Traffic is to be banned from part of Belfast city centre following a major review of safety, the Department of Regional Development has announced.
The long-term plan is to remove all buses and non-essential traffic and pedestrianise Donegall Place which runs north from the City Hall.
While these plans are being put in place, bus movements in Donegall Place will be restricted to one way, only allowing those travelling in a southerly direction.
Last year 16-year-old Ciara Park died after being hit by a bus at the junction of Donegall Place and Royal Avenue.
But the plan has sparked fury from bus drivers union Unite which said the money would be better spent on controlling the cars parked at bus stops round the city centre and ensuring priority bus lanes are completed and kept |clear.
“This is a misjudged scheme and will not make one iota of a difference,” Unite regional organiser Seam Smyth said. “There is not one uninterrupted bus lane in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Smyth said that instead of investing in public transport, Minister Murphy has ordered Translink to cut budgets while providing the same level of service, causing high stress levels in hard-pressed drivers, with implications for health and safety.
It’s understood that current roadworks in the city centre are to be suspended and tarmacked over the Christmas period, starting from the end of November until January 6.
The aim is to move to full pedestrianisation of Donegall Place by 2012 — depending on the funding and legislation being put in place — and there are also proposal to eventually pedestrianise the area surrounding the City Hall.
There are also plans to install new street furniture as part of the £28m phase 1 Streets Ahead scheme and also remove “street clutter”, according to DSD’s Ronan Corrigan.
The plan was announced by Transport Minister Conor Murphy, Social Development Minster Margaret Ritchie and Environment Minister Edwin Poots and follows a review of traffic management proposals for Belfast City Centre in line with the draft Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan.
It proposes a series of measures for urban regeneration, the creation of a more “people-friendly environment” and improvements to public transport to cut car dependency.
Following yesterday’s meeting, Mr Murphy said: “The challenge we faced was to ensure that any proposals will provide a better and safer environment for pedestrians, while still providing effective access and circulation for public transport and essential traffic.
Andy Irvine, manager of Belfast City Centre, has also called on the new Chief Constable to look at illegal traffic movements in the city centre.
“There are 9,000 illegal car |movements through High Street and Castle Junction every week,” Mr Irvine said.