Transport options for Belfast. Who gets priority on our roads?

712284_54126ab6Andy Boal explores the transport options for Belfast

It’s been interesting to read the responses to Brian’s post, but I’ve had a good look at the DRD’s proposed budget cuts and the consequences for public transport.

It’s grim reading.

Before we get into that, let’s start with a few principles.

First of all, there is limited roadspace in Belfast, and a lot of people trying to use it.  It needs to be prioritised.

Secondly, a lot of drivers have little or no choice other than to drive on a particular day.  This is for all sorts of reasons.

Thirdly, there is a significant number of people who drive to work for the sole reason that they own a car and they want to.

Fourthly, a lot of passengers must be recognised as using buses and trains because the alternative is sitting in a traffic jam, watching buses sail up the inside, and then paying through the nose for parking (the cheapest car parking near the City centre, around Corporation Street, is 40p per hour, or £3.20 a day, against two City zone Smartlink fares totalling £2.30)

Bus lanes are a big part of that.  We know Liverpool has all but abolished theirs, seeing benefits to all traffic, but in Belfast, the recent influx of passengers to Metro arising from the new bus lanes making it harder for motorists to commute to the city centre suggests that it wouldn’t take too much to chase them back into their cars.  Fare rises, slower buses…

Fifthly, and this is key, everybody on the road benefits from public transport, including those whose circumstances mean that they can never actually use the bus or train.

Everybody?  Yes.  I’m not aware of the cost of congestion to the economy of Lorries and delivery vans being stuck in traffic having been quantified, but when you see them stuck in traffic jams, you have to think of those waiting for the goods to be delivered.  Time wasted in traffic jams gets passed on to the customer in the end, costing us more in the shops and for services. Plus the impact on individuals of waiting for deliveries critical to their work.

Sixthly, the more people who use public transport, the more roadspace is available for those who cannot avoid driving.

Seventhly, DRD, DFP and the Treasury all require Translink to break even after planned subsidy (or in the case of 2014/15, subject to agreed use of reserves that can’t now be put towards improving passenger facilities.)

If DRD cuts Translink’s subsidy, then once all economies have been made (and considering the number of economies made since 1997, how many can still be left to be made?!), all that is left is putting up fares and cutting services.

Even if Ulsterbus returned to the frequencies I remember in the 1980s before a lot of rationalisation happened (I was shocked to see the extent of cuts to buses to Donaghadee and Millisle in recent years), there are a massive number of people whose journeys could not reasonably be accommodated on public transport.  This is the reality we live in.

However, that raises more questions.  Why do people drive through Belfast city centre when they know it will be bunged up and there are alternative routes? (A12, M3, A55)  Why do people drive into Belfast on a Thursday night at 5pm knowing that Cromac Square and Victoria Street will be full of commuters trying to get home, instead of waiting until after 6 when the roads will be clearer, helping everyone?

So, to the DRD budget consultation.

There are several key sentences regarding public transport.

From paragraph 40:  “In 2014-15, in order to address the 4.4% reduction applied to the Department’s budget baseline and to manage inescapable pressures the Minister has required Translink to operate at a loss of around £12 million funded from reserves.”

Or in other words, the reason why we avoid a fare rise in 2014 was that Translink was required to use up reserves built up by Ulsterbus.

From paragraph 42, after discussing efficiency savings:  “However, a £15 million reduction in funding would inevitably lead to a combination of increased fares and reductions in, and the cessation of, some bus services. Service reductions would be expected to focus on the least profitable routes, including complete withdrawal of town services from a number of towns and a reduction in the frequency of other bus and rail services.”

From paragraph 43: “It is generally accepted that fare levels in Northern Ireland are well below those in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.”

That, unfortunately, is true.  You could go 4 miles in Dublin for €2.80, which is rather more than £1.90 for a similar journey.  £1.90 may be nearer the upper reaches of city fares in GB (Nottingham is £2, Bristol is £1.50-£2.50 for that distance), but I haven’t seen anywhere that approaches as little as £1.15 for a multi-journey ticket for a journey of four miles. Lothian buses have an absolute flat adult fare of £1.50 with discounts only available if making more than three journeys in one day.

Similarly, on the trains.  Ok, we don’t have the cheap advance fares that Virgin and others offer, other than on the Enterprise.  On the other hand, our normal walk-on peak fares are less than many similar distance journeys in GB (in fact they’re typically slightly cheaper than GB off-peak fares), and a lot cheaper than on Irish Rail.  Until very recently, a single on the Enterprise from Belfast to Dublin was significantly cheaper than a single in the other direction.

