Belfast Telegraph

Transport scheme takes us where we need to go

The Roads Service plan to drive cars out of Belfast city centre is a bold and necessary initiative, says Steven Patterson

No doubt many of us have sat in a traffic jam on our way into the centre of Belfast, frustrated and annoyed at the time it can take to get into town.

I've also experienced trying to navigate the city centre on foot, or by bike, struggling to cross roads filled with traffic. Neither of these situations will be improved unless we deal with congestion by encouraging more people to leave their car at home.

That's why Sustrans - the foot, bike and public transport charity - welcomes the vision set out by DRD Roads Service.

Our current set-up denies us a choice in how we get around. Our roads are congested, making buses unreliable and there is a lack of safe cycle routes.

It's easy to forget that more than four in 10 Belfast households don't have access to a car. They'll benefit from an improved bus network and safe walking and cycling routes.

As those making through-journeys, including lorries, are discouraged from coming into the heart of the city, we'll all be winners.

We need to provide a real choice in how people travel, with reliable and affordable public transport alongside safe and direct routes for those wanting to travel on foot, or by bike.

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Those who need to use a car for their journey shouldn't expect to sit in a constant jam. Something needs to be done.

Experience shows that where given that viable choice, many people would prefer to leave their car at home. With fuel prices on the rise, having affordable ways to get into and around Belfast without having to rely on a car are more necessary now than ever.

A Sustrans survey showed that, across the UK, 56% of people feel that our streets are unsafe for cycling, but more than half of those who don't currently cycle list safe routes as something that would lead to taking two wheels.

Many critics will argue that there isn't enough space in Belfast to provide these networks, but in Europe we can see what has been achieved.

The narrow streets of Rouen in France play host to one of the most advanced bus rapid transit systems in the world, with designated lanes and priority signalling, getting buses through junctions quickly so they are able to stick to timetables.

In Amsterdam and Copenhagen, roads are designed to create high-quality environments for cyclists, as well as motorists and public transport users.

In these cities, more than a quarter of all journeys are taken by bike. None of these changes happened by accident, they came from a vision, delivered through years of planning, that has given people more choice in how they move around.

These are bustling cities too, not ghost towns with shops shut down. Sustrans studies in Edinburgh and Bristol have shown that people are attracted to a city centre to shop by the variety of shops and a pleasant environment. The availability of parking is well down their list of priorities.

This is backed by a Transport for London study, showing those who travelled on foot, bike and public transport spent more in a week in shops than those using a car.

The plans put forward by DRD Road Service are a first for Northern Ireland and, as they are developed over the next few years - including the introduction of rapid transit buses - they will begin to make the changes necessary to give us all a choice when getting around Belfast.

Providing more bus lanes will make our services much more reliable and quicker than taking the car. More cycle lanes will provide safe routes for those who'd like to get around on two wheels, but are currently put off by the thought of mixing with existing traffic.

Each of those people could be one fewer car on our roads, reducing congestion. And we'll no longer have to sit in that jam.

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