Posted by: wesleyjohnston | December 12, 2012

Belfast Bus Lanes and Rapid Transit – Talk by Ciarán de Búrca

Today I was at a talk by the DRD’s Head of Transport Projects, Ciarán de Búrca. But due to the sheer quantity of terminology in this whole area, it might be worth starting this blog by recapping what the Transport Projects Division is actually responsible for. Ciarán is not only in charge of the proposed Belfast Rapid Transit system, but also Belfast On The Move, which overlaps with Rapid Transit. He also works on other schemes such as eCar and park-and-ride infrastructure.

Belfast Rapid Transit (see here) will see a system of three high-quality bus-based rapid transit corridors introduced to the west and east of the city, plus Titanic Quarter, by 2017.

Belfast On The Move is a long-term scheme to transform the public transport infrastructure of the city centre, and is being taken forward in six phases (click on each link below if you want more information):

  1. Streets Ahead Enabling Measures Phase 1 – completed 2011
  2. Sustainable Transport Enabling Measures (STEM) – currently underway, to be finished by June 2013
  3. Rapid Transit Enabling Measures – to tie in to the wider Belfast Rapid Transit System. To start end 2013.
  4. City Centre Ring Road Southern Section
  5. Streets Ahead Enabling Measures Phase 2
  6. Transforming the City Centre Ring Road

Today Ciarán de Búrca was speaking at the PLACE Architecture and Built Environment Centre in Belfast. He gave a very interesting talk which was followed by a 30-minute question-and-answer session. In what follows I’m not attempting to summarise his talk, but rather pick out specific points that relate to the impact on the road network.

New Bus Lanes (STEM)

In a recent blog post I commented that we currently lacked numerical data on which to assess whether the new bus lanes were actually working as intended. Ciarán quoted some very useful figures today, all of which are preliminary and have not been formally published as far as I am aware. Nevertheless it does let us do our first back-of-the-envelope assessment. Specifically he says that since the bus lanes were introduced behind City Hall in mid September:

  • Park-and-ride usage across the city is up 15-20%.
  • Metro patronage is up around 2%.
  • Traffic crossing the Queen’s Bridge is down 30%.
  • Following the painful bedding-in period, car journey times are now 1-2 minutes longer than before.
  • Traffic levels on Westlink are up by between 4000 and 5000 vehicles per day.

Before the bus lanes were introduced, I posed three questions, the answers to which would determine whether the new bus lanes succeeded or failed. These questions were:

  1. How many people will switch to the bus, and how many will continue to use the car?
  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?
  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?

The first two statistics quoted by Ciarán allow us to do a back-of-the-envelope assessment of question 1 at this point in time. DRD’s own statistics show that there were 25.9 million journeys on Metro in 2011/12. I have no statistics for how patronage differs between weekdays and weekends, but if we assume as a pure guess that weekends have half the journeys of week days, that equates to roughly 83,000 Metro bus journeys per working day. Assuming people who get the bus into town also get it home, that is 41,500 individuals using the bus on a working day. 2% of that is 830 people, so as a rough estimate, the 2% statistic suggests that 830 people may have switched to the bus since September. Of course, there could be other reasons why there has been a change (we can’t assume it’s just due to the bus lanes). We also can’t assume that all these people are commuters (as opposed to shoppers, etc). Finally, 2% is such a small figure that it would not rate highly in statistical significance. But with all those caveats, it’s still something to go on.

We can also hazard a guess at question 3. We can use the statistic about a 30% drop on Queen’s Bridge to make an estimate of the number of people displaced from the city centre. DRD traffic stats show that Queen’s Bridge carried 1893 vehicles in the morning peak in 2009. A reduction of 30% would translate into just over 600 vehicles in the morning rush hour no longer crossing the Queen’s Bridge into the city. Of course, Queen’s Bridge is only one of many routes into the city centre so the actual traffic displaced from the city centre is probably much greater.

The DRD estimate that 18,000 of the vehicles driving in front of and behind City Hall each day have no destination in the city centre. If the reduction in traffic experienced on the Queen’s Bridge is being mirrored here (and we don’t know that) then we could be seeing between 5000 and 6000 vehicles displaced from the city centre already. Some of these vehicles might, of course, now be at home while their owners get the bus, but where are the rest of them going?

Traffic no longer using these routes is displaced either to the north (Westlink) or the south (Donegall Road or Ormeau Avenue or even further out). The statistic that there are 4000 to 5000 more vehicles on the Westlink is of relevance here. It’s interesting that this figure is in the same ballpark as the above estimate for traffic displaced from the city centre. This would seem to suggest that the majority of displaced traffic is now using Westlink. However, we’d have to see comparative statistics for Donegall Road, Ormeau Avenue and the Outer Ring to see if that is correct.

Since we’re not seeing huge media coverage of new problems emerging on Westlink, we can assume that Westlink has successfully absorbed this additional traffic.

