space for two bicycles along the entirety of the road. Given that this is meant to be a local hub and that people are not coming here to buy big bulky items, should we not be making it as easy as possible for people to cycle to the shops and lock their bike safely? Given that the aforementioned resurfacing of the pavement is probably among the newest developments within local centres such as these, surely adequate cycle storage should have been thought of?

Cycle storage replacing car parking
(Credit: Do Not Smile)
All of these issues regarding movement and access become of even greater importance in times of economic recession. Local centres need to maximise the opportunity for people to access the services on offer through a variety of transportation options that look beyond the private vehicle, particularly in areas such as these where large numbers of local inhabitants do not have access to a car. Perhaps if our local centres are to thrive we need to reconceptualise their role within communities, how we use them and how we access them.

By moving towards an idea of a street rather than a road, this idea starts to become achievable. Designing streets that are walkable for people from 6 to 60, that allow an ease of access for cyclists as well as storage facilitates and that extend an invitation for people to stay in the area we place the priority back on people and community and away from the detrimental impact of cars.

Whilst I am certainly not saying that improving access for Pedestrians and Cyclists will be the magic formulae for these areas, there are far greater forces at work than improved access can tackle, however evidence would suggest that significantly improving access for pedestrian and bicycles can play a role in increasing the viability of local centres.

Share your views...

What provisions are made in your local shopping area? How can we make access to these areas easier?

Continue the conversation with Aaron on Twitter #bicyclingbelfast (top tweets will feature in a last of series blog post, remember to use hashtag #bicyclingbelfast)

1 comment:

Joel Binkley said...

I do agree with your assessment that the Lower Newtownards Road is primarily engineered to move vehicles through the area as quickly as possible, and its a shame that such an important local centre with a wealth of historic buildings is underutilised. I would suggest, however, that another major impediment to regeneration (and also, possibly, an incentive for automobile users to drive as quickly as possible through the area) are the large, blatant, and intimidating paramilitary displays, especially around Dee Street. Speaking as someone who is not from this country, the site of such imagery is not welcoming at all, and given the opportunity to venture down another street equally unfriendly to cyclists, I'll take the one without the murals of gunmen, thanks! I would also imagine many local people feel the same way (not to mention existing and potential shop owners) but would never say so publicly.
I applaud the work that the East Belfast Partnership has done in the area and the completion of the Skainois project as well should have important regeneration impacts on the Lower Newtownards, so I hope a solution is found at some stage regarding murals and flags. Add in some better cycling infrastructure and you could have quite the success story.