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Blog: Fed up with Belfast traffic? It's more than just delaying your day

Stuck in Belfast traffic with transport announcements intermittently describing the “usual spots of traffic”, the conversation often turns to Belfast’s title as “the most congested city in Europe”. Although, the European rankings for the most congested small cities has recently shifted to place Polish city, Łódź in first place with Belfast remaining in second place. The congestion in Belfast is not only problematic due to time wasted sitting in traffic and the associated impact on productivity – it is said Belfast drivers lose eight days a year sitting in traffic - sitting in traffic also causes negative health and well-being implications such as increased blood pressure and chronic stress. Even more alarming, however, is the direct health impacts of air pollution primarily caused by levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) produced from the tailpipes of diesel and petrol vehicles.

What is the concern surrounding Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)?

Exposure to NO2 according to COMEAP[1] leads to an increase of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. In the short term, high level exposure to NO2 poses a threat to those suffering with asthma, (particularly children) and the elderly population with pre-existing cardiovascular issues (see for daily NI air quality levels).

Long-term exposure to NO2 according to COMEAP has been strongly linked to lung and cardiovascular mortality however the committee attains that it cannot be certain due to the variety of pollutants in the air. However, it is broadly accepted that by reducing air pollution levels, risk can be reduced from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory disease.

In 2016, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) reported that the EU NO2 air quality restrictions of 40 μg/m-3 (annual mean) were exceeded at three separate locations in Northern Ireland. The worst offender was Belfast’s Stockman’s Lane, where legally safe limits of NO2 were exceeded by 10 μg/m-3. Two other sites violating EU restrictions in Northern Ireland were Downpatrick Roadside at (44 μg m-3) and Newtownabbey Antrim Road (41 μg m-3). Other cities within the UK (Nottingham, Southampton and Birmingham to name a few) also repeatedly exceed EU air quality restrictions. Air quality is such a problem in London the maximum hourly allowance of exposure of NOwas exceeded within the first month of 2018 (EU permits 18 instances of exceeding an average hourly rate of 200 µg/m3) which has been legally challenged on several occasions.

As the threat of air pollution sanctions and public health risk looms, many cities have started to take strong action. The focus is placed on drastically reducing private car traffic, in particular diesel cars. The rationale is underpinned by an ICCT[2] report that indicates that diesel cars produce 10 times more NO2 in proportion to fuel consumption than heavy trucks. For example, Copenhagen’s mayor Frank Jensen, has imposed a ban on new diesel cars in the city by 2019 stating: “it is not a human right to pollute the air for others”. Hackney and Islington councils plan on even stronger action with a total ban on all private cars from busy streets within the year, 2018, in an effort to improve air quality.

How did Belfast get here?

While cities such as Copenhagen have a comprehensive and affordable public transport networks, Belfast’s public transport is flagging behind. The prevalence of the private car, although normally is pointed to as an individual preference based on comfort, can in Belfast be attributed to the Matthew plan in the 1960’s. The plan which aimed to ease overcrowding in the city centre, lead to urban sprawl and increasing car dependency. In addition, during the Troubles people sought refuge outside of the city centre, extending urban sprawl which combined with the hijacking and destroying of buses could be said to have further ingrained the car culture. Right up to the turn of the millennium the primary planning approach in Belfast was to meet the high demand of cars in the city by building more roads for cars. This history of planning has inadvertently led to the car-oriented design of Belfast city centre, meaning the city is most accessible by car, thus increasing the demand for cars in the city. All in all, these factors pose a difficult challenge to Belfast transport planners today, who with greater knowledge of the adverse effects of NO2 on our health, hope to change the cities reliance on cars.

What has been done in Belfast to help improve air quality?

In a bid to move Belfast forward and follow European trends of sustainable modes of transport, the Department of Infrastructure in 2013 implemented Belfast on the Move. The plan hoped to change transport behaviour away from the private car usage and towards cycling and public transport. Although the plan is considered a success with 11,000 less private cars on the road, the results indicate that private car usage remains meaning there is a still a lot of work to do.

The next bid to improve and promote public transport in Belfast is the Glider project: a rapid transport system of buses which is hoped to function similarly to a tram. The project is set to be completed by September 2018 and the route will be through East Belfast, West Belfast, and Titanic Quarter via the city Centre. The project represents a £90 million investment which aims to bring a high quality public transport system to Belfast, reducing private car usage.

Although the Glider may indeed reduce the public transport time by the estimated amount 25-30% it fails to incite the cultural change that is needed to maximise sustainable modes of transport. Whilst most other cities utilise incentives for public transport and disincentives for case usage, Belfast has yet to propose any such plans. Rather, parking in widely available and very affordable compared to other UK and European Cities.

Policy Action: What else can be done?

Contrastingly, Germany has proposed providing free public transport in five cities (a responsive action after exceeding the EU air pollution limits) such a policy makes private car usage laughable. Moreover, disincentives don’t have to be as coercive as London’s congestion charge. Rather, disincentives could be creative, fun urban interventions. Such as reducing space for cars in the city by converting car parking spaces into green ‘Urban Lounges’ as Waverley Council has done in Sydney - or perhaps more appropriate for Belfast, provide pleasant shelter from the rain to encourage pedestrians and open up free space in the city. In contrast to these measures, concessions are given on public transport to off-peak travelers despite the hellish scenes of back to back cars at peak times.

Whilst the Glider and Belfast on the Move are great steps towards moving away from previous planning traditions and reducing congestion, much bolder action is needed to incentivise people out of their cars and into sustainable modes of transport to ensure air quality returns to a safe level of NO2.

[1] Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants

[2] The International Council on Clean Transport