On the Glider: Belfast’s new bus rapid transit system has triggered a political row over bus stop names

A Glider outside Belfast City Hall. Image: Nick Birse/Wikimedia Commons.

Is it a tram? Is it a bendy-bus? Is it a bendy-bus-tram? 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 (BRT) system 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 BRT 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: around 30,000 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 – the average person in Northern Ireland making 81.5 per cent of all their journeys by car, compared to 63 per cent in the whole UK - the Glider seems to be getting, at least some people, out of their cars and onto the purple-bendy-bus-tram. 

The central Belfast section of the route map. Image: Translink.

The launch of the scheme has not been without controversy: in 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 – “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”, even though the bus stop on the site was called that already. She 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 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, consider 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, here). 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 – and 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 mis-timed traffic singles in the city’s 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 problems with the ticketing system…

Within a week of the Glider launching, a petition was started to get rid of the bus and restrictions altogether. And yet, the bus lanes remain and the city appears to be getting used to its new BRT – it’s standing room only during rush hour. 

So: is it a tram? A bendy-bus? Or just a long purple bus running on that not-quite-continuous network of bus lanes? 

Yes, it’s a bus: but 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, and the third most congested. It’s a positive change in a city that has the highest rate of obesity and the highest rate of avoidable deaths.

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. 

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.