Ben Lowry: Yes to 20mph, but in place of bus lanes, not in addition to them

Bus lanes addressed a problem that didn't exist
Bus lanes addressed a problem that didn't exist

When I have written (bus lanes have failed) or spoken (BBC Talkback January 14) about the need to remove the failed bus lanes in central Belfast, I have tried to be constructive and suggest a compromise that helps alternative transport, including cycling.

I do this because otherwise it is easy to sound like a brutish Jeremy Clarkson petrolhead, who thinks of life as a ruthless hierarchy in which Ferrari drivers should be at the top, free to tear around town and country roads as they please.

In truth I am someone who walks to work, cycled a lot until I lost my confidence in a fall on the Craigantlet Hills and uses buses around Belfast and trains to Bangor, Portadown and Dublin.

But I believe the bus lanes have failed for a simple reason.

Belfast is a city of around 500,000 people. There are disadvantages to being a small city (not as much going on as in Dublin, and certainly not as much as London).

But there are advantages. A key advantage is the absence of significant congestion.

Belfast, with its handsome, wide, gridlike streets in the centre, managed to sail into the 21st century without a congestion problem.

Car ownership levels reached about as high as they are likely to go and yet Belfast’s centre was until 2013 always flowing except at rush hour (car usage rates can only rise so far. Think about it – you cannot for example have 600,000 cars being driven at any one time by 500,000 people).

Even at rush hour, you could get from one part of the centre to another in 20 minutes. But we bought into the idea that there was an impending traffic catastrophe and introduced bus lanes that have clogged things up for everyone (even buses, who sometimes queue to get into the lanes).

Now it takes the old rush hour time (20 minutes) to get anywhere from 7am to 7pm. And even in the middle of the night we now have lights that don’t change as soon as you drive up to them (try leaving the News Letter office, behind City Hall, as I have often done after midnight, and you will see what I mean).

So anyway, my suggested prognosis and compromise was that bus lanes had been worth trying but had caused widespread confusion and failed and should be scrapped, but that we should accept 20mph limits in the heart of the city and speed cameras.

We would return to freeflowing but be sending out a clear signal that we wanted the centre of our capital to be a comfortable place for pedestrians and cyclists.

And what has happened? We now have 20mph limits, but these are in addition to the bus lane quagmire, not in place of it.

Ugh.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

MAP: see the exact area covered by Belfast’s new 20 mph zones

Ben Lowry: How long before the IRA blames La Mon and Enniskillen on the Brits?