A road diet for Belfast as an immediate climate change action
Climate breakdown poses a rapidly escalating threat to the world and humanity.
The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on global warming stated that:
“Maintaining a temperature rise to below 1.5 °C would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems.”
The report makes clear that if deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions are not made ahead of 2030, we may be too late to hold below a 1.5 °C rise.
The IPCC report has stimulated unprecedented discussion on positive actions, with the 12 year window to lessen our impact perhaps beginning to sharpen minds. But is it getting through at city level here in Belfast?
Local climate change projections suggest less predictable and more extreme weather, and by 2100 sea levels in Belfast could rise by up to 94cms. The effects will be felt here, but there are also actions we can take right now to contribute to global cuts in emissions.
Agriculture, business and energy generation will be key to local reductions, but a whopping 23% of greenhouse gas emissions in Northern Ireland are down to transport. This is an annual belch of 4.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, which itself is an increase by 30% on 1990 levels. “Road transport is the most significant source” of transport emissions and that rise has been fuelled by “growth in demand for transport, despite improvements in efficiency of vehicles.”
At the last count, 70% of all journeys in Northern Ireland are taken by car, while less that a quarter of all journeys were taken by walking, cycling or public transport. Despite various government targets over the last two decades, these proportions have remained stubbornly stable.
Vehicle congestion in Belfast is a daily reality , yet most people deny the basic cause – there are too many people driving too often, especially at peak times. It’s a wake-up call which most people prefer to hit the snooze button on – because it’s undeniably warm and comfortable being wrapped in the cozy blanket of our cars.
Electric vehicles may eventually play a role, but any mass switch to electric transport – and the necessary low carbon energy generation infrastructure to power them sustainably – is many years if not decades away. And if electric car ownership levels mirrors that of today’s combustion engine car ownership, congestion problems will look exactly the same as today.
Conversations are ongoing about radical action which is required to drastically reduce and eventually eliminate carbon emissions from personal transport, and get people switching to alternative travel methods. In terms of Belfast’s motor vehicle addiction this includes:
Each of these actions have positive and negative impacts depending on user perspectives – for example road pricing strategies such as congestion charging can be regressive measures which disproportionately impact on those with lower incomes.
The major problem for most of these policies is that they’ll take years to negotiate, legislate and implement. In the meantime, a quick and easy intervention can force a shift away from private car travel – a road diet.
What is a road diet?
Simply put, a road diet is slimming down bloated carriageways to proactively reduce the space for general vehicle use (movement and storage) to free up that space for better walking, cycling and public transport infrastructure.
This is a combined carrot and stick approach – actively enabling and forcing modal shift in spatial terms.
Has a road diet ever been tried in Belfast?
Yes, and several times over the last few years. Travel today along the Falls Road or Newtownards Road and you can appreciate the real world impact.
A measure which has been successful in improving the frequency, speed, reliability and overall image of public transport in Belfast has been Glider, our new on-street bus rapid transit system .
Enhanced stops, off-board ticketing and state of the art vehicles have been key – but the most controversial aspect from a private motoring perspective is the one that the system relies on – longer and more continuous bus lanes operating for 12 hours, not just rush hour peaks.
Those lanes have had the twin effect of ensuring Glider passenger speed past queues of traffic throughout the day while also radically reducing the available roadspace for private motoring on five key routes in the city:
- Falls Road / Stewartstown Road in West Belfast (arterial)
- Newtownards Road / Albertbridge Road in East Belfast (arterial)
- Queen’s Road in Titanic Quarter (private road)
- May Street / Chichester Street (city centre)
- Oxford Street / Victoria Street (city centre)
- 6% more people entering the city centre in the morning peak
- 4% fewer people entering the city centre by private car in the morning peak
- around 11,000 fewer vehicles entering the city centre core area over a 24 hour period
And that was five full years before the enhanced Glider service actually launched.
The pre-Glider layout of the arterial Falls Road was mostly four lanes wide, save for the odd pinch point and some bus lanes (two hour morning inbound, three hour outbound).
The Glider project expanded the carriageway at certain points meaning the full length from city centre to the Outer Ring is now 2+2 lanes, but private motoring limited to 1+1 for 12 hours a day.
Before there were bus lanes along less than a third of the route, afterwards that rose to three quarters of the route. General vehicles lanes were reduced by over two kilometres, restricting the space for private vehicles at the same time as upgrading public transport.
