Rapid urban transport in Belfast

Belfast Telegram

By John Simpson

Belfast has major traffic management problems because of the size of the city and the numbers of people who commute daily. Other cities and towns, such as Newry, Armagh, Ballymena and Coleraine, have congestion problems of a different scale.

For Belfast, official policy must either be to decentralise much of the economic activity and encourage employment and retailing in suburban centres or to retain a focus on the economic impact of the city centre by making it easier to commute, work and shop there.

At present, the Belfast area has the worst of an ambiguous approach. Congestion is increasing, car usage is increasing, and retailing is drifting to suburban centres. Government’s policy on civil service locations and jobs is uncertain. Urban public transport has improved but not enough to have a major impact.

Responsibility for transport and roads in Belfast lies with the Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, and not with the Belfast City Council. The Minister has initiated the first moves to implement new urban transit policies. Ciaran de Burca has been appointed to direct the development.

Belfast is moving slowly to invest in rapid transit facilities. Express buses, with a very limited number of stops (every 400-500 yards), will operate in dedicated quality bus corridors and more than halve the time normally taken to travel.

The key to success starts with real quality bus corridors where, all day, there will be no obstacles from parked vehicles and no delivery vehicles obstructing movement. Existing Metro-bus services will pull-in and use new lay-bys for their stops. Rapid transit will be much more than bigger investment in the use of designated bus lanes. There will be major spending on road alignment and preparation. There will be a specially contracted operator of the services.

The early plans for Rapid Transit in Belfast are based on the full use of all four lanes of traffic on the selected arterial routes.

Currently, the potential four lanes are often reduced by permitted parking (outside rush hours) and bus stops: effectively only two lanes are fully used all day.

To ensure a guaranteed free flow in the inside lane (both directions) it must be re-engineered to adapt the pavement and existing road to allow lay-bys for bus stops and vehicle set-down and pick-up points.

For the first stages, only three rapid transit routes will be developed, all routed to circle round a small radius in the city centre and then to Titanic Quarter, east Belfast (possibly also using the Comber greenway) and west Belfast (to the upper end of the Falls Road). Titanic Quarter will be first, partly because the road system can be adapted more quickly.

The engineering team planning the Rapid Transit routes are also ready to design schemes for north and south Belfast.

The roll-out of different routes must be sequential since the scale of the investment in road improvements must be phased. Different parts of the city will be competing for early development.

There are constraints, or down-sides, to the process.

A full review of the prospects for the project has been commissioned. It will be considered by the Assembly Committee and then published by DRD.

First, the DRD needs the Assembly to approve legislation to permit the realignment of roads, pavements and traffic junctions. In addition, some aspects may need planning permission and acquisition powers.

The legal process needs to run in parallel to a marketing exercise to persuade citizens and car using commuters of the merits of the project.

Second, the physical investments will take time. DRD has the first £12m earmarked for early work in the next two years. Then, £99m is earmarked to get three routes operational, one starting in 2012 and the other two by 2014. The first road engineering contracts will need to be agreed by mid-2010.

Government is expected to explore the possibility of securing developer contributions to offset some of the capital costs.

Third, the contract to operate the initial services will be advertised in 2010. Interestingly, if Translink is interested in providing the service, it will bid against any other possible provider.

The scale of any financial subvention has not been estimated but, if there is an operational subvention, it will be tested against commercial criteria, as required by EU state funding rules.

A rapid transit scheme must be underpinned by complementary measures.

To alter the balance between bus and car travel, Belfast can be expected to introduce restrictions so that there is virtually no free on-street parking in the wider central area. Residential parking permits will be tightly restricted. Short stay car parking is likely to become more expensive.

In a parallel development, official policy is moving to tax, or levy charges, on all car parking in the central area, including on employers premises and in Government office blocks. Employees will less frequently be able to have ‘free’ parking at their employer’s premises.

These are ambitious projects. Will there be an Executive policy to make them happen… on time?

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