There is one authorised vehicular route into the restricted part of Belfast city centre – via High Street. Donegall Place has been one way for several years, but it and Royal Avenue only ever permitted buses to enter. The signs at the junction with Bridge Street ban all traffic from passing except buses, permit holders, delivery vehicles overnight, disabled badge holders and other authorised vehicles (read: emergency services and Belfast City Council). Cycles are theoretically banned from this entry point, but I don’t believe that ban is ever enforced – not helped by other entries into the restricted area explicitly permitting cyclists.
In times long past, the security situation meant this was directly policed by guards and barriers, but with the entry point being open there has been a flood of private cars accessing the city centre and waiting while pedestrians use the zebra crossing in Donegall Place – not all of whom are necessarily the possessors of a disabled badge.
That I suspect is what lay behind the banning of all vehicles other than buses and cycles from Castle Street between Castle Junction and Fountain Street. Large numbers of pedestrians conflicting with traffic, very few businesses in the affected section, and access available to the rest of Castle Street via Queen Street. Almost certainly a considerable number of vehicles using the High Street-Donegall Place-Castle Street route as a short cut to avoid going round via North Street and Millfield. Ultimately, safer for pedestrians.
Except the ban appears to have been far more honoured in the breach than the observance. Of 3,089 warning letters issued to drivers for using bus lanes in the last three weeks, 1,530 letters referred to Castle Street – 49.5% 0f the total.
The figures do show a decrease in motorists getting caught illegally using the bus lanes in question – I’ve no breakdown of the 1,559 letters for the normal bus lanes between the other five fixed cameras and the mobile camera, but at an average of around 147 letters a day (biased towards Monday-Saturday as only the East Bridge Street bus lane operates in the evenings and on Sundays) that is a substantial fall from the 1,140 letters issued in the first four days (an average of 285 a day), but nevertheless the number of letters issued suggests that a lot of motorists have up to now been ignoring the bus lanes for their own convenience, and my line about perceived lack of enforcement by the PSNI holds credence.
I mentioned the worrying bit to Michael Fitzpatrick on Good Morning Ulster on Monday morning, which is that people using the bus lanes are just throwing money away. With 60 people having been caught on Monday up to mid-afternoon, I can only hope that they will take the promise of fines seriously – the obvious statement is that law-abiding motorists will not be caught by these cameras, and it’s therefore easy to ensure that they don’t generate a single penny for DRD.
There is an issue with buses which depart from the stop outside May Street church and instead of using the crossing point at Linenhall Street, go straight into the general traffic lanes – for example, when I went to do my interview with Michael, my own bus and two others crossed over immediately. On the other hand, as my interview wrapped up, I saw six buses all queued up in the bus lane at the crossing point.
Contrary to popular rumour, this is actually perfectly lawful, but one question I’m looking at is what can DRD and Translink do to persuade bus drivers to help other motorists by staying in the May Street/Donegall Square South bus lane until the crossing point when safe – does the timing on the traffic lights need to be changed to be more responsive to approaching buses? Are motorists routinely blocking the yellow box junction which needs to be kept clear for the buses to cross?
I hope to have another look at the bus lane cameras over the summer, as more statistics become available and motorists get used to them.
UPDATE: in an interview with Michael Fitzpatrick this morning (HT Michael himself – 01:52:15-01:58:04), Peter Rice from DRD disclosed that around 200 motorists had been detected over the three days – which is a substantial reduction.