It’s the new school year. So here’s a lesson for the regional development minister: don’t start major roadworks in July and August — they won’t be finished when the schools go back and the result will be chaotic.
Write it out 100 times, Danny Kennedy, and commit it to memory. Then we might avoid the scenes repeated across Belfast as parents moan and children groan in cars stuck in jams caused by roadworks and new bus lanes.
Such foresight would also avoid alienating the public against the developments. And that should be a priority — for this ironically-named ‘Belfast on the Move’ initiative is a matter of real importance to everyone who lives, or works, in the city, or uses its facilities.
Traffic in Belfast is like Longfellow’s little girl. When it is good, it is very, very good and when it is bad, it is horrid. If you’ve been stuck in it recently, you’ve probably used a more forceful adjective, for Longfellow was a poet and a gentleman and few Belfast motorists fall into either category.
But we won’t solve the problem by shaking a fist at it — or by blaming the Department of Regional Development (DRD). Its timing was poor, but its motive was commendable.
The factors which make Belfast’s traffic very, very good are the ones which can also make it horrid: size and the easy availability of relatively cheap parking.
It’s a small city and motorists can generally drive around it with an ease unimagined in bigger centres and park near their workplaces.
Rush ‘hour’ in Belfast rarely traps a motorist for more than 30 minutes, morning or evening. In Dublin or, say, Manchester, it grinds on for at least two hours each way. In London, outside the restricted area, bumper-to-bumper traffic is a more or less permanent state of affairs.
Parking in all these cities is expensive and commuters are unlikely to find a carpark at, or near, their place of work. So people try not to bring their cars into the city centre. They certainly won’t drive through it on the way to somewhere else.
In Belfast, we can get away with this behaviour much of the time. But one small problem — an accident, a spillage, a new school term — quickly turns good to horrid.
The roadworks causing the current disruption are aimed at reducing the volume of traffic that moves directly through the centre of Belfast.
The idea is to reduce the flow on streets that pass the City Hall, creating new one-way systems and forcing motorists to take a wider sweep around the heart of the city.
It may also improve the flow of public transport, since there will be new and wider bus lanes. We are also getting more cycle lanes, although these will achieve nothing if they are allocated with the same lack of planning, and enforced with the same lack of will, that bedevils existing lanes.
But the real issue is with cars. The DRD estimates that about 60% of the vehicles using those central streets at present are through-traffic with no actual need to be in the city centre.
They are making life difficult for themselves and spoiling the city for others.
Why should our finest streets be reserved for motor vehicles?
Necessity has forced other cities to design extensive pedestrian areas, which Belfast lacks.
I’m not talking of areas where access by car is limited, or where it is banned but public transport still runs. And I’m not talking about parks or river walks, or small squares. I mean substantial areas of a city centre, where pedestrians can stroll, sit, and shop without being poisoned by petrol fumes, or the fear of being hit by a bus.
Belfast has just the place for such a development, smack bang in the middle of the city.
If we were to pedestrianise the streets around the City Hall — the four sides of Donegall Square and the adjoining Donegall Place — we could have a central plaza to match any in Europe.
We would need to ban cars completely, with access for delivery limited to late night and early morning.
Public transport would be confined to the streets running parallel with Donegall Square.
The central bus terminal, if it’s really needed, would have to be shifted elsewhere, possibly to join its country cousin in Glengall Street.
All this would have the beneficial effect of pushing private cars and car parks back another block on all sides.
We’d have to learn to walk a little, but what a nice city centre we’d be walking through.
The present road plans fall a considerable way short of this ambition, but they’re a move in the right direction.
They recognise that motorists must suffer short-term pain for long-term gain.
It’s just a pity that so many motorists’s experience of the plans comes when they are stuck in a traffic jam with impatient schoolchildren in tow.
‘DRD’s timing was poor but its motive was commendable’