A plan to slash the speed limit in Northern Ireland’s capital has come in for criticism, with some questioning the rationale for the move.
The Department for Regional Development (DRD), responsible for transport in the Province, announced on Monday that a designated 20mph zone within Belfast city centre will be put in place from Sunday onwards.
SEE MAP OF ZONE HERE.
It said the move is part of a bid to improve safety, especially for cyclists and pedestrians.
But while the head of Stormont’s transport committee was supportive of the move, a number of taxi drivers on the streets of the city voiced dismay at the plans, and some believe it may be part of a wider drive to help push commuters into using public transport or bicycles.
In addition, a map produced by investigative news website The Detail indicates that the level of serious crashes in the area which is covered by the new zone is comparatively low.
According to figures taken directly from a recent PSNI report, there were 224 serious accidents (involving death or serious injury) across all of Belfast’s policing districts during 2013/14 and 2014/15.
The map produced by The Detail shows that during a two year span covering 2013 and 2014, only three accidents which resulted in serious injuries appear to fall within the area which will soon become a 20mph zone (with no fatalities during that period).
The map shows there are larger clusters of such accidents around the Shankill or the outskirts of the Markets, areas which are not covered by the new 20mph zone.
“There’s no argument with the fact that in a 20mph [zone], safety in an impact is going to be significantly improved,” said roads enthusiast Dr Wesley Johnston, who runs the Northern Ireland Roads Site webpage.
“There’s probably a sense in which they’re also wanting to encourage other forms of transport approaches as well.”
Asked if he believes the new zone to be principally about safety or about shifting commuters towards bus or bike travel, he said: “I would say, in this particular location, it’s probably down to trying to encourage other forms of transport – just trying to make the place nicer to walk or cycle.”
According to figures he has been compiling since early 2012, there have been 17 fatalities involving pedestrians in parts of Northern Ireland which he has dubbed “urban” (that is, where buildings face directly out onto the road).
In suburban and rural areas over the same period, he makes the figure to be 34.
The DRD – which has indicated the scheme could be extended further – said that its “strategy takes into account all injury collisions”.
It also said that using PSNI data,it has calculated that there were 16 serious accidents over a three-year period which fall within “the area that we are considering”.
However, it did not specify which three years they were referring to, or state explicitly how it is defining that area.
One taxi driver, John McCann, 50 and from Andersonstown, said: “See the only thing I can say? I’ve been working here 10 years. There’s only been one person killed in the city centre [namely Ciara Park, 16, who was hit by a bus in 2008].”
Asked why he feels the DRD are undertaking the scheme, he said: “To get everybody out of the cars and onto the buses.”
David McNarry, UKIP MLA and a member of Stormont’s transport committee, said the limit is “a great nonsense”.
“There’s no public need,” he said. “There’s no great record in these particular streets of serious accidents having taking place over the past five years. I see this as a cash cow to punish the motorists with more fines, for going over 20mph”.
Trevor Clarke, DUP chairman of the committee, said most members had been supportive of the idea, adding: “I’d welcome anything that can go to improve the roads’ safety, and reduce any danger to pedestrians who are living or working in Belfast. That’s my bottom line.”
PUTTING ROUTE THROUGH ITS PACES:
After news of the new 20mph was announced on Monday, one of the bosses of Belfast-based taxi giant Fonacab had told the News Letter that “if you do 20mph around the city centre most of the time, you’d probably be doing well”.
It was a view echoed by many others. And based on a test run, the claim was not as jocular as it appears.
Accompanied by a video camera and a helpful work experience pupil Callum Russell, this reporter set off on a mission – to circumnavigate Belfast City Hall.
Given Belfast’s road layout, this meant heading from the junction of Linenhall Street and Donegall Square South towards Great Victoria Street and then back eastwards – a slightly roundabout route, much of which will soon fall within the 20mph zone.
The distance amounted to 0.6 miles.
Time taken? Just over eight minutes, working out at about 4.8 miles per hour.
During the drive, the idea was to stay at or below 20mph – not that it mattered much.
The succession of queues and traffic lights were rarely puntuated by open road, and the trip afforded just a couple of occasions when this less-the-giddy upper target could even be reached.
Of course, the time of day contributed greatly to this.
As taxi driver John Irwin (46 and from the Shankill) pointed out when The News Letter went hunting for cabbies’ views, “basically, everyone is up in arms about the traffic situation during the day in the city centre”.
The problem of exceeding 20mph will only really arise after about 7pm at night, he said.
Most, but not all, of the route will soon be a 20mph zone, and taxi driver Alan Heasley (61 and from east Belfast) said: “They’re going to have it 20, 30, 20, 30 – a whole mixture. People are already confused at this traffic system.”
Other drivers questioned how an under-resourced PSNI is supposed to enforce the new limits.
There were less-congested regions than City Hall, of course – and the News Letter tested these too. On one stretch – Donegall Street and North Street in the Cathedral Quarter, to the northern edge of the new zone – this reporter drove at 30mph, then at 20mph to guage the difference.
It felt considerable, and had a noticable bearing on travel time (see video above).