The Belfast Urban Motorway (Wesley Johnston): economic, engineering, political and social drivers that created Belfast’s road network

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Imagine an elevated three-lane motorway encircling Belfast city centre. A mini-M25 taking through-traffic off the inner-city streets, serving all parts of the city equally? Imagine the noise and pollution from an above ground ring-road, jammed full beyond its intended capacity, severing communities with its concrete and tarmac. A monument to the victory of private over public transport?

“Fundamentally, it is a story about the contradictory needs of the people of Belfast and what they were and were not prepared to accept – and pay for – to keep their city moving.” (Wesley Johnston)

The Belfast Urban Motorway Wesley Johnston bookcoverWesley Johnston’s new book The Belfast Urban Motorway looks back at the economic, engineering political and social forces that shaped the major transport decisions in Belfast and beyond over the last sixty years. From the power of the Belfast Corporation, to direct rule ministers and policies from London; from communities being bulldozed for ‘the greater good’, to direct action and strong community lobbying; from the rule of cars, to a more balanced private/public transport strategy.

I spoke to the author Wesley Johnston last week and asked him about the Urban Motorway and its ambitions plans for Belfast. (You can watch some of the roads he’s talking about, or just listen to the audio.)

In the 1800s, bridges were being built across the Lagan and demolished within a generation to be replaced with larger ones. In parallel with road expansion, the rail network across Ireland was still growing: 1839 saw the Belfast to Lisburn rail link open (175 years old in 2014!); Ballymena, Carrickfergus and Holywood in 1848; and finally Belfast to Bangor in 1865.

“Although most arterial routes into the city were bottlenecks, two of the most serious were the Queen’s Bridge and Holywood Arches, the latter then being part of the main road from Belfast to Holywood and Bangor.”

Those sites of road congestion in the 1920s and 1930s will be familiar to 2014 drivers! Plans for a province-wide motorway network and large approach roads converging on Belfast were formulated in the 1950s and the Belfast Corporation was keen on a ring road around the city.

In 1960 the Minister of Health and Local Government [there’s an interesting mix of areas for a department!] appointed Sir Robert Matthew to draw up a regional plan for Belfast, covering housing as well as transport. Prof Matthew’s report proposed “a ‘stop line’ beyond which the city would not be allowed to expand”. Wesley Johnston notes that “with a few exceptions such as Poleglass and Cairnshill, this stop line remains more or less intact to the present day”. People living in sub-standard Belfast housing would move to seven existing towns and the entirely new city of Craigavon. Prof Matthew also backed the plans for the urban motorway around Belfast city centre.

urbanmotorway wesley johnston websiteThe book explains that four civil engineers travelled to cities in the US in 1963 and the visit “really reinforced our view – that the elevated motorway was the proper answer for Belfast”. Maybe if they had been accompanied by some less technical colleagues they would have discerned the problems “a large, noisy, elevated concrete structure through a residential area” were already causing in those US cities?

Planners in Belfast overrode concerns that “the visual impact of an elevated structure can be considerable” and the reality that “the noise pollution from traffic is much reduced by a depressed road” and sought to avoid the high water table with an above ground road on “a series of isolated foundations” that wouldn’t require “the wholesale removal of all existing utilities”.

The 230 page book dips into the DRD archives and others which remain, and is richly illustrated with hundreds of photographs, maps and diagrams showing how the evolution of road schemes in Belfast (and beyond).

Planning consultations avoided seeking the views of the communities that would be split in two as buildings were flattened to allow these new wide roads to be built. In 1969 there was a two and a half day public inquiry “characterised by a virtual absence of objections”. [Page 80 if the current Minister of the Environment is looking for tips.]

Subsequent inquiries in 1972 and 1977 had more vociferous input from community groups and unions, though often their voices were ignored or dismissed. In 1972 the Sandy Row Redevelopment Association called for the Urban Motorway plan to be rejected before their community was “annihilated”. The four main church denominations argued against the scheme that would “‘box in’ residents and physically prevent the reintegration of segregated communities”. SDLP representatives, the Republican Clubs (Official Sinn Féin) and the Greater West Belfast Community Association all voiced their concerns.

The editorial line taken by Belfast newspapers seem consistent with 2014.

In 1967 a Belfast Telegraph front page “proudly proclaimed” that the Urban Motorway plan would “shape the [future] Belfast of 1976” employing over 2,000 people and having a much reduced effect on housing than earlier schemes. Besides “a large proportion … would have been due for slum clearance”.

The Irish News was less supportive: “using an editorial to lambast the ‘paradox’ of spending so much on a ring road at a time of housing shortage, rising unemployment and wage freezes”. The nationalist paper went on to sum up the scheme’s priorities:

“Human beings are less important than giant ring roads and fantastic fly-over, that free-running traffic in the centre of the city merits greater consideration than parents and children.”

There’s a definite class dimension – gentrification – to the road schemes. Less than a third of poorer households in 1966 Belfast owned a car. Yet their houses and amenities were being pulled down to make way for the largely middle class commuters at the expense – for a long time – of any investment in public transport. A 1970 vesting order for the first phase (which became the Westlink) required the compulsory purchase of 1,2000 houses, over 200 shops and businesses, 27 pubs, 6 church buildings, 3 schools and 2 police stations.

