Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce (BCTC) has called for bus lanes across the city to be scrapped, as part of its vision to see Belfast develop “a world-class sustainable transport system.”
In a remarkable submission to the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Infrastructure last week, Chamber President Gordon McElroy set out BCTC’s view on the progress of the ‘Belfast on the Move‘ scheme and how the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) should “be more radical” in its policies:
“One of the criticisms of the city that the chamber hears most often is that there is difficulty in accessing it. This is a constant and ongoing criticism of Belfast. We regularly hear that clients and customers avoid coming to Belfast because of access issues. Some of that may be perception but some of it is real.
There are things that create perceptions, such as the introduction of the 20 mph zone and the bus lane cameras and the press attention on the amount of revenue that is being generated from them. Those things frighten people from coming into the city.”
“Our members and the people who deal with them are most concerned about the amount of confusion that is being created by the bus lanes in Belfast. They are concerned that the bus lanes are operating at different times. Corporation Street, for example, has a bus lane but only one bus service up and down it and there is never congestion on it. The layout on Oxford Street is another concern. These are all things that are detrimental to people moving around the city.
“It does not mean that there should not be bus lanes or lanes set aside for specific types of traffic to improve transport flow. We really support the introduction of Belfast rapid transit, and the bus lanes that serve it should be there.
We propose to the Department that it be more radical and remove the non-BRT-related bus lanes as an experiment, as was done in Liverpool, where it was found that traffic was freed up and moved much more easily through the city.”
Gordon McElroy, at the Committee for Infrastructure, Wed 7th Dec 2016
Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) is not due to become operational until late 2018, but it’s unclear when BCTC want existing bus lanes to be removed.
BRT will run along the Falls corridor to the west, the Newtownards corridor to the east and a spur to the Titanic Quarter. BCTC’s suggestion would leave North and West Belfast with only one arterial route with any operational bus lanes. That’s a courageous call considering these are the two parliamentary constituencies with the highest percentage of bus commuters, taxi commuters (West) and lowest levels of car commuting in Northern Ireland, according the the 2011 Census.
A vast swathe of the south and east of the city would be left with no public transport priority measures at all, including the vital Ormeau / Saintfield Quality Bus Corridor which would leave the popular Cairnshill Park & Ride facility cut adrift.
The bus lanes in Belfast which aren’t part of the BRT network, and therefore assumed as targeted by BCTC to be ripped up, include:
Corporation Street / Garmoyle Street
Donegall Square East
Donegall Square West
Great Victoria Street
M1 hard shoulder
M2 hard shoulder
Queensway / Kingsway
Upper Lisburn Road
Upper Malone Road
Upper Queen Street
This submission comes quickly after the launch of BCTC’s Belfast Manifesto which set out some more detail on the Chamber’s attitude to bus lanes. While stating that:
“Belfast needs a world-class sustainable transport system if it is to achieve the growth that is planned in future years”
..and welcoming the the planned BRT system, the document went on to call for:
“a proper and independent review of the bus lanes, speed limits and car parking in the City Centre. People in cars should not be seen as the enemy, rather as potential clients, customers, investors and visitors”.
Transport NI (the executive arm of DfI) were urged to:
“standardise the times of bus lanes to weekday and peak times only”
..and somewhat strangely to:
“specify and advertise arterial routes that are free of bus lanes”.
The call to strip Belfast of the majority of its bus lanes comes despite the Belfast on the Move scheme being hailed a success by DfI. In a “before and after” assessment of travel habits following the roll-out of bus lanes, DfI found that there was an overall increase in people accessing Belfast city centre despite around 11,000 fewer vehicles entering the city core each day.
“More than half (53%) of the people entering the city centre in October 2013 did so using public transport, taxis, walking or cycling – compared to less than half (47%) in 2011.”
Assessing the impact of Belfast on the Move – 2013 surveys (DfI)
One of the bus lanes which appears to be on BCTC’s hit list is Great Victoria Street, which has been highlighted by DfI as a particular success:
“Great Victoria Street bus lane is now carrying two thirds of commuters in the morning peak, yet it only takes up one half of the available road space.”
Gordon Clarke, Northern Ireland Director for Sustrans said:
“We are very concerned at this proposal by Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce. Removing bus lanes is a retrogressive step especially when many of these bus lanes will be required for the future proposed expansion of the Belfast Rapid Transit network.
“Bus lanes are also protected routes for cyclists and are therefore vitally important for bike commuters until such times as there is better infrastructure. Belfast Bike Life report found that people want more segregated cycle lanes and significant investment. Sustrans’ recent survey of commuters in east Belfast for the CHIPS project found a lot of people are keen to cycle to work but are put off by the sheer volume of cars on our roads.
“We have reached saturation point at peak times in the city for car traffic which is a major cause of air pollution. Belfast is trying to tackle this problem with four air quality management areas in the city centre. Removing bus lanes and encouraging more cars in the city centre will cause air quality to deteriorate further and is off-putting for people living and working in the city. This is finally being recognised as a serious health issue with cities such as Paris proposing a ban on diesel cars by 2025.”
DfI’s own recent assessment of the progress of Belfast on the Move may give a clue as to the chances of success for BCTC’s lobbying efforts to remove bus lanes:
“About 40% of households in Belfast do not have access to a private car – the Department’s transport policy therefore remains focused on the movement of people, rather than vehicles, at peak times. It is therefore important that the allocation of road space is proportionate.
Bus lanes form the backbone of the Metro bus network in Belfast. They have improved bus service reliability and passengers are enjoying a reduction in journey times, helping to reduce congestion and make the city more accessible.”
Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce were approached for comment and clarification on several points but regrettably had not responded by the time of publication.
Read more: Part two – Translink, the Belfast Chamber and bus lanes