Belfast, like most UK cities, has a traffic problem especially in the rush hour. It is a fairly compact city compared to London or Manchester and so can be crossed in a matter of minutes during off-peak periods.
However, its population, for mainly historical reasons, live mostly in the suburbs and have to travel into the centre for employment or business. The result is congestion and air pollution which the city has tried to tackle through the Belfast on the Move Scheme – a name which suggests how stuck the city had become.
Belfast on the Move
The scheme introduced bus lanes and has successfully reduced the number of cars in the city centre each day by at least 11,000. This was just the first step.
The second is to introduce a new public transport system using a network of bus lanes.
Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT), due to launch in September 2018, is the single biggest investment in public transport in the city in decades and will cost the taxpayer £90million.
The new buses will make public transport more efficient – arriving every 8 minutes at peak times. They are absolutely dependent on bus lane corridors to be effective. It is an exciting time for public transport in Belfast which has always lagged behind other UK and European cities with their modern tram and light rail systems.
Finally, Belfast looked like it might start to catch up and tackle its dependence on the car.
So imagine the shock and disbelief in February this year when the former Transport Minister Chris Hazzard, who until then had impeccable green credentials, suddenly announced a trial of private hire vehicles (Class A taxis) in the BRT bus lanes.
There are already a large number of taxis permitted in Belfast’s bus lanes, including black cabs, the North and West Belfast taxi buses which carry multiple passengers and Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles. However, the trial allowed essentially all taxis, bar Uber, a free-for-all in what are meant to be sustainable transport corridors.
There is no precedent for this in other UK cities where private hire vehicles have chomped at the bit to get into bus lanes. Only Dublin has permitted them after a similar trial in the late 1990s which became permanent.
We have struggled to understand the logic behind the trial as it flies against even Mr Hazzard’s espoused attempts to reduce reliance on private cars. It contradicts the Programme for Government’s draft strategy and Belfast City Council’s planning policies to create a liveable, sustainable city which reduces reliance on private transport.
Above all, it seriously jeopardises the fledgling BRT system which as Jackie Pollock, Deputy Regional Secretary of Unite the Union for bus drivers, said “will undermine the entire rationale for this investment by impeding and slowing down the rapid bus services”.
So what about cyclists who use bus lanes?
Cyclists are very reliant on bus lanes in Belfast as a safe network from general traffic given the limited amount of cycling infrastructure. The prospect of sharing bus lanes with taxis is a major threat to cyclist safety and will put off potential cyclists which government says it wants to encourage due to the health and environmental benefits of cycling.
We want to see segregated cycle lanes built within five years, not 10 as the DfI proposes, so that people who cycle are not dependent on bus lanes. We know that the future for cyclists is not in bus lanes and especially faster BRT corridors.
Up to now cyclists have had a fairly harmonious relationship with buses in bus lanes.
Unlike taxis which are motivated by getting to the next job as fast as possible, buses are continuously stopping to collect passengers. Bus drivers have also received formal training on how to share the road with cyclists. Indeed Sustrans and Translink have plans to train all BRT drivers. As private hire vehicles are mainly self-employed, it is a lot more challenging to train thousands of taxis on sharing the road with cyclists.
And here is the irony at the heart of this debate: taxis want to use bus lanes (despite having the rest of the road), while cyclists don’t want to be in bus lanes but haven’t much alternative. Bus lanes really should just be for buses.
To solve it, government needs to invest in a decent Belfast Bicycle Network that gives people who cycle a space on the road and focus its attention on protecting the taxpayer’s investment in public transport rather than the profit margins of private hire vehicles.