This form of road diet is now live on two of Belfast’s arterials, with 12 hour Glider bus lanes also constricting vehicle flow along most of the Newtownards Road.
But road diets aren’t just about bus priority. Belfast’s lower density suburbs mean buses won’t be the whole answer, whereas cycling offers a fast and easy way to move about our small city. And many arterial routes don’t have the space to fit a four lane wide carriageway with half given to bus lanes.
A draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan has sat gathering dust in the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) for two and a half years, hobbled by timidly ignoring any arterial route because of worries over fighting to reduce vehicle space . To push past those concerns, there needs to be a top-down decision made to reprioritise the city for sustainable travel at the expense of private car travel.
What would a road diet for the whole of Belfast look like?
The starting point is to recognise that Belfast is such a small city that any major arterial street with more than a single vehicle lane in each direction is an extravagance that encourages people to actively choose to drive.
No street in Belfast needs to be wider than 1+1 general vehicle lanes, other than:
- A55 Outer Ring
- M1, M2, M3
- Sydenham Bypass
Where additional space is available (additional vehicles lanes, wide single carriageways used for car parking, etc) it should be prioritised for bus lanes, protected cycleways and better footways.
Even with a half decent bus system or a serviceable cycle routes, if you continue to make it easy, convenient, cheap and cheerful to drive everywhere in a city, people will still drive everywhere.
Let’s leave the city centre aside for now – bus lanes there have already been deployed to nudge cross-city trips around the inner ring. What about the arterial routes, the main thoroughfares, between inner ring and outer ring?
We looked at the 21 main arterial routes of the city, mostly starting at the inner ring roads or motorway interchanges and finishing at the A55 Outer Ring.
The outrage generated by headlines and phone-in shows is disproportionate to the actual percentage of road space taken up by bus lanes across the city. In fact, if you combine all of the city bound and country bound lanes of our 21 arterial streets, bus lanes count for just 15%.
Or to put it another way, private vehicle space accounts for 85% of arterial lanes (and more given that bus lanes operate only during peak hours outside of Glider routes).
Across the city there’s also a remarkable 13 kilometres of median reservations, or central hatched lanes, used variously for separation or turning pockets. Any argument for safety could easily be turned around to say speed limit reductions to 20mph could achieve the same outcomes. Regardless, the primary effect is to hoard mostly unused space to ensure traffic progression – another incentive to drive – while at the same time DfI argues that there’s no space for cycleways on arterial streets.
Protected cycleways account for 0% on these streets at present. Zero kilometres. Sure, there are stretches of advisory cycle lanes on many arterial streets, but as unenforceable paint which cars are free to drive on and park over, they count for nothing.
Let’s take two detailed examples of how a road diet would work – Castlereagh Road in East Belfast (pictured at the top of the article) and York Road in North Belfast.
Castlereagh Road starts as a crawl in rush hour along the 1+1 Castlereagh Street, expanding to a 1+2 (with a lengthy inbound bus lane) and finishes as an extravagant five lane carriageway with partial bus lanes and a mostly unproductive central hatched lane.
Generous lane widths on Castlereagh Street and outbound as far as Grand Parade mean a protected cycleway is possible, while the five lanes on to the Outer Ring can be reconfigured to add two way bus lanes and a wide protected cycleway.
York Road has the feel of a pre-Glider Falls Road, albeit with on street parking bays adding to the many pinch points. With protected cycleways prioritised along the parallel North Queen Street, a high quality bus corridor can be rolled out along this key corridor.
Long distance private car travel shouldn’t be encouraged on York Road and Shore Road, with the seven lane M2 motorway a literal stone’s throw away.
Depending on street widths, residential density and other factors on the 21 arterial streets of the city, some will be better prioritised for bus transport, some for cycling.
Download road diet PDF summaries for any of the 21 arterial streets of Belfast:
- Albertbridge Road / East Bridge Street (PDF, 179K)
- Antrim Road (PDF, 173K)
- Belmont Road (PDF, 173K)
- Castlereagh Road (PDF, 175K)
- Cavehill Road / Limestone Road (PDF, 175K)
- Cliftonville Road (PDF, 171K)
- Cregagh Road (PDF, 173K)
- Crumlin Road (PDF, 177K)
- Falls Road (PDF, 176K)
- Grosvenor Road / Springfield Road (PDF, 176K)
- Holywood Road (PDF, 173K)
- Lisburn Road (PDF, 173K)
- Malone Road (PDF, 172K)
- Newtownards Road (PDF, 175K)
- North Queen Street (PDF, 173K)
- Oldpark Road (PDF, 172K)
- Ormeau Road (PDF, 176K)
- Ravenhill Road (PDF, 172K)
- Shankill Road (PDF, 174K)
- Whiterock Road (PDF, 172K)
- York Road (PDF, 175K)
The overall effect in terms of road space balance would be profound if a road diet was implemented.
