Friday, 23 December 2011

Connecting Places: Bus Rapid Transit - panacea or placebo?

In this series, Connecting Places, we explore the spaces, places and sustainable transport systems in Belfast and beyond, with an aim to generate critical debate on the design of our towns and cities.

Series curated by Aaron Coulter
Article by Aaron Coulter and Gary Potter

The deadline to be involved in the public consultation on Belfast's proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes is coming to a close on 6th January 2012. The routes and accompanying documentation can be viewed until 6th January in the city centre at Department for Regional Development, and in East and West Belfast at the East Belfast Partnership and West Belfast Partnership respectively.

Transport Minister Danny Kennedy, in outlining the reasoning for the introduction of a BRT system,  states:
"We need a transportation system that can accommodate the future demands of Belfast, both its people and businesses. We need to reprioritise how we travel and change our travel behaviour to encourage a shift away from the private car and towards public transport. By working together we can make public transport, into, within and across Belfast, safer, cleaner and more attractive for everyone."

It would be hard to find fault with the statement above, but as the deadline for public consultation on the proposed routes draws near, one key question comes to the fore: will the BRT be the cure to Belfast's transportation woes?

Bus Rapid Transit - the solution?
Google Images

Unfortunately there is no short answer to this question with the successful integration of such a network hinging on many variables. Firstly, however, if you are unfamiliar with the characteristic of BRT check out Street Film's short video below, and DRD's website here.

Part One: BRT overview Gary Potter

Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT)

The Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) system is designed by the Department for Regional Development (DRD) to address the current and long term transport issues in the Greater Belfast area. The project is highlighted as vital to future transport planning within the Regional Development Strategy and the Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan. Since 2008 DRD have been progressing the project through the various stages required to implement a pilot network of three routes. There is a strong commitment to the BRT by DRD and the Executive and funding has been included within the 2011 - 2014/15 budget to commence initial works. The Executive and DRD believe that the BRT will be a key driver of regeneration for Belfast, linking communities, employment and leisure nodes and facilitating further integration across the city. 

What stage is it at? 

Since the preparation of a Strategic Outline Case and Executive approval in 2008, DRD have officially launched the project, assessed potential routes and identified the preferred routes for public consultation. The consultation process closes on 6 January 2012 after which DRD will assess the responses, prepare an outline business case, submit a funding bid and publish detailed route designs. This will allow for a further consultation, after which the project will progress to construction phases and the formal setting up of a BRT operation.

Belfast on the Move

In addition to the above DRD has begun to implement the ‘Belfast on the Move’ Transport Masterplan. ‘Belfast on the Move’ addresses the policy objectives from the Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan and aims to reorganise traffic management within the city centre to facilitate a reduction in general traffic levels and encourage greater walking, cycling and public transport use. To achieve this, the plan proposes redistributing available road space in favour of public transport and cyclists and improvements to the road network to the west of the city centre to provide an alternative and attractive route for northbound traffic.

Sustainable Transport Enabling Measures as part of the
'Belfast on the Move' Transport Masterplan. Credit: DRD
The process will be carried out in phases:

Credit: DRD

Streets Ahead Enabling Measures Phase 1 is the work that has been ongoing around the city centre for some time now alongside the new public realm works to create, for example, a one way system on Donegall Place.

Recently new junction layouts at Howard Street and Wellington Place have been introduced as part of a £300,000 process to move bus traffic away from Donegall Square and onto Upper Queen Street, Queen Street and Castle Street. The details of this can be viewed on the map below... 

Credit: DRD
The remainder of the Sustainable Transport Enabling Measures (Phase 2 of Belfast on the Move) will be fully implemented by 2012/13. On completion of the £3.5m project Belfast city centre will have an extra 2.6km of bus lanes, 20 new controlled pedestrian crossings (from 73 to 93) and 1km of new dedicated cycle lanes. On May Street the current four lanes will be altered to create two general traffic lanes and one wide bus lane. Similarly, on Wellington Place, the three current lanes will become one general lane and one wide bus lane. Until the BRT system comes into operation Metro and Ulsterbus services may use these new Rapid Transit lanes. A more detailed overview of the changes ahead in the next year can be viewed on the diagram below...

