Bus lanes help drive to open up city centre
Despite fresh calls this week for Belfast's controversial bus lanes to be scrapped, roads expert Wesley Johnston says evidence shows they are encouraging more people to travel by public transport and business owners are wrong to blame them for a downturn in the number of shoppers
Few changes to roads in Northern Ireland have evoked such strong feelings as Belfast on the Move (BOTM). It saw the widespread reallocation of roads space in the city centre during 2012 and early 2013 at a cost of £4.2m. It has created more space for buses, cycling and pedestrians and less space for general traffic. The main criticisms have come from traders who believe that BOTM has harmed shopping in Belfast and motorists, who believe they have made traffic worse.
Most reasonable people can at least accept the theory behind BOTM. Belfast was congested at peak times, and operating above capacity, long before the bus lanes were conceived. There are two ways to tackle the problem. The first is to create more road space through widespread demolition in the city centre. The other is to squeeze more people into the existing road space.
Although they are one of the most useful devices available to us today, cars are also about the most inefficient way possible of using road space. The space occupied by a whole car typically accommodates just one person in the rush hour. So the only logical solution to the problem of the city centre streets operating at capacity is to discourage cars and encourage forms of transport that take up less space per person.
Hence BOTM sought to make forms of transport such as cycling, walking and the bus more appealing, the hope being that more people would choose to switch to these forms of transport than were displaced by the creation of the new lanes.
Although different people have differing observations on their impact, objective survey work carried out before and after the lanes went in shows that they have achieved this aim. For example, there are now 1,900 fewer vehicles entering the city centre in the morning peak, mirrored by a rise of 17% in people entering by bus, a rise of 12% in the those entering on foot and a rise of 18% in those entering by bicycle. Overall, the total number of people entering the city centre in the mornings by all forms of transport has increased by 6%. A total of 2,200 more people are entering the city each morning than before the lanes went in.
Fine, you may say, but surely traffic has got worse? There do seem to be some specific streets, eg Great Victoria Street, where traffic has worsened since BOTM and there may be room for some tweaking here. But taken as an average across the city centre, traffic congestion is not significantly different than it was before. In the days after the lanes went in I noticed traffic considerably worse in my part of Belfast, but within a month or two traffic levels were back to their old levels. This was evidenced by admissions from some of those representing city traders that their initial fears had been excessively apocalyptic.
In any case, it is a misunderstanding of BOTM to have expected it to lead to less congestion for cars. The objective was to get more travellers into the existing road space, by encouraging them out of cars, not to reduce congestion levels for car drivers. So although the number of cars entering the city centre in the morning rush hour has fallen, this is unlikely to benefit motorists since it is cancelled out by the reduction in the number of traffic lanes.
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There is sometimes criticism that bus lanes are a waste of space because they lie empty much of the time. This misses the point - it is critical for bus lanes to be kept empty so that the buses can use them. Without the bus lanes, buses would offer no advantages over cars and it would be very hard to persuade people to use them. In any case, well-sited bus lanes are actually a very efficient use of road space. For example, a survey on the Ormeau Bridge showed that buses were carrying 50% of all travellers on the road, yet made up only 2% of traffic. And on Fisherwick Place, the new bus lane now carries about half of travellers, yet occupies only one of the three lanes, making it twice as efficient as the two adjacent "car" lanes.
There is a mistaken view that people in Belfast city centre are predominantly car users. In fact, this is not the case - people entering the city centre by car are actually in the minority. The reason people overestimate the significance of cars to business and retail in the city centre is because cars are so big that they dominate the streets. The majority of travellers are overlooked because they are in buses, on bicycles or on the footpath, not taking up as much space and hence less visible. Indeed, research has shown that people who travel by these alternative forms of transport generally spend more money in shops than those arriving by car.
Nevertheless, some business owners are convinced that BOTM has harmed footfall and their bottom lines. Every business is different, so it is impossible to confirm or reject this in individual cases. But it does have to be remembered that the decline in town centres has been mirrored across Northern Ireland, in towns and cities where there have been no new bus lanes. Factors much more likely to impact on footfall are the global economic downturn, less disposable income and the rise of internet shopping, all of which have happened in parallel with BOTM. This explanation is backed up by a 2013 report commissioned by Belfast City Centre Management.
Objectively, we know that city centre car parks are fuller during the middle of the day and on Saturdays (ie, people likely to be shoppers rather than commuters) than they were before BOTM. In a 2013 survey, only 3% of shoppers said that they were deterred from shopping in Belfast by the bus lanes, hardly an indication of a major issue. Of those who travel from outside Belfast to shop in the city centre, over 50% do so by bus. Another report showed that November this year saw the best year-on-year retail growth since 2009. So there is little objective evidence to support the assertion that it is harming the city centre.
Is it all rosy? Of course not. Bus fares are still too high, and rising, and the fact that tickets have to be bought per person is a disincentive to families, when car parks charge per car. There is a noticeable lack of enforcement of the bus lanes, which is infuriating to law-abiding drivers. And there is the DRD's frankly bizarre proposal to allow thousands of additional taxis to use the bus lanes, even though their own research shows that this would harm buses and cyclists, the very forms of transport they were created to encourage. And there is the question of supporting those, such as the disabled, who have no choice but to use cars. All these issues need addressed.
Logic dictates that the most likely effect of removing the bus lanes would be a reduction in city centre footfall and no improvement in congestion. In my view they are working and should be further encouraged through lower bus fares and more effective enforcement.
Wesley Johnston is the author of The Belfast Urban Motorway, £15, Colourpoint, and also runs the popular Northern Ireland Roads Site, www.wesleyjohnston.com