The week a public transport advocate said rip out a bus lane…

Or near enough.

I’ve got to be honest, last week I heard the complaints about Queens Road while on holiday in Copenhagen, and initially I thought… they’ve got to be exaggerated.

But then more and more details fed through, and it became clear that the Department for Infrastructure had based traffic figures for Queens Road on seven or eight years ago, a lot earlier in the development of the Belfast Rapid Transport project, with Catalyst Inc at an earlier stage of development, Titanic Belfast not yet open, and Belfast Met’s new building barely open.

Queens Road with bus lane partly blocked

And they wondered why when they put in a bus lane, which on Sunday was partially obstructed by ongoing works on the footway, the junction of Queens Road and Sydenham Road could not cope.

I’m not a traffic engineer.  I’m a well-informed layman who has been studying Belfast traffic for the guts of 30 years, having seen the impact of the M3 bridge when it opened (I remember walking into town to work from the Holywood Arches in spring 1992 because the traffic on the Newtownards Road was so atrocious) and the impact of buses getting slower and slower on passenger numbers – the price of being autistic and simply not being able to pass my driving test until I was 36.  I am that bus passenger delayed because there was too much other traffic.

Contexts

Queens Road is one road in, one road out.  It’s constrained by Samson and Goliath and the dry dock they stand over.  The development of Catalyst Inc and the opening of Titanic Belfast and other buildings means that there is a lot more traffic converging on the traffic lights at Bells Theorem Crescent on Queens Road and wishing to get towards Sydenham Road in the evening peak.

On top of that, Glider can’t help people who come down Queens Road, turn right into Sydenham Road and Station Street before diving onto the M3 at Middlepath Street, nor those who turn left towards Dee Street (replacement link from Airport Road to the Sydenham Bypass still desperately needed!) because it doesn’t go that way.

Sydenham Road past the Odyssey

The good news is that the bus lane road in Sydenham Road is being suspended with immediate effect, possibly until a third lane can be built – so two lanes of traffic will be able to turn right at Sydenham Road again.

But what of Queens Road itself?  Will one lane be enough for general traffic?  We will find out over the next couple of nights.  The bus lane is to be extended northwards towards the Titanic Exhibition Centre, which will have no negative impact on traffic because the road only has one traffic lane plus a cycle lane each way, but is already more than wide enough for two bus lanes, cycle lanes and the existing two lanes of traffic.

It may simply be that the bus lane along Queens Road has to be removed altogether because there is so much traffic which cannot transfer to public transport due to the nature of jobs or going the opposite way from the Glider.  And that’s from me as a massive public transport advocate – sometimes you have to step back and say that a bus lane won’t work.

Legacy

However, then there is the legacy of this horrendous mess.

I was invited on Evening Extra on Thursday night, but if anything I was relieved to be in Denmark as I wouldn’t have fancied getting to Queens Road.  I do have my notes though.

Firstly, as I’ve noted, this was totally avoidable.  All that was required was to realise that the traffic surveys were years out of date and there had been substantial development and consequent increases in traffic since they were carried out – Department for Infrastructure carried out a lot of surveys at traffic lights on the East Belfast corridor last year and could have arranged with the Harbour Commissioners for further surveys indicating where traffic was going which would have identified the high demand to turn right at Sydenham Road and let them make better decisions as to the traffic phasing.

Even that has problems.  If you give Queens Road longer on green, what happens to traffic on Sydenham Road?  Will they get through the junction or will there be knock-on effects from the revised timings?  How will that affect traffic at Dee Street? (that Connswater link problem again!)

We do have the new link across to Sydenham Road opening as required from Wednesday evening or so, with cones placed around an existing gate on Sydenham Road.  It will take some pressure off, but with the level of demand for Sydenham Road, will it be enough – and would using the road to PRONI be a far better idea?  Bikefast has already raised concerns for the safety of cyclists and pedestrians at the point where the temporary road appears to be due to emerge.

But the real long term legacy is the damage done to bus lanes as a concept.  There is already a petition in circulation demanding that every bus lane in Belfast be removed, and I’ve already demolished that argument.  Short version: if you want (other) people to use the bus, don’t make it take half an hour longer.  Don’t make it so late that people go back to driving.

And don’t be surprised when your bus lane and one queue of traffic turns into two queues of traffic because of people who see no benefit to taking the bus any more.

See what actually happened in Liverpool: overall traffic moved better without the bus lanes, but bus journey times were extended and they required extra buses to keep the same service frequency – something that will come out of the city’s budget, and make the buses less attractive.  Traffic engineers tell me that the fundamental problem in Liverpool was that the bus lanes were disconnected, meaning that there were too many long gaps between bus lanes, a problem that the Glider should not face.

