A version of this piece is published at The New Statesman/City Metric
Is it a tram? Is it a bendy-bus? Is it a bendy-bus-tram? Or is it just a long purple bus running on a not-quite-continuous network of bus lanes? Or, is it, as former Ireland rugby international Stephen Ferris (and now self-appointed part-time traffic infrastructure spokesperson) wrote on Twitter a shambles?
In Belfast it’s known as The Glider, a new £90m diesel-electric hybrid bus rapid transit system (RTS) launched — to mixed reactions as a quick #Glider search on social media reveals — at the end of 2018.
Part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund and run by local transport company Translink the RTS connects the east and west of the city with the city centre via 15.2 miles of bus lanes and mixed traffic lanes — a symbolic move given the, still, divided geography of the city.
Recent figures released by Translink appear to reveal the early success of the scheme. 30,000 more passengers are now using the service as their primary choice of travel equating to more than 4,000 car journeys every day. With Belfast being the most car-dependent city in the UK with the average person in Northern Ireland making 81.5% of all their journeys by car, compared to 63% in the UK, the Glider seems to be getting, at least some people, out of their cars and onto the purple-bendy-bus-tram.
The launch of the scheme has not been without controversy. Being Northern Ireland, the sectarianisation of literally anything is unfortunately still regarded by some as a legitimate political weapon. This time it was the weaponisation of bus-stop names. Short Strand, a historic inner-city (broadly nationalist) community had its Glider stop named — spoiler alert, the stop was named after the historic neighbourhood and the name of the existing bus stop —‘Short Strand’. In a letter to her constituents DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly claimed that the naming of the stop did "not reflect either the area or the history of the area” and instead suggested, without any hint of irony that the city-bound stop be named 'Albert Bridge’ (that’s the British Prince Albert, grandson of Queen Victoria) with the name 'Short Strand' being retained for the return journey stop. Translink responded by saying that this would cause confusion for passengers. The stop remains named 'Short Strand’. Little-Pengelly claimed that it was "not a sectarian issue at all.”
Next, the strange but significant connection between taxis, civil servants, bus-lanes and the Court of Appeals ruling on planning permission for the construction of a waste incinerator — stay with me. The court upheld a ruling dismissing planning permission for the controversial Arc21 waste incinerator saying that civil servants (who had approved the scheme) did not have the power to act without ministerial approval — NI is currently without a devolved parliament. In line with the ruling, without ministers in place, a scheme to allow taxis to use bus lanes could not be approved — with bus lanes creating more peak-time traffic congestion, it’s a decision that could likely affect taxi drivers livelihoods.
Then there was the small oversight of mistimed traffic singles in the cities Titanic Quarter, which, in conjunction with the new bus lanes managed to cause massive traffic congestion in the area; people parking in the bus lanes; confusion about the automatic doors on the buses; the ticketing system and within a week of the Glider launching a petition was started to get rid of the bus and restrictions altogether The bus lanes remain and the city appears to be getting used to its new RTS —it’s standing room only during rush hour.
Is it a tram? Is it a bendy-bus? Is it a bendy-bus-tram? Or a long purple bus running on a not-quite-continuous network of bus lanes?
Yes, it’s a bus, a nice warm bus, with comfy seats, Wifi and USB chargers. It’s a small but significant change in a city that has the highest car ownership in the UK, is one of the worst polluted cities in the UK, where 68% of journeys into the city are single occupancy making Belfast the third most congested city in GB and the tenth most congested in Europe. It’s a positive change in a city that has the highest rate of obesity (not unrelated to high car ownership) and the highest rate of avoidable deaths; including over 500 deaths per year attributed to air pollution. which represents more deaths per year than (ironically) road traffic collisions and passive smoking combined.
The Glider, bendy-bus or not, might only make a small contribution to changing these statistics but if nothing else the scheme has opened up a much-needed conversation in the city about the future transport infrastructure.