I also remember a number of years ago being charged £17 by Callinan’s Coaches, who were operating the overnight buses to Dublin airport, instead of the then Ulsterbus fare of £14.  The reason was that at the time Bus Eireann’s fare for the same journey was €20 – this was before Ulsterbus and Bus Eireann cut their fares to respond to the competition from Aircoach.

(Before anyone says it – like taxis, all bus and train fares are based on a fixed fee for boarding, plus a distance related amount.  That’s why they are so expensive per mile for short distances, but a lot better value over long distances.)

I’m not about to make the case for fares to be higher just because they are lower than in GB or the republic.  In fact, I agree with everyone who says they are already too expensive.

However, the reality is the choice between fare rises which will price more people into driving (bad for revenue and worse for congestion) and service cuts which will also force people into driving.  Buses and trains are only useful if they are in the right place at the right time.

On top of that, we would find no sympathy if we got DRD and DFP to ask for more subsidy for Translink in order to cut fares.  Central government policy in GB is that the passenger should pay a greater proportion of the cost of public transport in fares, and the Treasury would just not be interested (although they would probably suggest raising the regional rate and introducing water charges to do some revenue raising!)

Should we open up the network to private operators?

I’ve seen the usual chorus of people in response to February’s proposed fare increase crying out for Translink to be opened up to competition.

Competition will never happen.

Well, it might.  But only on the most profitable routes.

So, as now, there will be competition Belfast-Newry-Dublin (including the excellent Eamon Rooney operation to Newry and Warrenpoint) and Belfast-Derry.  There may even be competition between operators on the most popular Metro routes.

However, if and when DRD finally decides to start tendering baskets of routes to private operators (a basket being a group of routes, some profitable and some unprofitable), it’s almost guaranteed that whichever private operator gets a group of routes will have no competition.  The only competition will be between operators to have a right to a monopoly unlikely to be challenged unless there is a lot of profit to be made.

Therefore, if you live on the Cregagh Road, don’t expect to have a choice between Metro and another company.  That will be even more so in the country.

On top of that, it needs to be understood that if a basket of routes is assembled, and Bloggs opens a bus company to operate them, he’ll be given a minimum level of service that he must offer.  That will almost certainly be less than Translink offers now, and as in GB, it is almost inevitable that unless Bloggs’s service is very popular and gets him lots of income, service will be reduced to the minimum allowed under the contract.  No good for customers.

On top of that, you get additional demands for subsidy as Bloggs needs to make money for his shareholders.  If fares are regulated, he will go looking for more ratepayers’ cash to avoid going under.

He might also apply to withdraw services as being economically unviable. DRD might then decide to tender the service as being socially necessary, with a massive subsidy to make it worthwhile – in at least one example in GB, the company who initially refused to operate it won the tender with the increased subsidy.

So, in short, tender services out to private operators, and the vast majority of passengers will still only have one bus company to get them to and from their destination.  Even if they have a choice, and they miss Translink’s bus, Bloggs’s bus following behind won’t necessarily have to accept a Translink ticket.

Add to that the fact that Bloggs will probably take on former Translink bus drivers via TUPE, quite possibly purchasing former Translink buses, and the passenger will be no better off.  In fact, by the time that services are cut, unregulated fares are increased in search of profit, and subsidy is increased, the passenger and ratepayer could be a lot worse off.

So where does this leave us?

I think roadspace in Belfast has to be prioritised.

1. Lorries, vans and others who drive for a living
2. Mass transit
3. Commuters with no practical alternative other than to drive into and through the city centre
4. Shoppers with no practical alternative other than to drive into the city centre
5. People who drive into the city centre because they want to drive, but have a reasonable public transport alternative.

The problem of course is that of all of those, the only one you can legislate for is mass transit.  Bus lanes.  Rapid Transit lanes.  Both of which are good for cyclists (and yes, we do stay ahead of buses at peak times – I leave them way behind when I cycle down the Cregagh and Woodstock Roads, as they have to stop for passengers!)

I’m not proposing HGV lanes.  If mass transit is sorted properly, there will be enough road space for all essential drivers when they need it.

