Posted by: wesleyjohnston | November 14, 2012

Belfast’s Bus Lanes – two months on

Belfast’s controversial new bus lanes, introduced on the key stretch behind City Hall eight weeks ago, generated a huge amount of negative publicity for two to three weeks. The Belfast Telegraph had headlines like “Chaos”, while Stephen Nolan was taking dozens of calls from furious drivers. At the time this was all fair enough, since the new bus lane had indeed caused massive tailbacks with people reporting that their commute had worsened beyond all recognition. Motorists were angry, and city traders were calling for the bus lanes to be abandoned amid very real concerns about how this was going to affect struggling city centre businesses. 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 ago.

Since then very little has been reported in the media. Why? Well, the main reason seems to be that the severe traffic congestion that plagued its first 2 or 3 weeks seems to have significantly improved. Both from personal experience on the roads and from closely monitoring Twitter to gauge the mood of Belfast’s motorists, journey times on many routes seem to have reduced back to close to what they were before. For example, in my own neck of the woods, I have noticed that the morning traffic jam on the Cregagh Road seems to be more or less back to what we knew and loved before this key bus lane was introduced.

This raises all sorts of interesting questions, but first and foremost we have to be up front and say that those who said that the scheme would “bed in” – most particularly the “Roads” Minister Danny Kennedy and the head of Belfast on the Move Ciarán de Búrca – have been shown to be essentially correct. This is not to say that everything is rosy, especially since more bus lanes are going to follow in the New Year (more on this below), but on the face of it the situation has not been as bad as feared.

The Opinions Now

Motorists: If Twitter is anything to go by, most motorists are no longer venting anger about the bus lanes. Some still do of course, in areas where traffic has not quite returned to normal, but a lot of the time it is secondary issues, such as drivers commenting on just how empty the bus lanes seem to be (mea culpa!). Certainly it is not getting much air time on the radio, which is usually a good measure for whether or not traffic is behaving normally.

Cyclists: Most cyclists on Twitter who comment on the bus lanes (and city centre cycle lanes) seem to be commenting on the lack of enforcement of these measures, dangerous driving by vehicles and the frequency of illegal obstructions. Some cycling lobbyists are quite unimpressed by Belfast on the Move so far.

Translink: For their part, Translink seem to be delighted with the impact of Belfast on the Move. On 30th October Ciaran Rogan of Translink reported (media links no longer live) that there had been significant improvements in bus journey times and reliability, which meant fewer buses had to be on the roads to meet the same demand, and anecdotally reported indications of increased footfall. It is too early to see any hard figures, but the trend seems to be there.

City Centre Traders: A spokesman for Belfast Chamber of Commerce was interviewed on BBC Radio Ulster on 5th November. At that point he conceded that traffic levels were back to normal (or in fact slightly improved compared to before), and admitted that the Chamber had “over reacted” to the bus lanes in September. They are no longer calling for the bus lanes to be abandoned, instead merely arguing that it was ill-conceived to introduce them 10 weeks before Christmas. Concerns about the impact on trade seem to be further down the list now.

Belfast on the Move: I’m not aware of any public comments from those actually respoinsible for the new bus lanes, except that they appear to be lying low until January before carrying out any further work. This may well be a prudent course of action.

Belfast’s Big Gamble

Before the bus lane behind City Hall was introduced I blogged about the prospects for Belfast on the Move, which sees road space reallocated away from general traffic to facilitate buses, cyclists and pedestrians. At the time I described it as “Belfast’s Big Gamble” and outlined three key questions, the answers to which would determine the success of failure of Belfast on the Move. These questions remain valid:

1. How many people will switch to the bus, and how many will continue to use the car? At this point we don’t have enough figures to be able to answer this question. The relevant figures for bus usage are usually published annually here around January. As the bus lanes only came in in a big way in late 2012, we may have to wait until the start of 2014 to get meaningful figures. If the bus lanes really have attracted people onto the bus, these figures ought to show an spike in Metro bus usage during 2013. Similarly, we will have to wait for a year or more before we start to get any feedback on whether cycling in Belfast has increased. It’s annoying to have to wait so long, but that’s the nature of the beast.

