Disgruntled commuters have been warned to expect rush hour gridlock in many parts of Belfast city centre until next year.
The warning was issued by a roads expert as a new taskforce group met for the first time in a bid to find a solution to severe traffic chaos which has hit the city since early last week.
Wesley Johnston, who runs a roads system website, issued a grim prediction that the traffic congestion will worsen as the Belfast On The Move scheme progresses.
Controversial new bus lane changes — introduced through the Department of Regional Development’s Belfast on The Move plan — have been blamed for the major disruption which has blighted motorists approaching the city centre since last Monday.
A multi-agency group has now been set up to tackle the congestion caused by a project aimed at improving the city’s transport network and encouraging more people on to public transport.
The plan includes the creation of more bus and cycle lanes.
The group — made up of agencies including DRD, Roads Service, PSNI, Translink, city centre traders and Belfast City Council — will meet every fortnight, or more frequently, as the busy countdown to Christmas starts.
Belfast Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson, who is a driving force behind the group, said he has received at least 40 complaints and countless Twitter messages about the tailbacks since the problems began nearly a fortnight ago.
The DUP councillor, who himself has seen his daily commute time extended significantly, agrees there has been a negative impact on city centre shops.
He said: “We need to make sure this (Belfast On The Move) is implemented effectively. That is my vision. It should increase accessibility to the city and increase freedom of movement.”
Next year will see completion of the final two stages — phases two and three — of the plan. Grosvenor Road, between Fisherwick Place and Durham Street, will become one-way westbound.
College Square North will also become one-way eastbound with more room for cyclists.
Wesley Johnston said he believes these phases will bring more congestion “until people get used to it”. And he called for more publicity ahead of the next phases.
A spokeswoman for the DRD said: “There was a full public consultation on the Belfast on the Move proposals, which was launched by the then Minister for Regional Development and the then Lord Mayor in September 2010.”
Gavin Robinson, Lord Mayor of Belfast, speaks to Anna Maguire about the traffic chaos and how problems can be resolved
Q What is your experience of Belfast On The Move?
A The last weeks were marked with frustration, logjams and failure to communicate.
Q How would you rate its performance to date?
A I don’t think the performance has been great.
Q What complaints have you received?
A Commuters say that their commutes have been extended by half-an-hour each way. There is a negative impact on shops.
Q What has been your experience of it — what hold ups have you seen?
A I used to get to work in about 20 minutes. That (recently) extended to 40 minutes. Now it takes about 30 minutes, so it's starting to work itself out as a result of people considering alternative routes to take.
Q Was consultation up to scratch?
A No. I think there could have been more done. I think if people were very eagle-eyed, they would have spotted a Press release about it. But this needed a larger consultation.
Q How do you think this is affecting traders in the city centre?
A I think traders feel that if this is to continue, that would have a negative impact.
Q How will the new multi-agency group address the problems?
A There are issues outside the Department for Regional Development’s control, such as making sure buses are using the bus lanes, enforcement issues such as moving vehicles that are parked in bus lanes. So these are all enforcement issues that bodies (on the multi-agency group) can address.”
Q What can be done in your opinion?
A Making sure that there is effective implementation and effective communication. We also need to see what other options can be developed.
Q How do you think Belfast On the Move has benefited the city?
A Translink has said the frequency of buses is better.