We need a joined-up plan to make drivers park cars
Speed up trains, create cycle lanes that actually go somewhere and pedestrianise the City Hall to stop congestion, says Michael Wolsey
Donkeys are said to respond best to a combination of carrot and stick. In Belfast city centre, where the traffic often moves at donkey pace, drivers are offered only the stick. Little wonder if they sometimes feel they are being taken for an ass.
The long-suffering motorists have got another taste of the lash with the return of the road works which brought the centre to a halt before Christmas.
The work will make way for bus lanes on Great Victoria Street and College Square and, although a lot of it is being done at night, there will be some day-time disruption and new one-way systems are now in force.
The really bad news is that there is at least four months of disruption ahead in this, the second phase of the ironically-named Belfast on the Move scheme.
The road works causing the current disruption are aimed at reducing the volume of traffic that moves directly through the centre of Belfast. The immediate aim is to reduce the flow on streets that pass the City Hall, forcing motorists to take a wider sweep around the heart of the city.
In the longer-term the scheme aims to reduce the overall volume of motor traffic in the city centre by persuading commuters to switch to buses, trains, bikes and, indeed, their own two feet.
All this is commendable and might receive a sympathetic hearing from motorists and traders if they could see where it is leading; some evidence of joined-up thinking, a grand plan, a vision for the future.
Where is the wider plan that will persuade commuters onto the buses, trains and so on?
For the buses there are some signs of progress and Translink has reported an increase in passengers since the new lanes were introduced. But what of the trains, a key part of the commuter mix in any modern city?
There is no plan to substantially improve the very limited service now operating. Frequency is reasonable but speeds are poor. A commuter train leaves Bangor for Belfast every 10 minutes, on average, at the morning peak, which is excellent. But the journey to Great Victoria Street mostly takes 40 minutes, a speed of about 18mph.
The Larne to Belfast train averages 23mph. The slight speed advantage is negated by the fact that only one train an hour leaves for Belfast during the morning peak. Portadown fares best with a 40-minute journey that averages the dizzy speed of 30mph.
All these times can be bettered by car, which defeats the point of commuter trains. And, anyway, the timetables offer only a rough guide. Any regular train commuter can tell of the frustration of cancellations, delays and, most annoying of all, trains that sit outside a station because there is no platform free.
It is not the way of a well-planned city. It would not impress Manchester, which is served by trams and a commuter train network. It would not impress Liverpool, which has an underground metro rail with inter-connecting lines. And it would not impress Dublin. Commuters in the southern capital enjoy mainline trains, the Dart metro rail service, the Luas tram service and the most successful free bicycle scheme in Europe. Belfast will be getting one of those bike schemes soon. In the meantime we are getting more cycle lanes. But the trouble with our cycle lanes is that they don't join up. They appear here, vanish there and lead nowhere in particular. They add nothing of significance to the city's traffic mix.
And what about pedestrian areas? Belfast is very poorly served in this regard. What Belfast lacks is a substantial area of the city centre where pedestrians can stroll, sit, and shop without being poisoned by petrol fumes.
There is an obvious place for such a development. 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.
This would be an ambitious project, indeed. It would take time and it would mean pain. But the gain would be obvious – a juicy carrot to make the stick worthwhile.