Posted by: wesleyjohnston | September 26, 2012

Belfast’s Bus Lanes – the story so far

The media interest in the new bus lanes that have been introduced in Belfast over the past fortnight has been staggering, more than any other roads-related topic in recent years (other than parading on them of course). Today’s Belfast Telegraph headlined with the word “Chaos”, a reference to the Tuesday morning rush hour which was worse than has even become “usual” since the bus lanes came into force. BBC Radio Ulster has been discussing the subject with Wendy Austin, Seamus McKee and Stephen Nolan all devoting much heated air time to the subject. And today, both the Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy (who refused to say how he travelled to work) and the DRD’s head of sustainable transport Ciarán de Búrca (who uses the bus or walks to work) were on air defending the scheme, albeit against a large tide of anger.

Tempers are fraying, mostly amongst car drivers, with dozens of people using social media and radio phone-ins to vent their frustration at the significantly longer commutes that many face. Since I am on record as having said that the scheme is a big gamble, but one that is worth trying, it’s time to review the pros and cons of the scheme so far, based on the experience of the past fortnight.


There is a huge amount of public anger about the scheme. This anger appears to boil down into five specific issues.

1. Congestion. While some people have reported no significant change, there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to say with a fair degree of certainty that the new bus lanes have resulted in delays and much longer journey times for many drivers. These delays have not simply impacted the city centre, but the knock-on delays have caused increased congestion further out. Having travelled into the city on the Cregagh Road earlier this week, I can say that that road was certainly significantly more congested than normal. I have heard particular anger expressed by taxi drivers and the disabled, both of whom seem to feel particularly penalised.

2. Unrealistic Expectations by the DRD. Most people phoning the radio shows seem to accept that if they got the bus their journey times would, at least in theory, be better. But the main criticism that’s coming out is that public transport is simply not viable. People are pointing out that the buses are too expensive, too infrequent and on too few useful routes to be a real alternative. A lot of extremely patronising comments have been made about car drivers over the past few days, but car drivers are not fools. They make rational decisions just like everybody else. They feel angry that they are being asked to switch to an alternative that is simply not capable of being an alternative. The fact that people are seeing fewer buses than they seem to expect using the new bus lanes makes people more frustrated, as they feel that their “sacrifice” in terms of road space is not being reciprocated by myriads of new buses to take their place. Similarly, even most public transport advocates acknowledge that for a lot of people a car is necessary, and these cars are now expected to use the M3/Westlink or Ormeau Avenue routes instead, neither of which is really up to the task of taking all this displaced traffic. Once again, the supposed alternative is not seen as realistic by the real people who will have to make the decisions.

3. All Stick and No carrot. Most motorists understand the idea that they’re supposed to get out of their car and use other means of transport. However, many are resentful that the approach being taken amounts to an “all stick and no carrot” approach. For example, it would have gone down much better if the introduction of the bus lanes had coincided with a period of discounted fares and an increase in bus frequency. Belfast’s public transport system does not have a great reputation, and these bus lanes appear to motorists to have been introduced with no effort at all to entice them onto the buses. They see what has happened as being like a tired horse being whipped to go faster. Today’s announcement that Translink may introduce bus lane cameras will be seen as even more stick without any carrot. The attempts by the environmental lobby to peg morality to the use of cars, and suggest car users are “guilty” of something is yet another example.

4. Lack of Warning. The new measures have been publicised for many months, but judging by how many times I have had to explain the STEM bus lanes over the past ten days, most motorists seem to have been totally unaware that this was going to happen. Most worryingly, many seem to be completely unaware that it’s not over and that the situation is about to get even worse, from a driver’s perspective (see bottom). A delegate at today’s transport conference in Belfast, one delegate remarked that a mailshot to all households in Belfast, along with a local bus timetable and fare structure, would have been a very good way to raise awareness both of the scheme and the alternatives on offer.

5. Retailers. Retailers in Belfast are very concerned that the reports of all the chaos are putting people off driving into the city centre. Belfast has very strong out-of-town shopping facilities, all of which offer enormous amounts of free parking. At least two people I have been in contact with have chosen to avoid the city centre, specifically to avoid the new congestion. One went to Rushmere in Craigavon instead, and the other went to Sprucefield. In the middle of a major recession, retailers are very worried about anything that will reduce trade further.


Having said all this, there are key arguments in favour of the scheme. Again, these seem to break down into five issues:

1. Alternative Transport Experience. It has been noticed that the media has not really made much of the experience of non-car-users. Some bus services appear to have been adversely affected, particularly in south/east Belfast where some buses have got trapped in the congestion created by the bus lanes further in! Nevertheless, others have reported either unaffected or faster journey times, especially in the final part of the journey in the city centre. It does seem to be true that the bus lanes have improved bus services, on the whole. Additionally, those who cycle or walk to work have reported absolutely no increase in journey times at all, and some have welcomed the new bus lanes as a safe place for cyclists (although there is disagreement among cyclists about this latter point).

