Why Glider buses will drive Belfast forward
While some retailers in west Belfast say the service will put them out of business, Anne Madden of charity Sustrans argues it will increase prosperity in the city and attract new residents
Belfast's bus lanes have begun operating 12 hours a day in preparation for the launch of the new Glider service, or Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT).
The reaction from residents in west Belfast as reported by the Belfast Telegraph was dramatic, with comments that this "will crucify the community", "discriminate" and even "suck the lifeblood out of the Falls Road".
From the inflammatory language an outsider would think the big purple bus coming next month had vampire fangs. Before the bus service even begins one retailer had blamed it for closing his shop, while another complained about the current traffic congestion and then predicted the bus lanes will "destroy businesses".
Similar concerns were raised by retailers in Ballyhackamore when the first BRT lanes went in, but rather than destroy business, the area is booming.
It was even referenced in the Sunday Times as "the most desirable place to live in Northern Ireland", adding that the Glider "should give the area a further boost".
Indeed, if anyone has a case for discrimination, it is north and south Belfast, which are waiting patiently for phase two of BRT.
The Glider is the biggest investment in public transport in decades, costing £90m, and aims to provide a fast, efficient bus service for people to access the city centre, linking up east to west, and the Titanic Quarter.
This is a positive development for the infrastructure of Belfast and could be transformative for the remote Colin Town area of west Belfast.
Consider the fact that Colin Town and Dunmurry are part of the South Eastern Health Trust with a lot of health services provided in the Ulster Hospital - now they will have a direct bus to Dundonald.
Indeed, doctors working at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children have commented on how much easier it will be to take the Glider to outreach clinics at Holywood Arches, rather than have to drive and find car parking spaces.
Glider didn't just land out of a big purple bubble, but has been discussed and consulted upon for years.
The community consultation has been ramped up over the past year with every shopping centre and almost every community event in east and west Belfast being visited by Glider staff.
Translink has taken on board lots of the public and retailers' concerns.
As a result there is:
- A generous four-hour loading bay period from 10-2pm for everyone, not just commercial vehicles (in most cities two hours is the norm).
- Vehicles with a blue badge can stop in the lanes for up to 10 minutes to drop off or pick up a blue badge holder.
- Funeral corteges can use the bus lanes.
- Permitted taxis including black taxis, disabled access taxis, motorcycles, bicycles and the emergency services can all use the lanes.
Part of our opposition to all private hire taxis being allowed into bus lanes is that they may become so overcrowded with vehicles that the Glider won't operate efficiently.
The Glider has been likened to a "tram on tyres" and therefore needs clear corridors if it is to run on time.
Just imagine how fantastic it would be not having to check timetables but knowing that a bus in the rush hour will be along every seven to eight minutes?
Another important factor is that Glider is a much larger, 18 metre-long bus with three doors, which requires a clear corridor in order to align with the pavement - particularly necessary for people with mobility issues and parents with buggies.
Some of Belfast's councillors who are voicing disapproval of Glider not only agreed to 12-hour bus lanes when it came before the council, but they have signed up to the bigger vision for the city in the Belfast Agenda.
This is Belfast City Council's blueprint for the city until 2035, which has at its heart the idea of "inclusive growth" for Belfast that naturally includes public transport. Belfast Rapid Transit is an integral part of this, because without a modern public transport system the city cannot grow and thrive.
Politicians and community leaders need to step up and champion the project as it needs real cross-party political support to succeed.
We should be celebrating a transport system that links up east Belfast with west and offers an alternative to a dirty city choked with cars going nowhere.
The Belfast Agenda's vision is of a vibrant city where people want to live and work and seeks to attract 66,000 new residents and create 46,000 jobs by 2035. This will be impossible to achieve without delivering high-quality public transport and active travel options.
The Glider is an essential part of delivering this vision. Creating a fully joined-up network of protected cycle lanes is also vital to create a more liveable, prosperous city. We have been urging the Department for Infrastructure to set up a dedicated team to deliver the Belfast Bicycle Network to complement the Glider, with appropriate funding and in a five-year time frame.
This ambition is also in line with the draft Programme for Government, which aims to increase the use of public transport and active travel.
Surely these aren't just grandiose documents which our politicians produce and leave on a shelf? The Glider is the result of these strategies and is based on hard evidence that it will benefit our city.
Translink has reported seeing strong growth in the use of Metro services with a record 28 million passenger journeys last year. This shows when there is a quality, reliable service - enabled by bus lanes - people will swap the car for the bus.
A recent report by transport planners Arup found that:
- Up to 23% of car users could be encouraged to switch to buses if they were quicker and more reliable.
- The economic, social and environmental return for each £1 spent on bus infrastructure range from £2 to £3.80 for revenue expenditure and £4.20 and £8.10 for capital expenditure.
Arup also noted that: "The most vulnerable in society are the most reliant on bus services, and as such services offer a way for many out of social isolation."
Given that 36% of Belfast households don't have access to a car, a large proportion of residents here are reliant on public transport.
The Glider could in fact be key to revitalising the frequently congested Falls Road, bringing people back who would otherwise shop in out-of-town retail centres.
Independent research carried out in Belfast by PwC showed that Metro customers are helping to boost retail sales in the city centre, with over 50% of shoppers using Metro services spending over £35 per visit. UK 'Greener Journeys' research found that the bus is a key mode of access to towns and city centres.
The bus has the largest market share of retail and leisure trips to city centres at 33% (versus 30% for car and 22% for walking and cycling).
Everyone who has ever taken the bus will understand the frustration of a rogue parked car blocking the lane.
No modern city in the world allows its main thoroughfares to be used as car parks.
Traffic congestion and unenforced urban clearways suck the lifeblood out of a city, not a modern public transport system. So we should all get on board the Glider.
No doubt the Falls Road and Ballyhackamore will still be buzzing, and with additional footfall, after September 3.
Anne Madden is Sustrans policy and communications manager