When the bus lanes were introduced to Belfast in October 2012 there was public outcry at the obvious chaos that they brought with them. Motorists struggled to break commuting habits and were left sitting in long queues of traffic. A typical 15 minute journey had turned into two hours some evenings as the new lanes were opened and the private traffic tried to squeeze into reduced zones.
The policy behind the “Belfast on the Move” scheme however, had never intended to make life easier for private car drivers; their purpose was to focus on the movement of people. This was done through increasing the importance of allocating the city’s road space in a more proportionate way, as it was reported that 40% of households did not even have access to a private car.
As time subsided we heard less and less about the new bus lanes in the media. So did the Department for Regional Development (DRD) achieve their goals? The scheme has indeed been deemed a success as per their Post Implementation Impact Study, published last year. For the first time, less than half of the people travelling into the City Centre are doing so by private car. Increased use of public transport (bus and rail have both risen by 13%), walking (3%) and cycling (1%) to work are promoting a healthier, more socially inclusive lifestyle.
With the recent introduction of cameras on the bus lanes, they are back in the eye of the media. Accusations are being thrown at DRD of further penalizing over-stretched drivers. However, Ciaran de Burca, the Director of Transport Projects at the department states that they are “not anti-motorist” and the fixed cameras have been installed at traffic hotspots where “there is a lot of frustration with the fact that people drive down bus lanes illegally; what we are trying to do is make life safer and better for everybody” (Belfast Telegraph, July 2015).
The cost of introducing the latest enforcement system has been around £200,000. In the ‘honeymoon period’ before the fines went live over 3000 warning letters went out, 1,100 of those in the first four days.
The actual number of penalty charges that were issued in week one was 1273; at a rate of up to £90 each it will not be very long before the implementation costs are recuperated.
Although the number of vehicles travelling to and from Belfast at peak times has reduced by an average of over 1,900, the queues still remain due to reduced lanes, therefore the sight of an empty bus lane will remain very tempting for some motorists to continue to take the risk of receiving a penalty for doing so.
To help address the low cycling numbers the Belfast Coca-Cola Zero Bike Share scheme was launched and this is proving to be a very popular initiative with over 1,000 rentals a day reported by Belfast City Council.