Poetry in motion. Just why is traffic so bad on a Friday?

Ah, Friday.  POETS day.  Quieter rush hour than usual because of long weekends, and people getting the bus in so they can have drinks after work before getting a taxi home.

So where does all the congestion come from on Friday afternoons?

That was the question Brian asked me a wee while back, and it has a fairly straightforward answer, and I thought I might take a quick look at congestion patterns at two other peaks in the week.

Monday morning we all know about.  A day of new resolve to come in early that dies later in the week, and from observation more part time staff appear to work the beginning of the week than the end of the week.

Thursday evening is the nasty one all year, but especially in December.  This is caused by three things:

  1. Everybody trying to get home through Cromac Square
  2. Everybody trying to get in for late night shopping through Cromac Square
  3. Both of the above happening between 5pm and 6pm

Throw in an accident or two, and the knock-on effects are awful – and while Cromac Square is the one I know (only too well?) there will be other pinch points across Belfast where two opposing traffic flows have to share one piece of asphalt.  It took me an hour to drive from east Belfast to Greenisland yesterday evening, most of which was spent getting from the Albert Bridge Road to the Ann Street junction with Victoria Street, but I did get to observe that unusually, the Albert Bridge Road/Ravenhill Road/Short Strand junction wasn’t blocked so that people couldn’t get home, with its own knock-on effects [Might you have mentioned this before? – Ed] Oh, possibly…

I wonder to what extent late night opening has a panic effect.  Ooh, it’s 5pm, better get in quickly for late night opening (and never mind that the shops are open until 9pm!)  My thesis is that if late night shoppers waited until after 6pm, they ought to have an easier journey in as most city centre workers will have got out of Belfast by then – arguably, and I’d love to put this to the test, if late night shoppers were to wait until after the evening rushhour traffic had cleared, they could find themselves in the city centre earlier than they currently do.

How does that work?  Well, say someone lives near Stormont and leaves their house at 5.30 to go late night shopping.  Traffic’s atrocious, and it takes over an hour to get in.  If they left just after 6, they could find themselves in the city centre before 6.30pm because most of the commuter traffic would have cleared before they got there.  Win-win all round – a lot less stress.

So what of Friday?  A quiet morning rush hour due to long weekends.  People leaving work early and going to the pub or just going home to their families [POETS in action? – Ed] That’s one way to put it…  A spread out evening rush hour, and you’d think it would be reasonably quiet.

But it isn’t.

Friday afternoon is one of the biggest times of the week for people for whom the private motor car is the only option to go about their business – to an extent, the whole day can be busy.

People who have taken the day off or gone home at lunchtime coming back into town in the afternoon or driving away for the weekend, including to the airports, and the summer weekend rush to the north coast.

People who maybe take public transport the rest of the week, but have driven in on Friday morning (when things are definitely lighter) in order to go on somewhere after work that needs the car (including people who leave work in time to go and pick up children from school and go on to their activity)

Designated drivers coming in to look after their friends and get them home safely from the Belfast nightlife.

As many staff with the privilege of flexi time exercising it at 3.30pm as possible to leave minimum cover in the office between then and 5pm creating an early peak.

It’s a lot less extreme than Thursday, and the benefits of hitting the M2 early-mid afternoon to head north are that you get to sit in a steady flow of traffic, even through the road works on the Frosses road, rather than grinding to a halt on the existing dual carriageway.  A little slower but steady is better than stopping frequently.

You might think that I of all people would be saying “can’t they use public transport?” – but in many cases, that’s not appropriate.  Ulsterbus services have long since been cut back in the evening, and the 10.30 buses from Oxford Street are a distant memory – the remaining services pass the Albert Clock somewhat earlier.  Metro services run at reduced frequency on popular routes.  Trains only run to Bangor, Carrickfergus and Portadown in the late evening.  Taxis are expensive.  I’ve noted too often that it’s usually cheaper for two people travelling together to take a car than to catch a bus.

So is there a solution?  Probably not.  More of a reality, that the people who weren’t part of the morning rush hour traffic are likely to be out later in the day, and going a different direction, adding to the evening peak which starts early.

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  • 23×7

    Cars parked every day at rush hour in the urban clearways on both the Ormeau road and Cregagh road yet nothing is done about it. There must be no money in enforceing urban clearways compared to catching cars straying accidentally into bus lanes.

  • AndyB

    Don’t even start me on clearway enforcement!

