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Streets ahead? The view from Belfast

Last year we welcomed the Department for Transport's Access Fund, which supports local walking and cycling schemes that connect people to jobs.

While we saw this as a small step in the right direction for sustainable transport, the fund is limited to £60M and only local councils in England, excluding London, are able to apply.

Do devolved governments in the rest of the UK match up? Patrick FitzSymons has written us this guest blog on the state of provision for pedestrians in Belfast.

Pavements? Oh yes, I remember them. Used to be the means by which those without wheels got about. Y'know...pedestrians? Now they're a slalom course of half-parked cars, commercial signage and skips, with an extra frisson of danger courtesy of those daredevil Deliveroo couriers.

At the bottom end of consideration when it comes to transport policy, I can't help thinking, as I negotiate the pavements of my own south Belfast, that here is the ultimate evidence for the indiscrimate squeezing-from-above. Current transport policy, insofar as it still worships tarmac and individual car ownership, is all washed up. And because our policy makers have been consistently blind to this for many years, now even Shanks' Mare is threatened with the knacker's yard.

Weekdays, Belfast's (major arterial) Lisburn Road is packed to bursting with vehicular traffic. 'Off peak' both sides of it are available for parking. And where parking is unavailable, business owners park on the pavement. The road has no bicycle lanes so cyclists, understandably, take the 'safer' pavement option. Cafes and coffee shops put tables and chairs out, along with promotional signage – as do many other businesses – regardless of the space available. Builders park skips and fence off sections of pavement without warning and irrespective of whether you could push a pram between the new hoardings and the passing cars.

Many of the road's side streets have become de facto car parks during business hours and beyond. Too narrow to accommodate two cars passing, drivers half-park on the pavement, often so tightly to adjoining buildings that pedestrians have to walk on the road to get past.

Provision of adequate, unobstructed walking routes should be an urban guarantee, but the reality would seem to suggest that pedestrian traffic is oh-so not on the agenda.

Solutions? Well, a complete root and branch overhaul of our national thinking on road traffic being a given, let's look at some of the specific issues arising above.

  • Car parking... All major roads should become 8am - 6pm clearways, and where two lanes are available in each direction, the innermost on either side should give priority to public transport and cyclists. Parking on the pavement at any time, and even in part, should become a rigorously-applied ticketable offence. Any side street that can't accommodate two cars passing without cars parking on the pavement should be designated one-way.
  • Cycling...  To be encouraged of course! Priority lanes described above will give some relief, but also –  and only where pavements are broad enough – a part should be made exclusively available to cyclists, with dropped kerbs. These lanes should be subject to reasonable speed restrictions. Cycling should be completely prohibited on side street pavements.
  • Cafe overspill... Sure, but only where the pavement width allows for it, and subject to licence. 
  • On-street signage... Put it somewhere that offers zero obstruction or get rid of it. Neither of these latter issues seems the subject of local council scrutiny at present, and they should be.
  • Building sites... Unavoidable, but where safety or security barriers are required, they should be under licence and never at the expense of reasonable pedestrian access without alternative provision being made.

There's a lot here to get one's head around. Many of our current problems arise from having to work with a road and pavement infrastructure that just doesn't work in the 21st century. Hopefully we can evolve through this and elect representatives capable of planning ahead. 

I can hear many car owners protesting that they have inadequate parking provision if such plans were implemented. Agreed. At present the impact you have on roads and road safety is much too costly for the rest of us, and has to change. Fight for better public transport links – but don't presume on-pavement parking to be your right. Local government needs to put a shift in here, and promptly, on issues such as clearways and one-way systems.

The present situation is untenable. Pedestrians are fighting back.


Campaign for Better Transport is backing Living Streets and Guide Dogs UK in calling for more powers to ban pavement parking. You can join the campaign here