Opinion: The time is now to reduce dependence on the car
JUST over a year ago our firm moved office, from the Cathedral Quarter to the University area. A year before that my youngest son left primary school for new pastures to which he travels by bus.
I had gotten into a ritual of dropping him off at school as part of my daily commute to work.
Looking back now that was a lazy, irrational habit to have formed and stuck to.
My new office location is on a straight bus route and in fact is accessible on foot if the weather allows and if I can get myself organised to leave the house early enough.
All of these factors combined mean that unless I need my car for work journeys later in the day, I leave it at home, and it feels liberating.
Because I drive to work less and less frequently I have come to resent the journey when I do make it, stuck in traffic as part of a succession of cars in which the driver is more often than not the sole occupant, snaking along the road with buses and bikes whizzing past in the inside bus lane, it really makes no sense.
Arriving in work having completed a bus journey during which you can listen to music, or the news, read emails or a paper or heaven forbid, chat to a randomner as my primary school travelling companion would say makes for a refreshing start to the working day.
I travel to Dublin regularly and while the train is painfully slow, it makes for a journey during which you can work, read, make and take calls, catch up with work via the wi-fi, again, its the sensible alternative to driving between the island’s two main cities and battling the volume of cars on the streets of Dublin’s city centre is just a wall of stress.
Public transport is a global public long term policy issue.
The population simply cannot continue to rely on private cars, even if eventually powered by electricity.
The Department of Transport in England is planning to roll out a £56 billion High Speed 2 rail network which will accomodate trains travelling at speeds of up to 400km per hour (such trains do not yet exist but I guess this is an example of ‘future proofing’).
It is a controversial scheme with as many detractors as supporters but MPs representing the north of England see HS2 as the scheme which will maintain economic viability for their region and ensure proper connection between London and industrial towns in north. Imagine the transformative impact of that kind of investment in our rail network and stock.
Public transport use in Northern Ireland is increasing and the infrastructure is getting better too. Under the new political policy context the Department of Infrastructure has given the planning go ahead for the new Belfast Transport Hub which will enhance the connectivity within Belfast and between the city and the rest of Northern Ireland.
It is a major scheme which represents an investment of more than £200m in public transport infrastructure. The Glider service, rolled out last year, has increased use of public transport by 33,000 journeys each week. The Belfast bike scheme has 5,500 annual subscribers who have totalled more than 200,000 hours if cycling. That is all welcome news and it is sorely needed.
As things stand Belfast is far too car dependent. Research highlighted this week on the Northern Slant website shows that Belfast is the most car-dependent city in the UK with the average person in Northern Ireland making 81.5 per cent of all their journeys by car, compared to 63 per cent in the UK.
Almost 70 per cent of car journeys into Belfast are single occupancy. This is not healthy, and not sustainable.
Parts of Belfast rank among the highest for air pollution. In the first three months of 2017 one air monitoring station in the city recorded an annual average nitrogen dioxide reading of 50 microgrammes per square metre — significantly higher than the EU legal limit of 40 microgrammes per square metre.
Belfast Healthy Cities is part of the European World Health Organisation network and they are currently engaged in studies across the city examining Community Active Travel, including the practicalities of walking through main arterial routes in Belfast.
Simple issues such as cars parked on a pavement restrict access to wheelchair users and parents with buggies. Litter, broken glass, poor lighting can all dissuade people from commenting on foot. We need to take simple steps where we can and make policy decisions where we have to in order to promote and facilitate sustainable transport.
All over the world inventive and practical methods are being rolled out to enhance public transport and reduce dependence on the private car.
From overhead gondolas in Mexico, podcars in West Virginia to the driverless mini bus in Maryland, cities and countries are branching into new means of moving their people around.
We are doing it too and slowly we are seeing positive changes and increased use of public transport. But judging by the traffic reports each morning and the queues of cars still crawling towards the city centre each morning, we still have a long way to travel. Better to do so in a healthy manner.
- Brendan Mulgrew (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter @brendanbelfast