Ben Lowry: It is a great pity to see plans for a York St road flyover junction in Belfast slipping away

Recently we ran an article on the prospects of the York Street flyover junction in Belfast ever being built.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 4th December 2021, 8:21 am
Updated Sunday, 5th December 2021, 12:57 pm
Drawing of planned free-flowing York Street interchange. Top left is the M2 towards Antrim, top right M3 bridge to Bangor, and bottom is Westlink
Drawing of planned free-flowing York Street interchange. Top left is the M2 towards Antrim, top right M3 bridge to Bangor, and bottom is Westlink

It was written by the roads expert Wesley Johnston (November 19). The online version of this article links to it, see below.

Wesley is an astute analyst of roads infrastructure, and he runs a website devoted to Northern Ireland’s highways - both those that have been built in recent years, those that are being built, and those that are planned.

My heart sank when I read Wesley’s analsysis of the proposals to join three of NI’s busiest routes - the M2, the Westlink/M1, and the M3 bridge - in a seamless interchange that will remove all traffic lights and all obstacles.

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He concluded that the scheme was now unlikely to proceed in its current form.

I have had concerns about this vital project for many years, given the delays and reviews.

Only last month a Belfast City Council committee voted to withdraw its support from the plans.

Stormont’s infrastructure minister, Nichola Mallon of the SDLP, has seemed, as Wesley put it, “lukewarm about York Street Interchange from the outset”.

One of her predecessors, Sinn Fein’s Chris Hazzard, wanted to emphasise projects west of the Bann, such as the A5.

It seems that some politicians in the Alliance Party have turned against the York Street plan too.

There are a number of reasons for the new coolness towards the interchange, including the growing interest in environmental matters and the changes to lifestyle and travel patterns caused by Cocid.

I wonder if in some quarters there is an extra layer of hostility to the £130 million project because the DUP secured funding for it as part of its agreement to sustain the Conservative Party in power in 2017. This would be a disappointing outlook if so, because the DUP was rightly praised for seeking financial support that would benefit the whole community, rather than just unionists, when it struck a deal with Theresa May after the general election of that year.

There are some dubious ideas that are emerging now about road projects.

The first is that it is automatically a good thing to constrain vehicle traffic in order to make way for cyclists and pedestrians and buses.

It is indeed a good idea to do that in many contexts, particularly in urban areas. But often such changes help people who are young and able bodied and who live in densely populated areas.

They do not help, say, a single mother in the suburbs who has to take her children to school in one direction in the rain, then travel in the other to a job in which it is not possible to work from home.

It does not help an elderly person who lives in a rural area who depends on a car for their mobility and whose home is located in such a sparsely populated location that there is no prospect, ever of regular public transport services.

In other words, it is not necessarily a selfish thing to want to run a car, as some of the more hardcore environmental scolds imply.

In fact cars are one of the greatest advances in human history and have enabled people around the world to live much more liberated lives than they did only decades ago, when poorer people were unable to afford to travel far from their home.

Covid has caused changes in lifestyle pattern changes that should be welcomed, such as the increased flexibility caused by many people working from home. This will reduce rush hour congestion and will enable people to live far further from their work places and so should lead to a more even spread in property prices between town and country.

Yet we have also seen that the desire that people have to use their car has — inevitably — come roaring back. Therefore we need to focus on making cars more environmentally efficient, and to make roads better too.

The first part of that equation was happening anyway. When I was born in the US in the 1970s, cars were grossly inefficient because petrol was so cheap. Now cars get two or three times more miles to the gallon than they did. Electric cars and other innovations will make this even better.

But good, freeflowing trunk roads are an environmental boost too.

In fact they can go in tandem with restrictions to traffic in towns and cities.

I think we need more 20mph limits in urban areas, perhaps enforced by speed cameras, but more so-called expressways (roads with a central reservation) with 70mph limits to get between towns.

The York St junction is a key example of this. We do not want traffic that is going from Stormont to West Belfast to crawl through city streets. We want it to travel on a ring road so that we can make those city streets more friendly to local and slower traffic.

Not only should York St be built, we should be planing a free flowing junction at Tillysburn too and indeed a freer flowing outer ring road, ideally all the way round past Forestside and out towards the M1 near Lisburn, where traffic can then rejoin the ‘ring road’ back towards Belfast and the Westlink.

Ms Mallon’s review of York Street which was completed this year recommended that the project think more broadly about its impacts on the local area. But the immediate vicinity of the road has been a noisy, congested junction for decades and will never cease to be so. The interchange would have made it easier to cross from the city centre to north Belfast by foot or bicycle by separating such traffic from the junction.

As to the A5, it too should be built, because such roads are far safer than single carriageways. Another ‘environmental’ argument for major roads.

Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter editor. Other articles by him below and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the paper:

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