2. Not Everyone Has a Car. Although Belfast is a very car-dependent city, we can’t ignore the fact that approximately 30% of households in Belfast have no access to a car. There is a debatable sociological argument that the government has a responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to a transport system capable of letting them live a reasonable life and get to work in a realistic manner. So, while the vast majority of road users in Belfast are in cars, this is a skewed representation of the people of Belfast as a whole. Additionally, some argue that people are “knocking it before trying it” as far as alternative means of transport are concerned. This includes not only buses, but trains, park-and-rides, walking and cycling.

3. “It will bed in”. This is the Transport Minister’s argument, and in a sense he is right. All major changes to infrastructure inevitably result in a degree of chaos as people suddenly find they can’t do what they used to do. The creation of the Saintfield Road bus lane a few years ago resulted in traffic chaos, but only for a few weeks, and then congestion returned almost to its original level. It is debatable whether this was because people found other routes, or because people actually switched to the bus, but nevertheless experiences like this have shown that people are generally unwilling to tolerate massive disruption indefinitely. So the Minister is probably right that it will “bed in”. Whether this will be because some people simply give up trying to get into the city centre, or because they genuinely find other methods of getting there, remains to be seen. Therefore I believe it is unfair to judge the bus lanes now, and I think we must wait for 2 or 3 months before we can make a calm, rational assessment of their impact. As long as people’s tempers last that long, of course.

4. Other cities have done it. Perhaps one of the strongest arguments in favour is that these bus lanes are not unique. In fact, there are plenty of examples of cities around the world that have achieved similar projects. London, albeit a much bigger city, has successfully changed the public perception of buses over the past decade. Cities like Groningen in the Netherlands have managed to very successfully detach the need for transport from cars, while many others, such as Cambridge, have successfully reduced the accessibility of the city centre to cars without apparently damaging trade. Some feel that the criticisms of traders are unfounded as the worst congestion only really occurs in the morning rush hour, not during the working day, and that it is not just car drivers who spend money.

5. What else can we do? The final argument is that most people accept that there are too many cars in the city centre (judging by the congestion before the bus lanes came in) and that too much through traffic uses the roads past City Hall (60%). As these roads are running at capacity at peak times, there does not appear to be any way to squeeze more capacity out of the road network other than by getting more people onto buses and getting through traffic out of the city centre. There is also the issue of reducing emissions to tackle climate change, although in practice only a small percentage of travellers seem to be motivated by such considerations. The STEM bus lane measures are a quite rational, if unpopular, way to get closer to this objective.


What is clear is that right now a calm, rational debate is not happening. There is so much (justified) anger around that it is impossible for the public or government representatives to discuss the points above in the media in a measured way. Therefore I would encourage everyone to:

  • give it some more time, say 2 or 3 months
  • to at least try out a alternative form of transport
  • encourage the DRD and Translink to give better information to the public as the scheme progresses.

As I said in my earlier blog about STEM, Belfast is a unique city with its own unique history. We don’t know how this is going to turn out. It is a Big Gamble, but it is worth trying. The success or failure of the scheme will hinge entirely on the actual choices that will be made by the real people of Belfast in the next few years. If a critical number switch to alternative forms of transport, it will succeed. Otherwise it will fail.

The Next Steps

Finally, it is worth making the point that these bus lanes are not all there yet. The worst (in terms of capacity reduction) have yet to happen. At some point early next year, eastbound traffic going along Wellington Place and Chichester Place is going to be squeezed down to one lane. This is going to create a lot of fuss and a lot of negative media attention. The image of public transport is potentially at stake.

The map below shows the loss of capacity for general traffic that various roads will eventually see. Only the changes on Oxford Street and Howard Street/May Street have been implemented so far.

  • Green = no loss of capacity
  • Yellow = up to 40% loss of capacity
  • Orange = 40% to 60% loss of capacity
  • Red = 60% – 75% loss of capacity


  1. Reblogged this on Gyronny Herald and commented:
    I am glad that Wesley Johnston has given some sensible observations about the introduction of the new bus lanes in Belfast city centre. Well done Wesley! Some sanity in the middle of hysterics from some.

  2. It’s a reasonable article, but I would have to take issue with anyone saying that the Metro buses are expensive. For example, from Dundonald, 40 journeys costs £42, working-out at £1.05 per journey, and buses average every 8 minutes (often less, sometimes more) from early morning to early evening. On the 12 main arterial routes at least, I am not sure there is much to complain about regarding capacity. Given how ridiculously wedded to the car many people here are, this is long overdue. Next: action required against on-street parking on those main arterial routes. It should not be permitted at all from, say, 7am to 7pm.

    • A fair point. I do think most people judge fares by how they compare to the cost of driving, not by how they compare to other UK cities. So a fare might be “cheap” compared to other cities, but still be “too expensive” in the eyes of a motorist.

