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One way or another, let's shed some light on road chaos


In a jam: traffic gridlock

In a jam: traffic gridlock

Liam McBurney

In a jam: traffic gridlock

Between my Belfast home and the office there are 17 sets of traffic lights. The distance to work is about two miles. If I am lucky I can sometimes reach the xanadu that is fourth gear in my little Fiat, but those times are rare.

Why do I mention this? With plenty of time to ponder outside the Grand Opera House while waiting as another line of light-jumpers had trammelled up Great Victoria Street trying to get from Grosvenor Road into Wellington Place, I started to think about town planners. Now hold on a minute. Don't desert me just yet.

Think about it. We sit, we wait, we grumble, but we never question the immutable law of the red light. Unless we're a taxi driver that is.

Who are the people who have placed those 17 sets of traffic lights between Malone Road and Royal Avenue? What are they trying to achieve? Is there just one of them, or are the 17 symbols of society's attempt to impose order a testimony to generations of like-minded thinkers?

I ask openly, not critically. You see, architects and sculptors impose their visions on our towns and cities and we either like them or we don't.

To some extent, we are engaged by whether the so-called Balls on the Falls (aka Rise) is a stunning depiction of the sun coming up on a new peaceful Belfast, or the result of a bored kid gone mad with stick-a-brick.

You either get London's Shard tower or not.

You willingly enter the debate on them and that is surely a good thing. We know the architects and artists responsible. We see them blithering about their work on the tele all the time.

And yet town planners have far more effect on our lives. They alter our mood, might even change our life for better or worse.

A new bypass gets a father to the hospital on time for the arrival of his first-born, a dodgy contra flow makes her late for that job interview. But you never really know who the town planners are.

And yet their work is worthy of so much discussion. Take the little piece of art that shall for the moment be called Carrick Hill and Millfield. It is an installation of which the most revolutionary Cubist or Surrealist would have been proud.

Traffic lights at Donegall Street, North Street, Gresham Street, Berry Street and Divis Street, all within the space of a few hundred yards, are marvellous examples of the Absurdist Movement that appears to have the upper hand in Belfast at least.

How scores of drivers marvel as they grind to a halt again to let one old dear trundle out of a side street. At night-time, looking towards Divis Street, those lights can be fetchingly pretty for they are rarely the same colour. Heaven forbid, for that would mean a smooth flow of traffic and would spoil the effect.

What any artistic movement has at its core is actually a rigidity of thought. Surrealism's founder, Andre Breton, even dictated when artists should half wake from slumbers in order to experience their visions. And what the Belfast school of town planning has at its heart is a fundamental distrust of us. Without order of the most regimented kind we would revert to savages in suits, they believe.

We are not to be trusted to filter, to give way, to find a short cut that doesn't involve the kerb. I'm not saying Belfast is worse than anywhere else, just that we never stop to question these shadowy figures whose philosophies dictate our lives.

There is hope for another way. A new school of One-way theorists seems to be getting the upper hand and Belfast is to be turned into a bus and cycle-friendly circuit, where we all head the same way. It'll be hell while they put it into action, but it might just work.

Perhaps, for all these years, we have been in the grip of sleepers for the green, bike-to-work movement. People trying to convince us it's just not worth getting the car out at all.

Maybe that's not such a bad thing after all. As I say, you get a lot of time to think about things waiting for the traffic to move outside the Opera House.