Slow Road to Lisburn

It was reported recently Belfast’s Lisburn Road is the most congested road in the UK outside London in the evening rush hour. Similarly, Ormeau Road is one of UK’s most congested roads in the morning.

Belfast also regularly features at or near the top of the table of most congested UK cities.

Inrix estimate congestion causes £30 billion worth of damage to the UK economy, or nearly £1000 per driver. This seems well over the top. The Telegraph put a more realistic £4.3 billion bill for congestion annually, which works out at around £30 million annually in Greater Belfast.

(Coincidentally, the cost of 12 monthly rail tickets for travel between Lisburn and Belfast Great Victoria Street is £1000.)

Inrix, who put together the congestion data make alarming suggestions that without investment in road upgrades Belfast will choke on traffic. But beyond headlines and a call for investment in more and bigger roads, Inrix offer nothing that helps urban planners. At best their figures are an indicator something is not working.

Local headlines are not any more trustworthy: Belfast Telegraph claim the city’s worsening congestion problem is

blamed on factors like segregated cycle lanes and poorly-planned roadworks.

The Lisburn Road between Methodist College in Belfast and Wallace Park in Lisburn which Inrix have crowned most congested outside London has no segregated cycle lanes along the entire stretch of road. None.

So, it must be those poorly planned road works.

Or could it be something else? Such as too many people using cars for short urban journeys all at the same time?

Numbers

In 2014 16910 cars a day passed the counter at Dunluce Avenue with a maximum of 1310 cars an hour at 5pm countrybound. The morning peak is 1280 citybound. At King’s Hall 19670 cars are counted citybound with a peak of 1670 in the morning. There is no data there for countrybound traffic. At Derriaghy 9710 cars pass the counter daily, with a morning peak citybound of 790, an evening peak of 800. At Lambeg it is busier than Derriaghy with 14750, with peaks of 1310 in the morning and evening.

Not desperately huge. A principal route between two towns should be able to cope with traffic volume. Many roads have far higher traffic numbers, but cope very well.

History

Lisburn Road used to be a toll road which rivalled the older and hillier Malone Road slightly to the east. The toll booth was at what is now Tollgate House in Bradbury Place. In 1858 tolls were abandoned. The Belfast to Lisburn railway runs parallel to the road, crossing over the road at Derriaghy halt.

Tollgate House on the site of the original toll house (Google)

Development along the route took off in the late 1800s at the height of the industrial boom and continues to this day with new housing developments encroaching on the last remaining green field between Belfast and Lisburn, used currently as a BMX track.

The road is home to numerous shops, but especially between King’s Hall and Lisburn residential developments dominate.

Strategic road?

The A1 is part of NI’s strategic road network, but only for the section between Sprucefield near Lisburn and the Irish border. Between Belfast and Lisburn the strategic role is reserved for the M1.

The European Union don’t talk of strategic roads, but of corridors, the total bundle of roads, railways and waterways between two places. Belfast sits at the northwestern end of a corridor stretching, by way of Dublin, across Europe to Marseille on the Mediterranean coast.

Whilst Brexit need not stand in the way of EU funding of connections between Dublin and the European mainland across England and Wales (similar to EU funding transalpine routes in Switzerland), the EU might not be so willing to provide funding for A1 and M1 upgrades in NI post Brexit, or indeed upgrades in Scotland and the north of England.

Taking on congestion in Belfast will require serious funding as Inrix suggest. But not solely on our roads as they would like, but across the whole bundle of road and rail connections between central Belfast, suburbs, the commuter belt and beyond. After Brexit it remains to be seen if there is any political will or money to improve Belfast’s transport infrastructure.

So, yes, the Lisburn Road is strategic but as part of the whole bundle of connections between Lisburn and Belfast. And resolving the congestion problem will need to take into account rail, motorway, local roads and Lagan Towpath.

Improving the Lisburn Road will mean investing in the entire corridor.


Local access or car park?

In 2013 the Department of Regional Development introduced a scheme to improve traffic flow. The Department deemed the tidal parking restrictions a success and traders were happy, because customers could park outside their shop at any time of the day.

The changes were made permanent in 2014.

And less than 3 years after the trial started congestion is said to be worst in the UK outside London. I called it a failure even earlier, because of persistent illegal parking.

TransportNI have yet to make use of their power to tow illegally parked cars. In the meantime enforcement of restrictions by issuing fines is haphazard. The threat of fines is not enough to deter habitual offenders. And obviously a car with a ticket is still causing an obstruction to traffic flow.

Confused traders

Traders need their shops to be accessible to customers. They also don’t want to see them sitting in traffic jams, you’d assume.

Belfast on the Move is a steategy aimed at increasing access to Belfast City Centre. That’s a good thing, no? Belfast Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) have been opposed to Belfast on the Move from the very start. They see the strategy which has delivered a drop in numbers of cars, an increase in number of people accessing the city centre, increase in numbers of public transport users, cyclists and pedestrians, an increase in number of cars parking and people staying longer, an increase in footfall and takings as detrimental to small businesses.

