The Pros from Dover are coming
Trapper John: Look, mother, I want to go to work in one hour. We are the Pros from Dover and we figure to crack this kid's chest and get out to the golf course before it gets dark. call the kitchen and have them rustle us up some lunch. Ham and eggs will be all right. Steak would be even better. And then give me at least ONE nurse who knows how to work in close without getting her tits in my way.
DIAGNOSIS: The Big C (Congestion)
We talk of cities in personal/human terms. They’re the ‘beating heart’ of an economy. Cities have financial ‘nerve-centres’. We talk of ‘arterial routes’ into the city. They have a ‘circulation’ of people and traffic. People are seen as the ‘life-blood’ of a city. When people can flow freely they work more efficiently, spend more, exercise more, live better and the city thrives. When people stop flowing a city get’s fat, slow, stressed, congested, clogged, polluted & angry until it eventually starts… to… grind… to… a… STOP!
When the Pros from Dover arrive you know you’re in trouble. They’re the guys you call when the patient’s about to check out. They’ll cut off a limb or remove an organ, scrub up and go golfing because it’s not their problem - it’s yours. They’re in control because you lost control and they’re gonna crack your chest and be out on the golf course before it gets dark.
Belfast is the patient and it get’s its chest cracked open roughly every 10 years and the Pros from Dover are the road builders. The diagnosis is always congestion. The patient always opts for major surgery. It got itself into this situation by not reducing car use, not improving public transport and not taking regular exercise. It wouldn’t take the medicine and it’s gonna get its chest cracked open again and it’s never pretty. This isn’t keyhole surgery, it’s major surgery, it leaves massive scars, takes years to recover and chances are it won’t work.
PRESCRIPTION: Car implants
Here’s a reminder about how major the surgery can be. Go back in the 1960s when Belfast elected for cars implants as the best way to circulate people. The consultants advised encircling Belfast in a network of motorways. (Only a portion of the original plans were implemented). The road builders cracked open the docks area, removed 5000 people from Sailortown and implanted the M2. A community was broadcast throughout greater Belfast and their houses bulldozed. A perfectly healthy, functioning limb amputated to make way for a prosthetic motorway.
The Sailortown community blame politicians (the Belfast Corporation) and their own lack of political savvy but never pinned the blame squarely on a rising car culture. The only finger pointing is the artwork on the concrete pillars of the M3 flyover, old photographs of Sailortown framed in rear view mirrors. Sailortown is now essentially a series of public and private surface car parks along and between Corporation St. and York Rd. topped with a 4 lane flyover.
Some of the displaced community were moved into multi-storey buildings in the New Lodge overlooking Sailortown. It must be hard looking down to where your family house once was and see 2-3 parking bays in its place. It’s an upside-down world where we demolished houses for surface car parks and then placed the community in multi-storey accommodation.
I’m not doubting the need for the M1, M2 & M3 but I doubt the destruction of Sailortown would be acceptable now. There were probably alternatives.
(Incidentally there are more trees planted and more green spaces in and around the car parks in Sailortown (Clarendon Dock/Corporation St) than the whole of the New Lodge. )
Since then Belfast has had its chest cracked open roughly every 10 years. That’s about the time it takes for the politicians to dodge the tough decisions, funding to become available and the driving public to forget the chaos caused by the last major surgery. The Westlink in the 80s was only a stop gap. In the early 2000s the road builders put in stents by widening it (increasing 2 lanes to 3 by stealing a hard shoulder and narrowing the lanes), hoping they would clear out the fatty deposits by increasing the flow. They didn’t. They dug it all up and put in a new tunnel with balls on top in 2008. But it was never going to cure inner-city congestion and it didn’t. Belfast is once again the most congested city in the UK. The 18th most congested city in the World. It’s calling in the surgeons again.
The M1, M2 and M3 effectively diverts an increasing amount of traffic from the city centre. They increase the flow around the outskirts of the city but the major side-effect is the funnelling of an ever growing number of cars into the same limited city-space. We keep widening the neck of the funnel but we can’t increase the size of the bottle. The flow of cars into the funnel isn’t constant and steady either, it’s a massive adrenaline rush once in the morning and once in the evening from Monday to Friday putting the whole system into shock.
CONGESTION AWARENESS CAMPAIGN
When I was young we didn’t talk about Caner. It was a disease with no cure. If we didn’t talk about it might go away. It was always referred to as “The Big C”. Cancer Awareness Campaigns lowered anxiety levels and gave us a way to talk openly about the disease leading to greater awareness and an ability to identify the symptoms and practice prevention.
The Big C now seems to be “Congestion”. We’re certainly not talking about it and it’s certainly not going away. Our political leaders aren’t talking about it yet the air we breath gets more toxic and society less active, more stressed and obese as a result. We can’t really tackle the problem until we have reasoned, grown-up discussions about it. Perhaps we need a Congestion Awareness Campaign?