Credit: DRD
Currently DRD’s main priority in Belfast City Centre, as illustrated above, is the BRT system along with plans for cross city bus routings and working with the Department for Social Development on the Streets Ahead project. With such a strong emphasis within DRD the BRT is sure to dominate transport planning in Belfast in the coming years.

What makes the BRT different? 

According to DRD the Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) system will "provide fast and reliable services between East Belfast and West Belfast, Titanic Quarter and the city centre". As the name suggests, a key element of the system is branding and marketing. DRD believe that the BRT should be specifically marketed to represent quality. The vehicles will be modern, comfortable and high tech with real time passenger information and free wi-fi. The system will be branded to be distinct from the other public transport offerings in Belfast and as such the stops will be much different to current public transport stops. Stops will be safe and secure and well equipped with ticketing machines, real-time passenger and network information and CCTV.

Performance and Service Standards established for the delivery of the BRT (July 2011 | PDF)

The BRT will, according to DRD, integrate with existing transport services and fare systems "to ensure a fully joined up transport system and maximise opportunities for interchange". Along BRT routes there will be “dedicated bus lanes, priority measures at junctions and sections of mixed traffic running”. DRD sees the priority bus lanes as essential to the success of the BRT and have carried out detailed investigations of all potential routes to identify the most suitable for a rapid transit system. Road geometry and layout, traffic flow and speed, junctions, parking and land use have all been considered by DRD and helped to identify BRT routes.

Potential routes had to fulfil key qualities under the assessment process to be taken forward. Issues included the potential for priority lanes, value for money, journey time, accessibility to employment, health, leisure and regeneration nodes, construction cost and timescale, public support, risk, phasing and commercial viability. Understanding these issues provides an insight and can explain many of the choices DRD have taken when compiling route options.

The BRT Routes

There are three pilot routes outlined within the consultation. Within the city centre the three routes will share a one-way loop from Chichester Street, Victoria Street, Custom House Square, Oxford Street, May Street, Howard Street, Fisherwick Place, College Square East and Wellington Place. BRT Halts will be positioned on Wellington Place, Chichester Street, Custom House Square and May Street (at St George’s Market and Adelaide Street). The previously mentioned ‘Belfast on the Move Sustainable Transport Enabling Measures’ will provide the basic infrastructure for this shared inner city loop.

The inner city BRT loop. Credit: DRD.

CITI: This route has no alternative route options and would travel along Chichester Street, along Victoria Street, past Custom House Square and over the Queen Elizabeth Bridge to serve the Titanic Quarter. This route would return by Queen's Bridge, along Oxford Street, onto May Street, then Howard Street and back to Wellington Place. 

CITI Preferred Route. Credit: DRD

EWAY: A number of unfeasible and not preferred options for this route are outlined within the consultation document. The emerging preferred option for east Belfast would travel on-street along the Upper Newtownards Road after leaving the city centre from East Bridge Street and the Albertbridge Road. Passing Stormont, the Ulster Hospital and Dundonald the route would terminate at a 500 space (approx.) Park and Ride facility at Quarry Corner. 

A controversial option running along the Comber Greenway has been ruled out due to the need for land acquisition and complex construction works. It would also have significantly affected the character of the Greenway and failed to integrate with key employment locations along the Upper Newtownards Road, according to the DRD consultation document.