  • AndyB

    I should say though that I rarely see a car stray accidentally into a bus lane. From experience as a cyclist, most cases are deliberate queue-jumping, or in the case of Central Station, refusing to use the allocated public hire taxi rank in May’s Meadow.

  • Civil servants on flexi time heading off early.

  • or Civil Servants heading off early.

  • chrisjones2

    ah but bendy buses will solve it all!!!


  • Reader

    Andy Boal: If they left just after 6, they could find themselves in the city centre before 6.30pm because most of the commuter traffic would have cleared before they got there
    So at what point on their journey do they overtake the shopper who set out ahead of them?
    Faster? quite possibly. Sooner? no.

  • Ruth Steen

    Queens and Jordanstown students headed back to Ballymamscooking for the weekend.

  • AndyB

    Well, it would require everyone else to have the same idea – let people get home easily, then it’ll be easier for the shoppers.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    Here’s one for you to ponder; how many car park spaces are there in the city centre e.g. the area between the westlink, Lagan, queens and corporation square?

    And how does it compare to other cities of a similar size?

  • Zig70

    Antrim Road also, without fail.

  • AndyB

    Ooh, interesting question.

    Extending to Eastside Park and Ride (but not the Odyssey), the City Council operates 1344 spaces and Eastside and Northside Park & Ride are another 585 for surface parking, making 1929.

    There are around 1660 Pay & Display spaces in Belfast, all in the relevant area.

    Multi-storeys (Donegall Quay (300), Montgomery Street (472), Dublin Road (547), Hi-Park (565), Great Northern Mall (530), Hilton (230), Lanyon Place (580), Castle Court (>1600), Castle Street (600), and Victoria Square (1000)) account for 6424 spaces, which is a lot.

    So that makes a minimum of 10,013 spaces in the area before counting the other privately owned car parks in the city, although you’d be excused for excluding Montgomery Street and Victoria Square due to cost!

    Comparing to other cities isn’t easy, as googling won’t always tell you. I saw a Google entry that Birmingham city centre has 24,000 spaces, but we don’t know how that is defined – my definition for Belfast city centre, including the two central park and rides, is less than two square miles, and without measuring properly, I think it’s quite a bit less.

    To be honest, I don’t perceive a shortage of parking capacity in Belfast if you know where to look. Certain car parks get forgotten, and they’re not just the cheap ones.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Cheers Andy
    What I am getting at is that Belfast has a lot of capacity to hold cars but not a lot of capacity to let them flow (being ringed in by mountains and the sea), it’s a bit like having a massive water tank for fire-fighting but a spindly wee hose to direct at the flames.

    What’s the point in this capacity if the city can’t handle it?

    If I was Exalted Emperor of Northern Ireland I’d look about erecting park & rail-rides along the railway lines so that people coming into the city can take the train and miss the bottle necks. Maybe even the M2/a57 junction?

    Plus, I’d open train stations in the numerous villages that have railway line going through them e.g. Muckamore, Templepatrick and numerous places between Belfast and Newtownabbey.

    I think we’re too car dependent in NI, we’re also too Belfast dependent. So while this is the case I think we should aim to make the system more efficient.

    PLUS If car parks become less of a necessity then maybe their owners would consider selling some of them so that the place doesn’t look so desolate…

  • AndyB

    Yep, that’s a very good way of putting the problem, although we do have the problem of people using cars because they own one, spoiling it for those who need to use theirs that day.

    Ballymartin Park & Ride could easily have a railway station (and could yet get one), but as well as the three minutes or so required to stop at the station, there is another far more serious problem: it’s already standing room only at Mossley West, and picking up passengers at Ballymartin would risk passengers from Mossley West (which also serves the Ballyclare area rather well) not being able to get on at all. Making all peak trains 6-car is possible, but would need additional PSO to pay for the extra conductor and diesel, and ideally would require the line to be doubled again.

    Park & Ride is actually pretty well provided on NIR. Those stations without a car park are unlikely to get one due to housing.

    As for new stations, yes I think that a couple of stations should be opened on the Larne line between Yorkgate and Whiteabbey to attract local custom.

    The problem with reopening Muckamore or other closed stations on intercity lines is that you have to balance two conflicting demands: long-distance passengers wanting to get there as quickly as possible and being discouraged by too many stops on the way to their destination, and potential local passengers. I think the future will see more centralised stations with decent park and ride facilities.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    What’s ‘PSO’?

  • AndyB

    Public Service Obligation. It’s the mechanism by which most railway services in the UK and bus services in GB are subsidised because of the public benefit (ie those who cannot drive, and lack of road space to accommodate those who can)