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Two Feet Good

Two Feet Good – Patrick Ryan’s debut article for the Fountain Newswire’s questions our City’s policy to Pedestrians

Ah, 2024.

According to the talking heads on television over the last week it’s set to be the Year of Elections, as the public go to the polls all across the world, including in Ireland where we will elect representatives to the local council, the European Parliament and in all likelihood Dáil Éireann. For those strolling down to the nearest voting centres in Dublin South-Central the issues won’t differ that much from in any other constituency.

Housing will be top of the agenda, along with healthcare, crime, education, and climate control, the latter linked closely to the the slow strangulation of the city by traffic.

Decisions over planning permission for desperately needed new developments and traffic impact upon all our lives, whether we have secure and affordable accommodation or not, and irrespective of whether we own a car or rely on public transport.

Ultimately we all vote with our feet though, which is appropriate because in Dublin pedestrians are second-rate citizens. “Four wheels – or even two wheels – good, two legs bad” is a mantra that sums it up pretty well.

We’re really struggling to cut emissions from transport by 50% over the coming years and hit our legally-binding climate targets. These dropped by only 1.9% in 2022, for example, something Dublin Bus CEO Billy Hann noted as he made a strong case for discrimination in favour of public transport to the Oireachtas Transport Committee last November.

“We need to move from a city of brakes lights to a city of buses, bikes and boulevards, just like some of our European peers such as Amsterdam and Paris,” Hann declared. It’s interesting that buses and bikes warranted a mention in that comment, but not pedestrians.

Every bus journey begins and ends with a commuter walking to, or from, a bus stop.

Since it’s formation in 1993 the Dublin Cycling Campaign has consistently spoken up about the problems of battling both buses and cars for space, yet despite the fact that our city’s transport officials have highlighted both walking and cycling as key to the future of the latest Dublin City Centre Transport Plan, us pedestrians once more draw the short straw.

“Us pedestrians” is the correct term here. Rich or poor, young or old, we are all pedestrians and because of that all other ways of getting from A to B have to take second place. Looking at old photos of Dublin you’re struck by how the streets seem wider than today, and of course they were since car ownership has soared with each passing decade and these private vehicles are now a semi-permanent fixtures outside many of our homes. Between 1995 and 2015 in Ireland more than a million new cars rolled out of showrooms, and there’s some 2.2 million of them in the country today.

The public footpaths have also narrowed. Our population is now about 6 million, the highest rate since the Famine, so whether walking, pushing prams or moving in wheelchairs we are competing with bicycles and e-scooters, often deemed too dangerous to use on the roads by their riders, for every metre of space.

Powered Personal Transporters (or PPTs as they’re officially known) were recently regulated under the Road Traffic and Roads Act 2023, and machines such as e-bikes and e-scooters are now treated in the same way as yer auld Aunt Sally’s beloved High Nelly once they have a maximum power of 250/w500 watts, a maximum weight of 25 kilos, and a maximum speed of 25 km per hour.

It’s worth noting that in the press release announcing this change last year Department of Transport reminded us that: “E-bikes, like bicycles, are not permitted to use footpaths or motorways.”

The reality on the ground, so the speak, is rather different though and has been for some time. 20 years ago a garda I knew based in Pearse Street said that the front desk took about half-a-dozen complaints from the public on any day about cyclists weaving in and our among pedestrians in the city centre, which remains something we still encounter daily, while footage of e-scooters tootling along motorways is now regularly shared on social media.

In June last year an elderly woman tragically lost her life in hospital after being hit by a man riding an e-scooter on Eccles Street, and most of us can relate stories anecdotally of hits, of similar near misses with family and friends.

As these machine become cheaper, more plentiful and more popular thanks to ever efficient manufacturing techniques and new materials, their numbers will invariably increase. Back in 2020 retailer Halfords saw sales in e-scooters rise 700% over 24 months.

A rise in the density of housing seems equally inevitable. We failed to meet our city’s accommodation needs for decades and the pressure on the future governments, and the planners, mean that Dublin’s destined to become a high rise city in the near future. North of the Liffey we’ve seen applications go through for several apartment complexes rising to a dozen or more storeys high on streets where three of four storeys were the norm, including Drumcondra. Local residents regularly hold protests at 7am over vehicles mounting footpaths which in places are barely a metre wide. The need for apartments, and driver desperation isn’t limited to the northside of course as people living in Kilmainham and other suburbs know all too well.

Higher apartment complexes mean more people, more pedestrians, more prams, more bikes, more e-scooters, and of course more traffic. Every click on Amazon results in another parcel being packed into a van, and while drone deliveries may be a long term solution for now everything you buy will be delivered by a lorry to the store or a van to your door.

Futures like this seem so gloomy they make Elmo look like Ebenezer Scrooge but if the powers-that-be don’t take action to ensure pride of place goes to pedestrians we’re the ones who will look like muppets.

If that’s the prediction, what’s the solution? It’s simple to state, but not easy to implement.

The gardai and Dublin City Council have a crucial role here. Both need to implement the existing laws which bans riding bikes or scooters on pedestrian paths. That begins with a public information campaign to remind all citizens that these rules will be enforced, and also contain some sort of penalty, probably in the form of a fine, to ensure people accept this status quo.

That will require leadership from local and national government and a proper response from An Garda Síochána .

Such a move is not likely to go down too well with cyclist and – scooterists? – who’ll argue, with some justification, that the roads are too dangerous to use commuting on their machines.

But that, as they say, is another column.


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