Potential EWAY Routes.
Yellow indicates the emerging preferred option.
Blue indicates a feasible option but not preferred by DRD.
Red indicates a route deemed unsuitable by DRD.
WWAY: This route, proposed for west Belfast, would either leave the city centre along the Grosvenor Road or Divis Street. The preferred option selects Grosvenor Road despite no priority being achievable between Stanley Street and Durham Street junctions. The WWAY route would serve the Royal Victoria Hospital before continuing on-street along the Falls Road Andersonstown Road and Stewartstown Road to a Park and Ride terminus at Dairy Farm and / or McKinstry Road Roundabout (approximately 400 spaces). The WWAY route, like the EWAY, serves a number of key facilities such as the Hospital, Westwood and Kennedy Shopping Centres, Beechmount and Andersonstown Leisure Centres, Casement Park, City and Milltown Cemeteries and a number of industrial estates. 

Potential WWAY Routes.
Yellow indicates the emerging preferred option.
Blue indicates a feasible option but not preferred by DRD.
Red indicates a route deemed unsuitable by DRD.
Speaking at the 2011 Forum for Alternative Belfast Summer School, Ciaran de Burca (Head of DRD’s Rapid Transit department), commented that "whichever routes proceed, they will all demand the same high quality attributes. The BRT will be a high frequency, high quality system”.

What happens next?

The next step after consultation involves DRD assessing the consultation responses to identify preferred route options. Further technical assessments of the routes will be carried out to identify issues such as halt locations. A service operations plan will be developed and recommendations published on the integration of feeder services to support the BRT. A further stage of consultation will take place prior to the implementation of the scheme.

Gary Potter

Part Two: BRT - Belfast's 'cure all'? Aaron Coulter 

Unarguably the introduction of more choice into Belfast's transportation portfolio is to be welcomed, and it is also refreshing to hear and read such progressive statements from our Transport Minister (only somewhat undermined by initiatives such as free city centre car parking over the Christmas period). It is clear that there is, at least, the understanding that our reliance on the private car has to be reduced.

Space taken for 60 people on Bicycle, Car and Bus
Google Images

Despite this, however, I am not completely convinced by certain elements of the BRT proposal to date. Outlined below are three concerns regarding the BRT and its successful integration into Belfast's transportation network. Whilst there are undoubtedly more, particularly those regarding funding, ownership and land acquisition, the concerns outlined below are taken from an urban design perspective and with an aim to generate debate on the scheme.

1. Belfast's Arterial Routes

Belfast, like most cities, has grown and developed around a number of 'arterial routes' emanating from the City Centre out towards the residential hinterland of the city's suburbs (eg Crumlin Road, Newtownards Road, Lisburn Road). In a natural response to this, Translink's Metro bus network has also developed along these routes (see schematic map below), allowing for improved access to the city centre. 

Translink's Metro bus network
Google Images

However, whilst this type of network increases mobility and access to the heart of the city, the design of the network has left it hard to negotiate around the city via public transit without undertaking awkward changes onto new services in the city centre. 

If simplified, the metro system can be compared to a hand with the fingers acting as the arterial routes - access to the centre is easy but to get between fingers longer trips are required into the city centre and then out along another 'finger'. New lines connecting the arterial routes or 'fingers' would improve mobility between communities, reduce traffic congestion within the city centre and increase access to both jobs and education opportunities.

Belfast's 'Finger Plan'
Illustration by Aaron Coulter

Taking this into consideration when we look at the proposed BRT routes it would appear the proposals are not solving this issue, but again remain focused on the arterial routes that are already serviced by Metro buses. More efficient cross city connections are what is needed if we really want to improve mobility within our city.

Another serious issue is that the initial proposals of BRT are ignoring North Belfast, arguably one of the most disconnected areas in Belfast, in favour of the Titanic Quarter (TQ) development. This is an unsurprising decision given the vast amount of money that has been ploughed into TQ and the employment and education opportunities that exist here. However, once again communities in North Belfast are being left behind, many of which are already highly disenfranchised in terms of access to jobs and education. The TQ development rising on the other side of Belfast Lough may as well be another City entirely for these communities.

