For better commutes, we've just gotta Glide with it
LAST autumn I was in Copenhagen for a few days. It was midweek and the city was busy with commuters, tourists and residents going about their business, just as we are in Belfast, and of course we hope to get bigger, busier and attract more tourists. As far as I could see, rush hour in Copenhagen consists mainly of bikes, trams and public transport. Private car use is actively discouraged, frowned upon and rare. Public, sustainable transport is king.
In the last few months, following a relocation of our business to the University Quarter, I changed my own commuting habits, to the point where driving to work has become the less favoured and less used option. The new office is directly on the Translink metro route, and on a nice day the kind of which we have had many lately, the journey amounts to a pleasant 25 minute walk.
I have quickly come to resent driving to work, and unless I am travelling outside of the city for meetings in the course of my work, I am happy to leave the car in the driveway. The Metro is very reliable, the mobile app is accurate and up to date and the multi-journey ticket is good value.
It's clear as I wait at the bus stop that the majority of cars headed into the city or making the journey home are single passenger vehicles, perhaps even 75 per cent of them. I know I was previously guilty (though for a string of years I was dropping kids to school, does that count as car pooling?), and still am on occasion, but it is a crazy situation, and one which is totally unsustainable. Old habits die hard, and probably die harder for older people, but we really have to force people out of their cars and at the very least into other people's cars or onto public transport.
Enter the Glider. Representing a £90 million investment and set to come into operation this September, it has the potential to transform transport in our clogged up city. The Glider will connect West Belfast to the East and run through to Titanic Quarter. In theory the Glider will cut journey times by 25 per cent and for those lucky enough to live on the direct route there really will be no better value or convenient way to get into town.
Enter the taxis, and the debate about whether the bus lanes which will carry the Glider, and already give exclusive or priority access to Metro buses throughout the city, should in fact be open to taxis on a permanent basis.
The previous Department for Infrastructure minister facilitated a 12 week ‘trial period' just before the Assembly election last year during which taxis were permitted in bus lanes. That trial has rolled on and the access to taxis is still in place. Meanwhile a further ‘public consultation' is under way, and closes at the end of this week.
The direction of travel on this issue points to the Department acquiescing to the demands of the taxi sector and allowing those vehicles into the bus lanes. Surely that is a self defeating policy, which will instantly dilute the impact of the Glider? It is difficult to see the upside of allowing taxis into the bus lanes, as a policy.
There is a clear rationale for allowing the older style black taxis which carry six passengers at a time n arterial routes primarily in west and north Belfast. The black taxi movement is rooted in the communities it serves and on a smaller scale operates to the same principles, a value for money transport scheme which carried multiple passengers at once. They arguably have a place in the bus lanes.
However there is no valid argument for allowing private hire taxis into the bus lanes. An argument has been put forward that because they carry vital public sector staff to their workplace, and vulnerable people to hospital and other vital appointments.
The extension of that argument is that those passengers are more important and require more urgent transport than vital public sector staff or vulnerable people who get lifts from family members, or who are on the Glider being blocked by the taxi in a bus lane.
So because someone pays a fare to a private taxi firm they should receive preferential treatment over those who use literally any other form of transport? It's a nonsense. Allowing this concession would reduce the effectiveness of the Glider and devalue the investment being made in public transport infrastructure.
However, we got ourselves into a situation where there is no rail network to the west of Northern Ireland, that is where we are. It is difficult to imagine in the short or long term how we could start to rebuild that network so resources which are accessible have to be invested wisely and where they can have maximum impact. That means letting the Glider glide and the buses access their priority lane.
Otherwise too many people will opt to stay in their cars.
:: Brendan Mulgrew (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter @brendanbelfast
:: Next week: Claire Aiken