BEN LOWRY: Creating a traffic mess in Belfast

ON BBC Spotlight Special on Tuesday night, the panel was asked about the new traffic arrangements in Belfast.

One by one, they spoke gravely about the need to reduce reliance on the car.

They intoned about Northern Ireland’s dreadful public transport.

About how we can’t go on like this.

Some of the panel made mildly contrary points, but none raised any serious objection to this sombrely-uttered consensus.

Which is a pity, because it is nonsense.

They were, in effect, endorsing a manufactured traffic problem in Belfast.

If Tuesday’s Spotlight is anything to go by, our politicians are not going to reverse this blunder.

Since the end of the summer, a city that managed to reach the 21st century without any traffic problem has suddenly had just such a problem conjured out of thin air.

This was based on some hand-wringing, puritanical notion that we must “do something” about car usage.

The result is barely debated changes that have squandered the joys of a free-flowing city centre.

Northern Ireland has a finely laid out Victorian capital city with wide streets.

The gridlike plan showcases the most magnificent buildings, but also means that Northern Ireland’s main urban centre has easily adapted to the age of mass car ownership.

While other cities such as Dublin, which has a charming but cramped Georgian centre that gets congested, have endured years of traffic misery, we have had no such problems.

You can live in Strabane or Ballycastle or Newcastle, and zip with ease into the heart of Belfast.

Or until now.

I write this as someone who mostly walks to work.

If it is late or wet, I jump on the frequent Metro buses to the south of the city.

I also often use the smooth and regular trains to Bangor.

When I fly out of Dublin or Aldergrove, I typically use the swift bus services to those airports.

My main quibble with these various public transport services is that they can be a little too prompt, and occasionally leave a maddening 30 seconds early, so that last-minute people such as me might miss them.

But the point is, like most of Northern Ireland, I can get into Belfast easily by car when I want to.

A simple economic mechanism prevents many more people driving to work in Belfast: parking charges.

This is pure supply and demand. If you park in the heart of the city, you pay a lot. If you park further from the centre, you pay less. And if you leave your car out altogether, you pay no parking.

In the same way that I choose not to burn money on new cars, I choose not to burn it on parking.

But if I chose differently, then that option is there, for me or for a farmer from Bessbrook or an elderly lady from Broughshane.

Any such car owner can come into Belfast occasionally, and splash out on a central car park like Montgomery Street, and visit the Ulster Hall or shops or restaurants or the tax office.

Now they will have to queue as they approach the city.

Now we have the daft situation that traffic is piling up beyond the start of the bus lanes, so that buses are being held up in the first part of their journey by measures introduced to assist them.

Even buses are not completing the journey time any faster overall than previously.

Belfast already has a battle competing with out-of-town megastores.

Do we want Donegall Place to be charity shops? That day may not be far off if we deter our rural, car-owning population from the odd day “in town”.

It is true that cross-traffic should use alternative routes to avoid the city centre. The upgraded Westlink and M3 bridge have been huge improvements.

Three further Belfast bypass schemes are needed.

The planned flyover at York Street connecting the Westlink to the M2, and two outer ring roads, way to the west and way to the east of Belfast.

But the York Street plan is a long way off, and outer rings are not even on the drawing board.

We have the mad situation that a motorist travelling Bangor to Enniskillen, or Ballymena to Banbridge, is sucked into the busiest roads around Belfast. Either that, or they choose country lanes, and get stuck behind tractors.

Look at the map, and try to plan those two journeys without going near Belfast, and you will see what I mean.

It is said that you can’t build your way out of congestion.

This is true in densely populated areas such as southern England, but not of more sparse areas, such as most of Ireland and France.

If Northern Ireland builds some key town bypasses, and duals key routes such as Belfast to Londonderry and Enniskillen, it will have a flowing road network that benefits an overwhelming majority of the population.

Traffic can only rise so far. In the same way that a rich man can only sleep in one bed or eat one meal, he can only drive one car.

We are not far from one car per adult in Northern Ireland, and yet the Province has easily coped with such ownership levels.

So why make things difficult in our biggest city?