Access to TQ favoured over existing North Belfast communities
Photo by Aaron Coulter

2. Integration 

One of the most positive aspects of the proposal is that the EWAY and WWAY routes are to terminate at new Park and Ride terminals. This form of integration with the private car seeks to free up road space by removing commuter traffic in order to implement effective priority lanes for the BRT. While some of the current park and ride schemes experienced some teething problems, further introduction of such schemes is a very positive step in reducing car traffic levels within the city. However, potential issues arise in how BRT will integrate with existing private car alternatives, such as the Metro bus service and bicycles. 

BRT proposal
Credit DRD

In the preliminary images released by DRD we clearly see that bicycles are still expected to share space with buses. If the above picture is what is envisioned as an ideal solution for our private car alternatives within the city centre, where there is ample room for segregated cycle lanes yet all that is provided are advanced stop lines, I fear how cycling will be incorporated along the smaller arterial routes. The roads engineers and architects responsible for the design of the BRT network need to view alternative transport in a holistic manner, not focusing solely on accommodating BRT, and see that an opportunity exists not only to introduce priority bus lanes but also to incorporate segregated cycle lanes at the same time.

Put bluntly if proper cycling lanes are not designed and built alongside BRT, it is likely that they will never be. This scepticism is not unfounded - we only need look to new 'cycle infrastructure'/car parking along the Lower Newtownards Road to see how half hearted some recent attempts have been to improve cycle connectivity.

3m of green paint - is this a cycle lane?
Image by Aaron Coulter
When looking at the proposed BRT routes it is clear that the same roads are serviced by many of the Metro buses. Naturally the BRT could replace the services along these primary routes but the difficulty lies with those subsidiary routes that branch off from the arterial passageways (indicated in grey on Metro map above). These Metro services also need to make use of arterial routes throughout certain parts of their journeys - will the BRT, with its quick and efficient off board ticketing system be forced to wait as the Metro passengers board and alight, or will the Metro buses be forced into the general traffic lane? Although the image provided depicts two separate lanes this is unlikely to happen as our roads simply do not have that capacity outside of the city centre.

For the BRT operator themselves, who ever it turns out to be, it will be in their interest not to share lanes with bicycles to ensure efficiency, but unless suitable provisions are made for bicycles alongside the BRT  conflict between the two will be an inevitability.

3. Why not retrofit the Metro?

On reading through the features of the BRT the most obvious question is why can these features not just be retrospectively added to the existing Metro service, negating the need to invest in specialised BRT buses? Particularly in these times of fiscal restraint surely it would be cheaper to implement some of these features with Metro and at least test the system before major investment takes place?

A good starting point would be to strictly enforce existing bus lanes from 7am-7pm. This is a measure that will have to be taken if BRT is to be introduced, so why wait until 2014/15? If car traffic can cope during peak periods of 7am - 9:30am and 3:30pm - 6:30pm, when Bus lanes are enforced, then why not continue this throughout the rest of the day?

Part time bus lane on Antrim Road
Image by Aaron Coulter

While Translink have attempted to speed up boarding times with the introduction of Smartlink cards some years ago, widespread introduction or compulsory use (i.e off board ticketing) would significantly improve lag times experienced on the Metro. Given that ticketing is to be 'integrated' once the BRT comes along, again, why wait?

Now that BusTrak has been introduced along many bus lines, often it is only displaying timetable information, not actually where the bus is in real time. As evidenced from the video below, real time data provided through apps on smart phones is a great solution to issues of perceived unreliability.

Retrofitting the Metro service with features of the proposed BRT would certainly increase the appeal factor of Metro, and given that the current bus system is more flexible than new BRT lines ever will be and they already operate at a relatively high frequency along arterial routes this option may well be the biggest competitor to the new proposals.


Thankfully it appears that the decision has been made that at some stage privately owned cars will have to give up space on Belfast's roads. The proposals for BRT are to be welcomed, but they are certainly not the perceived 'cure all' for Belfast's car centric transportation dependencies.

