Posted by: wesleyjohnston | June 7, 2014

Belfast on the Move – are traffic levels really lower?

As promised, the DRD has published a detailed survey of the impact that the new bus lanes have had on the city centre. The report suggests positive outcomes to both of its main aims, namely:

  1. Making alternative forms of transport, such as the bus, cycling or walking, more appealing.
  2. Encouraging through traffic out of the city centre and onto more appropriate routes.

I intend to blog about this most interesting report in more detail in the near future, but you can read it for yourself here. This report is of great significance as it represents an objective analysis of the scheme and its impacts.

Despite its positive message, most publicity that surrounded the publication of this report focused in on an apparent contradiction, which was that the report claimed that traffic levels had reduced in the city centre, whereas the experience of most car drivers is that traffic is about the same or, in some cases worse, than it was before. Some accused the DRD of “cooking the books” and suggested that the claim of reduced traffic levels was false.

In fact there is no contradiction, and this view is instead based on a misunderstanding of terminology around the use of the term “traffic flows”. This is not just my speculation – I have specifically encountered this misunderstanding from reporters over the past week.

The DRD press release says “Morning peak traffic flows have reduced by around one third in the city centre.” Many people, including some journalists, seem to have taken the term “traffic flows” to mean “traffic” more generally, i.e. the level of traffic congestion. They have thus understood the DRD to be claiming that traffic congestion in the morning peak is down by a third in the city centre. This is clearly not borne out by the actual experience of drivers – some of whom appeared on the radio and Twitter to say this – hence the mistaken belief that the DRD is “cooking the books”.

In fact, what the DRD mean by the term “traffic flows” is the total number of vehicles. So for example, the report shows that before the bus lanes went in (2011) there were approximately 1480 vehicles using Howard Street during the morning peak, whereas after the bus lanes went in (October 2013), there were about 680 – a fall of 54% (this being higher than the average of all city centre streets which is about a third, as the press release correctly claims). So the DRD is entirely correct and accurate in their claim that traffic flows have reduced by a third.

So if the total number of vehicles in the city centre has fallen by a third, why are motorists not noticing much, if any, reduction in traffic? The reason is that Belfast on the Move achieved its aims by taking away lanes from general traffic, i.e. mostly cars, and reallocating it to buses and cyclists. This means that the total road space for cars to squeeze into has fallen, as well as the total number of cars.

So Howard Street, for example, has seen the number of “car’ lanes reduced from 4 to 2 at its tightest point. Therefore, although there are now half as many cars on Howard Street as there were before, they are also in half the amount of road space. For example, 20 cars spread across 4 lanes will lead to a queue 5 cars long in each lane, while 10 cars spread across 2 lanes will also lead to a queue 5 cars long in each lane. Hence motorists will probably not notice any difference despite the fall in traffic levels.

So if there is no change for motorists, is the scheme a failure?

Not at all. Why? Because Belfast on the Move is not about making journeys easier for cars. The scheme is about making buses, cycling and walking easier. In fact, if the scheme had made life easier for cars, it would probably have failed in its primary objective of making alternative forms of transport more appealing. And it seems to have succeeded. Despite the huge reduction in cars in the city centre, there are now more people entering the city centre than there were before the bus lanes went in – 2253 more per day, an increase of almost 7%. And, for the first time in living memory, people entering the city centre by car in the morning rush hour are now the minority (47%).

I plan to write another blog post in the near future looking at this report in more detail, but at this point in time I regard the scheme up to this point as a success for the city, and to give due credit to its planners.



  1. […] interest have pushed attention back towards the twin evils of Belfast everyday motoring – the bus lanes which are so hard to understand and the recently installed 20mph zone which is equally hard to […]

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