It stands to reason that any plans to alleviate Lisburn Road congestion by removing cars or even car parking spaces will meet with opposition from trader organisations, despite their trade and the wider economy suffering from economic damage caused by congestion.

The FSB complain about congestion harming trade and at the same time that Belfast was becoming a “very hostile place to bring your car”. They fail to see that making it easier for drivers to access Belfast, the more congested it becomes.

Politicians and traders need to learn that plentiful parking does not equal high footfall. Instead, parking is an invitation to drive and increases congestion. Belfast City Council have recognised this in their Parking Strategy.

Any solutions?

Before he went rogue, Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard, said:

“Investing in public transport, walking and cycling must be at the heart of our transport policy.  It is the only way we can address congestion in our key urban centres, enable people and goods to move easily and ensure the north remains an attractive place to live, work, shop, visit and invest.”

Minister Hazzard announced the Department for Infrastructure’s 3-five-10 strategy. The quote above is from the press release. The strategy’s aim is to increase active travel and public transport and reduce car dependence for short local journeys.

Part of the Lisburn Road’s problems stem from confusion about its function. The road serves as a through route for Belfast to Lisburn traffic, a road to give access to residential areas and businesses and also acts as a car park.

It would be better to unravel these roles, decide on the primary function of the A1 route and remove all other traffic to a better suited road or space.

Congestion beating measures should offer people a choice of means to get to their destination. Ideally, walking, cycling and public transport should be cheaper, faster and more convenient than use of a private vehicle.

For the Lisburn Road from Black’s Road Park and Ride to Bradbury Place the 3-five-10 strategy to reduce congestion should be employed. 

Some ideas for improvement:

  • Between Bradbury Place and King’s Hall the road should be transformed to move people, giving clear priority for active travel and public transport.
  • Bus lanes must run continuously from Black’s Road to Shaftesbury Square. Allowing the single traffic lane to splay into two, before merging them again into one soon after, causes congestion.
  • A continuous cycleway must be built along the entire length of road from Belfast to Lisburn.
  • To allow for bus lane and cycleway installation on-road parking must be removed.
  • Reduce the number of interactions at junctions by putting bollards across minor side roads, having more side roads made one way, and banning right turns for all but a handful of junctions.

  • Belfast Bikes should expand further up Lisburn Road with docking stations at 300 to 400m intervals.
  • Capacity at Black’s Road Park and Ride must be increased, with perhaps slip roads from and to the M1 built to serve the Park and Ride only to enable more drivers to leave their cars at the edge of town.
  • An additional railway halt to be built at Black’s Road to allow people to park and continue by rail, but also provide better access to public transport to residents of Black’s Road.
  • Adelaide halt must be made fully accessible for wheelchair bound passengers, mums with prams and train passengers wheeling luggage or bicycles. Currently, footbridges to Lisburn Road and Apollo Road are stepped, not ramped.

    People fear the bath tub effect that closing off or reducing a road’s capacity will inevitably lead to traffic overflowing and causing congestion chaos elsewhere. In practice a significant portion of traffic ceases to exist.

    Cycling

    The Lisburn Road passes through areas with very divergent cycling uptake. From Finaghy down to the city centre cycling commuters make up between 3 and 5% of total traffic. Above Finaghy this rapidly drops to nearly 0%. (2011 census via NIGreenways).

    In order to reduce the number of cars on the road cycling needs to be enabled better in outlying districts. A designated cycleway with priority over side roads running along the Lisburn Road from central Belfast to Lisburn town centre will offer people a choice to leave the car at home.

    Combining a cycleway with meaningful numbers of secure bicycle storage areas at railway halts and principal bus stops will enable people to use various modes for their journeys to suit the journey’s purpose or destination.

    The Lisburn Road also serves as a refuge for bicycle users when the Lagan Towpath is not rideable due to frost or flooding. The lack of lighting along the Towpath also is off-putting to some. The main drawback, however, of the Towpath is its meandering, scenic nature. It adds considerably to time and distance over the direct route to and from work using the Lisburn Road. 

      The bitter pill

      Through traffic should be pushed to the M1 as much as possible. Drivers should be deincentivised from going along the A1 from end to end.

      This could be done by nudging behaviour with information boards showing actual travel times. For instance a sign at Shaftesbury Square could inform drivers going to Finaghy using the Lisburn Road that it would take, for instance, 20 minutes, choosing Donegall Road and M1 could be 15 minutes.

      A way to reduce peak congestion is road pricing. Charge people for using the most congested roads at busiest times and soon they will adapt their behaviour. A city centre car park levy could be used to fund initiatives to strengthen public transport, walking and cycling along the route.

      Let the train take the strain

      It is not sensible to look in isolation at roads, when part of the answer is literally next door, its potential unfulfilled because of chronic underfunding in favour investment in roads.

      Major investment is needed to allow a Metro style railway service between Lisburn across Belfast to Bangor. Instead of at best an half-hourly service, trains should run at 10 minute intervals (or less) and get the commuter from Lisburn to Belfast in less time than it takes to go by car when roads are quiet.

