The public could well see buses running behind schedule thanks to a new low speed limit in the Province’s capital.
That is the suggestion from a representative of the city’s Metro bus drivers, who believes the 20mph speed limit – which came into force across much of Belfast city centre on Sunday – risks hampering the public transport network, as well as private motorists.
The Department for Regional Development (or DRD, which is responsible for the Province’s transport network) rejected the idea, saying that the vehicles travel at “relatively low” speeds anyway.
Meanwhile a senior DUP MP has launched a tough-talking attack against his own party’s department, even thought it is controlled by a DUP minister, Michelle McIlveen (see below).
It followed other strong criticism last week.
In 2012, the DRD began to implement a redesign of Belfast city centre’s road system so that buses can travel more quickly.
It saw the replacement of a number of all-purpose black road lanes with red lanes in which only buses, bicycles, public hire taxis and motorcycles are allowed to travel – all of which must now obey the new speed limit.
Michael Dornan – a bus driver of 29 years’ experience, who is chairman of the Metro bus drivers’ wing of the Unite union – told the News Letter that as buses operate in terms of picking up passengers, their average speed in the city centre is below 20mph anyway.
However, now drivers will never have the ability to go beyond 20mph, even on a clear stretch with no bus stops.
Asked if this will affect punctuality he said: “Yes, undoubtedly that’s what it will do. Because if we’re slowed, the process slows, then it puts pressure on us to actually honour a timetable.”
Mr Dornan (who represents about 350 of the roughly 500 Metro drivers), suggested that one aspect of the re-engineering of the city centre is that the government are hoping it “distracts people from taking the car”.
He said: “They want them to actually get out of the car because of the tailbacks and use public transport – that may not happen.”
He noted that despite the congestion at present, the bulk of buses do still arrive on time, but added “with this 20mph, what it will do it will tailback even further.”
This was put to the DRD, which responded by saying that in October 2013, the speed of buses at morning and evening peak times “averaged between approx 7mph and 11mph”. This figure excludes bus stop waiting times.
The statement continued: “This demonstrates that, in general, bus speeds are relatively low and well within the new 20mph restriction.
“The effect of the new speed limit, therefore, is unlikely to have any significant influence on bus journey times or the reliability of bus services.
“It will, however, help to moderate the speed of general traffic in this city centre environment with associated safety benefits to all pedestrians – including all those bus passengers travelling to and from the city centre.”
When the News Letter took a look at the situation between 4pm and 5pm on Monday, traffic appeared to be flowing easily around City Hall.
At 5.15pm, when the roads would have been experiencing a huge surge as commuters headed for home, the DRD said that traffic was flowing well throughout the city.
Shortly before evening rush hour, a string of taxi drivers were also asked about the first working day of the new regime, but while some voiced complaints – such as one saying that the 20mph signs are too small – significant extra congestion did not appear to be a problem.
Sammy O’Prey, 66 and from north Belfast, said: “It’s been alright today. But it is hard to get used to, because you’re coming out of a 30mph, into a 20mph.”
However he added that “Mondays are quiet – if you got a busy day I don’t know what it’d be like.”
SAMMY WILSON HITS OUT:
Sammy Wilson, DUP MP for East Antrim, said that the 20mph zones “will swell the coffers of DRD through fines on motorists and do nothing for road safety”.
Although the Belfast lanes have just come into force, there have been similar zones in place in parts of Ballynahinch, Ballymena, Ballycastle and Newtownabbey since before the New Year.
Mr Wilson said: “I doubt that DRD could justify these new speed limits on the basis of the number of people killed or injured through excessive speed in the city centre.
“This is yet another example of war against motorists, and will put even more shoppers off going into the city centre.
“The road safety anti-motor car Taliban don’t know when to stop and unfortunately there is not the political will to stand up against their increasingly draconian policies.”