The new Glider service from east Belfast to west hopes to wean some drivers out of their cars

On Monday the new Glider bus begins operating from east Belfast to west via the city centre and vice versa.

This is probably close to as good a bus system as you can get without constructing a vastly more expensive facility such as trams, which require tracks underneath it or cables overhead.

The new Glider bus seen at gates to Stormont, right beside the new Glider route in east Belfast

The new Glider bus seen at gates to Stormont, right beside the new Glider route in east Belfast

In the east of the city, the Glider will replace the number 4 bus, which travelled via Dundonald into the city.

It is a route that I know well because I often used the 4x express service which ran to and from the park and ride depot in Dundonald.

It was one of the best buses in Belfast because it had only seven stops and so made the journey into the city centre far faster than the slower multi stopping buses.

I found that if you were waiting at one of the express bus stops in the middle of the route, and you could see from the digital sign overhead that a 4x was coming a minute or two after a stopping 4a or 4b that had just arrived, it was better to wait for the express bus because it would soon overtake the stopping one.

It will be a pity to see the 4x disappear, but Translink tell me that it was only ever a stepping stone to this Glider service.

The slower number 4 buses stopped at about 30 stops, the 4x at seven, and the Glider will stop at 23. This is why there is now a greater distance between each stop.

But even so, the Glider ought to be faster than the 4x, because people will pay for their fare at the bus stop, and so have no interaction with the driver.

This will greatly speed up the amount of time spent at each stop, which is still considerable if half a dozen people get on (even when almost all users are swiping on to the bus using a card).

The Glider service will run from 5.30am until almost midnight, at day-time frequency of every seven or eight minutes (which is in fact the current frequency on the number 4).

The buses will go all the way from east to west and no longer stop and start at City Hall.

The Glider will benefit from the new 12 hour bus lanes which operate 7am-7pm and which will be enforced by penalties including the towing of any cars that park in them during their period of operation.

We will see how a road as busy as the Newtownards Road copes with this new sweeping prohibition on car use of the inside lane.

On a recent Saturday, just after the 7am to 7pm lanes came into effect (in advance of the Glider service) I was struck by the fact that the entire road now has to come to a halt when a car is turning right, because vehicles behind it cannot get past them in the left lane anymore.

If a lot of traffic is coming in the other direction, each vehicle turning right has to wait to get across, perhaps for many seconds, thus making it impossible to make progress along the main road without constant interruptions.

Yet it is hard to see how a service such as the Glider could operate well without dedicated bus lanes on the approach roads into the city.

My own frustration over bus lanes relates mainly to the lanes in the very heart of the city, around City Hall. The centre has wide, straight, grid roads, like in an American city, which were able to handle large amounts of traffic efficiently until the bus lanes were introduced in 2013.

Now we have the daft situation in which a wide boulevard (Wellington Place to Chichester Street) which once had four lanes for traffic now has only one lane for cars.

That aside, I do think that Belfast’s overall bus lane strategy would work better if the city had an orbital ring road, which it partly does in the Sydenham bypass and Westlink, but would require completion of the York Street Westlink/M2/M3 junction and some flyover junctions on the outer ring road past Knock, Cregagh, Knockbreda and Belvoir.

This would make it easier for a car coming from, say, Newtownards, to get off the Glider route and on to the outer ring at Knock, towards either Tillysburn or Forestside.

A Translink official told me that in any event they plan a park and ride from Newtownards into Belfast.

They found that many users of the existing park and ride at Dundonald were coming from the Newtownards area.

They told me that when I asked if they feared that the Dundonald park and ride car park would be full when the new Glider service opens.

The existing site is rarely much more than half full at present (around 500 spaces), so it still has plenty of capacity.

Yesterday I was among a group that travelled on a test run of the Glider to that car park from the city centre and back again.

It is a smooth and sturdy vehicle.

I look forward to using the new service, but I do have one concern.

There are 42 seats compared to the present 76 on the double decker buses, and the latter are often much more than half full, which means that the new service will often have people standing at present bus usage levels, let alone if numbers increase.

The Gliders have room for dozens of people standing and have made standing at points comfortable, so you can lean on a bench.

Translink point out that people will be standing for a shorter, faster journey. Even so, it is nice to get a seat on the old double deckers and some users will prefer a slower journey with a seat to a faster one standing, particularly older users (if younger ones are not thoughtful enough to offer their space).

Talking of which I got a bad reaction previously when on this page I complained about vote-chasing Stormont politicians lowering the age at which people get free transport from 65 to 60, which some people thought was an attack on free transport for older people.

It wasn’t — just the lowering of the age.

But I sometimes wonder if I was wrong about that when I see many people in their 60s on trains and buses and I think of all the cars it is removing from the road.

However, 60 to 65 year olds should not get free travel before 9.30am. Priority should go to paying travellers who have to get to jobs. I will feel this all the more if the Gliders are crammed with people standing.

In the meantime however, it will be interesting to see how the service works. Well, I hope.

• Cyclists will delay the Gliders

There has been controversy over whether taxis will be allowed into the bus lanes, but none over cyclists.

And yet it is often cyclists who delay the buses. Almost every morning I use a 4x fast bus it is held up by a cyclist, because the bus cannot easily pass it by getting out into the crowded outside car lane.

On a recent morning a particularly slow cyclist held up three buses as they approached the Alertbridge. Fast cyclists can go almost as fast as the buses but average cyclists do not, and some particularly slow cyclists travel at little more than walking speed.

It is hard to see a way round this. There is no way the authorities could feasibly force cyclists on to the footpath or into the lane full of cars.

I asked a transport official about it and he said that cyclists were a fact of life for bus lanes, but he hoped that on the east Belfast route some of them might be attracted to the widened Comber Greenway as a quieter route.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor