Experts in mobility, civil engineering and architecture recently gathered in Belfast to discuss the future of transport in the city. TechWatch editor Emily McDaid reports.
This month’s Fourth Industrial Revolution Challenge (4IRC) debate asked: Will Belfast be a leader or loser in future transportation?
The event was held at the Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast’s atmospheric Cathedral Quarter.
It kicked off with a video message from Lukas Neckermann, author of The Mobility Revolution: Zero Emissions, Zero Accidents, Zero Ownership.
Neckermann said: “It’s about increasing the quality of life in cities. Over 200 new hybrid/electric vehicles will be launched in the next three years. Right now, 90pc of accidents are caused by humans. We also need zero ownership. Because cars are parked more than 90pc of the time, they are the ultimate untapped resource.
He concluded: “The revolution means electric, autonomous, on-demand transport.”
Host Emer Maguire then played a true-or-false game with the audience.
There are more vehicles registered than humans in NI.
False: 1.8m people to 1.1m vehicles.
Compared to a free-flow situation, Belfast is more congested than London, Manchester or Edinburgh.
True: Dublin and Belfast both have a 43pc increase in travel times compared to a free-flow situation.
Autonomous vehicles are part of Belfast’s reported future initiatives.
Public transport is increasing year on year.
Speaker: Richard Kirk, regional director at the Institution of Civil Engineers
Kirk began: “Today, an Inrix study was released saying we waste £1bn a year in NI on congestion. Isn’t it ironic that the story also asks, ‘How can we get more cars down the road?’”
He said: “The problem is not solved by getting more cars into Belfast. Moving people in and out of Belfast is good for the city but moving cars isn’t.
“The ultimate purpose of mobility is to make the world smaller.”
Kirk then discussed the history of the internal combustion engine, and whether it was what people really needed at the time.
“Now we must ask, what do the people of Belfast think they want? And what do they actually need? And, like a Venn diagram, do those two things overlap or are they separate?”
Kirk explained this viewpoint: “Our cities have become overwhelmed with a cocktail of toxic gases; this personal mobility has come at a very high price.
“The way horses are now consigned to stables and used for recreation and sport – maybe in future, cars will come to that same end. Whenever we think about mobility, we need to think about a multimodal approach.”
Speaker: Mark Hackett, an architect based in Belfast, and director of City Reparo
“As an architect, I’m interested in not so much how we move around, but where are we moving to, and what the space is like,” Hackett said.
“Cities come about with people needing to live closely. At least 60pc of workers in NI are commuters – that puts a huge stress on the city. Studies have shown that walkable cities reduce blood pressure and hypertension risk.”
He explained his view that Belfast’s motorways have “choked” the city centre. “Belfast’s Westlink was built in the 1980s – the York Street interchange will only come in 2025. So that’s 60 years of roads shifting people out of the city. Arterial routes in Belfast are broken. A ring road was built around and motorways crashed through the city.”
Hackett said he’s an advocate for the connected city. “A coherent street pattern was lost when the motorway was built.
“However, the city is changing, and things feel like they’re working. There are great restaurants drawing people into the city. But the edges are still ragged. The York Street interchange is a juggernaut – it doesn’t seem like the right idea.”
Hackett concluded: “The biggest divisions in our city are the roads, not the peace walls.”
Joining the speakers on the panel were:
The new panellists discussed challenges and opportunities from their perspective.
Bouse: The challenge is that the transportation system is broken. People here spend eight days a year sitting in traffic. London is six and Chicago is under five. This is costing our economy every year.
I think the answer lies in data. We need various players to come together and share data, so we can understand where the problems are and how they can be solved.
Mounstephen: Firstly, I’d like to set some context. 10 years ago, I co-authored a piece of work for the office of the first minister looking at the financial cost of division in NI. We included a graphic of numbers of buses burnt out each year during the Troubles – and now, 10 years later, we’re talking about the future of Belfast. It’s exciting.
At Deloitte, we polled our staff – about 1,000 people. 22pc were travelling by bus but another 27pc could travel by bus reasonably. We asked how many were travelling by bike: 3pc. Who could reasonably travel by bike? 30pc. There are two big opportunities there in terms of behaviour. Private companies have a role to play in changing behaviour.
— Diane Morrow (@MrsDMorrow) February 6, 2018
Questions from the audience
Ultimately, one of the things you want from transport is going when you want to go. In Tokyo, there are trains all the time, but we don’t have the population for that.
Hackett: In Helsinki, they were trialling a system. They have a low population density and they’re spread out, like us. One ticket would go through all modes of transport – bike ride, tram, taxi – whatever it took to get you to where you’re going.
Mounstephen: We see the investment is happening in the Glider – the new bus that will come onto our streets later this year. There’s a lot of thought over many years about what the public transport system could be in Belfast. The Glider is what we’ve come to for now. We’ll see if that creates a step change or behaviour change. It’s not a tram, it’s not a Hyperloop, but it’s the next step.
I’ve just moved back to Belfast. I sometimes can’t get to my kids by the time their childcare facility closes, using the bus.
McAleese: I’ve seen in the Nordic countries, employers provide crèches at work. Why don’t we just minimise the travel?
Bouse: Someone mentioned Uber Pool where you can carpool with Uber. There are shared mobility companies that are looking at child collection.
Kirk: I don’t think we need to wait for a piece of tech – I do the kids’ drop-off two days a week because I spoke to my line manager and she was won over by the argument. NI’s financial situation is on life support. We’re not investing what we need to for public transport. I know you mentioned the Glider. It is a rubber-wheeled vehicle, but it’s got three doors. The big issue with buses is buying tickets. The Glider has three doors and everyone can get on and get off without interacting with the driver to slow things down.
Kirk: Belfast City Council has been talking about letting taxis use the bus lanes. We need to have bus lanes for 12 hours – there is a significant lobby against that who supports letting taxis use the bus lanes.
Hackett: Ultimately, this does come down to politics. Politicians are responding to what they hear and people need to be more vocal.
What’s realistic by 2050? Will my dream of flying cars be real?
McAleese: The biggest change isn’t in the devices we use [but] about how we use data, data interchange, to allow multimodal transport to happen and connect in a seamless way.
Bouse: I agree with Phil to an extent. But, by 2050, I think we will have personalised drones because of the amount of investment the major car companies are putting in. Seamless apps will unlock a lot of data.
Mounstephen: I think integrated, multimodal ticketing is the future in the near term. And a bike with an umbrella would make significant behaviour changes.
Kirk: There are unintended consequences from all the new changes. The emergence of Uber has increased congestion in London because they’re just driving around waiting for a customer.
Hackett: I suppose I’m pessimistic because I look back at 60 years of decision-making. Rapid transit has taken eight years to get two buses on the street, so it’s certainly not rapid in its implementation.
Each panellist answered a final question: Is Belfast a leader or loser in transportation?
Hackett: The only way is up because the situation is so bad.
Kirk: Leaders. Through the likes of Catalyst Inc, we have the capability within our people to lead development.
Mounstephen: Leader – I’m quietly optimistic.
Bouse: Potential to be a leader – there are lots of innovative people here.
McAleese: I’ll say leader for a different reason. All these AVs will be sitting there doing nothing but, on your screen, you will see trees and pedestrians so you won’t realise you’re sitting in traffic.
By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch
A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch