The traffic in modern cities sucks (or should that be blows?). OK, that is stating the obvious but it does not make it any less true. 40 years ago or more, I used to have to help take my father to work here in Belfast before going to school. He was confined to a wheelchair for years before he died. Now when I look back on his daily rants about the terrible commuter traffic he saw then, I wonder what he would make of the situation now. I doubt that he would ever have believed that the rush hour could ever have got this bad.
Unfortunately the situation is exacerbated by government policy. Our lords and masters are determined to make things difficult for us. Well, at least for those who use cars. Belfast City Council’s Transport Policy (available here if you need a good cure for insomnia: http://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/buildingcontrol-environment/regeneration/transportiniatives.aspx), makes this very clear. On page 16, in the key objectives section, one objective states, “To support, where appropriate, innovative initiatives to reduce car and vehicle ownership”. Make no mistake about this, choice is being restricted to force people onto public transport, and I’m pretty sure that the same thing is happening in cities worldwide.
So how are they doing this? Like many Cities, the Council here controls parking, both directly through municipal sites (both on street and car parks), and through planning where they licence private sites. Believe me, this does not mean that they want to allow everyone to park, so supply is being deliberately restricted. Of course, supply and demand then means that parking is expensive. Stories of people trying to get around this are becoming increasingly common here, with some motorists parking in unrestricted residential areas of the city at ridiculously early hours of the morning, then sleeping in their cars for a few hours before going to work. What quality of life does that give?
A few other obvious signs of the anti-car clampdown follow. Chichester Street leads from City Hall towards the Lagan, and is one of Belfast’s main traffic arteries. When I first started working in Belfast aged 17, there were 4 traffic lanes on Chichester Street, now there are two and a bicycle lane, and one of the traffic lanes is reserved exclusively for buses. The resulting tailbacks in the rush hour are horrendous, not least because when one bus stops to take on or drop off passengers others need to get past by crossing into the one remaining traffic lane. Large vehicles like these are very good at bringing traffic to a complete standstill! All over the city bus and cycle lanes are reducing the city’s capacity to keep cars moving.
I am no great fan of cars although I do recognise that their carrying capacity makes them a very useful tool when they can actually move. I have had on road motorcycles since I was 16, and have always used them for commuting. In the dark days of the late 80’s and early 90’s, I even earned a living working as a motorcycle courier here in Belfast. It was a great way of avoiding roads closed due to bomb scares. I would often travel 300 or more miles a day without ever leaving the city limits, so I consider myself something of an expert on getting around this city. I also consider myself to be pretty environmentally aware. I particularly dislike all the huge diesel cars and 4 x 4’s that seem to have become the norm over the last number of years. Whoever decided that these things were sufficiently efficient to help save the world should be forced to stand in the traffic lane in Chichester Street during the rush hour for a year or so to sample the air there. It stinks; literally.
OK, here is the point of this rant; I BELIEVE THAT HERE ARE SOME MAJOR FLAWS IN BELFAST’S TRAFFIC PLANNING AND DEVELOPMENT STRATEGIES THAT ARE BOUND TO BE APPLIIPABLE TO OTHER CITIES. A few points on this are laid out below. I’m sure you could add to these?Passing the buck.
Public transport is of necessity organised from hubs. My own home town of Bangor has a rail station that runs to Belfast and beyond, and a largish bus station. To make buses and trains efficient, they need to be relatively full, so although the buses can collect people from the surrounding towns and countryside, there is a limit to the efficiency of this, both because of limits on the numbers of buses and routes, and the times that they run. No matter what happens with public transport, to a large extent people have to come to the hubs that the services run from. What this means is that at any of the access points for public transport there is a car parking problem. In big centres, like Bangor, this is a big problem.
Like many town centres, Bangor town centre is dying. While rent, rates, and on-line competition share a large part of the blame for this, lack of parking is also a major cause. Park and ride car parks across the road from the bus/ rail station fill quickly each morning, as do the residential streets in the area. Go past the large free car park on the town’s sea front each work day, and you will find it filled by 7 am or so, and I suspect that a large number of the people parked there are commuters. While the number of vehicles parked there would lead anyone to believe that the town centre is thriving, in reality it is just a drop off point. Belfast may think it can solve its traffic issues. In reality it just moves them down the line to the surrounding towns and kills them off in the process.
