Bikefast has obtained a 2016 internal Department for Infrastructure (DfI) report on the potential impact of allowing all taxis into Belfast bus lanes – a report which raises more questions about the decision to institute a real-world trial just two weeks before an election.
During spring 2016 Bikefast representatives met then Regional Development Minister Michelle McIlveen to discuss cycling progress and continued concerns over the impact of taxi reform on fragile levels of cycling in Belfast. As a result, Minister McIlveen commissioned a Departmental review to update previous research which had fed into the 2012 taxis in bus lanes consultation.
Bikefast has now obtained a copy of that 2016 report which contains remarkable commentary on the expected impacts to bus journey times and cycling levels, which the new research shows have both greatly improved.
It puts a brighter spotlight on why a real-world trial was permitted to be launched during the pre-election “purdah” period. It also increases pressure on unanswered questions why no pre-trial risk assessment has been made available on a scheme which the Department itself estimated would double the traffic in certain bus lanes.
The Department commissioned TransportNI Design & Consultancy and its partner Amey to undertake a route study of bus lane usage of three key transport corridors in Belfast:
- Castlereagh Road
- Falls Road
- Ormeau Road
It used data from various years as far back as 2001 to benchmark changes to journey times for cars and buses, along with studies of the numbers of vehicles using the traffic lanes and bus lanes. This focuses not just on buses, bicycles, motorcycles and public hire taxis (permitted bus lanes users) but also private taxis which are the prime beneficiaries of the current bus lane trial.
While the report does not make recommendations for action, it concludes with startling commentary on the main modes jostling for bus lane priority at the end under “additional study notes”.
“Bus journey times and bus speeds have improved since the previous surveys in 2007. An average journey time saving of 3 minutes 51 seconds was recorded on the Ormeau Road, 3 minutes 48 seconds was recorded on the Castlereagh Road and 6 minutes on the Falls Road. This decrease in bus journey times may be a combination of better bus lane infrastructure, better ticketing and payment methods (Smart cards for payment), more efficient bus fleets and timetabling.”
The figures give a ringing endorsement of DRD/DfI policies of better bus priority over the past decade. Journey speeds improved against a Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan 2015 target of +15% as follows:
The question for DfI is why on earth would anyone wish to jeopardise this success, especially with Bus Rapid Transit around the corner?
“Cycling on the Ormeau Road and Castlereagh Road routes has become more attractive with the numbers of cyclists increasing in the city bound bus lane since 2007.”
Another massive success story on these routes. While bus lanes are one of the poorest types of cycling infrastructure, they have provided essential calm space for cycling to bud in Belfast, while we wait for a cycling network to help it blossom. Again the increases (from 2007 to 2016) are worth noting:
- Castlereagh Road +63%
- Ormeau Road (by roundabout) +100%
- Ormeau Road (by Ormeau Park) +154%
Indeed, bicycles are now the single largest group of bus lane users on the Ormeau Road as it approaches Ormeau Bridge in the morning rush hour.
Yet hidden within this good news story is a devastating paragraph which should have stopped any thought of permitting thousands of private taxis free access to bus lanes: [emphasis added]
“On the Falls Road however, the survey data indicates that cycling has become less attractive with numbers decreasing. One reason for the decrease in cyclists on the Falls Road is that compared to the other routes the volume and mix of vehicle traffic in the bus lane is much greater, with significantly more public hire taxis operational on the Falls Road.”
Belfast’s cycling landscape is not uniform. For years we have seen that cycling levels in West Belfast lag behind not just the rest of the city but also the whole country.
One of the key reasons (as DfI say themselves) has been the volume of permitted users of bus lanes, with the geographically unique taxi bus services. This is a main reason why average AM peak hour cycling on the Falls Road fell by 36% between 2007 and 2016.
Here in black and white is a warning to top DfI officials and the Minister *from their own Department* – permit this change to bus lanes and you will decimate cycling levels across the rest of the city. A warning blithely ignored.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, it turns out the numbers of private hire taxis on these Belfast streets has unexpectedly increased:
“The survey data indicates an increase in the number of private hire taxis on the Ormeau Road, Falls Road and especially Castlereagh Road from 2007 to 2016. The reason behind this is difficult to ascertain, as data shows the numbers of taxis licensed has remained relatively constant recently.”
The increases in taxis observed over the study periods were:
- Castlereagh Road +114%
- Falls Road +26%
- Ormeau Road +22%
For a report which avoids firm recommendations, it can’t help but present awkward commentary which, even on a charitable reading, would give caution to decision-makers:[emphasis added]
“In terms of the bus lanes operation and the effect of increasing numbers of private hire taxis utilising these routes, this is difficult to predict. However with the potential for more taxi vehicles dropping off and picking up along the bus routes, this will potentially impede other road users and could increase journey times.”
Despite the cautious language, this statement should have been the coup de grace on the strange urge to get private hire taxis into bus lanes.
Take the Castlereagh Road for instance (writer declares an interest as a daily bicycle user here) where the data collected indicates that private taxi numbers dwarf all legal users of the bus lane – meaning private taxis in the current trial period have effectively doubled the traffic in this bus lane.
Standing on the shoulders of even more desk research
Active travel groups expected the 2016 research to build on an already strong evidence base that private hire taxis would have a harmful effect on bus lanes.