From the current balance of 15% bus lanes to 85% vehicle lanes (including central hatching areas), it would tip to just under half of lanes dedicated to general traffic, bus lanes doubled to 29% and protected cycleways lifted from zero to 22% of arterial lanes.
If you must drive, or want to drive, you can drive. If you can take the bus, you’ll be spirited past the traffic. If you can cycle, you’ll finally be able do it in peace and safety.
Implementing this type of road diet in isolation could have huge negative consequences. This constriction of space for vehicles could displace traffic onto residential streets without complementary work to cut rat runs. As for what happens outside the Outer Ring, work to increase park and ride facilities would be crucial to get travellers onto (now highly prioiritised) bus routes to the city centre. And Belfast does not have orbital bus routes at present – these would need to be implemented immediately to provide city residents with a viable alternative to car travel.
But encourage a mass shift to alternative transport – for commuting, leisure, school runs, shopping, accessing healthcare – and we could fundamentally rework the city to a healthier place which does its bit to stem environmental damage.
Practically these changes would mean more private car congestion in the short term. A lot of it. Slower journeys. More difficult journeys. Creating short term congestive pain to reduce long term congestive habits.
But not for bus passengers. A Glider level of journey reliability would be replicated across the city instantly. This would provide a great platform for the later roll out of Glider services, or the incremental upgrading to off-board ticketing across the Metro and Ulsterbus systems which would also instantly reduce journey times.
And not for the thousands of people across the city who would switch to cycling if they had the safe infrastructure which this plan would create almost overnight.
This won’t solve our greenhouse gas emissions problems. But it’s a good start. And a bold statement. A fast, practical response to the urgent need to begin reducing both our overall emissions and the damaging grip which private motoring has on our ability to fight climate breakdown.
The Department for Infrastructure’s timescale for Glider expansion on a southern and northern corridor is about five years from now, meaning their incremental version of a city-wide road diet might take until around 2050 to complete.
And far from actively seeking to control, limit or reduce car use, the custodians of the streets and roads of Belfast are getting on with expanding road space while our transport emissions climb and the world warms.
Take for example the widening of Short Strand to a monster six lane freeway to suit the needs of a city centre development, signed off by DfI. Or the creation of a four lane relief road by Belfast Harbour to funnel more private cars in and out of Titanic Quarter, also signed off by DfI.
The rest of the world is talking about urgently reducing car use, while @BelfastHarbour loosens the belt with a FOUR LANE relief road to Titanic Qtr, no dedicated cycleway (short cut for cars, long way for bicycles?) and ploughing across the safest cycleway in the city to do it! pic.twitter.com/IlzAfD4F0d
— NI Greenways (@nigreenways) August 27, 2019
Or the continued expansion of city centre parking with 900 spaces at City Quays in Belfast Harbour, signed off by Belfast City Council with no commensurate reduction in parking supply elsewhere. Or the priority given to the York Street Interchange project, or widening the Sydenham Bypass, etc
Road building, road expansion, car parking growth – all of these things need to stop, and contraction needs to begin.
Could it be done in the short term? Yes, and quicker than you’d think. DfI has powers under existing legislation (ie no need of a Minister) to conduct an Experimental Traffic Control Scheme. This allows for major changes to road transport to be trialled for up to 18 months. You might think trying to use this for such a fundamental city-wide transport change would be out of scope, but apparently not as long as the intent is to destroy public transport and cycling by flooding bus lanes with private taxis, as DfI tried last year. How nice would it be to see this legislation for public good and climate action?
We’re barrelling towards a climate crisis and as far as managing travel habits in Belfast it’s business as usual in the places which matter. A city-wide road diet needs to happen within the next two years if Belfast is to make a genuine mark on climate breakdown. The current scramble among political parties to position themselves at the forefront of the ‘green agenda’ will be tested when faced with having to advocate and implement schemes such as this which will have a detrimental impact upon existing damaging habits. So who’s been green washing and who is for real? Over to you.
A poster of the current arterial street layouts across Belfast:
A poster showing the full road diet proposal for Belfast’s arterial streets: