THE opening of the Oxford Street bus lane at the start of September seems to have passed off relatively smoothly.
Bus users have reported a time saving, while the disruption to cars has not been excessive.
However, this may well be because the most disruptive measures have yet to be implemented.
For traffic heading west behind City Hall, the number of lanes will halve. For traffic heading east in front of City Hall, it is even more severe where only one lane will be available for much of this stretch.
The DRD points out that 60 per cent of traffic on these two routes is merely passing through the city centre. The remaining 40 per cent is largely made up of commuters going to the city centre.
The DRD are hoping that many of the 40 per cent will switch to the bus, and as travel by car will inevitably take longer and the bus will be quicker, the hope is that enough people will make the switch to justify the scheme.
This is Belfast’s big gamble. There are, of course, many reasons why a person might choose a car over a bus.
Some people, like tradespeople or salespeople, need their car for work. Others are carrying too much luggage for a bus. Others have multiple messages to do en route. Others simply don’t like buses.
For shoppers, there are plenty of alternatives in the form of out-of-town shopping centres. Will people switch to the bus, or just shop elsewhere? We don’t yet know.
STEM (Sustainable Transport Enabling Measures) is basically a big gamble. The actual travel decisions made by the actual people of Belfast will determine the outcome.
The 60 per cent presents an even bigger problem. This “strategic” traffic is made up of people like Jane, a doctor from east Belfast going to a surgery in Lisburn, or Cormac, a lorry driver going from the Newtownards Road to the Falls Road. If they can’t use the city centre route, where do they go?
The DRD suggests that they use the M3/Westlink or the Outer Ring. But these roads are already congested at peak times.
If the DRD are serious that this traffic must switch to these routes, then it is imperative that two key schemes are brought forward at the earliest opportunity.
Firstly, flyover or underpass links at the M2/M3/Westlink junction. This is the busiest junction in Northern Ireland, yet traffic grinds to a halt at traffic lights. Improving this one junction would substantially increase the capacity of these three routes.
Secondly, the provision of a cross-town route south of the city centre, close to Bankmore Street/Ormeau Avenue. This could be implemented fairly easily as a one-way system following the existing streets.
STEM needs to be fair and reasonable. If the people who can’t realistically switch to the bus are expected to use other routes, then those routes need to be up to scratch. If they’re not, the economy will suffer.
Wesley Johnston runs a popular roads website at www.wesleyjohnston.com