Tuesday, October 25, 2016

When Infrastructure Goes Unused: Some Ideas



Lately there has been talk on social media stemming from accusations that some of the recently built vehicular infrastructure in the city of Belfast goes unused. Normally, I try not to get involved in such discussions, not being resident there myself. But once in a while I do have occasion to visit Belfast. And yesterday I was, frankly, concerned to observe this very phenomenon for myself.

I arrived into the city centre by train in early afternoon and proceeded to cycle some 4 miles to my destination in the industrial outskirts. And while I enjoyed the traffic-segregated cycling path that I was able to follow most of the way, I could not help but sense a strangeness...



I could not pinpoint what felt off at first. But at length it dawned on me: The main road beside me - all four lanes of it - was completely empty of motor vehicles. Being an experienced urban cyclists, I was accustomed to a constant flow of cars in my peripheral vision, to the ever-present background buzz of traffic noise. But all I heard on this journey was the chirping of birds and the woosh of passing cyclists' tyres. I stopped my bike, pulled over to the side of the path, and faced the road. Out of curiosity, I wanted to count how many drivers per minute used this expansive multi-lane avenue that had obviously been constructed for their benefit. Would you believe that I had to wait nearly two minutes before a single motor vehicle drove past. And that was a lorry backing out of a produce warehouse.

So I took some snapshots documenting examples of the city's transport infrastructure going unused. And make no mistake, I plan to send it to the relevant authorities, adding my voice to those calling for its dismantlement. In the meanwhile, as I always try to temper criticism with constructive suggestions, allow me to use this platform to throw some ideas out there on alternative uses of the space.



Firstly... One word, good people of Belfast: Rainbow-Ways!

Okay, that's more like two words. Or a double-word? Well, whatever. The point being, you know the concept of urban greenways? Well, Rainbow-Ways would be similar, except they'd be swathes of wildflower meadows.

To the delight of residents and visitors alike, the city has already been planting mini-meadows around construction sites, unsightly municipal buildings, and vacant lots. Now imagine entire wildflower meadow thoroughfares, for pedestrians and cyclists, unfurled throughout the entire city like like a fragrant rainbow carpet! Sounds lovely, doesn't it. And judging by the overcrowded state of the Lagan river path, the Comber Greenway, and all those pedestrian alleyways around the Cathedral Quarter, a nice spacious rainbow-way will help clear up those areas from all the bike/walk congestion.


Another possibility worth looking into, would be to institute some dedicated horse and cart tracks.

Ever visit the town of Killarney down in County Kerry? Let me tell you, the place is thick with horse and cart operations. It's actually quite ingenious. They use them both as taxis and for sight-seeing purposes, and make no mistake about it: they are making a fortune in revenue down there. The passenger capacity of the carts surpasses that of private motorised sedans, and their speed is comparable to that of a typical taxi in urban traffic. And since the views are better from up high, the tourists love it.

Let's not forget that countless new job opportunities can be created, for horse&cart operators and for urban pony breeders alike. And just think of all the free manure generated, which could then be collected and used to fertilise the adjacent wildflower meadow rainbow-ways.  It could be the perfect self-sustaining ecosystem.



Another option to be seriously considered, is to do away with the gratuitous roadways in favour of canals. That's right, canals. And hear me out here:

Whenever I visit Belfast, I can't help but notice that the Lagan river is really crowded beyond capacity with boats offering tours, barges that are also pubs, a variety of maritime museums, and other floating businesses. Dismantling some of Belfast’s low-usage roads and turning them into lovely artificial waterways would allow the boat tour/ floating pub/ moored barbershop industries the room to grow they so obviously need. And again, think of the jobs that will be created. And of all the tourists who roam the riverside endlessly in search for activities will have new places to visit.



Finally, on a related note: I have long noticed that the city of Belfast attracts persons of an artistic inclination. This is obvious not only by the overabundance of sculptures, murals, and all manner of artistic creations that pepper the urban landscape, but, more tellingly, by the fact that these installations are perpetually so crowded with admirers that it is nearly impossible to enjoy an unobstructed view in passing.

