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Dublin: 26 °C Sunday 22 July, 2018
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'There is just not enough space for private cars, taxis, buses, cyclists and trams'

It is truly a wonder why local business groups are not begging us to ban cars, let alone trying to scupper plans, writes Paddy Smyth.

Paddy Smyth Fine Gael Councillor

LONG BEFORE THE economist William Foster Lloyd coined the phrase ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, Dublin City’s fathers had restricted the grazing of animals to freemen of the city, ie those who could be called upon to defend it.

This was the most effective use of a common asset, as giving unfettered access to all would only lead to its destruction. This is something we must still strive to do today, with all of the city’s assets.

Now that the city’s grasslands are no longer under immediate threat from the livestock of common folk, the most important finite resource we have as a city is undoubtedly the public space itself. Therefore we must always ask the question: what is the most effective way to use this asset over which, as citizen’s, we all have equal claim?

Gridlock

As the economy recovers and levels of traffic increase, we are coming close to gridlock in the city centre. This not only increases transit times for those in private cars, but also clogs the system for those using buses and trams. The latter modes being more efficient at moving people around the city.

It is planned to ban cars from College Green to allow the Luas to run effectively and to create a large civic plaza. This will join the already pedestrianised Grafton and Henry Street areas via the west side of Westmoreland and O’Connell Streets, creating a pedestrian friendly spine though the city centre.

This proposal has proven controversial.

Anti-car ideology

There has being much complaint from motorist, parking and business groups that the reconfiguration of city centre’s roads in favour of walking, cycling and public transport will be detrimental to the city. They have accused the city council’s management of being motivated by an “anti-car ideology”, and that they have no mandate to make decisions with such broad ramifications.

The truth is that these changes, although justified in their own right, are being forced upon us by the recent opening of the Luas Cross City. There is simply not enough space to allow private cars, taxis, buses, cyclists and trams to compete for space at certain pinch points and have anything other than gridlock.

Many people will have at least conceded the fact that more sustainable modes of transport are better for the city in not just environmental terms but also economic, societal, and for the health, both physical and mental, of its citizens. But they will still argue that we simply do not have the public transport infrastructure in place at present to allow for the transition away from a car centric society.

Misses the point

This argument however completely misses the point above, that the very reason we are making these changes is primarily because the Luas, which we have just spent hundreds of millions of euro extending, necessitates this major reconfiguration if it is to run efficiently.

Another flashpoint for the doomsayers is the recent reconfiguration of the north quays, previously the site of the city’s greatest number of bus delays, which saw certain sections reduced to a single lane for private cars in order to give more space to bus lanes.

The improvement in travel times and reliability for the thousands of bus users – 14 times as many as car commuters use this stretch during rush hour - appears not to be an important factor to the critics.

If you insist on accusing the city council’s management, planners and transport engineers of being anti-car or pro sustainable transport zealots, it is worth noting that you are unlikely to find a single urban traffic manager or transport economist anywhere in the world who would argue against decreasing the amount of public space dedicated to the private motor car, in ANY city.

Proof of the pudding

If you were to lobby the city councils of Copenhagen or Amsterdam to reverse their decades long move away from reliance on the private car, you would be laughed out of town. This is because their investment in sustainable transport modes has been a massive boon to their economies and the quality of life of their citizens.

Similar moves more recently in New York City under its former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to make the notoriously busy streets more cycle and pedestrian friendly were met with the same type of doom-merchantry from both business and residential groups.

They too were afraid that discouraging people from using cars to access their neighbourhoods or business districts would lead to decreased footfall and a decline in business and property values. Just a few short years later, wherever these policies were implemented, business and property values have significantly outperformed neighbouring areas.

It is impossible not to make a comparison between our plans to redesign College Green to that of  Bloomberg’s (in reality  it was his Traffic Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan’s) 2009 conversion of Time Square from hostile traffic sewer to an inviting pedestrian friendly civic space.

Bloomberg, the billionaire financier, was notorious for his insistence that all policies affecting the city should be scrutinised in objective measures and that all of the city’s capital assets, including transportation and land, be utilised in the most effective manner.

As it happens, initially the Mayor was not in favour of the plan to radically reconfigure such an iconic space as Times Square, subsequently telling a reporter: “Well, first I thought it was the stupidest idea I’d ever heard. Ten minutes later she (Sadik-Khan) had convinced me.”

Hysterical local press

New Yorkers were supplied by the local press with the same hysterical (in its pejorative sense) predictions with no objective basis to which Dubliners are now being treated. Mostly these were about how the changes would lead to “traffic chaos” in the area around the square and kill off local businesses.

Not only did the traffic chaos never materialise, it actually improved  in the surrounding streets. Using the GPS in every one of the city’s thirteen thousand iconic yellow cabs, NYC traffic engineers can track changes in traffic flows with incredible granularity. They found that despite removing two and half acres of roadway, traffic moved 7% faster in the area.

And as for pedestrians, footfall spiked immediately after the redesign and as any rate payer in the city will tell you: increased footfall means increased business.

Just five years after the commencement of the project a 2014 review showed that business revenues in Times Square after the reconfiguration increased by an astounding 71%, leading to a 180% increase in shop lets around the square.

Based on these figures, not to mention the unequivocal success of the small stretches of pedestrianisation already in Dublin, it is truly a wonder why local business groups are not begging us to implement these changes, let alone trying to scupper them.

Paddy Smyth is a Fine Gael Councillor representing Rathgar-Rathmines on Dublin City Council.

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About the author:

Paddy Smyth  / Fine Gael Councillor

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