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. 

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.