Proposals to ban private cars from travelling along one of Dublin's busiest routes could transform the city centre within less than a year. But have the implications of the plan been properly thought through? asks Rosita Boland .
IT TAKES up to 50 minutes at rush hour to travel by bus between St Stephen's Green and Mountjoy Square, a distance of 2km, according to figures produced by Dublin Bus and quoted by Frank Fahey TD this week. This research contributed to the decision this week by the Oireachtas Committee on Transport, of which Fahey is chairman, to propose fast-tracking a car-free plan for the capital's city centre.
It may sometimes take up to 50 minutes to travel the route, but it certainly doesn't take that long on every rush-hour occasion. This reporter boarded a 46A on Lower Leeson Street at 7.46am on Thursday and got off at Mountjoy Square 16 minutes later. When boarding, the bus was less than a quarter full, and it didn't pick up any more people en route. Five people got off at Dawson Street at 7.50am and the bus travelled down Dame Street at 7.54am. It stopped on O'Connell Street, outside Penneys, at 7.56am to let 11 people alight, at which point I was the only person remaining on board. At 8.02am, the bus was at Mountjoy Square.
While the journey may have taken only 16 minutes on that occasion, nobody who currently drives, walks, cycles or uses public transport in city-centre Dublin can have failed to observe how clogged-up it is. This is particularly true around the area where Trinity College faces College Green, where frustrated pedestrians trying to cross roads can be seen jaywalking at any hour of the day.
Next week, the Oireachtas Committee on Transport will present to the Minister for Transport, Noel Dempsey, its proposals to fast-track by a year one of several existing traffic plans for the centre of Dublin. If these proposals are accepted, by April next year there will no longer be any through traffic of private cars on one of the city's busiest routes: the north-south axis that goes down O'Connell Street, along Westmoreland Street and College Green, and up Dame Street.
The plan is that only public transport, cyclists, taxis and cars accessing existing car parks in those areas will remain on that route. The committee has also proposed that the number of buses on Dublin streets be increased from 1,180 to 1,530 within two years.
Freeing up the route from some of the traffic that presently uses it should make for a quieter, calmer city centre, which is less intimidating to pedestrians.
SO HOW WILL it work? And what will happen to the existing private traffic on that route?
The reason the fast-tracking scheme is now being recommended relates to proposals for two additional temporary bridges across the River Liffey. One of these would link Hawkins Street and Marlborough Street, the other would be located close to the Samuel Beckett Bridge (or Macken Street Bridge), which is currently under construction. These "Bailey bridges", which are commonly in temporary use nowadays in urban centres, were originally designed for use by military engineering units and are robust enough to carry tanks. Depending on their size and the weight they can take, they can be constructed within a timescale which ranges from a morning to a few days. The new, permanent bridge at Macken Street, farther down the Liffey, is a 33-month project and is not due to be completed until 2010.
Michael Aherne, senior transportation planner at Dublin Transportation Office (DTO), says the intention is that the Hawkins Street Bailey bridge will be used only for public transport, travelling in both directions.
"We can't continue to provide for the car, because we will never satisfy the car," he says.
At present, according to Aherne, some 1,800 vehicles per hour travel along the traffic lanes that run between the Bank of Ireland and Trinity. He reckons that once motorists get used to the idea of the new restrictions - which, he points out, are not being brought in overnight - they will avoid the areas accordingly.
"If you're coming into Dublin from, say, Lucan, and you know you can't drive up or down Dame Street any longer, you plan your journey accordingly," he says. "Our plan is not to make Dublin city centre a no-go area, it's about freeing up road space."
"It's good to have vision, and I would love to live in a city that is car-free in the centre," says Conor Faughnan, public affairs manager with AA Roadwatch, of the proposals. "But we do have to be dragged back to reality, which is the state of our public transport. However, I'm critical of the fact that this plan perpetuates a myth that cars are the source of our traffic problems. It's like saying about the health service that there wouldn't be any problems if we didn't have so many sick people. In London, where there is an excellent public transport system, 87 per cent of all commuters use public transport. In Dublin, only 20 per cent of commuters can use public transport, because it currently serves only 20 per cent of commuters."
One of the obvious questions the public will be asking about these proposals is the simple one - where will the existing traffic of private cars on that route be directed to? It proved hard to obtain a clear answer this week. The Irish Times submitted the following questions to Dublin City Council: What is the council's proposed traffic management plan for the existing traffic of private cars on that axis? Where will it be rerouted to? When will the plan be published, or make public?
Dublin City Council did not answer any of these questions, despite repeated attempts to make contact.
"The two Bailey bridges, plus the Macken Street Bridge, taken together, are an essential part of the Traffic Management Plan," Frank Fahey confirms. "If we don't make it possible for buses to run freely through the city centre, then the public won't use them."
So where will private cars be rerouted to, apart from over the Bailey bridge near Macken Street Bridge?
"It's not our business to get involved in that kind of detail," Fahey says, pointing out that Dublin City Council, the DTO and other agencies are involved in the Traffic Management Plan.
"We are welcoming this transport plan because of the pedestrian enhancement to the city it offers," states Aebhric McGibney, director of policy and communications with Dublin Chamber of Commerce. "It will make the city more shopper-friendly, tourist-friendly and family-friendly."
However, McGibney reports that the Chamber of Commerce has certain reservations about the plan.
"Yes, it's important to have a vision for the kind of city we would like to have," he says. "But we don't believe in closing off the city centre to cars unless, first, there is a proper public transport service in place. The city centre still needs to work for people travelling to work, and Dublin has a severe public transport deficit. It will be a challenge to implement that plan by April 2009. It's important to have a full traffic plan to see how current traffic flows will be affected - we need to see where those motorists are trying to get to and from. And we need to know that the city centre is still open for business."
Peat's World of Electronics on Dame Street opened two years ago. "When I read the plans," says manager Tom Strain, "it seemed a bit as if someone had made these decisions without consulting the businesses in the area. I'm not clear, for instance, what the arrangements will be for deliveries. And we regularly have customers drawing up outside to collect their purchases - so will they still be able to do that?"
OVERALL, THOUGH, Strain is pleased with the proposals. "Dame Street will be a lot cleaner. And quieter. We sell a lot of sound systems here, so it will help us that way to have a lot less background noise."
The DTO says businesses and the public will be consulted at a future stage of the planning.
The Pen Corner, on the corner of Trinity Street and Dame Street, has been run by the same family, the Fitzgeralds, for 80 years at the same location. For the last 20 of those, owner John Fitzgerald has been working there.
"What I see at that corner when I look out is a huge number of pedestrians trying to cross at a very dangerous junction," he says. "We're Irish, and we love to jaywalk. From the shop, we see on average one accident a week due to jaywalking."
He is supportive of the transport plan, pointing out that the noise and pollution from the current levels of traffic are "terrible" and that less traffic will favour pedestrians using Dame Street. "What I see increasingly in city-centre traffic are motorists who go from zero to 60mph over the space of a few yards, which is very dangerous for pedestrians stranded on traffic islands, some of them still trying to cross."