Road layout changes in the heart of the Belfast went into operation yesterday along May Street, Donegall Square and Howard Street following the opening of the designated bus lane along Oxford Street earlier this month.
Those behind the Belfast On The Move scheme — who believe it will slash the number of cars travelling through the city centre — will be hoping the scenes during rush hour yesterday are simply teething problems.
Confusion reigned both in the morning and evening as commuters, bus drivers and taxi drivers negotiated the new layout for the first time.
Many workers took to social networking sites when they arrived at their workplaces to vent their frustrations after delays exacerbated their Monday morning blues.
Between 4.30pm and 6pm yesterday there was a repeat of the anguish with looks of bewilderment and frustration on the faces of many as they tried to negotiate their way out of the city.
Large electronic boards along the routes flagged up the changes but they, like the new yellow boxes, seemed to have little impact. A number of Translink staff positioned themselves near the City Hall to watch the new lanes in operation.
The head-shaking and finger-pointing among them suggested they weren’t exactly inspired by the changes.
One told the Belfast Telegraph: “It’s a pantomime. There are more cars than buses using the lanes and people haven’t a clue where they are supposed to be.”
Either oblivious to the new rules or unable to switch lanes, numerous motorists occupied the bus lanes along all three streets.
At peak rush hour, few buses were among the long line of vehicles in the designated zones.
The situation was worsened by those who inadvertently found themselves stationary in yellow boxes, obstructing other vehicles.
When stopped at the lights, one motorist branded the changes “bizarre”.
Ulster Unionist Assembly Member for South Belfast Michael McGimpsey, who had complained to the Roads Service about a lack of planning for the scheme, described as “bedlam” the traffic situation in Belfast with the introduction of the new bus lanes coinciding with roadworks on key routes in the city.
“This past week has been an absolute disaster as far as traffic management is concerned,” he said. “I cannot believe that planners within the Roads Service could not have foreseen the introduction of the bus lanes, when schools had returned, causing traffic disruption.”
He added: “As a result commuters have faced major delays and businesses in the city have missed out as shoppers have chosen to drive to out-of-town shopping centres rather than battle through the traffic jams.”
But a DRD Roads Service spokeswoman acknowledged: “In relation to the timing of the works, there is no ‘good time’ to carry out works on the busy city centre road network.
“The works taking place in Belfast city centre, which are being carried out as part of the Belfast On The Move transport masterplan, is the first step in delivering a city centre where access by public transport is given a much higher priority and the street environment is tailored to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists rather than the private car.
“The current phase of the Belfast On The Move transport masterplan, the sustainable transport enabling measures, involves a range of traffic management works across the city centre which will not be completed until spring/summer 2013.”
She added: “Therefore the works could not be completed within school holiday periods.
“However, in order to minimise the disruption to traffic the works are, where possible, being undertaken outside peak hours.”
Pedestrian and public transport to benefit
The Belfast On The Move scheme signals the introduction of more bus and cycle lanes in the city centre along with changes to traffic flows to allow a “higher priority to public transport, pedestrians and cyclists”, said the Department for Regional Development.
The plan aims to achieve this by cutting car lanes, new one-way systems, setting up new bus and cycle lanes and installing 20 new pedestrian crossings.
At the start of September a new bus lane was opened along Oxford Street. Further lanes were put into operation along May Street, Donegall Square South and Howard Street yesterday.
To the rear of City Hall, the four-lane system changed to a wide bus lane and two lanes of general traffic.
A bus gate also opened on May Street allowing buses to get into their lanes without having to navigate through traffic.
They are intended for use by buses between the hours of 7am and 7pm, Monday to Saturday.
Those behind the changes say 60% of those previously using the route were merely passing through the city centre with the remainder being commuters to and from the city centre.
It is hoped many will see the merits in using public transport as opposed to driving, given the estimated saving in time when travelling in the heart of Belfast, and make the jump to using buses.
Later this year Great Victoria Street, Grosvenor Road and Durham Street will go one-way and the notorious rat run at Barrack Street will be closed to through traffic.