      Electrification may be needed to achieve such levels of service. A useful template are German S-Bahn or Dutch RandstadRail networks of local rapid transit: turn Lisburn-Bangor rail into a LUAS-style light rail, taking it off the main line in places to allow passengers easier access and give priority on the main line for regional and Enterprise services.

      Electrification and phasing out diesel is urgently needed from an environmental perspective. Air pollution and global warming concerns mean continued reliance on diesel is irresponsible. Electrification of the Dublin to Belfast main line must be pushed higher up the political agenda.

      Summary

      The Lisburn Road suffers from chronic congestion, not  simply because of a large number of vehicles, but because many drivers with different purposes use the same stretch of road. The road has many junctions and on-street parking leading to many interactions across lanes of traffic. Bus lanes are inconsistent and poorly enforced. Cycling infrastructure is non existent despite the road going through areas with relatively large numbers of cycle commuters. The adjacent railway is underfunded, and poorly equipped to serve as an alternative.

      To alleviate congestion the Department for Infrastructure’s 3-five-10 strategy needs to be applied and funded to enable greater uptake of walking, cycling and use of bus and rail. The cost could be recouped by introducing road pricing, or a city centre parking levy, or even better, both.

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      Floored by a door

      I am sure everyone has seen this video of a cyclist colliding with a car door in London’s Mile End, losing control and falling in the path of a London Black Cab.

      Happily, no serious harm was done. The parked car’s door was dented and the car driver has offered to pay for the cyclist’s expenses.

      The cyclist was too close to the parked cars. He should have been further out into the road. But could he have been?

      Moments before the road was narrowed by road works. I hear the words of my driving instructor still: the most dangerous place for collisions is just at the end of road works.

      Then of course there is the road design. The cycle route is one of Boris Johnson’s magic blue cycle routes. The lane is shared with buses.

      It’s main function, however, is a car park. Drivers can use the bus lane as car park for most of the day, but in doing so push bicycle users (and buses) out into general traffic.

      International best practice puts the cycle path between the footway and the parked car, leaving a buffer zone for opening car doors. Like so:

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      Amsterdam

      However:

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      Google Streetview of Ormeau Embankment

      in Belfast cycle lanes are painted directly beside car parking bays (above) or on-road parking boxes. Elsewhere cyclists are expected to share with buses, but are still threatened by drivers opening car doors:

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      Typical parking on Belfast's Lisburn Road

      In years past NIGreenways ran a campaign to point out this fatal flaw in Belfast’s extensive cycle lane network; it is a car park for most of the day.

      Currently, Dublin bicycle users are running a similar #freethecyclelanes campaign.

      Both campaigns show that without meaningful enforcement motorists take a chance on breaking the law and mostly get away with parking illegally.

      Avoiding the door zone puts the cyclist in the middle of general traffic. This gif shows very neatly where cyclists are squeezed into a very narrow channel between parked cars and moving traffic.

      Belfast’s Lisburn Road has a tidal parking restriction, but this is too hard for motorists to understand.

      TransportNI have concluded their tidal restrictions trial in South Belfast and deemed it a success, making the arrangement permanent despite cars obstructively and illegally parked in the bus lane or other sections of the Urban Clearway on a daily basis.

      When the trial was announced I wrote in protest saying bicycle users would be in danger of getting doored. Like the bicycle user in the video above. My protest fell on deaf ears. Conall McDevitt, then a MLA, responded saying the trial and new parking arrangements were necessary to support local businesses and retailers. (Despite many examples worldwide of traders seeing a boost to profits when a cycleway was installed.)

      The published Northern Ireland Bicycle Strategy spells out clearly cycling is a higher priority than parking cars.

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      Very commendable. There remains that suspicion, however, when vested interests, especially local traders with an on-street parking fetish, and safety of vulnerable road users meet, the traders’ interests prevail.

      Lisburn Road Urban Clearway

      At the tail end of 2013 the Department of Regional Development started a trial to relax Urban Clearway restrictions on the main routes from the south of Belfast into the city centre. Car parking was to be allowed countrybound in the morning, and citybound in the evening. The reason for the change was to encourage local trade.

      The Urban Clearway restrictions are in force citybound between 7:30 and 9:30, countrybound between 16:30 and 18:00.

      So how is the trial going? Friday, 23 May 2014, 8:56. Lisburn Road citybound:

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      Oh look! They got a ticket! But that doesn’t deter others.

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      And why are they there?

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      The driver kept the engine running and had the car in reverse gear.

      You can view that whole sequence here.

      Further down the road:

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      Full marks to Lynas for keeping the bus lane clear. Zero marks for obstructing pedestrians. Not as if pedestrians can go on the road to bypass the HGV:

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      200 metres down the road:

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      We can’t forget taxi drivers:

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      And our daily bread:

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      Is this encouraging our local economy? Or is it inconveniencing public transport and endangering cyclists?

      This trial was to run for 6 months and ends next week, at the end of May 2014. It has been a resounding failure. No doubt DRD will reinstate the previous restrictions…

      Update 17 July 2014:

      Chris Murphy reports that the original 6 month trial has been extended for another 6 months from the end of May 2014.

      Final word

      Having received no negative feedback from stakeholders the trial arrangements were made permanent at the end of the 6 month extension.