The Urban Motorway encircling the city was to be accompanied by the appallingly named Central Distributor Box: an inner circle with two or three lanes in each direction, punctuated by traffic lights and directing drivers towards their final city centre destinations. Over half the ‘box’ was built – Millfield, Frederick Street, Dunbar Link, Custom House Square, Oxford Street, Victoria Street – but the southern end is still missing.

By the mid-1970s planners were wondering how best to balance transport investment in roads versus bus and rail services. Rail improvements were quickly ruled out, and only came back in 1988 with an all-or-nothing compromise plan for a single-track cross-harbour viaduct connecting York Street with Central Station built alongside the Lagan Bridge.

By the mid-1980s the Westlink – the ‘West Tangent’ of the original Belfast Urban Motorway plan – was open. Within a few years traffic was “far in excess of any forecast”. The induced traffic effect means that “if you provide [or improve] a road then it not only caters better for traffic that is using it, but also allows more people to make the journey”.

In more recent times, the Lagan Bridge transformed links from Bangor and Holywood to the M2 and the Westlink. A third lane was added to the M1 from Blacks Road and plans to build a flyover at Broadway roundabout were changed to an underpass along with a major civil engineering effort to divert the Clowney and Blaskstaff rivers through artificial culverts. (They wimped out of running the rivers through the roof of the Broadway underpass!) Chapter 13 of the book includes analysis of the Broadway flood when the underpass filled up with water in a mere 45 minutes on 16 August 2008.

The Westlink is only the third busiest stretch of road in Northern Ireland, behind the M2 and M3 (Lagan Bridge).

Future investment in Belfast’s transport seems sure to involve more bus lanes, rapid transit routes starting at out of town park and ride sites and terminating in the city centre, and the removal of traffic lights at York Street through a series of underpasses and ground-level roads connecting the Westlink, M2, M3 and other local streets.

belfast urban motorway snippetsWesley Johnston’s new book has changed my commute. I no longer drive along the Westlink wondering whether the traffic will snarl up around the next corner. Instead my eye is caught by the detailing on the walls and railings, the timbre of the undulating road, and the remnants of streets that once stretched across the concrete hole that today carries traffic across the city as I remember Wesley’s commentary on the building, rebuilding and human cost on the communities it passes through.

As I drive along I ponder some of the questions at the end of the book. Should heavy goods traffic have been given its own lane along the Westlink? Would the Westlink improve if a junction/sliproad was removed?

And what kind of transport will best service Belfast, those who live there, those who work there, those who travel through, and those who rely on flights and ferries and good shipped through the docks? Does our economy suffer if we don’t invest in transport? Can we afford not to share public behaviours by the type of transport solutions we build?

The book sucked me in – like an extended documentary – with its study of Northern Ireland’s changing transport strategy, shaped by politics and economics as well as what civil engineers thought feasible. The maps and diagrams bring the history and engineering to life.

The Belfast Urban Motorway is written by Wesley Johnston. Available for £15 from its publisher Colourpoint, as well as local bookshops and Amazon. You can also follow local transport developments on Wesley’s website and blog.

(Images from the book and NI Roads website. Review copy of book provided by Colourpoint.)

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  • http://eastbelfastdiary.blogspot.com/ Jenny

    Thanks very much for drawing this book to our attention, Alan. Far more interesting than the Many Faces of Arlene Foster, which seems to have had more appeal for Slugger readers.

  • http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.com Alan in Belfast

    Let’s not even begin to compare the pageviews of Arlene versus the Westlink … it wouldn’t be encouraging!

  • Charles_Gould

    Town planners with their “inner ring roads” did more to destroy the quality of our urban environment than the IRA with its bombs.

  • Banjaxed

    Just bought the book yesterday and looking forward to reading it.

    It would be interesting to see if Mr Johnston has anything to say on the total sterilisation of the area from just below Divis Flats to King Street on the Lower Falls/Divis Street stretch – allegedly to accomodate the link roads to and from the Westlink – but, imo, a ‘DMZ’ to distance the ‘Westies’ from the city centre.

  • http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.com Alan in Belfast

    Banjaxed – think you’ll find quite a bit of discussion!

  • Taoiseach

    the use of new roads in place of peace walls always seemed obvious. and a definite security angle allowing the forces to move more easily around.

    And what’s the Monagh by-pass about. Motorway class road that suddently disappears as you round a bend at a travellers site.

  • Richard

    An interesting article that has certainly drawn my attention towards this book; I’ll be purchasing it for sure out of socio-political ‘morbid curiosity’ and how Belfast has been historically shaped through the manner in which you’d least suspect.

    I also work on Whitla Street (in the old Sailortown area) and it’s interesting to see the dichotomy between the tight-knit residential area of the past (of which there is barely a nod towards by the council/government) and the sterile, industrial reality of the present. I’m sure the book will go some way into detailing the destruction of that community to make way for the Nelson Street junction and M3/M2 flyovers.