Editor's Viewpoint: Scrap traffic system for festive shoppers
Yesterday morning's gridlock which backed up along every arterial route out of central Belfast was reminiscent of the bad old days when terrorist bombs and scares brought traffic to a halt.
But this time it was frustration not fear which was the dominant feeling among commuters as they endured delays of more than an hour in getting to work. The cause of the snarl-up was a failure in the computer system which co-ordinates traffic lights to allow a better flow of vehicles.
At any time this would have been a problem but it was compounded by the recent introduction of the new traffic management system, ironically called Belfast On The Move. The creation of more bus lanes around the city centre - at the same time as major road works in the area - has created mayhem for drivers and severe concerns for retailers who fear the city could gain a reputation as a no-go area, or at least a stop-go area.
While Department for Regional Development officials say the system needs time to bed in, many others are questioning if this is the right time for that to happen. A recent property survey showed that one in four shops in the city is lying vacant and retailers - already feeling the pinch because of the recession - are complaining of decreasing footfall. They fear that in the run up to their most lucrative time of the year, Christmas, shoppers will find alternative retail destinations. This is not a question of shopkeepers crying wolf once too often but a serious problem.
A multi-agency group has been set up to tackle the traffic congestion problem and promises to meet every two weeks, but surely there is a simpler, more effective short-term solution. The new bus lanes should be scrapped until after the festive period and reintroduced in the early months of the new year when traffic is lighter and consequences of congestion less serious. That would be an appropriate time to allow the system to bed in rather than in the coming weeks when the city should be hiving with activity. We need our politicians to take the lead on this issue.