Can we do without them?
Even if every Belfast commuter used public transport to access the city, what then? The spread out nature of modern cities and towns, with their out of town shopping centres and entertainments mean that personal transportation is still essential. Unless our lords and masters have plans that we all live in our own solitary little cocoons like the people described in E. M. Forester’s dystopian short story ‘The Machine Stops’, (available free here: https://americanliterature.com/author/em-forster/novella/the-machine-stops/summary), then in our spread out towns even something as healthy as taking a walk in pleasant surroundings probably needs a car to get there. And don’t get me started on the living quality of the tiny apartments that are currently springing up everywhere, with no outside space, and nowhere to put a decent workshop that would allow people to develop an interest in fixing thigs rather than replacing them!
Public transport gets even more inefficient if you happen not to work in the city centre. My wife’s office moved from a city centre location to a site on the city’s inner ring. Undoubtedly the firm gained from this by reducing their rent and rates, but she now needed to get to work using Public transport, she would need to use 3 separate services to get there! Given waits between these individual routes, and the cost of the 3, public transport for her would be an impossibility. The city centre shops must be suffering since she moved out of town too. ;-)The goal of getting people to live totally without personal transportation is naïve in the extreme.
How environmentally friendly is public transport?
When commuting on my motorbike, I can at least use the bus lanes to safely ride past the queues of stationary cars. I frequently come across jams of five or six buses though, usually caused by the front bus needing to stop at a place where there is no pavement space. They then then end up with the back end of the bus blocking the bus lane. This quickly builds a queue of buses behind them and even means the bus that was blocking the pavement stop in the first place is now also blocked in and cannot move on. As described above the blocked buses then often move into the one remaining car lane, making traffic there even worse. The fumes from all this stationary traffic have to be seen (literally) as well as smelt to be believed. I often wonder how breathing in all this will affect me in 10 years’ time, but while I would like to use a breathing filter, I cannot get one that fits into a full face crash helmet. I am not prepared to use an open face one, they just don’t offer enough protection in the event of an accident, (see the crash analysis on Thomas Day’s ‘Geezer with a grudge site for details: http://geezerwithagrudge.blogspot.com/2015/08/120-that-is-not-helmet.html). I have copied the impact diagram below from there.
Slimy, oil covered bus lanes. Unfortunately these pictures do not do them justice.
Those bus lanes can be very slippery with spilt diesel or oil from the buses. A quick walk around some of the bus sites adjacent to my work are shown hereabouts. They do not do the amount that is spilt justice. Remember too that all these spills end up in the drains and from there in the lagan and our coastal waters. If I had owned a vehicle that spilt as much as some buses do I would not be surprised if it failed its MOT.
Another thought about the efficiency of public transport concerns the pulses of directional transport. For every bus that carries passengers to work in Belfast, there must be one that travels in the opposite direction empty, or at least nearly so. This alone will cut public transports efficiency by around 50% and means lots of journeys spewing exhaust gasses for no real advantage.
Belfast like most cities is something of a magnet for business. The city’s regeneration plan calls for yet more job creation and yet more people living in the city. I believe that this means yet more problems for its surrounding towns. The solution of course would be to move the jobs to where people live. I can’t see that happening any time soon though.
Thinking on transport and regeneration needs a seriously large injection of imagination. For example, the problem of dirty, polluting buses can be resolved by using hydrogen fuel cell buses. Better yet, these are made just a few miles up the road from Belfast at Wright Bus in Ballymena. An environmental and jobs boost in one single go, just what do the planners need? You can find a case study of London Transport’s use of these buses at: http://www.ballard.com/docs/default-source/motive-modules-documents/tfl-case-study-2018-low-res.pdf?sfvrsn=2.
In the meantime I’m sticking to my bike.