Given that an initial backlash from motorists is almost inevitable, due to the comparatively small scale nature of Belfast and it's roads, as the proposals move forward it is vital that concessions to private cars are not made. BRT, in whatever form it takes, needs to be implemented with 100% conviction or the initiative will be wasted with the worse case scenario being that we end up with two bus systems, each running at half capacity.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the BRT proposals to date lies in what they represent - a paradigm shift in transportation policy within Belfast. However, only with a holistic and integrated approach to sustainable alternatives can objectives set out in 'Belfast on the move' be achieved. If the proposals are implemented correctly and given significant priority BRT can play an important role in Belfast's sustainable transport portfolio.

Aaron Coulter

Continue the conversation with Aaron on Twitter #connectingplaces

Public Consultation on BRT routes runs until 6th January 2012 - make your voice count here.


Joel Binkley said...

Very well said. After reading the DRD's proposals myself I think the first word that came to my head was "underwhelming". Why could these "improvements" not be done on the existing high-priority bus corridors? If we're going to spend millions of pounds, why not go for something truly transformative like grade-separated light rail? It may be more complex and more controversial, but I think in the end it would actually provide a real alternative to the bus. The BRT that has been proposed does not provide a sufficient improved alternative in my opinion, especially (as you explained) outside the widened city centre streets. Once you get halfway up the Newtownards Road where I live, it's just another vehicle fighting for road space. The DRD even admitted in the EWAY documents that there is really no capacity to add bus-priority lanes between Ballyhackamore area and city centre. Not sure what the alternative could be, but this proposal has left me feeling less than impressed.

Aaron said...

Hi Joel, thanks for your response. Apologies for not getting back sooner, accidentally deleted my reply!

Yes couldn't agree more, unless some pretty drastic changes are made to the proposed routes I cant see the BRT making a huge positive impact on movement patterns in Belfast and as you say it will just be another vehicle fighting for road space in areas like Ballyhackamore.

In honesty my view is that the BRT is just an expensive PR stunt for Belfast - we've seen Dublin with the Luas and other European cities with similar trams/BRT/light rail etc and feel we need it to compete.

I would far rather see the investment going into our already existing and somewhat under-performing transport infrastructure such as the aforementioned Metro, cycling and walking. Walking routes into the city from all directions other than South Belfast are unpleasant and car dominated and the cycle network is certainly not deserved of the title 'network' - you only need look to the recent refurbishment of the Lower Newtownards Rd to see how low cycling is on the list of priorities!

If the BRT is being brought in under the agenda of 'sustainability' then surely improving our existing transportation models needs to be done first, but unfortunately this is a less sexy alternative than a headline grabbing BRT - in what ever form it is implemented.


Craig said...

The absence of North /South corridors, or 'connection between the fingers' were the first things I thought when reading this. Waste of money. As you say, the majority of the measures could be implemented with the current system.

As a courier who picks up regularly from lower N'ards Rd, I appreciate the lovely smooth tarmac, but I don't think I've yet seen the cycle lane as it's always parked with cars. Most of the other cycle measures are either a joke or quite dangerous.

Segregating to the 'n'th degree draws a lot of lines... I'd be happier with more shared space, lower speed and enforced priority to the more vulnerable users: pedestrians > bikes > public transport > private cars. 20 more pedestrian crossings doesn't strike me as a solution to easy movement and flow around the city...for anyone.

Aaron said...

Thanks Craig.

Yes I would very much agree with you on that one, we can only segregate so much. I think a few high quality segregated routes along key corridors in and out of the city would be beneficial, but in areas like N'ards Rd there isn't the space for such infrastructure (unless some politically sensitive choices are made) - a new tactic is needed here and I feel some of the characteristics of 'shared space' could be beneficial (20mph limits for instance), rather than wasting money on paint that is never seen!

I'm in the middle of writing a series of articles cycling, due towards the end of the month which I'd be keen to hear your views on.

Also as an aside, an interesting tweet from Mayor of Dublin Andrew Montague this week,

'There's more trips every day on bikes in Dublin than on the Luas. We've invested over a billion into the Luas, a few million on bikes.'

Perhaps there is something to be learned from this?