2. How many people will continue to shop/run businesses in the City Centre, and how many will decide to shop in out-of-town locations/relocate businesses there? We have no idea what the answer to this is. City centre traders no longer seem to be unduly concerned, which suggests we are leaning towards the former outcome, but this sort of thing will become apparent only over a period of years, not weeks. Relevant statistics would have to compare footfall and total takings between Belfast and other commercial centres both before and after the bus lanes. If Belfast showed a relative fall compared to other commercial centres it would suggest a problem, but even then you would have to be careful if the problem was being blamed on the bus lanes.

3. Will enough of the people who are merely driving through the City Centre be able to find alternative routes, or will it lead to congestion elsewhere? To answer this we would really need to see hard traffic figures for the alternative routes, both before and after the introduction of the bus lanes. The most obvious alternative routes are the northern part of Belfast Inner Ring Road (Dunbar Link, Frederick Street, Millfield etc); the M3/Westlink; and routes south of the city centre such as Ormeau Avenue and Donegall Pass. Roads Service do not routinely publish traffic figures on any of these with the exception of Westlink, so the best guide might be the people who actually live on affected roads such as Donegall Pass. If you do, do you think traffic has increased?

So the rather frustrating conclusion is that we don’t have anywhere near enough information to be able to conclude anything more concrete than “it seems to be bedding in”. The question of success or failure remains an open one. Of course, it also raises the question of how the DRD itself plans to measure the success of Belfast on the Move

In her 1961 seminal work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jane Jacobs describes a phenomenon that she calls “the attrition of automobiles”. She argues that, in the US cities she looked at, when road space is reduced, the amount of car traffic also reduces – as opposed to simply taking alternative routes. She sees this as a good thing, and from some angles it is. However, travellers never actually disappear. What is happening is that the drivers are making a choice between (a) sitting in worse traffic (b) taking an alternative route (c) using an alternative mode of transport or (d) not making the journey. Since her observations suggest that in her cities (a) and (b) do not happen in a significant way, then most people must be choosing between options (c) and (d). Since a lot of journeys are not absolutely essential, the big fear is that people are choosing (d) over (c), ie reducing journeys and hence social and economic interaction. Reducing the number of journeys might be good news from a transport perspective, but is not necessarily a good thing for society.

But of course we don’t know if Belfast works like this and, as I have already said, we don’t have enough information to be able to conclude anything more concrete than we already have.

The Next Steps

A critical point to make is that these bus lanes are not yet finished. A further round of new bus lanes will be introduced early in 2013 along the front of City Hall. These will have a more severe impact on traffic than the ones behind City Hall since the loss of road space for general traffic is much greater – down to one lane in places.

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

If the bus lane behind City Hall really has pushed additional traffic onto other routes, then the bus lane across the front of City Hall in early 2013 will increase this still further. The introduction of this bus lane, therefore, not only has the potential to generate just as much anger and congestion as the one in September, but also to rely on a smaller amount of spare capacity of the surrounding roads. This needs very careful management.

Suggestions to DRD

Here are some things that the experience of this Autumn has taught us. We might as well list some things that the DRD could do better next time, since the process is due to be repeated next year:

  1. Much more prior warning ahead of opening day. Press releases are not enough. There needs to be widespread media penetration and VMS signage on approaches to the City Centre clearly indicating both the type of change and the introduction date several weeks in advance.
  2. More brutal honesty about the immediate impact, for example “There may be quite severe disruption for the first few weeks”. Motorists can see what is happening on the ground, so there is nothing to gain by playing down the likely impact. Motorists will appreciate brutal honesty that does not insult their intelligence, even if they don’t like what it is describing.
  3. There needs to be greater positive incentive to try the bus. It is not enough to take away road capacity from cars, and then expect people to switch to the same buses that have always been there. A good carrot would be a concessionary period, say 3 or 4 weeks after the bus lane is introduced, where Metro fares are reduced for commuters. Concessions at 0ff-peak times are pointless if commuters are the main target of the scheme.
  4. A leaflet drop to every household in the city. Expensive? Possibly. But small compared to the budget of the scheme, and well worth doing if it reduces congestion and encourage more people to be prepared to try alternatives. I am amazed by how often I have to explain the bus lane plan, and am routinely shocked by the sheer lack of awareness that there is amongst the motoring public. There needs to be a much greater emphasis on driver awareness well in advance of the scheme going in.

At the same time, the public can do a number of things to help when the next round of bus lanes come in:

  1. Give it time to bed in before coming to a conclusion. Allow at least 2 months.
  2. Bear in mind that the congestion generally relates to the rush hour, and people driving in to the city to shop at other times are largely unaffected.
  3. At least try the bus or commuting on a bicycle. It might suck. But at the same time, it might be better than you think!


  1. Haven’t been to Belfast much lately so only got to look at the new layout recently, seems to me the change in junction priorities to favour pedestrians and the resulting longer dwell times for motorists at junctions – Bedford St/ Howard St, May St/Victoria St etc… is just as much a factor than the much talked about bus lanes.

  2. Feedback this morning and yesterday morning is that while travel times for many are the same, the “rush hour” is lasting much longer. At 0930 yesterday morning, it was gridlock at the House of Sport with cars tailbacked all up the malone road. Cutting down Dorchester Park was the only reasonable way to get to Balmoral avenue.

    The impacts of the bus lanes cannot be considered from the point of view of a few interested people. The whole impact on the roads from what I can see is that a system that, due to poor information on traffic and congestion, was bad has become worse due to poorly communicated changes and absolutely minimal monitoring of the changes.

    Will there be anything other than anecdotal review of this change?

    Anecdotally worth noting that according to members of the “Better Informed Travellers” Linkedin group, Northern Ireland doesn’t have a traffic issue anywhere. Based entirely on an archaic measure of seven principle roads in NI.

    On the map you have, it doesn’t mention the Sandy Row-To-Bankmore-Square-To-Ormeau development?

    • Interesting thanks. A longer rush hour implies people are changing the timing of their journey as a result of bus lanes. That’s worth knowing.

      Don’t mention City Centre Ring South as its a later proposal that so far doesn’t have a definite go-ahead.

    • In terms of how the change will be monitored, as I say in the blog, there are very few objective metrics actually available, and even those will take years not months to become measurable.

  3. The bus service is not good enough. Quite often buses out of town particularly in the evening are late due to congestion. Cycling is not an option for many.

    The traffic situation has not improved significantly. Commuters are adjusting to account for the longer drive. This increases traffic fumes due to cars idling and is not good for the environment.

    Traders and media need to calm the hysteria in the leadup to christmas to protect what remains of their business. Sadly the council crisis meetings have not produced any useful solution as yet. This plan is a waste of time and money and should have been backed out immediately.

  4. On a slightly side (although related issue) I have question the purpose of the whole exercise from a government funding point of view. The revenue generated from fuel related taxes provides a large proportion of the gov’t revenue. If they force motorists onto the bus, that results in a huge fall in the amount of fuel purchased and therefore tax gained from this. How are the gov’t going to fill this void in taxation?

    • Yes, indeed a very valid point. Northern Ireland motorists now contribute approximately £1,000,000,000 in taxation to central govermment every year. I’m planning a blog on this soon.

  5. Steven Patterson of SustransNI has asked me to clarify that the main cycling groups in Northern Ireland are supportive of Belfast on The Move. Their joint statement on the matter reads:

    “The Cycling NGOs Group (Belfast Friends of the Earth, CTC, Sustrans and the NICI) think that Belfast on the Move is a positive initiative for transport in Belfast. The project gives more priority to those who cannot or choose not to travel by car in the city. When the scheme is complete, the project will improve conditions for experienced cyclists and this is very welcome. However, given that cyclists are sharing road space with buses, it provides less benefit for novice cyclists. We are encouraged that DRD has designed some extra wide bus lanes so buses can pass cyclists with ease. We would like them to go further, and ensure that the bus and bike lanes are coloured in the way that the publicity document indicated, noting that there is no green colouring in cycle lanes at present. We would also like to see a 20 mph speed limit on most roads in the city centre, and have continuous bike and bus lanes on all arterial roads in Belfast, as part of a city wide cycle network that would enable 10% of all trips in Belfast to be made by bike..”

  6. […] opted to leave most of the comment on the Belfast On The Move project (i.e. the new bus lanes) to Wesley Johnston, who universally talks sense on transport […]

  7. […] a recent blog post I commented that we currently lacked numerical data on which to assess whether the new bus lanes […]

  8. […] by the July fortnight, so this will take a lot of the pressure off. Nevertheless, as I commented in a blog last year, the experience of last summer suggests that we should […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: