A few days ago I returned home from a hard couple of days creating wealth over the water to find a typically large pile of post waiting for me. Sifting through the usual bank statements, bills and special offers my eyes focussed on a manila envelope with an Omagh post mark. This was unusual.
Eager to find out what was inside I hurriedly opened the envelope, finding to my horror that I had become the latest victim of Stormont’s cack-handed attempt to force cars off the road.
An unnecessarily officious letter was accompanied by a low-resolution photograph of me committing the most heinous of crimes – driving in a bus lane.
By way of background, the bus lanes were rolled out in 2013 as a way of dealing with Belfast’s absolutely horrific congestion problem. There are now reputed to be 30 miles of them spanning the city’s main arterial routes with the predictable result. Boosted by their ability to take huge swathes of the public highway to themselves, our state-owned transport company, Translink, has seen its passenger numbers rise, while still managing to lose £8.4 million. But where there were two lanes for cars to drive in there is now one and those of us who have no choice but to drive to work get to do it at an even slower pace than we did before. It’s hard to believe that anyone could have thought this was a good idea.
Perhaps in acknowledgement that it was never really about reducing congestion the Department for Regional Development decided that they would put fixed penalty cameras in some of the lanes, as if the occasional motorist driving in a proscribed part of the public highway was the reason for the abysmal failure of the whole scheme.
On receiving my manila-enclosed hate mail I tried to remember what I was doing in Great Victoria Street on the day in question, apparently hurtling up the bus lane without a care in the world. In the background of the photo the reason was revealed. The friend I had just dropped off in the layby outside the Europa could be seen crossing the road towards the Conservative office. What had landed me with a £90 fine wasn’t flouting the law but rather crossing the bus lane from the side of the road. I can clearly be seen coming out of it in the photo.
I don’t suppose this defence will amount to much although I am given just a glimmer of hope by the fact that 700 bus lane tickets were cancelled recently when it emerged that the cameras were set to record at times when it was legally permissible to drive in the lanes.
Bitter personal experience aside, the ridiculous bus lanes are just one symptom of Stormont’s abysmally retrograde transport policy which is quite deliberately aimed at forcing as many cars off the road as possible and onto costly, loss-making, expensive to use, public transport.
In 2012 the strategy was unveiled. Predictably called ‘Ensuring a Sustainable Transport Future’, it:
“emphasises the need to concentrate on moving people rather than vehicles, creating space on the networks for people and also for freight and on maintaining what is in place and using it in a smarter way.”
So in other words it will stop building roads to actually support population growth, the growth in popularity of the new-fangled motor car and an expanding economy. Stormont will instead focus on outdated and outmoded forms of transport that are not only expensive for the end user but, in the case of Translink, expensive for the taxpayer as well.
Milton Friedman often maintained the state was a completely inefficient provider of roads as if they were able to match what the private sector created in terms of vehicles then there would be no congestion. But he made the assumption that the US state was actually trying keep up with the growth in popularity of the car. Perhaps they were. Stormont certainly isn’t.
The long term consequences of a policy of buses for everything are clear. Economic growth will be constrained by our inability to turn around commercial transactions of bulky goods effectively. And as a country of 1.8 million people, we can’t produce everything. Stuff needs to get here somehow.
Whatever way you come at it, roads are really quite good for economic growth. Increased accessibility brings jobs because they increase the viability of a location for an employer. They improve productivity. I’m not asking Stormont to lead us into a bright economic future with a huge infrastructure program. All I’m asking is them to do is provide the infrastructure for the economic growth they hope to achieve. Or step out of the way and let someone else do it.
They really should be performing a spectacular volte-face on this. But no, not content with making criminals of ordinary citizens who dare drive a car in one of their precious bus lanes, they’ve now decided to roll out the madness to the Upper Newtownards Road, through the delightful Ballyhackamore, already one of the most congested places in Belfast, in the face of growing opposition from the small business community.
Whether I take a principled stand or stoop in compliance I am yet to actually decide but paying my fine, I suppose, will not speed up the reversal of this policy one bit. No matter how bad an idea is, if the state can make money out of it they’ll carry on doing it.