Let’s bring the ‘Glider’ to Derry

This indicative route map helps bring to life the big transport enhancement a 'Glider' could be for Derry.
This indicative route map helps bring to life the big transport enhancement a 'Glider' could be for Derry.

STEVE BRADLEY believes we have a golden opportunity to reduce the city’s dependency on cars by introducing alternative transport

The Buncrana Road is one of Derry’s most important arteries - our main route into Donegal and the link between our city centre and the major employment and residential areas on our western suburbs.

The Glider in Belfast.

The Glider in Belfast.

But it is more than just a road. It is also host to major employers like Seagate and Derry’s biggest school.

It’s the location for our main leisure centre, our biggest cinema and our only bowling alley. Translink’s bus depot is there, as is the council’s main dump/recycling centre. And the road contains dozens of shops, supermarkets, petrol stations, churches, youth clubs, pubs, food outlets and many thousands of homes and people.

In short - Buncrana Road is a city in miniature.

That makes it one of our busiest thoroughfares, too. The entire road is 4.4km long (2.7 miles), with the section between Pennyburn and Skeoge roundabouts carrying 24,000 vehicles every weekday, and the section between Skeoge and the border 19,600 vehicles.

Significant delays are experienced at the junction with Racecourse Road where air pollution is worryingly high. And congestion is also growing at the Pennyburn roundabout.

With 4,000 more homes scheduled to be built in the Skeoge area, it is only a matter of time before the Buncrana Road jams-up at peak hours unless something is done.

There has been talk of widening Buncrana Road for decades. The first public exhibition about it was held in 2007, with a plan approved two years later. It involved a four lane road between Pennyburn and Skeoge and a dual carriageway from there to the border. But the idea was shelved due to lack of funding. In December 2016, the proposal was resurrected by Transport Minister Chris Hazzard, only for Stormont to collapse within weeks. Civil servants are now re-consulting on plans for widening the road. Funding has still to be identified to deliver it, but it could receive financial support as part of the ‘City Deal’ negotiations with the UK Government. After decades of talk, a widened Buncrana Road may finally be on the horizon.

Derry has, so-far, avoided the kind of congestion that blights many other cities. However, that’s largely a reflection of our economic weakness - with 36% of all households here not having access to a vehicle. As Derry begins to prosper, car ownership will increase here and, if it reaches the Northern Ireland average, that would put 4,200 extra vehicles onto our roads (before factoring in population growth).

The early signs of congestion we’re experiencing now seem guaranteed to increase over time unless we take steps to prevent it.

The Department for Infrastructure (DFI) and local council consider a widened Buncrana Road as part of the solution to Derry’s growing traffic. But is doubling the size of that road really the right answer? Will it genuinely ease Derry’s growing congestion problem or just make it worse in the long run?

By doubling the width of Buncrana Road we will only encourage more people to drive on it (‘induced demand’). And, as car ownership and traffic volumes increase, and more new homes are built at Skeoge, it’s easy to foresee a time when even four lanes won’t cope with the growing traffic there.

After years of road-focused transport planning, Belfast found itself named the worst city in the UK for congestion in 2013. That stung Stormont and the council there into action. Hundreds of millions of pounds is now being invested in better public transport and cycling facilities - the most high profile example of which is their new ‘Glider’ rapid transit bus service.

Introduced in September 2018, it involves state-of-the-art buses linking the east and west of the city. And it has been an instant success - increasing bus usage by 17% and taking 4,000 vehicles off Belfast’s roads every day.

Key to its success has been the introduction of dedicated bus lanes from 7am to 7pm - ensuring that the Glider can provide a fast and reliable service, regardless of traffic. Additional vehicles have now been ordered to cope with the demand and new routes are being developed.

Meanwhile, in Derry, public transport remains the poor relation. At the last census (2011), less than 5% of Derry’s population travelled to work or college by bus - compared to 14% in Belfast. Those with access to a car here generally use it as their sole mode of local travel, with bus services considered inconvenient or unappealing.

The increased congestion and pollution we’re experiencing locally is the direct result of how we’re planning and designing our city. And with public transport projects absent from Derry’s ‘City Deal’ discussions, it’s a mistake we look set to repeat for many years to come.

Widening Buncrana Road offers a golden opportunity to do something concrete to slow the growth of congestion here, dramatically improve our public transport and make cycling a safe option. And here’s how. When Buncrana Road is widened, the two new lanes should function as a bus corridor and cycle lane at peak hours - to enable the introduction of a Glider bus system in Derry. The route could run the length of Buncrana Road on dedicated peak-hour bus lanes, along Strand Road, onto Foyle Expressway and the Bus Station before splitting into two branches - one terminating at Drumahoe Park and Ride, via the new Waterside train station and Altnagelvin Hospital, and the other terminating at Branydwell Stadium. In this way, the service would use a fast, frequent and state-of-the-art bus system to link some of Derry’s fastest growing and most densely populated areas to each other, the city centre, our University and hospital, the new train station, Brandywell Stadium, and to the numerous other services and facilities which exist along that six mile route. The route could even begin in Burnfoot (near the large E&I Engineering facility?), thereby adding a cross-border element to the service.

Widening Buncrana Road will cost approx. £60million. If it is done in a way that just adds to Derry’s growing congestion and pollution, it will have been a monumental waste of money. We know that prevention is always better than cure. So, let’s take this golden opportunity to reduce Derry’s car dependency by introducing a high quality, state-of-the-art, attractive transport alternative. Let’s bring the Glider to Derry.

Steve Bradley is a commentator and regeneration consultant from Derry.