      • Good article wesley

        For those in work £2.20 a day for travel in and out of Belfast is good value and as Gavin says a frequent service. Of course civil servants getting free car parking is a barrier to giving up car. Key issue is to ensure reliable journey times through bus lanes and more park and ride. I ususally cycle to town cause its quicker and costs next to nothing but bus is a good back up if tired or I fancy a pint or two on Friday night.

        One very slight critisism on article – dont think many cyclists think bus lanes are not good for cycling albeit for the current cyclists rather than the masses who’d love to cycle in if it felt safe.

  3. Those who complain about bus fares should check fares in GB… I’m sorry to say that ours are at the very worst competitive with GB, and the discounted fares, at £1.10 for up to five miles in Belfast as long as you make five journeys a year, are second to none. No other company is even in that ballpark as far as I know…

  4. Garbage. The roads scheme in Belfast Ctr is a disaster. Increased congestion and even the redone crossings are slower and more inconvenient for pedestrians. To hell with waiting for it to bed in, this needs fixed now, before people start avoiding the town shops. Put it back the way it was.

  5. Why are only black taxis allowed to use lanes! Unfair on rest of us taxi drivers!!!

    • Why are only taxi drivers allowed to stop wherever they want, cut in where they want, display no lane discipline and alternate between ‘driving miss daisy’ and Seb Vettel driving styles?
      Unfair on rest of us motorists!!!

  6. The implementation of the bus lanes is a good step. People complain there aren’t enough buses to justify the lanes but it’s a chicken and egg scenario. The buses aren’t reliable or fast enough, so people don’t use them. If people don’t use them, there’s no push for investment. And on it continues. It’s good to see DRD have taken the bull by the horns and invested in order to give people the option of using the bus. Similar to the train network pre-1995, there was low levels of patronage on either the local or strategic routes, however the investment in new faster trains, coupled with the opening of the Lagan Rail bridge gave people the option of using the rail network which has since greater passenger levels rise year-on year (except for a small drop due to the financial crisis) with further investment in the network. Hopefully the new bus lanes will lead to something similar over the next 10-15 years for the bus network in Belfast. Who knows, in 15 years time we might all look back and wonder how we ever managed to cope without the bus lanes. Hopefully DRD have taken this strategic view and the new bus lanes will play nicely with the Rapid Transit System to be implemented over the next decade.

  7. The scheme should be remained ‘retailers on the move’ this madness will kill the city centre. I’m sick and tired of hearing people being told to get Metro, people outside the city are simply going to not bother coming in at all. Crazy ill thought out mess. Where are the promos on the trains and buses? That’s right none!

    Wesley what’s the best email address to get you on, I can’t message you direct on twitter

    • You should be able to now! Email is roads at

  8. […] labelled “Millfield” on Google Maps) and how this was making September’s well-publicised congestion even worse. The article suggests that even the DRD were unable to say what the works were for, or […]

  9. An absolute shambles!

    Myself and my partner live in the sticks and carshare. We come in by the Castlereagh Road / SE Belfast, but work in NE Belfast and SW Belfast respectively.

    There are hourly buses past our village, if we worked in the city centre we would probably use this, but these drop off at Laganside and I would need to get another bus to Queens Road, and she a train to Balmoral, both of which don’t have ideal connection times to the bus into town.

    The carshare is a shambles at time, getting stuck in Shaws Bridge, drop off, then getting stuck on the Westlink, or alternatively getting stuck at the top of the Castlereagh Road, then getting stuck on the Westlink. It would be easier to take a car each. Traffic is getting pushed from the city centre outwards and blocking up the arterial routes. We don’t want to go *near* the city centre, yet it is affecting our commute.

    When I lived closer to town, in Newtownabbey near the end of the M5, it was handy for Metro buses. However while the morning commute took 15-20 minutes to drive in, using the buses took over an hour. Bus drivers were surly (as they were as I remember from my school days), they drive off immediately not giving you a chance to walk down to get a seat (or even to get up the stairs) and quite a few think that they are racing drivers with a double decker Wrightbus.
    The best option was in fact cycling, with that great cycle lane along the motorway. Except during that bad winter a couple years ago.

    Was in town last night, and what I observed:
    – Bus Lane on Oxford Street was empty
    – Bus Lane on May Street was mostly empty except for a coach parked up dropping people off
    – Buses were using the right hand lane, getting ready to turn off for Donegall Square West / Upper Queen St.

    Doesn’t surprise me, the bus lane on the Castlereagh Road is just used as a shortcut for junior managers in small german saloons to get to the next 2 lane section in case they are late for their powerpoint meeting, and the bus lane on the Cregagh Road is used as a car park for the bank machine and the Mace.

    Another notable user of the bus lanes are certain unmarked Superbs and Omegas…. The London Olympic lanes got a derogatory term, but these really are functioning as ZIL Lanes!

  10. […] At the height of this anger (about ten days after the controversial bus lane had been introduced) I blogged about it. That was six weeks […]

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