Our ever-growing capital needs transport solutions to keep visitors coming
It’s like déjà vu. The decision by An Bord Pleanála to have an oral hearing into the College Green Plaza proposal has seen many reaching for their previously aired arguments for rerelease. For some it is an opportunity to call for the removal of the private car from the city’s transport mix; while others point, with increasing anxiety, to the importance of car borne passengers to the city’s economy. While this is an interesting ideological discussion I fear the debate may be missing the wood for the trees.
The real debate should be how to create a city destination worth visiting while maximising the number of people that we can carry efficiently into the city.
On this occasion the discussion has taken an unusual twist with Dublin Bus expressing their concern that bus passengers may be forced to alight up to half a kilometre from their ultimate destination. The business community would share this concern. The general rule of thumb is that people are reluctant to walk more than 250m from their drop off point with that reluctance becoming increasingly intense after 500m. So the proposed positioning of re-routed buses has undoubted potential to impact negatively on the city’s vibrancy.
There are other serious access considerations. In particular, how do taxis maintain reasonable access to hotels such as the Westbury, the Fitzwilliam and the Drury Court, an access that is vital for their trade; and indeed how is coach traffic similarly maintained. When 31% of retail sales still comes from car borne shoppers how is access to the city’s limited 10,000 public car parking spaces maintained.
Car Park operators have claimed that their occupancy has reduced by 20-30% since recent traffic changes were introduced. This claim has some credibility when one considers that public transport providers have noted near double digit increases in passenger numbers while total city footfall has actually fallen since September 2017.
On the other side of the argument, it has to be recognised that the introduction of the Luas has created real challenges for east-west movement for all other transport modes. With a Luas going through College Green approximately every 2 minutes how do you accommodate buses, cars, bikes and pedestrians who wish to cross over it without serious delays or potential for dangerous conflicts.
In addition, it has to be acknowledged that the public wish to have a central plaza. Research conducted by Red C on behalf of DublinTown showed that the majority of Dubliners are enthusiastic about having a plaza. 45% of Dubliners said that they would be more likely to visit the city if the plaza was completed; many were enthusiastic about the idea of a continuous pedestrian zone from College Green straight through to Stephen’s Green. 81% said that this would make them feel safer in the city an important requirement when it comes to the vital family market. 65% believed that there would be initial confusion due to changed traffic flows but that these would soon bed down leaving a better city for them, their friends and their families. So on the face of it a thumbs up to the Plaza from the public. However, it is possible that they have not fully considered the extent of the access issues arising.
The complexity of the question is clear. There is no solution that will keep everyone happy. And to a large extent we must accept that we can’t get the right answer because we are not asking the right questions.
On average 300,000 people visit Dublin City Centre each day. DublinTown’s footfall cameras record almost 160m annual pedestrian movements in 13 city centre locations or almost 450,000 pedestrian movements per day, a figure that rises above 600,000 during the Christmas period. As the population and the economy grows we can expect these numbers to increase. The simple reality is that we cannot accommodate this level of movement unless we start knocking down buildings which nobody in their right mind would advocate or we could do what every other city does and accommodate movements underground.
We have and will have greater congestion unless we invest in our public transport systems. And I mean systems. We are at the point where all modes of transport need to network with each other, giving citizens and visitors the chance and choice to visit and traverse the city through a seamless and linked transport network. Our problems stem from the fact that we have continuously underinvested in our transport system and we will continue to experience greater and greater difficulties until we get it right.
The resolution of many of our difficulties are contained in the National Transport Authority’s plan for Dublin 2016-2035. However, we cannot wait for 20 years for solutions that should have been delivered 40 years ago. We need the delivery of the plan fast tracked to a period closer to 10 than 20 years. Also, we cannot accept sticking plaster solutions, sold to us as temporary measures designed to make some albeit inadequate inroads to our current difficulties. We cannot afford to go down cul-de-sacs with concepts that are obsolete at the time of design. We must systematically address the current deficiencies and must constantly remind ourselves of the social and economic consequences where we fail to get it right.
And so, back to the Plaza. In an ideal world DublinTown could be convinced that the Plaza can be accommodated and that transport by bus, bicycle and car could still be provided with reasonable access. At present we are becoming increasingly concerned that this circle cannot be squared in the current paradigm. Until then there is an argument that grows stronger by the day that the space to be yielded to the plaza will be required for bus passengers to alight and for enhanced access by car, coach and taxi to the city’s hotels and car parks.
So as a business group we have been forced to reserve judgement. The Plaza not only has merit, it has the potential to be a major draw for the city and one that equips the city to be better ready for the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century. We want to see it developed but also need to see how the numbers required to maintain the city’s vibrancy can still access the city centre core.
We may well find when the competing needs and wants of the city’s diverse canvass of stakeholders are mapped out that we cannot accommodate them all above ground and that the city’s progress relies on the fast tracking of our underground rail plans.
Opinion piece by Richard Guiney, CEO DublinTown.
Published in The Herald on Wednesday, 7th February 2018