There is very little that can be done about road capacity.  Abolishing bus lanes would reverse the rise in average bus speeds seen in recent years, chasing more people into their cars so we’d be worse off than when we started.  The proposed scheme to complete the Inner Ring with a link road from outside Movie House Cinemas on Dublin Road to further along Ormeau Avenue is one of the few schemes left to offer a little more capacity to divert through traffic away from the City Hall (and will indeed finally permit Donegall Square North to be closed to private traffic as proposed some time ago)

So what is left to give priority to the first four categories unable to use public transport on a particular day?

Only one thing.  Persuasion.

Making the case that for the sake of those who cannot avoid driving that day (remembering that many use public transport most of the time but have to drive the odd time, and vice versa), those with a choice need to consider the impact on society of deciding to drive.  And the impact on themselves because of the impact of congestion on deliveries, pushing up prices in shops.  Pushing up the price of services.  Wasting time waiting for a delivery by a van driver stuck the other side of a traffic jam.

In the end though, only a carrot will fix this, and that carrot is affordable, reliable public transport.  Reliable means that it doesn’t get stuck in traffic so people give up waiting.  It means not having to turn round and run back into the city empty to get back to something remotely resembling “on time”, stranding passengers.

And affordable means cutting fares so that it isn’t cheaper for two people to park in Belfast than to get the bus together.  That’s one of the absolute disgraces of the current system – car parking is expensive enough in my view for the days I can’t avoid driving (and I despise traffic jams with a passion,) so the problem is bus fares.

And cutting fares means increasing subsidy.  Matt Johnston (link to is highly persuasive on the subject of the marginal subsidy required to offer free public transport to all, and thus being able to close the city centre to almost all private cars and otherwise only permit very high frequency shuttle bus services from nearby park and rides (suggesting, as I recall, Sirocco).  I don’t think that this is a goer, but it will make you think a lot about what it would mean.

In the end, we all pay for congestion in cost to the economy.  When public transport is there with the power to take away some of that congestion, and given the right carrots, the benefits of supporting it become clearer, especially for those unable to use it.

Perhaps the problem is that the stubborn mules who will never take public transport regardless of the cost to themselves, let alone the cost to everyone else, don’t like carrots?

Andy has a very wide range of interests including Christianity, Lego, transport, music, and computers. Anything can appear in a post.

Andy tweets at @andyboal

  • Sharpie

    Several times in the past few weeks I have tried using the Park and Rides – both at Cairnshill and at Sprucefield. I wanted to use them outside of peak hours. For Cairsnhill I wanted to travel back to the carpark from the Botannic stop but found that it would be an hour until the next bus passed there, I ended up walking to the Gasworks and catching the Downpatrick Bus that calls in at Cairsnhill.

    For Sprucefield I wanted to come into Town. The bus only goes every hour after a certain time – it was easier to drive into town and prepare to be stuck in traffic for a half hour (which happened) than wait for the Sprucefield bus.

    For the Cairnshill bus there was no live traffic info at the stop – next bus, where it stops etc. When I travel for work to Uk or European Cities that is the minimum standard you now expect – real time passenger info. At least I was able to access the translink website on the phone and find out the alternative route from the Gasworks.

    These places would be used continuously throughout the day – if it was easy and convenient to do so. I would also be prepared to a fiver for the return journey to Cairnshill if it meant more buses were available.

  • Neil

    Why don’t people use the motorways, M3 etc.? Well the thing is they do. Hence the traffic jams there, hence some people (myself included) going back to hacking across town because most of the time it’s quicker. That’s the thing, the reduction in city centre traffic is due to people using the motorway alternative, having the obvious effect of jamming up the motorway.

    It’s also worth noting that the vans etc. would not be stuck in a traffic jam at all if we did away with bus lanes altogether. I’ve been travelling into Belfast for 10 years and it was never that much of a problem, until of course the bus lanes came in. I expect the Liverpool model to be sufficiently succesful that other cities will realise that the whole bus lane thing looks good on paper but it’s actually counterproductive.

    Some people reference the environment in these discussions. I wonder how many tens or hundreds of thousands of litres of fuel were burned away over the past months by people sitting still, jammed in by the bus drivers who now own the roads in Belfast.

    One suggestion may be to allow carpool drivers to use the bus lanes as an interim measure, but the basic notion that you can introduce a whole new bus system in a congested city like Belfast using nothing more than a tin of paint is utterly ridiculous. But then look at the people in charge.

