Traffic plans backfire for retailers
Sometimes you have to be careful of what you wish for. The Belfast On The Move project, with its increased use of bus lanes around the city centre, was designed to ease traffic flow in the city and keep motorists out of the shopping hub.
Government officials say the traffic management scheme has increased footfall in the city centre, but this is disputed by some retailers who say sales at this vital time of the year are down on previous years. Motorists argue that the new road layouts have only made congestion worse and have put many off coming into the centre to shop. Those who do brave the new system say they end up trapped in lengthy jams.
Given the roads layout in Belfast, with all arterial routes leading into the city centre like the spokes of a wheel, the planners felt it needed a radical approach to ease the traffic flow. Their answer was to create more bus lanes, restricting private vehicles around the city centre.
The problem is that the average Northern Ireland motorist loves his car and is unwilling to abandon it for public transport. Even if he or she was willing to take the bus or the train, it is debatable if those services could cope with the extra demand.
And no matter if statistics seem to confirm that more people are coming into the city centre, the proof of the pudding is in the till receipts of the retailers. Admittedly, these austere times and uncertainty over large numbers of jobs in the public sector, has made shoppers cautious, but retailers are no fools and if they say fewer people are coming through their doors because of the difficulty of getting into the city centre, then their pleas deserve a hearing.
What they want is a relaxation of the restrictions on motorists during the peak Christmas trading period. That is a relatively short period of time and would not seriously undermine the Belfast On The Move project. Shoppers could be further encouraged by more competitive car parking charges.
If those changes helped to bring in increased trade, then it would be a signal to the planners that their blueprint needs some fine-tuning to ensure that the city remains the shopping capital of Northern Ireland.
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Good traffic management is a desirable objective, but it seems strange that public transport is becoming more expensive at a time when the planners want more people to take the train or bus.