The Realm of the Possible: Inventing a New City

After DRIVING past the new “death trap” paint on the Sydenham Bypass that’s meant to be a “cycle lane”, I am comforted to see that some cities have leaders who are prepared to re-make the world as we would like it, and not just rely on what has been past. .

Seattle to permanently close 20 miles of streets to traffic so residents can exercise and bike on them

Nichola Mallon, our Infrastructure Minister, isn’t being advised on what’s in the realm of the possible. It’s the problem with that department (and in particular Roads Service). When you ask a road engineer on what would solve a problem, they think in terms of roads.

I tend to think of the realm of the possible extends from impossible to impossible!

So how do we get people cycling and walking more?

Is it impossible to make cycle lanes which are more than paint?

No, plainly not. Here is a part of the Sydenham Bypass with a kerb! This would make cycling much safer. So, why is the department so happy with a line of paint? If we have it for part of the Sydenham Bypass, why not all of it? Why not extend it to Bangor and Ards?

Is it impossible to close BT1 to private street traffic?

No, it’s not. In fact, a lot of that is in the Regional Transportation Strategy including deflecting traffic from hope street straight to the Ormeau/Cromac area via a new road at Bankmore Square. Essentially the only cars in the centre outside of emergency services and buses, should be taxis and disabled vehicles.

Is it impossible to turn every non-disabled parking space in that area into cycle lanes to protect cyclists from buses, lorries and taxis?

No, obviously. We will see a decrease in traffic overall after the pandemic passes as a lot of people-intensive businesses will be re-looking at their leases for commercial property (some large businesses are closing multiple sites and having their workers work from home because working from home can improve productivity (as long as the kids are at school!) If you think about it, all of the streets in the CBD of Belfast are host to “car corpses”. Cars which are driven in and just lie dead all day. Our streets are littered with them. What are the knock on effects of that?

So we don’t need as many parking spaces? Or commercial parking lets? Or office buildings?

No, we really don’t – so that frees up huge amounts of space for cycling and pedestrians. Think of the lives saved from cars not careening into people.

What about those offices? Will they lie empty?

Well, Belfast City Council has been trying to square the circle of getting people to move into the centre of the city, but there just hasn’t been the space. So, if we are talking about maybe a million square feet of unoccupied office space right now and perhaps up to five times that in two years, that’s a thousand 1000 sq ft apartments now, and 5000 in the next decade. That solves the “Belfast is a graveyard” problem every evening as well as fostering small business in the city centre – including the eateries in the city which really deserve a bit of an uplift after the runaway rates and Covid-19 related collapse.

Thousands more living in the city would be a massive uplift for the city economy. And we have the space.

Are there other things we can change?

Of course, with decreased traffic and more reliance on public transport, we don’t need that M2/Westlink Exchange upgrade. That’s a waste as it is, it’s doubly so after the pandemic. We could invest that in live/work apartments in the city centre. We could invest in arterial segregated cycle lanes from four quarters of the city as well as dedicated cycle freeways along the M1, M2 and A2. With the decreased pollution of decreased traffic, Stockman’s Lane might be bearable to cycle through.

Anything else?

Well, I’m always going to say “free public transport”. The fact that it would decrease pollution and particulate matter, reduce the burden of road repairs on the taxpayer, increase social and economic mobility for just about everyone, equalise some of the society and put cash in the pockets of low and middle income workers is just the tip of the iceberg.

We have an opportunity to change the city and be an exemplar. Wouldn’t it be great to be proud of Belfast for things that were great and that worked? Stuff we could boast about that was good on a global stage and not just “better than what we deserve”. Can’t we aspire to greatness as a city? Celebrate our best and brightest?

Rather than a ship that sank, forty years of civil war and an alcoholic footballer?

Possible Changes to Cycling/Walking Provision in Northern Ireland:

From the Department of Infrastructure:

I am delighted to announce that there will now be a walking and cycling Champion within my Department. Our champion will ensure that we deliver our commitment to increase the percentage of journeys made by walking and cycling. Inspiring our communities, restructuring our spaces, changing forever the way we live – and changing it for the better.