  • Practically_Family

    If I don’t drive I don’t go. The obvious exception being to the boozer, where my friendly neighbourhood taxi man (or the Mrs.) takes me.

    End of.

  • AndyB

    I agree, Sharpie, but there’s not much danger of DRD coughing up the readies to give better services and customer information at stops.

  • AndyB

    I deliberately ignored environmental considerations in my post – I reckoned the argument was strong enough without them! It’s not the only time I’ve found a good economic argument to be made on a subject with environmental considerations.

    Brian and Mick edited out a section that made the post far too long, which looked at the bus lanes more closely. The case I would make is that bus lanes do slow down general traffic, including the movement of goods. That is mitigated by the impact on bus services – buses have sped up since the bus lanes were put in, and faster buses get more people out of cars.

    My fear, and it’s a serious one as someone who can drive, take the bus, and cycle to get to work all in the one week, is that if the buses are slowed down, the passengers who have migrated from cars will just go straight back to driving again as the speed advantage will no longer be there. On top of that, slowing the buses down would lead to even more cancellations than we suffer at the moment (and I see a lot of Facebook posts and tweets on the subject of buses being cancelled).

    In the end, and with road demand continuing to rise, that would leave us worse off than when we began. I think the impact of the bus lanes is to at least partly break out of the vicious circle of unreliable bus services forcing people into their driving seats.

    I’d make two other reflections on the subject of bus lanes.

    One is that I think they were implemented too soon to an extent, because the enhanced bus services of BRT won’t be implemented for some time yet.

    The second is that they have pushed Belfast congestion to a point which would have been reached in any case sooner rather than later, because demand to travel into Belfast city centre is still rising.

  • cimota

    Wow, Andy, I think you might have done me a little disservice there.

    My first thesis is on the practicality of Free Public Transport. I understand that for most people, public transport is not practical. I’m one of those people nearly every day of the week. I travel to my kids schools, drop them off, and then continue on my journey into Belfast. To do this journey using public transport would cost an order of magnitude more and also involve many, many changes and having to leave Bangor at about 6 am rather than the 7:30 am I currently manage.


    A lot of people could use a free service. You have to make it free to make it so that only necessity or idiocy makes people choose the car. At the moment I’m in the necessity category. We would also inadvertently remove the need for the buses to handle currency, we would improve the social and leisure mobility of every section of society and we would also increase the range of economic activity across the whole province because while I balk at the price of a single from Bangor to Belfast (£5.10), I can imagine how that is felt by someone on a really low income salary.

    We currently pay 50% of the cost of Translink through our taxes (or the taxes of the people in the south of England) and the other 50% comes from fares. Translink is only a £300M business so in real terms, it’s only collecting £150M in fares and w’re spending £150M of public money to subsidise the 7% of the commuting public who actually use public transport. We need to change the story there. This isn’t just about giving the poor a great transport system, it’s about making the only people driving cars the people that absolutely need to.

    We don’t have a congestion problem really. We have an information problem and a mismanagement problem. Providing up to date and real-time information of traffic is possible. But upping the percentage of public transport commuters from 7% to (for example) 14% would actually make a massive impact on our roads during rush hour. And I see no reason why it cannot get higher than that.

    My mention of Sirocco is that it’s close to the town centre, it’s currently a wasteland and you could build a great multi-storey complex there and no-one would care. The biggest barrier to this is tradition. And Northern Ireland is being mugged daily by tradition.

  • Bedhead1157

    Neil, the first bus lanes came in around 1996/7 and I was driving for a living back then, the first one I can remember was the Gt Victoria St one and after a couple of weeks of increased congestion, it was no slower than it always was, even before then, there was congestion in Belfast, a lot of it is caused by sheer pig ignorant driving, especially by taxi and bus drivers who ignore yellow boxes, park in bus stops, treat urban clearway signs as some sort of decorative feature and so on, safe in the knowledge that there is little, if any enforcement.

    Almost every night, the radio traffic has a car blocking the upper Ormeau, one single car brings the entire area to a standstill, Albertbridge Road clearway is totally ignored, the no right turn signs for East Bread St, Bloomfield Avenue and Ravenscroft Avenue are ignored, just 3 examples of a citywide problem.

    Recent Christmas shoppers aside, it’s no harder to navigate the city centre than it has been since the 90’s

  • cimota

    This would also be relevant:
    “About half of all energy is used on transportation, and people spend a huge amount of time unhappily commuting.
    Face-to-face interaction is still really important; people still need to move around. And housing continues to get more expensive, partially due to difficulties in transportation. We’re interested in better ways for people to live somewhere nice, work together, and have easier commutes.
    Specifically, lightweight, short-distance personal transportation is something we’re interested in.”