The 2012 Taxis in Bus Lanes Consultation Document referenced research which reviewed the impact of allowing motorcycles access to bus lanes, and recommended future access arrangement for private hire taxis: [emphasis added]
“Motorcycles were permitted access at the end of 2005 following a monitored pilot scheme and pending a review of operations after a further two years. The subsequent study reviewed motorcycle usage and explored the possible use of bus lanes by other taxis.
The study involved attitudinal surveys carried out in conjunction with traffic surveys during May 2007. A random mix of public transport users / drivers, motorcyclists, taxi users / drivers and private motorists were surveyed. The study concluded in August 2008, and made a number of recommendations including that only those taxis currently ‘permitted’ access are allowed to use bus lanes.”
The study collated and assessed data from 6 study routes with bus lanes. Overall the 2008 study recommended that:
- the use by motorcycles be made a permanent arrangement without need for further review
- the then (and still current) access arrangements for taxis remain unchanged
- on completion of the planned change to taxi licensing arrangements that only accessible taxis be allowed access to bus lanes
- enforcement measures should be put in place in order to reduce the high levels of illegal use of bus lanes”
DRD Taxis in bus lanes Consultation 2012
While the 2016 report shied away from definite recommendations, it did nothing to demur from those contained in the 2012 report: [emphasis added]
“The 2008 study found that:
- bus lanes are currently underperforming against targets set by the Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan, and [to] allow additional vehicles in the bus lane at that stage would probably contribute to further reduced bus journey speeds
- there was little evidence from other UK cities, of any movement to allow private hire vehicles into bus lanes during the hours of operation, and that there was little evidence that private hire vehicles play any role in delivering sustainable transport systems“
DRD Taxis in bus lanes Consultation 2012
The 2016 report shows that Belfast bus lanes are improving the travelling experience for bus users, cyclists and motorcyclists – bus lanes are now performing better than hoped way back in 2001. Which means the impact of allowing thousands of private hire taxis would be even more marked than would have been the case in 2007 or 2012, especially as DfI observations show the numbers of taxis on the road are also on the rise.
— NI Greenways (@nigreenways) October 8, 2014
And unless there’s a paragraph missing from the 2016 report, there’s no evidence gathered by DfI to show that private hire vehicles are playing any more role now in delivering a “sustainable transport system” for the city.
The 2012 consultation itself was met with 86% of responses rejecting the notion of adding private hire taxis to bus lanes, mirroring the attitudinal studies previously conducted: [emphasis added]
“The 2008 study indicated that of the road user groups surveyed (motorcyclists; bus drivers; bus passengers; cyclists; car drivers; public hire taxi drivers; and, private hire taxi drivers) the only group that supported allowing private hire taxis into bus lanes was the private hire taxi drivers. The reasons given for opposing access being concerns over the impact on bus lane performance, sustainability, defeating the purpose of a bus lane and safety.”
DRD Taxis in bus lanes Consultation (2012)
All of the research available to DRD and DfI, running to over a decade’s worth of data and public opinion, seems as clear-cut as would be required to make an obvious determination without this strangely rushed trial. So we continue to ask.. why?
Active travel groups were shocked that it took rumours on Twitter and hurried contact with DfI to hear about this taxis trial. Given time to consult and make a detailed case on why it’s a bad choice, those same groups would lay out the risks to bus journey times and cycling levels.
We need not have bothered. DfI has actual data and consultants’ expert judgement on the downsides. Had it before the trial decision. Had it for years.
With all of this presumably placed in front of the Minister ahead of a decision to proceed with a real-world trial of a policy which would “potentially impede other road users and could increase journey times” why wasn’t a trial laughed out of the room?
The Department have still yet to clarify why a policy, which benefits a narrow private industry over a vast swathe of users – with, in the case of the majority (bus passengers), scant vocal representation – was permitted to proceed during the pre-election purdah period. This is when government departments are directed to walk on eggshells – this example taken from UK-wide guidance to civil servants ahead of the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly elections:
“In some cases it may be better to defer an announcement until after election day, provided that such a postponement would not be either wasteful of public money or detrimental to the wider UK national interest, which will include consideration of the urgency and importance of the issue. Each case should be considered on its merits.”
Northern Ireland election 2017: conduct on guidance (GOV.UK)
And still, in the face of a snap election, during a period when new or contentious policies should ideally be deferred, a political decision was taken in defiance of readily available, and seemingly damning, research.
Here’s the difficulty the 2016 report presents though.
With no clear leadership within the Department (and that is with or without a Minister) to protect active travel and public transport, those increases in journeys speeds for buses look almost too good.
Have Metro journey speeds over-performed to such a degree that allowing taxis into bus lanes is now politically possible, within the target parameters of a city transport plan published way back in 2001? The rush to flood Bus Rapid Transit routes with taxis before Bus Rapid Transit even launches makes more sense this way.
Frankly that would be shameful thinking within our Transport Department.
With cycling rising by over 100% in some areas, can a cold decision be made that enough was done to ‘promote’ cycling over the BMTP period, and the city can absorb any decrease caused by allowing thousands of taxis to become the dominant bus lane mode?
Anyone working in transport policy thinking those Falls Road cycling figures are acceptable in themselves, or the level which the rest of the city should be dragged down to for the sake of private hire taxis, needs to rethink their career choice.