“I want to increase the space available for people who want to walk and cycle by extending pavements, pedestrianising streets and introducing pop up cycle lanes. I have already identified some parts of Belfast City Centre and Derry City that can be transformed in this way

This is a fabulous opportunity. Northern Ireland missed out on some key legislation regarding eBikes. We are way behind the rest of the UK with this.

The UK legislation was harmonised with EU law EN15194 in April 2015. Your steed is an “electrically assisted pedal cycle” (or EAPC, or ebike, or Pedelec) if: the bike has pedals that propel it; the electric motor won’t assist you when you’re travelling more than 25 km/h (15.5mph); and the power doesn’t exceed 250 watts. In the UK you must be over 14 years old to ride an electric bike but you don’t need a licence, nor do you need to register it or pay vehicle tax.

The cycles that meet these requirements (which affect two-wheeled bikes but also tandems and tricycles) can be ridden on any cycle paths and anywhere else that bikes are normally allowed.

In all cases, these are pedal assist cycles and not “twist and go” throttle based solutions.

Either way the announcement from the Minister for Infrastructure could go a long way to changing the face of Belfast. Increasing mobility and reducing congestion are key to further health concerns both in terms of environment but also in the current pandemic. I’m excited about the possibility of cycle lanes that might, for instance, shadow the M1 into Belfast rather than track slowly along the Lisburn Road dodging buses and parked cars. Talk about an infrastructure ready project.

And while we are at it, the Minister may want to look at the York Road Exchange upgrade with a sceptical, future looking eye. Sacrifice a car lane for a bike lane all the way up to Mallusk and Jordanstown. Extend the bike courses out from Bangor and Lisburn. Make sure there’s a solid Bike access lane from West Belfast and the small streets of North Belfast.

And please, please, make the cycle lanes more than just paint on the roads. It’s bad enough that we sacrifice pavement for cars, but parked cars render cycle lanes utterly useless.

Don’t ban scooters. Redesign streets.

[Read the article]

Of course, some of us have been saying this for years.

Remember when the Segway debuted? There was a reported conversation that everyone derided. Apparently Steve Jobs, on viewing the prototype Segway with Dean Kamen, said that we would design cities around this thing. It was backed publicly and financially by Jeff Bezos.

How the media laughed.

And now the media are calling for us to redesign cities to cope with new PEV (personal electric vehicles) designs. Of course, all of this is a little moot for the UK as the Tory government failed to deliver an election promise on licensing for LEVs and PEVs and of course, our government couldn’t do it because we don’t have one.*

But watch this space because things are afoot. They’ve extended the bus lanes on one of the busiest roads in Belfast. They’re introducing a new bus called the Glider which will, like this recently multi-million investment in dumb ticketing machines at major stops, will be utterly underwhelming. They’re going to close the area around Belfast City Hall to private traffic. They’re going to invest massively in the Westlink-M2 exchange yet not actually address the cause of queues in the morning. But that’s because …. I don’t know. I’m sure they have great reasons.

*and do you ever notice that when change is needed, politicians decide on whether it’s a devolved matter or not depending on how close it is to lunchtime.

Apparently Wind and Solar are not 100% reliable

Wind and solar not being reliable? Oh boy.

*rolls sleeves up*

If we invested subsidies in green power the way we subsidise fossil fuels, then yeah, it would be 110% reliable.

If you stop shipping coal from a hole in the ground somewhere and stop burning it, coal plants stop being reliable too, and their reliability, even when supplied with plenty of fuel, is not 100% either.

If we didn’t have NIMBYs complaining about a passive, silent, harmless solar farm on fallow land (as happened near Kelly a few years ago) then yeah, it would be 100% reliable.

If we track the rising price of fossil fuels with the plummeting price of solar, then it would seem that renewable energy is 100% reliable for people on low incomes.