  • cimota

    I don’t think that people choose buses for speed. Buses are slower than driving (even in the best of places), they’re uncomfortable, unreliable, inopportune and are limited to established routes which means walking and standing in the rain and wind.

    The only flexibility is price. That’s the carrot.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    There is the currently-under-construction Belfast rapid transit plan, have you factored that in?

  • AndyB

    I believe that it’s going to take another couple of years to do all the facilitation works and get the (specially designed) buses into service for the first route. As far as I can see from the consultation, they hope to go ahead as it’s all out of the capital budget, but future phases may be delayed.

  • AndyB

    Matt, thanks for setting the record straight on what you were proposing. I really appreciate it, and as I said, you need to be listened to and taken seriously on this.

  • Dan

    My local park and ride is now always packed…so much so that drivers now ditch their car in the ten or so spaces nearby which serve a few shops. Consequence of that is that no one can now get a space to nip in and out of these shops.
    I see the shutters have been down on the wee grocery shop recently.

  • Comrade Stalin

    It’s also worth noting that the vans etc. would not be stuck in a traffic jam at all if we did away with bus lanes altogether.

    Repeatedly saying this does not make it more true.

    I remember Belfast before bus lanes. It was always congested around the morning commute. Before the recent phase of bus lanes (and associated road layout changes), for example, my journey to the Lisburn Road area via Divis and Sandy Row used to take longer. Traffic would be backed up all the way from Grosvenor Road, down Durham Street and Barrack Street, and back out onto the Westlink offslip at Divis.

    I can assure you that if you remove the bus lanes, there many be a few months of reduced congestion; but congestion would quickly return as more people switched to their cars.

    The solution to the problem is to discourage people from driving. As I said to you before, I include myself in that. It’s simply too cheap and easy for me to drive (and add to the congestion). If you make it more expensive, less people will drive. It is the only way this will change.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Enforcement does seem to be a problem. Again that implies that people simply aren’t being punished hard enough for blocking clearways, parking on single or even double yellow lines, or blocking yellow boxes.

    On my morning commute there is a yellow box at the junction of Durham Street and Grosvenor Road. Almost invariably a car travelling towards the city centre sits on this box and prevents traffic on Durham Street from progressing. On one morning this happened repeatedly and I saw the traffic backing up all the way down Durham Street; not because there was congestion, but because one ignorant driver needlessly blocked the road.

    These violations are a sign that the penalties for blockages simply aren’t high enough. In Dublin it’s different – private companies clamp cars parked on clearways at a moment’s notice. Motorists get the message.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Guided buses (or mis-guided buses as some prefer to call them) are very cheap, but they generally suck at getting people out of their cars. They generally tend to poach passengers who are already using buses.

  • AndyB

    Not so much not punished “hard enough” but rather punished at all. Police enforcement of bus lanes is rare, and they never happen to witness people stopping in yellow boxes or otherwise blocking junctions so other people can’t go on their way.

  • AndyB

    Even worse, they’re not even guided buses. They’re likely to be similar to the Wrights Streetbus, if you give that a google.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I’ve seen people commit yellow box violations in full view of a police car. Another thing people like to do at that junction is turn left onto Grosvenor Road (there is a clear no left turn sign) – right across a pedestrian crossing at green.

    Unlikely the police will ever take traffic violations very seriously. A better idea might be to pay the contractors who do parking enforcement for metered parking spaces a commission for submitting photographic evidence of this type of thing, and issue a ticket automatically.

  • Comrade Stalin

    yeah, I’ve seen the one on test. It’s a bus mocked up to look like a tram. They have them in Las Vegas, I’ve been on them. Like a tram/train, you do not pay the driver – you have to have a valid pass with you.

  • babyface finlayson

    The electronic timetables introduced in recent years seemed like a particular waste of money to me. They never proveided live information, so you were told only when a bus would theoretically be due and when that deadline passed the info would simply jump to the next due bus.So just the same information as you get on the paper timetable already.
    I’m not sure if this is still the case as I haven’t been using them recently.

  • AndyB

    I believe that’s still the case, with the exception of a few routes. As far as I can tell, DRD simply never provided the cash to do the job properly.