Gridlock misery for city motorists

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A ROAD revamp of Northern Ireland’s capital is coming under fire as congestion appears to grow.

The latest stage in the redrawing of Belfast’s road map is resulting in tailbacks, longer waits for taxis and more accidents, according to some.

Forcing traffic into a reduced number of lanes – which happened in Oxford Street in July, and in May Street this week – has jammed the city up “like pouring ball-bearings into a funnel”, said the director of one of its major taxi firms.

The Department for Regional Development (DRD), which is behind the scheme, acknowledged that although there were “some additional delays” these were “not excessive”, and would probably settle down in time.

The traffic changes to date are part of a much bigger picture, which will involve work to Great Victoria Street and the front of City Hall (among other streets), so the whole system is far from finished.

But some veteran road users do not like what they have seen so far.

Robert McAllister, 56, from south Belfast, has been driving his black taxi for 36 years – and believes this makes him among the longest-serving cabbies in the city.

“Normally, it would flow all right,” he said. “But now, as a man out seven days and seven nights as a taxi driver, it’s messed it up big-style.”

He said traffic only used to get really bad at Christmas time, but now rush hours had become effectively gridlocked.

He said: “All taxi meters work on time and distance. Say I’ve picked you up to go to the Lisburn Road (from outside City Hall). I can’t get out of the rank.

“Traffic is bumper-to-bumper at rush hour between five and six o’clock.

“The line I’m saying to you is simple. Your fare normally up to Shu (a restaurant on the Lisburn Road) could’ve been about five quid. But in that congested traffic, it could be anything up to £9 or £10. That’s how bad it could be.”

This has taken place over the last six weeks or so, he said.

Asked what the three biggest problems are, Robert said the Oxford Street bus lane and its giant hatched waiting area, the cut in May Street lanes, and the new ‘no entry’ signs on Alfred and Linenhall streets.

“Their strategy is to frustrate any other form of transport other than Translink off the road,” he said.

Niall Rooney, 41, from north Belfast, has been working as a taxi driver for just over a decade.

Since the new layout has been in place, he has seen a handful of minor accidents on Oxford Street, and even one in May Street – where the new layout has only just come in.

He said it has been very confusing for ordinary car users in the city centre.

“With these new bus lanes they’ve put in, it’s a total mess-up,” he said.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen. People don’t know what way they’re going; they’re getting into a lane, it’s the wrong lane, and they try and get across a bus lane. At rush hour, people will take any chance they can to get home.”

Asked what he would have called for, he said: “Honestly? I’d just have called on them to leave it the way it is. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

“It was flowing 100 per cent I reckon, definitely. Even at rush hour the traffic was still flowing.

“(Now) it can put an extra 10 or 15 minutes on it.”

Earlier this month, the News Letter reported on the first wave of rush-hour traffic to hit Oxford Street since it was redesigned.

Although there was some confusion for motorists on the morning school run, traffic seemed to be running normally.

But ever since it seems delays have grown as motorists struggle to get used to the new layout.

Stephen McCausland, director of Belfast taxi firm Value Cabs, said congestion is adding about five minutes to their normal 10-minute response time at rush hour in the city centre. And since the May Street arrangements kicked in on Monday, he said it seems to be worse still.

He said: “It’s a good idea – if it works. But the public need to be educated about how it works.

“The cars on the ground don’t know what they’re doing or where to go.

“They’ve reduced the number of lanes but the amount of traffic is remaining the same. It’s like pouring ball-bearings into a funnel. When there are so many, at some stage it’s going to be jammed.”

Asked whether they had seen an increase in congestion, the police replied that it was not for them to say. Asked about whether there had been an increase in accidents so far, they said it could take up to a month to find out.

In a statement, the DRD said: “In our experience, when new or amended road layouts are first introduced there is a ‘bedding in’ period while the travelling public get used to the new arrangements and therefore it is likely to be some time before the full benefits are realised.

“We have been monitoring traffic flows both on the ground and by CCTV to minimise delay to all road users to ensure that bus operations and traffic movements operate to their optimum.

“As expected there are some additional delays to vehicles accessing Oxford Street from Queen’s Bridge and Donegall Quay. However, these have not been excessive due to the traffic control and management measures in place.”