Who needs to drive? Answer: a very large number of people

The roads aren’t big enough for everyone to be able to drive in rush hour, and we need to tackle the anti-social attitude that says “I own a car, therefore I must be allowed to drive it where and when I wish” and takes no account of those who say things like :

  • “I can’t get my kids to childcare or school and take the bus to work.  It just doesn’t work”
  • “I would have to get two buses to work.  It would take too long and cost too much”
  • “I’m forever called out of the office to meetings, and I can only get there by car”
  • “I’ve to go somewhere after work and I can’t go home and get the car inbetween”
  • “I’m a tradesman who needs to drive to get to my customers”
  • “I’m a delivery driver”
  • “My health won’t let me take the bus or train”
  • “Even if I used the park and ride, the bus wouldn’t get me anywhere near my work”
  • “I can get the bus to work, but I’m finishing late and the last bus will have gone so I need to drive”

This is the key thing.  All of the above are solid practical realistic reasons to drive.  They’re the people we need to provide for, and it’s probably the majority of people on the roads.  They are the people who count on others stepping aside and using public transport.

And it’s not just that.  The demand to drive is atrocious for the environment.  You may well argue that so is stationary traffic and that bus lanes will increase that; but how would two stationary lines of traffic make it better?

And then there’s the impact on our health and the Health Service of not taking short walks to the bus stop and the office and choosing not to cycle.

Take out the bus lanes and others won’t step aside – because why would you step aside to fall further and further back in the one traffic queue when you might as well have your own choice of music and company?  It’s not efficient use of the road, but that’s the equilibrium required: that people will, if given enough reason, switch to public transport because it’s at the right time and place.  It’s why to this day we see regular complaints on Facebook and Twitter about buses which just haven’t arrived – because they were stranded in traffic on their previous journeys.

Price is a whole other issue, and as I say regularly, see how far a commuter can get for £1.45 each way in Great Britain, a country where private bus companies are rolling in subsidies that would make your eyes water paid out of residents’ council tax to pay for diesel fuel duty and loss-making services – but that’s a political issue caused by Tory Direct Rule ministers (and for that matter Labour) forcing above inflation fare increases by Translink and the Executive refusing to provide more money to support cheaper services.  It was still true when I wrote my first Slugger article, quoting the DRD budget 2015/16 consultation, that “fare levels in Northern Ireland are well below those in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.”

Queens Road has given bus lanes a very bad name, because of an absolutely avoidable and totally unmitigated failure to check whether the traffic model adopted was still valid.

Turning back the clock or assessing the alternatives

Turning the clock back to 1988 isn’t going to help, because the absence of bus lanes saw a steady decline in bus travel, a decline that continues to this day on Ulsterbus and has only been reversed on Metro because of bus lanes and higher frequencies.  It would just be a return to a strategy that totally failed Belfast until bus lanes got beyond the Ormeau Road.

There is no scope to add extra traffic lanes on the already congested roads because it would involve demolishing homes and businesses.

All we have left is more efficient use of the resources we have got – but that means making good decisions that actually get people out of private cars instead of discouraging public transport, and ensuring that logjams such as York Street are dealt with properly for the sake of traffic that doesn’t need to stop in Belfast city centre.

We know that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not invest in trams – Conor Murphy ruled it out as long ago as 2008, and as was the case from 2007 to 2016, DUP were responsible for setting the DRD budget with which SF, UUP and DUP ministers had to fund roads, public transport and water.

The reasons given for choosing a bus-based solution were the capital cost (£590 million against a then estimate of £147 million, later squeezed to £90 million, partly due to the diversion of Glider away from the Comber Greenway) and ongoing annual cost of £6.78 million against the then estimate of £1.44 million for what has become Glider, but, as with all rail-based systems, trams inevitably attract a lot more passengers than buses – which means fewer drivers on the road.

But was any calculation made of the economic impact of that in greater mobility and efficiency for those who cannot use public transport, and the impact on businesses relying on deliveries?  Somehow I doubt it, but it’s a massive missed opportunity.

What alternatives are there?  Flexible working doesn’t help with fixed school hours.  Staggered school hours could make the school run impossible for parents with children in multiple schools.  Free travel for children under 16 has real potential, especially as it would suddenly make travel for families by public transport a lot more realistic, but would need investment in additional buses for school services – if parents could be persuaded that their children could take the bus just as they used to.

The only credible long-term suggestion anybody has made is a more comprehensive public transport system that takes people where they want to be, in other words along routes and at frequencies that are currently economically unviable, but the DUP-controlled DFP cut funding to DRD in 2015/16 leaving insufficient money to provide existing levels of service for roads, public transport or water.  Sinn Fein, who took over Department of Finance in 2016, had the opportunity to redress this in the 2017/18 budget, but failed to publish any draft budget before the collapse of the Assembly.  It is hard to believe on the evidence of the decisions taken for funding of public transport that either of the two largest parties has any intention of investing in this way, especially with the perennial boast that NI has the lowest household taxes – despite the price we pay in underfunded health, education and transport services, and the impact of increasing business rates.

And that leaves us with Glider and bus lanes – and the hope that the Queens Road debacle does not cause the clock to be turned back 30 years.

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