Belfast bus lanes and bikes are working

I was on BBC Nolan last week (on the rare occasions I could get a word in, such is the show!) to discuss a significant traffic hold-up caused by a lorry which overturned on the M2 between Yorkgate and Fortwilliam at around 3.30pm on a Friday.

As happens, the “discussion” turned into a debate about a certain DUP MP’s views on motorists’ rights, specifically on the motorists’ rights to drive 30mph rather than 20mph.

As happens also, that particular DUP MP was wrong. He generally is – after all, he does neither reason nor evidence.

In fact, Belfast’s bus lanes and bikes system have been a success – I stop short of “huge success” for a reason, but nevertheless a success. The objective was the reduce the number of cars entering (and thus polluting) the city centre, while increasing the number of people entering. Exactly that has happened – more people now enter the city centre than previously did, they just tend to do it by bus or bike.

We are well used to the counter-argument, and as ever we heard it all on and after the show. People are fed up with congestion yet somehow believe they are also punished by having to go 20mph rather than 30mph (surely if it is that congested they would never be able to get up to 30mph in the first place?); people are fed up being fined for driving in bus lanes (if they can’t see the bus lane, should they be driving at all?); people think cars are being forced out of the city centre (well yes – they pollute the place and endanger pedestrians). One person even complained that he could no longer drive to Boojum for lunch (er, the one I know is directly opposite a train halt and why on earth would you pay for parking while waiting in the queue that is constantly outside it?)…

The bus lanes have fallen short of the designation “huge success” or “complete success” because the authorities show much less willingness to fine people for infringing urban clearways, which is a much greater problem than driving in bus lanes because it both causes mass congestion and also limits passage for bicycles and buses all at once. It is arguable that they have also moved slightly too soon, with Belfast Mass Transit still a year or so away on any route. One particular rush-hour bus lane, from Stormont to Dundonald, is just crazy.

However, for all of this, the overall balance is clearly positive – for the public, not for the motorist. And that is what it is meant to be.


8 thoughts on “Belfast bus lanes and bikes are working

  1. William Allen says:

    I took the decision last spring that I would stop using my car to travel to work in Belfast, or indeed to travel to Belfast for any other purpose. I get the bus or the train into the Europa bus centre / train station and quite happily walk to either work on the Lisburn Road or to what ever shop etc I need to go to. In general I find this far less stressful than driving. I wish I could say it was cheaper, but sadly despite the high cost of fuel, motor insurance etc, public transport is still very expensive compared with motoring.

    Sadly the public transport system (Translink) is not well run. For example I use the number 300 or 300A service from Templepatrick to the Europa. On mornings when I leave very early to catch the 6.15 bus it is always a large double deck bus, and I have never seen more than 6 passengers on this service. I more usually catch the 7.21 bus. This is always a small single decked bus and it is packed to standing room only. This is madness, it is not safe having to stand on a vehicle traveling on the motorway, it is not comfortable and it certainly must discourage people from using the bus.

    The state has chosen to use punitive measures to discourage car use rather than a positive approach. Reduce the cost of public transport, improve the service and more people will use it. People use public transport in London (despite how congested it is) because it is frequent and covers just about everywhere you could want to go. Fining motorists for driving on half the road that they pay tax to use and for driving above a crawl is not the way to move forward.

    • To be fair, I think “the state” is doing both. The lanes have been brought in in preparation for the mass transit system.

      Clearly there are problems with some bus routes. Others, however, have responded to note that their service has improved precisely because lanes are now making it more reliable. But I appreciate that isn’t everyone’s experience!

  2. Ally says:

    “The objective was the reduce the number of cars entering (and thus polluting) the city centre, while increasing the number of people entering. Exactly that has happened – more people now enter the city centre than previously did, they just tend to do it by bus or bike.” Where is your evidence for this; what metric are you referring to which proves an increase in number of people entering the city?

    “However, for all of this, the overall balance is clearly positive – for the public, not for the motorist. ” The motorist _IS_ the public – why do you consider it balanced and fair that motorists are not counted as public citizens?

    Overall, I regard this post as total nonsense. On a national and global scale, Belfast is laughing stock for many reasons (most of those reasons due to our backward, incompetent, childish, so-called “politicians”) – the fact that such a small city can be so incredibly congested is just another contributory factor to our struggling, public-sector dependant economy.

    Don’t get me wrong – I am absolutely all for bike and bus lanes (I would personally love to feel safe enough to cycle across our struggling road system for 20mins each day to/from work) – however the introduction of these schemes must not be allowed to further retard the economic output of our city. How can I expect to do business if it takes me 45mins to get from one side of the (tiny) city to another for a client meeting? Buses and bikes are not an option for those of us who have to carry heavy equipment around with us on a daily basis.

    • I don’t quite understand your logic. Belfast is “incredibly congested”, but you want to add to the congestion?

      The whole purpose is to get you out of your car – and on to a bike, or into a (mass transit) bus or train. These three options – through the bikes scheme, the bus lanes and the most punctual train service in the UK – are readily available to stop you taking 45 minutes from one side to the other.

      But maybe I’ve misunderstood?

      • David says:

        Surely the point is not to get Ally out of his/her car when s/he has heavy equipment to carry. Surely the point is to create more options for those of us who don’t have to drive so that we can get out of our cars and stop adding to the pollution and congestion in the city and so that we don’t have to leave our cars sitting empty all day taking up valuable, commercial real estate. Surely it also creates more options for the huge number of people in Belfast (more than half of households at the last census) who don’t have access to a private car. Creating better public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure gives them more opportunities to be economically active. It also has social benefits, but since Ally’s argument was largely economic I’m also going to focus on the economic arguments.

      • Ally says:

        Forgetting about the fact I carry heavy equipment with me across client sites as part of my job (as I already stated and you conveniently ignored) – which means bikes/trains/buses are not a daily commute option for me – I do not believe simply adding new bus lanes and a 20mph speed limit are in any way lessening the congestion of our city.

        You want to get people out of their cars? Then make public transport more attractive. Do this by introducing INNOVATIVE public transport schemes (I had to laugh when I found out Belfast’s new “rapid transport system” was simply more, bigger buses, going in a slightly different direction – way to think out of the box Belfast, shows the real depressing lack of imagination us citizens have come to expect of our “politicians”), and improving the quality and reliability of existing services. Attempting to force motorists into buses by making the city as inhospitable to motorists as possible will not encourage a willing cultural-shift towards a heavier reliance on public transport.

        Also, you ignored my request for you to provide evidence as to how your measuring that “more people now enter the city centre than previously did, they just tend to do it by bus or bike” – please reply with this evidence. I assume, being one of our “highly-respected” “politicians” that you’re not just making this up.. 😉

    • andyboal says: for the stats.

      I think, with all due respect, that you are entirely missing the point. You’ve identified yourself as an essential driver due to the equipment you need to carry to do your job, which is fair enough. I would also guess that many of your clients would not be easily accessible by public transport even if you didn’t have to carry equipment.

      However, as an essential driver, you are being delayed not by the buses, but rather by non-essential drivers – people who choose to drive and thus take roadspace required by people like you (who probably constitute a decent majority) who do not have the luxury of using public transport to get about your business.

      Belfast bus demand is very elastic – cash bus fares are fairly typical on a UK-wide scale, contrary to popular belief, and our discounted commuter fares are at the cheap end of the market (contrast Edinburgh, which has no discounts whatsoever for commuters, just flat rate £1.50 or all day £4.00) but fare rises and service cuts make people vote with their steering wheels. So do buses that cannot be relied upon or just go entirely the wrong direction (thus explaining why few people commute across town by bus!)

      We hear a lot about Liverpool, but the reality is that the bus lanes in Belfast have sped the buses up – perhaps they are better joined up here, so there is less difficulty getting from one bus lane to the next. If the buses are slowed down, more people will get in their cars – and that will create more congestion, more I would suggest in the medium term than we have now.

      In short: buses and trains are a lot more efficient at moving large numbers of people, and if priced correctly with a decent service (something I’ve discussed at length on my own blog and Slugger O’Toole), ought to remove enough non-essential drivers to make life easier for every individual who needs to drive that day.

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