Belfast Telegraph and City Centre bus lanes

And I thought I’d stopped commenting on transport for a wee while.  Hey ho.

Jim Rodgers is quoted in today’s Belfast Telegraph as calling for a formal review of city centre bus lanes, backed by Gavin Robinson.  I’m not going to retread ground I covered on Friday and Saturday, but I do want to make a few comments.

  • As I’ve already noted, I think the bus lanes were brought in too soon.  Implementation should have been more closely tied to the implementation of Belfast Rapid Transit in order to provide adequate carrot to go with the stick of less road space for the private car.
  • People movement into Belfast city centre has actually improved, as per the DRD’s own figures (HT Wesley Johnston) showing a 6% increase
  • The same figures show a substantial reduction in city centre traffic, in the region of 10,000 vehicles a day.
  • 4% fewer cars are entering the city centre in the peak.
  • And there has been a 17% increase in bus passengers and 36% in rail passengers to Belfast.
  • In the Belfast Telegraph report, car park usage has risen.  Go figure.
  • Belfast City Council wasted a massive opportunity when the bus lanes were introduced to promote off-peak travel to Belfast – the impact of the bus lanes on travel between 9.30am and 3.30pm is far less, and the chance was there to promote Belfast as a fantastic shopping place.
  • A massive problem has existed 52 weeks a year for several years in Cromac Street on a Thursday evening between 5pm and 6pm as traffic from East and South Belfast converge on Cromac Square to go late night shopping at the same time as commuters are trying to get home from work through the same junction and on Victoria Street.

Bus and rail fares are perceived as expensive, even though they are lower than in Great Britain or Ireland on a like-for-like basis – and of course I agree they are expensive.  As highlighted in the discussion on Friday’s post, demand for public transport in Belfast is very sensitive to value for money, perceived or actual.

With the substantial increase in public transport usage clearly linked to driving into the city centre being made a lot less attractive by the presence of the bus lanes, it isn’t hard to see that if the bus lanes were taken away, most of the 17% increase in 2012/13 would be wiped out if driving in was made easier.  The rest of the increase is already at risk as the existing proposed public transport cuts will make it harder for people to do anything other than drive.

Falling passenger numbers will drive Translink into a downward spiral that will require more taxpayers’ and ratepayers’ money to be pushed into filling the gap between farebox income and the cost of operating services.

For those reasons, I think that ripping out the bus lanes, coupled with increasing demand for roadspace, will in the end do us no good whatsoever, and potentially leave us, and in particular those who already have little choice other than to drive, worse off.

However, vehicle numbers and available road space are only part of the story.

From experience as bus passenger, cyclist and driver (and a former rail commuter when I lived in Bangor), while the bus lanes, together with the extra traffic lights, and sheer numbers of vehicles may cause most of the congestion, it is severely impacted by the driver attitude that green traffic lights mean you must go immediately unless there is another vehicle right in front of you.

The statement in the Highway Code is that green means you may go if the way is clear and you should only go forward when the traffic lights are green if there is room for you to clear the junction safely or you are taking up a position to turn right.” (Rule 176)

As of those of us with the misfortune to use the East Bridge Street/Albert Bridge Road/Short Strand/Ravenhill Road junction know only too well, this last rule is not so much broken on the grounds that it isn’t legally enforceable (unlike yellow box junctions)  as completely ignored.  When Short Strand is tailed back to that junction, traffic from Albert Bridge Road and the Ravenhill Road habitually ploughs on across the junction even though they cannot get into Short Strand, stopping traffic from East Bridge Street from moving onto empty asphalt on the Albert Bridge Road, and creating (ok, worsening) tailbacks in Cromac Street and Oxford Street.

Similar stories happen daily at Cromac Square where until the yellow box was painted, traffic was routinely prevented from turning right from Cromac Street to East Bridge Street because of traffic turning from East Bridge Street into Victoria Street blocking the junction.  Similar can happen at the Gasworks, where I remember a driver attempting to turn right from Donegall Pass onto the Ormeau Road and stopping traffic going straight across the Gasworks to Donegall Pass.  Same problem:  the lights are green, therefore I must go even if there’s nowhere for me to go to.

My thesis on congestion that adhering to rule 176 of the Highway Code would have a disproportionate effect on Belfast congestion, because traffic going a different direction would be able to cross the path of already congested traffic more easily.  There would then be a knock-on effect, for example where traffic in Oxford Street is held up by traffic blocking the Albert Bridge/Short Strand junction because traffic at the head of their queue cannot get into Oxford Street.


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