Belfast wouldn’t take its medicine and it’s gonna get its chest cracked open again. It won’t be pretty. It could be different though.

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Trapper John: “Look, mother, I want to go to work in one hour. We are the Pros from Dover and we figure to crack this kid’s chest and get out to the golf course before it gets dark. So you go find the gas-passer and you have him pre-medicate this patient. Then bring me the latest pictures on him. The ones we saw must be 48 hours old by now. Then call the kitchen and have them rustle us up some lunch. Ham and eggs will be all right. Steak would be even better. And then give me at least ONE nurse who knows how to work in close without getting her tits in my way.”

Nurse: “How do you want your steak cooked?”

M*A*S*H (1970)

DIAGNOSIS: The Big C (Congestion)

We talk of cities in personal / human terms. They’re the ‘beating heart’ of an economy. Cities have financial ‘nerve-centres’. We talk of ‘arterial routes’ into the city. They have a ‘circulation’ of people and traffic. People are seen as the ‘life-blood’ of a city. When people can flow freely they work more efficiently, spend more, exercise more, live better and the city thrives. When people stop flowing a city gets fat, slow, stressed, congested, clogged, polluted and angry until… it eventually starts… to… grind… to… a… STOP.

When the Pros from Dover arrive you know you’re in trouble. They’re the guys you call when the patient is about to check out. They’ll cut off a limb or remove an organ, scrub up and go golfing because it’s not their problem – it’s yours.

They’re in control because you lost control and they’re gonna crack your chest and be out on the golf course before it gets dark.

Belfast is the patient and it’s had its chest cracked open roughly every ten years – and the Pros from Dover are the road builders. The diagnosis is always congestion. The patient always opts for major surgery.

Belfast got itself into this situation by not reducing car use, not improving public transport and not taking regular exercise. It wouldn’t take the medicine and it’s gonna get its chest cracked open again, which is never pretty.


The visible scar tissue of earlier surgery

This isn’t a keyhole procedure – it’s major surgery. It leaves massive scars, takes years to recover and the chances are it won’t improve our long-term chances.

PRESCRIPTION: Car implants

Here’s a reminder about how major the surgery can be. Go back to the 1960s when Belfast elected for cars implants as the best way to circulate people. The consultants advised encircling Belfast in a network of motorways (only a portion of the original plans were implemented).

The road builders cracked open the docks area, removed 5,000 people from Sailortown and implanted the M2. A community was dispersed throughout Greater Belfast and their houses were bulldozed. A perfectly healthy, functioning limb was amputated to make way for a prosthetic motorway.

The Sailortown community blames politicians (the Belfast Corporation) and their own lack of political savvy but never pinned the blame squarely on a rising car culture. The only finger-pointing is the artwork on the concrete pillars of the M3 flyover, old photographs of Sailortown framed in rear view mirrors.


Sailortown is now essentially a series of public and private surface car parks along and between Corporation Street and York Road topped with a four lane flyover.

Some of the displaced community were moved into multi-storey buildings in the New Lodge overlooking Sailortown. It must be hard looking down to where your family house once was and see two or three parking bays in its place.

It’s an upside-down world where we demolished houses for surface car parks and then placed the community in multi-storey accommodation.


Sailortown post-surgery (© Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under CCL)

I’m not doubting the need for the M1, M2 & M3 but I doubt the destruction of Sailortown would be acceptable now. There were probably alternatives.

[Incidentally there are more trees planted and more green spaces in and around the car parks in Sailortown (Clarendon Dock/Corporation St) than the whole of the New Lodge.]


Since then Belfast has had its chest cracked open roughly every ten years. That’s about the time it takes for the politicians to dodge the tough decisions, funding to become available and the driving public to forget the chaos caused by the last major surgery. The Westlink in the 1980s was only a stop-gap.


Westlink stent (© Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under CCL)

In the early 2000s the road builders put in stents by widening it (increasing two lanes to three by stealing a hard shoulder and narrowing the lanes) hoping they would clear out the fatty deposits and increase the flow. They didn’t. They dug it all up and put in a new tunnel with balls on top in 2008.

But it was never going to cure inner-city congestion and it didn’t. Belfast is once again the most congested city in the UK. The 18th most congested city in the world. It’s calling in the surgeons again.


The M1, M2 and M3 try to divert an increasing amount of traffic from the city centre. They increase the flow around the outskirts of the city but the major side-effect is the funnelling of an ever-growing number of cars into the same limited city-space.

We keep widening the neck of the funnel but we can’t increase the size of the bottle.

The flow of cars into the funnel isn’t constant and steady either – the blood pressure rises once in the morning and once in the evening from Monday to Friday putting the whole system into shock.

The angina pain of a congested evening commute is pointing to a systemic problem – we ignore the signs at our peril.


When I was young we didn’t talk about CANCER. It was a disease with no cure. If we didn’t talk about it might go away. It was always referred to as “The Big C”. Cancer awareness campaigns lowered anxiety levels and gave us a way to talk openly about the disease leading to greater awareness and an ability to identify the symptoms and practice prevention.

“The Big C” nowadays seems to be CONGESTION. We’re certainly not talking about it (rationally, anyway) and it’s certainly not going away. Our political leaders aren’t talking about it, yet the air we breath gets more toxic and society less active, more stressed and obese as a result. We can’t really tackle the problem until we have reasoned, grown-up discussions about it. Perhaps we need a congestion awareness campaign?


We need to be able to talk about alternatives. To talk about public and private businesses adopting co-ordinated ‘travel plans’ to create a smaller, steadier, more predictable flow of people (and cars) throughout the day.

We need to rethink public and private parking and talk about freeing up the space it currently occupies. We need to divert spending from roads and talk about sustainable transport. We need to talk about building places where people can live, work, socialise and raise a family without the need for a car.

We designed ourselves into this situation and we can design ourselves out of it when we start focusing on people not cars.


After 40 years of rib cracking Belfast has failed to crack car congestion. The surgery hasn’t worked. Cardiac arrest is now a regular symptom.

Belfast has to decide if it wants to prioritise the health and well-being of people or keep injecting cars into every artery, vein and capillary of the city.

Does it want a city where walking and cycling is a real, viable, safe alternative… or not?

Does it want a city where children and disabled citizens can move around the city safely… or not?

Does it want to plant trees and create green spaces for people… or cars.

Does it want to create a city where public transport is the fastest, cleanest, cheapest way of getting about… or not?

Does it want a city where people can live, work and raise a family without the need for a car… or not?

Does it want to elect politicians to make tough decisions and talk about the issues… or kick the can up the road for another ten years.

The medicine is relatively cheap but the politics are never easy. That’s the challenge not only for Belfast but for every large town across the country.

While we ponder all that, The Pros from Dover are packing their clubs, they’re most likely heading for York Street and they’ll want that steak well done.

Stephen McNally works for @getupbeat, a not-for-profit, to promote cycling & cycle culture and helps organise @thefredfestival & @lapthelough.

This is a follow up to Culture Shift that appeared on the Northern Ireland Greenways site in 2013.


  1. […] are the warning signs of deteriorating health – a city headed either for drastic surgery to keep the current show on the road, or a drastic change of lifestyle based on active travel and public […]

  2. […] Belfast regularly features as one of the worst cities for congestion in the UK and Europe – and our politicians and planners seem to be accepting that building roads isn’t going to solve that problem. […]

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