If we consider that Northern Ireland has the highest percentage of the population in the entire British Isles (including Ireland) afflicted with fuel poverty, then a transition to distributed micro generation could prove to be 100% effective in removing fuel poverty.

If we look at crazy ideas like putting a solar panel on every roof, we would see that the energy savings across the entire population would be 100% effective in improving the local economy, because the money saved would be spent locally and not squirrelled away in the Cayman Islands.

If we spent 100% of the money we wasted on RHI, a flawed scheme in every sense, on solar generation, we could have outfitted every social housing development with solar panels, cutting fuel poverty to a small percentage and improving the lives of about half a million people.

As the Air Quality around Stockman’s Lane and the Westlink is now ILLEGALLY POOR, a shift away from coal as well as a shift towards electrically propelled vehicles could make a sea change in the quality of lives and substantially reduce respiratory diseases. If won’t save 100% of people but if it saved one person, that’s a good enough percentage for me.

Sustainable Electro-Motive

I’m attending the Eden Project Communities Camp this May and that’s where I hope to talk about Sustainable Electro-Motive.

This project ties several interests into one whole. One part is working with my friend Stuart and his extracurricular work with GreenPower NI. One part is my interest in maintaining our way of life without necessarily increasing our impact on the environment (and ideally, reducing our impact massively). My other interests are social enterprise, the democracy of community energy resources, the digitisation of energy and transport (which is more about the change in the economies than any real addition of technology).

I hope SEM to be a great example of a social enterprise, of “altrupreneurship.

Save the Day: 30th June 2025

Save the date, 9 years from now, when the last ICE (internal combustion engine) car will be sold in the UK.

This is what is being proposed by Norway and it’s being considered by other nations within the EU and beyond. A complete change in the way transport works.

Back in 1905, you could look at a photo of Times Square and not see a single car; the place was filled with horse drawn carriages. By 1913, the horses were outnumbered by the cars perhaps 100:1. That’s how fast a disruptive technology can take hold.
So what will happen here. We are already seeing Electric Vehicle sales rise (though they slipped slightly due to the brief drop in petrol and diesel prices over the last six months). And we will see them rise even more. On my Twitter feed (admittedly a self-selecting study of people interested in transport, innovation and renewables), I am able to see individuals who charge their home automobiles using a solar panel and wind combination to a domestic battery that then feeds their car.

This becomes the new normal. Where the cost of running a vehicle decreases to just the replacement of tyres and brake pads. Where the massive fuel costs dwindle to almost nothing. We aren’t there yet….or….more accurately, I’m describing the past, but it’s still the future for most of us.

My own car is up for replacement this year but there is no way I will replace it with an ICE vehicle – even though I might consider the vast majority of electric vehicles out there to be under-engineered, under-designed and under-inspiring. What we need a series of over-engineered, over-designed and absolutely inspiring cars.

At the moment only TESLA is providing that. Sticking a battery and electric motor into a Clio and calling it a LEAF just doesn’t do it for me. Making an eGolf or an electric BMW doesn’t do it. – especially as it’s beginning to look like all of the incumbent car manufacturers seem, without exception, to have been lying about their gas emissions.

It’s time we started thinking about this seriously.

What if we just stopped using Fossil Fuels. Today.
What if we replaced essential use of hydrocarbons with Renewable Gases?
What if we replaced inessential fuel consumption with solar, hydro and wind?
What if we circumvented the apocalypse by just taking action rather than just talking about it?

ESB Public charge point contract in violation of EU directive

Imagine having to have a subscription to a petrol station in order to fill up your car?


That’s what ESB, who now run the EV public charge points, are suggesting. The subscription when added to the costs for charging (which is calculated by time rather than kWs transferred) mean that EVs are not economical compared to high efficiency petrol vehicles. In essence an artificial tax.

Then there’s this:

Directive 2014/94/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 October 2014
Article 4 Section 9 – All recharging points accessible to the public shall also provide for the possibility for electric vehicle users to recharge on an ad hoc basis without entering into a contract with the electricity supplier or operator concerned.

