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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