We need to be able to talk about alternatives. To talk about public and private businesses adopting co-ordinated ‘travel plans’ to create a smaller, steadier, more predictable flow of people (and cars) throughout the day. We need to rethink public and private parking and talk about freeing up the space it currently occupies. We need to divert spending from roads and talk about sustainable transport. We need to talk about building places where people can live, work, socialise and raise a family without the need for a car. We designed ourselves into this situation and we can design ourselves out of it when we start focusing on people not cars.
PEOPLE OR CARS?
After 40 years of rib cracking Belfast has failed to crack car congestion. The surgery hasn’t worked. Cardiac arrest is now a regular symptom. Belfast has to decide if it wants to prioritise the health and well being of people or keep injecting cars into every artery, vein and capillary of the city.
Does it want a city where walking and cycling is a real, viable, safe alternative… or not? Does it want a city where children and disabled citizens can move around the city safely… or not? Does it want to plant trees and create green spaces for people… or cars. Does it want to create a city where public transport is the fastest, cleanest, cheapest way of getting about… or not? Does it want a city where people can live, work and raise a family without the need for a car… or not? Does it want to elect politicians to make tough decisions and talk about the issues… or kick the can up the road for another 10 years. The medicine is relatively cheap but the politics are never easy. That’s the challenge not only for Belfast but for every large town across the country.
While we ponder all that, The Pros from Dover are packing their clubs, they’re most likely heading for York Street and they’ll want that steak well done.
This was first published on the Bikefast blog in March 2017.
"My cigarette is the mild cigarette, that's why Chesterfield is my favourite" - Ronald Regan
I started smoking in 1986. I was 16. Everyone smoked. My Da smoked. All my teachers smoked - in class, constantly. At 16 you could bring a note from your parents giving you permission to smoke in school. Friends smoked, brother smoked, girlfriend smoked. I started work at 18 in a local newspaper, I smoked at my desk. I could smoke on the bus to work. I could smoke on a train. I could smoke in a plane. I could smoke in a hospital. I could smoke in a bar. I could smoke in a restaurant. I could smoke in McDonalds. The Embassy World Snooker Championship was on TV. Snooker players smoked. Darts players smoked. Footballers smoked in dugouts and managers smoked on the touchline. Marlboro hung over the gantries in F1 racing, JPS, Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges plastered the cars and the drivers.
In many ways I was lucky though, at the start of the 90s smoking culture began to be dismantled. It still took me another 10 years to quit though.
In the 25 years we've spent raising the bar on access and opportunity to tobacco we have lowered the bar on our access and opportunity to use cars. We now live in a society where it's almost seen as a human right to own a car. Easy finance and a saturated 2nd hand market mean it's not just one car, 2, 3 and 4 cars isn't uncommon in some households. In most schools, student cars now outnumber those of staff in the school car park. Vehicles once used by the military now drop children off to primary schools. Children don't play outside, instead they're driven to swimming clubs, football clubs, youth clubs and driven home again - ironically because the roads are now too dangerous for children to walk or cycle. In the same 25 years the simple VW golf has become twice as heavy, twice a powerful, considerably longer and wider. The new Mini is a mini in name only.
The right tool for the right job.
"City fathers have to choose. Cars or bicycles. And in Copenhagen they’ve gone for the bike.The upshot is a city that works. It’s pleasing to look at. It’s astonishingly quiet. It’s safe. And no one wastes half their life looking for a parking space. I’d live there in a heartbeat." - Jeremy Clarkson.
The car's a great thing. Covering long distances in short time they're an amazing invention. But they were never intended to solve the problem of short distances. They were invented to replace those long journeys where railways didn't run. Where horses still pulled carriages long distances. 100 years ago trams, buses, bikes and walking had solved the problem of transport in inner cities but somehow a car culture left unchecked has eroded these systems and turned all city and town centres into car parks and traffic jams. In a similar way car culture eroded a rural public transport system. The train network was scrapped 60 years ago and isn't coming back. We have a patchwork public transport network in rural areas - in rural communities the car is now essential.
The solution for transporting large volumes of people efficiently in inner cities is the same in 2013 as it was in 1913 - trams, buses, bikes and walking. In terms of efficiency, value for money, health benefits and environmental benefits there's a clear winner - the bike.
World class cycle infrastructure - free of charge.
“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Albert Einstein.