So the ESB subscription contract, North and South of the border, is actually in contravention of an EU Directive. It will be interesting to see how this progresses.


Anyone who knows me will know that I’ve always been a fan of solar (photovoltaic) energy production. This goes from tiny little solar panels that I used with Coder Dojo to wire up fans and LEDs to larger scale panels that are used to keep my phones and other devices charged when out and about.

My latest purchase is the Anker 14W Solar Panel Foldable Dual-port Solar Charger.

I was pretty pleased with the package – it was smaller than I expected and seemed sturdy enough. It fits neatly into my hiking backpack when I’m not using it and when I am using it, I’ll tie it using cords to the back of the back – the built-in rings seem very resilient. The company advises using the included pockets for holding devices you’re charging (to keep them out of the direct sunshine). I’d like them to be a little bigger but that’s only because my devices are a little bulkier.


I tested this during the week in some weak summer sunshine here in Northern Ireland and I was able to generate nearly 7 Watts (5.09 Volts, 1.35 Amps). That’s about 50% of the potential output of the panel but considering I was just sitting in a park with plenty of surrounding tree cover, no effort being made to optimise the angle and a little bit of cloud cover – coupled with the weak Northern Irish sunshine – I was happy to see I could easily power and charge a phone.


Your phone likely needs 5 Watts of Power (5 Volts, 1 Amp). The average PC USB port outputs 2.5 W (5V, 0.5A). Your iPad needs about 12 W (5.1V, 2.1A). The device I’m using to measure this is a pass-thru USB power monitor by PortaPow. It can check any USB port for power output and is cheap as chips. For the aspiring geek it’s a useful informational tool.

I’ll be using this panel to charge an Anker 13000 mAh portable battery (superseded by newer models like the Anker Astro e7 with double the capacity). 25600 mAh seems like a lot but the iPhone 6 has a 1810 mAh battery and therefore I’d expect to get 10 charges out of this. Which should be good enough for a week of outdoor usage (assuming I’m using the screen a lot).

Next week I’ll be testing the charger in Southern Spain. I’m interested to see what the difference in throughput will be and how fast it will charge my external battery.

Could we build a future without fossil fuels?

Thanks to @JoanneJacobs for putting this into my tweet stream. Thanks to @aeonmag for posting it.

Given the dwindling reserves of crude oil left in the world, it could be argued that the most wasteful use for this limited resource is to simply burn it. We should be carefully preserving what’s left for the vital repertoire of valuable organic compounds it offers.

it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that a progressing society could construct electrical generators and couple them to simple windmills and waterwheels, later progressing to wind turbines and hydroelectric dams.

The rest of the article revolves around a scenario where we do not have energy abundance. But, that’s not reality. We live in an energy-abundant (relative to us) universe. Our failure to harvest it, our failure to take advantage of the energy surrounding us allows us to rely on “ancient energy concentrates” like fossil fuels.

This is one of the reasons I’m not fussed on hybrid cars. I see them as the modern day equivalent of the “faster horse”. It’s a hand-aid when the solution is to amputate.

The biggest, and perhaps the only, opposition to electric vehicles I have heard from self-confessed petrol heads is that the whine made by electric cars doesn’t compare to the roar of a V8.

Maybe we should play the phut-phut sound of the first internal combustion engines and see hither that is music to their ears. We’ve grown up with the roar of engines, it’s going to take a while for people to rid themselves of that affectation.

The article is most correct in that the worst thing we can do with our oil is burn it. We also need to stop subsidising the production of fossil fuels and put that investment into our own energy security. A nation that is dependent on others for energy is not secure.

I’m not advocating for a second we return to an agrarian lifestyle. I like the Internet and travel – but there are better ways and it’s not always cutting edge science that can deliver for us.

So can we rebuild our modern society in an energy-secure fashion, relying on sustainable fuels and renewable energy? Of course we can; but more importantly, it is necessary that we must.