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'Galway has morphed into a small city - but we're stuck with the services of a town'

Traffic jams are not just for Race Week, says Niall O Tuathail; they are now a year-round problem.

Niall Ó Tuathail Social Democrat candidate for Galway West

THERE’S NO PLACE like Galway in the festival season. As the International Arts Festival ends and the Galway Races begin, visitors may be surprised at the traffic problems and even more surprised to know that this is a year-round problem.

During my 33 years, Galway has changed from a large town to a small city. But we haven’t done a good job of managing that change. Housing estate after housing estate has sprung up with little additional services in the form of public transport, cycle lanes, community centres or local businesses.

No real choice for Galway families

Our city centre was never really developed and where it was we had mostly poor-quality apartments with few families being given the real choice to live in the city centre. Unsurprisingly then, more than half of Galway families have two or more cars and we spend more time stuck in traffic instead of being with our loved ones.

It is welcome that government seems willing to back major infrastructure investments for the city, with City Council saying there is around €1 billion to spend on our transport strategy. At some point, an Irish government must also secure significant funding for a big home and office building programme for Galway city. The decisions Galway makes about transport and housing in the next few years will define our city and how much time we spend in traffic for a generation.

Patchwork of unsafe cycle lanes

So far, unfortunately, I’m not hopeful. On transport, much hope is placed on a bypass that I suspect will make some difference once opened but will cost a lot of money, encourage even more poorly planned housing estates, and will only delay the inevitable need to switch from cars to public transport and cycling. We have been slow to develop a decent bus network and we have a patchwork of unsafe cycle lanes.

On housing, we have incredible potential to reimagine our city centre with a large land bank around the docks and train station as well as canals and a river that could be residential centre-pieces for the city. But we have been slow to develop ambitious plans that Galwegians have had a say in, and instead, we depend on a mish-mash of different private proposals that are likely to end up in lengthy planning disputes.

A view of cars in the carpark Cars parked up at Ballybrit for the Galway Races this time last year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It doesn’t need to be this way. In most European cities, like Lisbon, where I lived for two years and where my first child was born, there is a decent public transport system. Couples are genuinely happy to raise families in well-designed apartments with good sized rooms and a homely feel.

How to fix this

Cafes, shops and playgrounds are available within short walking distance. Offices, factories and shops are spread across the city meaning people have the choice to live closer to work, shortening commute times. In some (rainy) European cities, particularly in the Netherlands and Denmark, cycling has become a very convenient, healthy and cheap way to get to and from work, with bikes now outnumbering cars in cities like Copenhagen.

We can follow these examples and build a Galway that will thrive as we grow. But we need to make two hard choices – building upwards and having alternatives to driving. Building upwards is crucial to having a sustainable city.

This means giving families a real choice – to either move to the suburbs or to instead be able to raise children in high-quality downtown apartments with access to quality public transport, services, playgrounds and community facilities.

We cannot separate the debate about building upwards from the debate about traffic. As more people live in a smaller area, it becomes attractive for local businesses like cafes, restaurants and shops to open up, meaning people need to travel into town less and reducing traffic.

With €1 billion to invest, the real question on big projects like the bypass or a light rail system for Galway is not whether they will make things better. The answer to that is clearly yes. The real question is what is the best way to spend our money to improve traffic and improve our quality of life in the longer term.

A proper school bus system

For me, I believe that money is best spent on developing a public bus network in city and county that is frequent, reliable and affordable, along with a network of safe segregated cycle lanes in the city and greenways in the county. Imagine if there was a proper school bus system that unclogged our city in the morning – just look at the difference in traffic between school term and holidays.

Imagine if we could leave the car at home for the week and read a book while on the bus into work each day. Imagine if we had a cycle and walkway that stretched from the Prom to Barna, and a cycling greenway that went from Clifden to Dublin.

Imagine if we felt safe with our 8-year-olds cycling to school because we had generous cycle lanes the way the Dutch do. If we invest our money wisely and with some ambition, we can hope to welcome the world to Galway for the races and arts festivals without forcing our visitors to sit in traffic.

Niall Ó Tuathail lives in Galway and is the Social Democrats’ Dáil candidate for the Galway West constituency.

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About the author:

Niall Ó Tuathail  / Social Democrat candidate for Galway West

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