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. 

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.