So a very rough, back-of-the-envelope analysis suggests that of the people displaced from the city centre, the majority (probably more than 80%) have switched to alternative routes, while the remainder are now either using alternative transport modes or not making the journey at all. In “alternative modes” we also count the train, walking and cycling, but there are no useful statistics on those modes at this point in time.

On the face of it, therefore, the new bus lanes do appear to be doing what Ciarán de Búrca promised, namely:

  • they’re taking through traffic out of the city centre and onto more appropriate roads like Westlink
  • they no longer seem to be causing significant traffic problems for most people, although some people will disagree
  • they do appear to have prompted a modal switch onto buses.

Of course, we’ll be able to do a much more robust analysis in a year or two once we have longer-term statistics, but for now this makes me feel more confident in the potential success of Belfast On The Move. The scheme is not over, and it will have to be seen whether Westlink can continue to absorb displaced traffic as the next wave of bus lanes is introduced in 2013, but I am not as concerned about this as I was six months ago. No scheme is without its problems, but Ciarán de Búrca and his team do deserve credit for what has been achieved so far.

Other News

Coming back to the talk, Ciarán also confirmed that work would be starting on the next round of bus lanes in January 2013 (including the ones along the front of City Hall) and that the work would be completed by June.

He also expressed support for the York Street grade-separated junction, on the grounds that it would get more through traffic off local streets and would allow him to introduce further public transport measures on York Street. He suggested that this not only meant bus lanes, but potentially a future Rapid Transit route serving north Belfast.

Ciarán also spoke at length about Belfast Rapid Transit. He suggested that work on the ground would be beginning at the end of 2013, which is earlier than I had anticipated, with the scheme expected to be completely up and running by 2017. He noted that the vast majority of infrastructure work would be on the east and west route, since the infrastructure in Titanic Quarter had been built with it in mind (“it could be done tomorrow with a bucket of paint!”)

I asked him about the Upper Newtownards Road route of EWay, observing that the part of Upper Newtownards Road east of the Outer Ring is part of the strategic road network* (ie it carries economically vital intra-province traffic, not just commuters). He accepted the point that this road was not just a commuter route, and said that there would have to be some compromises to recognise this. For example, there will NOT be priority for Rapid Transit through the key A20 Upper Newtownards Road / A55 Outer Ring junction at Knock, as it would displace an unacceptable amount of  strategic traffic.

Many thanks to the folks at PLACE for hosting the event. You can follow PLACE on Twitter too.


*In Belfast, the strategic road network consists of a small number of routes deemed vital for longer-distance journeys:

  • The M1, M2 and Westlink
  • The M3 and Sydenham Bypass
  • The A55 Outer Ring in east Belfast, ie Stockman’s Lane to Tillysburn
  • The A24 Saintfield Road outside the Outer Ring
  • The A20 Upper Newtownards Road outside the Outer Ring


  1. Westlink has gotten extremely busy this year, almost cancelling out the underpass work that occurred a few years ago.

    Not sure if it has successfully absorbed, but it does seem to have absorbed.

    Arterial routes such as the Castlereagh Road and Shaws Bridge also seem much busier.

    Why no rapid transport links to the south of the city? The south of the city is under-represented by transport. North has M2, East M3, West Westlink/M1. South has to use arterial routes to cross city.

  2. I agree with your points Trebeck.

    I can however see logic in what the various authorities are trying to achieve.

    The transport system in Belfast today represents a small part of what had been originally planned. This patch-work system has resulted in the pinchpoints and congestion residents of the City know and loathe.

    It seems that the roads building plan is to focus investment on getting the existing system working effectively. So we have the Westlink up-grade and proposals for York Junction. Proposals to upgrade the Sydenham bypass and get the Outer Ring working.

    These investments are important to keep the strategic traffic moving and also to give commuters alertnative routes around the City. This in turn allows the authorities to sort out the Inner City by removing traffic from the core, creating the Inner loop and significantly upgrading the public transport network.

    The finished product should see better flows on the strategic network, a more pleasant experience for all users in the City Centre and increased connectivity for those areas to be served by proposed rapid transit.

    I can see how once they get the existing system working reasonably well they will start thinking about new schemes such as additional strategic links, additional rapid transit etc.

    All in all I think the approach they have adopted is a sensible one and should benefit most people for the least amount of money (which is the ultimate goal).

  3. […] While omitting the Netherlands from that list (really?), giving real weight to solutions which have worked to increase cycling uptake and safety abroad is essential. London is going some way to planning high quality separation where possible (and talking of not wasting money on half measures); tried and tested design points from the Netherlands, or cities such as Copenhagen or Seville, should be evaluated by the new cycling unit. Who knows, there may be value in bringing relevant experts who’ve delivered schemes elsewhere, looking to Belfast on the Move’s Ciarán de Búrca for a recent DRD precedent. […]

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