I mean, have you tried to get near the Big Fish lately? That's what I thought! You have to queue for a good 30 minutes to get an unobstructed view of that ceramic marvel these days. You'd be lucky to catch a glimpse of the nearby seal sculptures without someone sitting on every one of their heads. And let us not even speak of the murals, sectarian or otherwise. It's like vying for a peek at the Mona Lisa at the Louvre; you'd need a pogo-stick to see over the other onlookers' shoulders.

Clearly, no matter how many art pieces the city of Belfast erects, there is simply more demand than supply. So I was thinking, that with all the roads standing empty, why not create a dedicated sculpture trail? An avenue of the arts, as it were, with occasional snack booths, gift shops, and (tastefully constructed) toilet facilities to ensure uninterrupted public use of the space.

That said, I do not want to dominate this conversation with my views. There are many wonderful uses for all those horrible multi-lane roadways that cities misguidedly construct to cater to their imagined motoring culture. Regardless of which alternative usage ideas are implemented in the end, I am proud of Belfast for getting the narrative started and look forward to a city transformed. What would you like to see in place of gratuitous roadways in your city or town?


27 comments:

  1. Nice! If only that were a problem we had here. My Problem is cyclist who use the road (empty or not) instead of the adjacent purposely built bike path! It annoys me, a fellow cyclist; I can imagine how much it must annoy the folks in cars!? - Masmojo

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    1. I like Austria's system of determining road vs cycle path usage when both are available: bicycles in the sport category traveling over (I think) 25km/h must use the road. City bikes traveling below that must use the path.

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    2. Mas

      No need to imagine. Motorists will stop their vehicle, get out and tell you. Forcefully. The paths around here have a maximum practical speed of about 10mph, so are of no use to me. Problem is, any street that has a bike path is now entirely off limits. Motorists see me as an outlaw biker and the advocacy community sees me as an outlaw biker. That's alright. I was an outlaw biker before you were born and expect to be an outlaw biker when I die.

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    3. I haven't been told to get off the road in a good 6 years. It used to happen regularly during my first year cycling in Boston, but as more cyclists took to the roads it ended. I don't think it had anything to do with whether or not cyclists were impeding traffic.

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    4. I preferred cycling in New York City when there were NO bike lanes. You used to be able to cycle at high speeds, keeping up with or passing traffic moving at a good clip. Wall Street to midtown in 20 minutes was easy. Now, with the bike lanes, traffic is so bad because of the bike lanes that no one gets anywhere, cyclists included. The bad traffic has created FAR worse air pollution. The bike lanes are frequently littered with pedestrians with their heads in their phones paying no attention at all; they consider the bike lanes as an extension of the sidewalk. Police cars parked while giving out parking tickets regularly block the bike lanes completely, as do unloading trucks. Cyclists ignore the rules of the road and travel in both directions. Have you ever tried to ride in bumper-to-bumper traffic? It's impossible to keep any pace. Yes, there are more cyclists than ever because of the bike lanes and the Citybikes, but it has ruined it for me as serious cyclist, not to mention when I have to drive into the city for business, which is pretty frequent.

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  2. What works in one city will often fail in another, or even what works in one neighborhood of a city may fail in another, which is to say it's always so complicated. The factors and constituencies at play make it so frustrating. Many in my current city see bike lanes/paths as gratuitous and interfering with valued parking spots and commerce. It's crazy. One particular business owner and developer, in an attempt to bring in tourist dollars for local businesses (his) has completely undermined the fabric and charm of my vibrant little neighborhood with street proposals (actually, no longer proposals since the construction is complete) and the consequences for both pedestrians and bicyclists has already revealed itself as disastrous. How can change happen and who gets to make the decisions? Sadly, money and political connections trump those who live and work in a place. Europe seems vastly different than the U.S..

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    1. The decision-making process involved in these things baffles me also. And I agree that every city requires an individual approach.

      Belfast is laid out so similarly to Boston, that sometimes I get confused as to where I am. It's actually like a miniature version of Boston, but with much better cycling infrastructure and much kinder drivers. It is also, in all seriousness, practically empty from cars outside of peak commuting times, to an extent I've never seen in a city of its size in Europe or the US. A unique place with lots of potential. And every time I visit there are more and more bikes.

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    2. The way it works around here is there is state and federal money sitting on the table for any municipality that wishes to construct anything that can be called cycling infrastructure. This means contracts can be awarded to friends with trivial amounts of local funds. Spending free money is irresistible. Planning?

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  3. Ahem. Is that Belfast, Northern Ireland you were visiting?

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    1. Why yes. Fabulous city for cycling.

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    2. Sorry my ID showed up as Admin. It's Malachi. Hi. I'm just trying to figure out where the four lane highway with no traffic on it is.

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    3. That specific one was past Yorkgate, going toward the Docks. But in general, as mentioned in the comment above - I consistently find that the roads in Belfast are light in traffic outside peak commute times, unusually so compared to other cities I've cycled in. Could be I am just lucky and happen to catch the city on slow, quiet days whenever I visit. But obviously (I hope?) this post is meant as a joke anyway, in response to complaints of the bike paths in Belfast going unused (which is certainly not my experience when I visit; the bike paths are very much used!). Point is, anyone can snap a photo of a path, street, road, waterway, during a moment in time when it happens to be empty.

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  4. I like the idea of canals. Throw in some gondolas while you are at it.

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    1. If you ever get a chance, visit Providence RI. They implemented gondolas in the '90s.

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  5. I fairly stopped reading your post above after realising your wish to do away with all this urban roadway stuff. Nuff said, bring it on, good enough for me! Oh to imagine a world of flower strewn highways for PEOPLE, on foot, on bike, on trike, by pony. Imagine life lived at the pace of a gaily painted narrowboat - top speed 4 mph. People would - get this - start speaking to one another again, I kid you not! No stinking, ear offending steel boxes trying to bully you, harass you and kill you and any creature that strays into their monstrous paths. That most precious of life's gifts - time - time to retune ourselves to our earth's heartbeat. p.s. like your bike.

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  6. So you seem to be going back and forth between the Seven for "serious" riding and the Clementine. Is she a keeper? - Mas

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  7. I suppose that Hell would have to pretty solidly freeze over before a roadway is transformed into anything else in my area. Would that such a thing could possibly happen, however, a long colorful greenway with a multi-use path and random picnic areas (perhaps even a small place for refreshments here-and-there) is the best thing I could think of to replace it. I would find that be a very nice change.


    Wolf.

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  8. I seem to recall a news story saying NI and particularly Belfast had a spate of councils selling off allotments to builders, and that subsequently there were long waiting lists. So maybe some of these "unused" spaces could be converted to allotments.

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  9. Notify the department of public infrastructure waste.

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  10. I too have noticed the wildflowers and must say I like them far better than the more formal municipal flower beds. I submit my vote for rainbow-ways!

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    1. I love the municipal wildflowers trend. Hoping they are the kind tough enough to stick around through winter.

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  11. Although I have never been to Belfast, I can relate. There was recently a similar uproar about the "empty" bike lanes in my home town. Like you, I was tempted to respond by presenting photographs of empty roads at the city council meeting. I did not think to go as far as to offer ideas to repurpose the roads ;) Thanks for this entertaining read.

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  12. There are some wonderful ideas already given for repurposing superfluous roadways, my favourites being meadows and art works; or even better, meadows with art in them. As a parent, I'd love to see roads my son and his friends could play football in. This would also keep the highways crews and their line-painting machines busy marking out pitches for football and other sports, and installing goal posts, tennis nets, basketball backboards and so on. The opportunities for parkour are marvellous, particularly if a few cars and vans are left parked in carefully chosen spots. Roller-blading is full of potential, and in the winter, ice skating and skiing; alpine or cross-country, depending on the terrain.

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  13. What I do wonder though is WHY are the roads of Belfast so quiet?

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  14. Great snaps, always. Which brand is your camera? GrĂ cies.

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  15. Jonathan Swift returns to Ireland!

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