The current demand is for a bridge across the Lagan to the Gasworks in Belfast. In Belfast there are currently 8 bridges across the river Lagan where cycling is possible. All along a relatively short stretch of river. Most have 2 lanes some have 4 lanes. All have footpaths. They're all fairly modern and well maintained. Why do we need another bridge solely for cyclists? Why can't we claim one of the existing bridges, or a lane or two at no cost? And while we're there a few of those minor roads, currently used as 'rat-runs' where a car has no business being. We can create dedicated cycle only roads in and out of the city linking up with Greenways, towpaths at no cost. The call for more 'cycle infrastructure" is always met with "we can't afford it". But we've already paid for it - it's all in place we simply need to shift our thinking on how we allocate it. Rather than continually calling for segregation of bikes, we should rapidly integrate bikes into a ready-made infrastructure. Segregation may still be needed between Greenways and inner city but within the city centre reduced car usage should make segregation largely redundant.
One of the things you realise when living in a rural area is, there's really enough room for everyone. The density of the road network coupled with lower number of cars suddenly strikes an almost perfect balance. To do the same in inner cities we need to reduce car access in key locations. The density of roads exists but there are too many cars allowed unrestricted access.
Here's a quick one. Botanic Avenue, Dublin Road, Linenhall St should be totally car free. Scrap on-street parking in Ormeau Ave, Donegal St, Castle St and Clifton St and use the freed up space for 2 way bike lanes. Pinch a lane in Sunnyside Street and another on the Kings Bridge and instantly you have a high-speed, 10 minute network from one side of the city to the other.
Knowing isn't enough
"Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” Leonardo da Vinci.
Knowing tobacco was a killer for decades wasn't enough. I was 100% clear of consequences but still willingly bought into the smoking culture. Putting stickers on fag packets didn't work. TV commercials didn't work. Poster campaigns didn't work. Only when access and opportunity to cigarettes began to be restricted did the shift begin. I stopped smoking because i knew it was affecting my health, but crucially, it began costing too much and I couldn't smoke in all the places I used to.
Knowing that cars are a problem in towns and cities isn't enough. Painted lines and kerb stones without a cultural shift isn't enough. Painted lines and kerbs is the equivalent of putting a 'smoking kills' on fag packets, it's not persuading drivers out of their cars. As we did with tobacco we must do with cars, continue to tell people it's not good to use a car for every journey but we need to start restricting access, parking and raise prices.
When governments crunched the numbers, smoking was costing the NHS more than it was raking in in tobacco tax. If we can start boiling it down to 'value for money' then the argument and the culture shift will start.
Making cultural shifts.
So what measures do you introduce to start making the shift?
• Transport should be de-centralised and devolved to local authorites, it's not a one size fits all solution.
• Local authorities must produce a 5 year plan to reduce car usage in agreed areas and be forced to implement it.
• Proper, clean, extensive, reliable trams in Belfast, subsidised by expensive in-town parking and metered residential parking.
• Smart working from home. Victorian work practices that worked for industrial factories aren't applicable in a modern connected world. Over 30% of jobs in NI are in the Public Sector with the vast majority based in greater Belfast accounting for a lot of traffic each day. All the technology is in place to reduce the need to be in the office every day, can we start using it?
• No on-street parking in the "centres" of cities towns and villages.
• Cheap multi storey car parks just outside an agreed zone linking to, trams, bus and cycle network - "park and ride".
• Limited, very expensive multi storey car parking slightly further in, want to take your car into the city centre? You'll have to pay.
• Pay for parking in residential areas (residents with cars get a pass) - no more parking outside a strangers house all day without paying (visit the Holy Lands, Stranmills, Ormeau etc for examples).
• Visible bike culture - on street bike parking, stands outside shops, bars, cafés, pubs etc.
• Higher fuel costs in cities, lower fuel costs in rural areas.
• Trains/trams/buses that can take lots of bikes, at any time of day. Proper, covered, secure free bike parks at all stations
• Congestion tax.
• Park and ride (bus) at every motorway exit.
• More affordable, accessible car hire schemes - I don't need a car every day of the week.
• Bike hire at key locations - Universtiry, Titanic, City Hall, Waterfront etc.
• 20mph within all towns and cities.
• 50mph speed limit on all minor roads.
• 80mph on motorways - this is where the car works, free it up and compensate for lowered speed limits elsewhere.
I realise it all sounds very radical but these are measures employed in other parts of the world.
How will we know the shift has happened?
We'll know the shift has happened when we can say some of the following.
• I remember being able to park on the street close by the City Hall for £1 an hour
• I remember being able to park outside a complete stranger's house all day - free
• I remember being able to drive straight through the city centre, anytime day or night - free
• I remember being able to take the car to school and park in the staff car park
• I remember being able to drive at 30mph through residential streets and past primary schools
• I remember being able to drive any size of car, anywhere, at any time without any restrictions
• I remember being able to own as many cars as I wanted
• I remember when you rarely saw a bike in the city centre
• I remember when Government announced rising car sales as a good thing
• I remember we used to own a car