SUPPORTING GREATER use of public transport in car-clogged British cities must become one of the UK's highest priorities, said Commission for Integrated Transport chairman Professor David Begg last week.
Rising public transport fares and lenient parking rules in modern cities encourage car use, Begg warned.
Speaking at a lecture on congestion charging at Queen's University, Belfast, Begg outlined different traffic control measures which could be employed to meet the needs of different cities.
In historic cities such as Edinburgh and London, central retail and business areas are clearly defined and car use is high. This allows congestion charging zones to be clearly defined and applied where most needed.
But cities such as Belfast, which have developed with car use in mind, could find it more difficult to restrict use of the motor car.
ICE Northern Ireland chairman David Orr claimed that congestion charging in Belfast could serve as a death knell for the local economy.
'Belfast does not have a central business zone that can be cordoned off as a congestion charging area, ' he said.
Begg agreed, adding that introducing a charging zone would drive businesses out of cities like Belfast, Liverpool or Glasgow.
According to Northern Ireland's Department for Regional Development it will not be considering congestion charging in Belfast until 2015, when it predicts car use will have risen to unsustainable levels.
But Begg urged the city to start restraining car use to ward off ensuing congestion problems.
Public transport fares in Northern Ireland have risen by 10% over the past five years, driving more and more people to travel into town in their cars.
Begg expressed fears that the rising numbers of cars will force further fare hikes as operators struggle to maintain services with fewer passengers.
The problem of car use is heightened in Belfast because the city's police force is underresourced and carries out very little parking enforcement.
Parking enforcement is complicated by the fact that offences fall under criminal law and so can only be dealt with by the police.
By 2006, the Northern Ireland Assembly plans to decriminalise parking offences, allowing the highways authority to manage enforcement. This should enable parking to be more strictly enforced and deter people from driving into the city.
Money from fines would be ploughed back into traffic management instead of going to the treasury.
Begg said a further deterrent to driving into Belfast city centre would be to reduce the number of parking spaces and tap into national network charging.