Why Northern Ireland needs a chain reaction to get us off this road to nowhere
More cycle lanes and better public transport could be just the ticket to slashing our £1bn congestion bill, says Anne Madden
Traffic congestion cost Northern Ireland's economy £1bn in 2017, according to a report published this week. Just consider that figure: £1bn - equivalent to the massive windfall the DUP managed to lever in the coalition deal with the Conservative Government, with half that amount earmarked for infrastructure.
The report - by transport analysts INRIX - took into consideration the value of fuel and time wasted by congestion, as well as indirect costs relating to freighting, but it did not cover the cost to the environment, or, indeed, our health, which would send the figure soaring even higher.
Sustrans shares the vision set out by Belfast City Council in its Belfast Agenda, of a vibrant city, where people want to live and work; where everyone benefits from a thriving economy. This vision seeks to attract 66,000 new residents and create 46,000 new jobs by 2035.
Given the current level of congestion, it will be impossible to achieve this ambition for the city without delivering high-quality public transport and active travel options.
The reality is we reached saturation point a long time ago for car traffic at peak times in Belfast and other urban areas of Northern Ireland.
Many commuters sit daily in a mind-numbing, exasperating crawl to work and back, which increases both stress levels and waistlines. We need to recognise that the car is the least efficient mode of transport in an urban setting.
Almost half the journeys we make in Belfast are less than two miles (Department for Infrastructure annual travel survey).
Imagine if more people walked, cycled, or took public transport, how many cars this would take off the road in the rush hour.
This would also go some way to tackle physical inactivity, which is estimated to place direct costs on the NHS of £1.06bn a year.
According to the Bike Life report, jointly produced by the Department for Infrastructure and Sustrans, just 5% of Belfast residents currently cycle to work, but this takes as many as 7,000 cars off the city's roads daily - equivalent to a 21-mile traffic jam.
We know people in Belfast want to start cycling, or cycle more (54% according to Bike Life), and the main motivation to get on their bikes is for health reasons.
But in order to get more people out of their cars and cycling to work we need to build safe, segregated cycle lanes.
Commenting in the Belfast Telegraph article (February 5), roads expert Wesley Johnston said that, due to car congestion, there is "no more space" on our roads.
We need to be more imaginative about our use of road space, many of which are unnecessarily clogged by parked cars.
Other cities like London are looking at pay-per-mile road pricing to tackle congestion. Before we reach that scenario, wouldn't it be good if we could offer the public viable alternatives for everyday travel?
As the Bike Life report demonstrates, a four-metre-wide road lane can move 800-1,100 people in cars per hour, compared to 5,000-10,000 people on bikes. The most efficient use of space is by bus, which can move 8,000 to 12,000 passengers.
Cycle lanes across Northern Ireland have been developed in a piecemeal fashion, partly due to a lack of dedicated, long-term funding and the fact that government transport plans have prioritised the car.
The Department for Infrastructure consulted last year on a Belfast Bicycle Network and we are seeing parts of it being built.
For example, the cycle lane in Middlepath Street in the city centre (due to be completed by end of March). However, we need more ambition to make a real impact on congestion.
As much as 40% of this cycling network already exists in Belfast. We believe a full network could be developed within five years and ought to be treated as a single project, with capital funding of £18m and delivered by a dedicated team.
This is a small investment when there is evidence that every £1 invested in active travel sees a £6.30 return both for the economy and in health benefits.
In Seville, cycling increased elevenfold in just a few years after city authorities built a segregated, joined-up bike network. But it's sunny in Seville; of course more people cycle there, you might argue.
There are, in fact, bigger cycling cultures in northern Europe with a similar climate to ours, mainly due to cycling infrastructure.
As many as 41% of people in Copenhagen cycle to work, or education, daily.
Creating more dedicated space for cycling should not concern motorists, as cycle lanes take up very little road space.
Copenhagen, for example, has more than 230 miles of segregated cycle lanes, which take up just 7% of road space.
Of course, not everyone wants, or is able, to cycle, so we need to support and invest more in public transport.
The Belfast Rapid Transit system (or "Glider") is the biggest investment in public transport here in decades, costing £90m.
We need to support it, rather than fume about bus lanes, or compromise them by flooding them with hundreds of private-hire taxis.
Many people complain about buses not being reliable. Twelve-hour bus lane corridors are essential for the system to be punctual and attract people to use it.
We are excited about the transformative potential of both a Belfast cycling network and the Glider to offer more sustainable ways of travelling in Belfast, reducing congestion, air pollution and improving connectivity in the city.
So, let's get behind both. Remember: it's only 10 years since we completed widening the Westlink at a cost of £104m and, as predicted, it's filled again with cars.
If we don't improve public transport and create the conditions for active travel, we'll neither attract, nor retain, the thousands of additional residents, or jobs, dreamed of in the Belfast Agenda.
A city choked with congestion is on the road to nowhere.
Anne Madden is Sustrans policy and communications manager in Northern Ireland. For more information, go to: www.sustrans.org.uk/bikelifebelfast