Sunday 20 May 2018

Dublin can be heaven... until the gridlock hits

Retailers have been feeling the pinch of traffic chaos caused since the new Luas line opened last December and the changes are still coming. John Meagher reports

Vision for future: Graeme McQueen of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce says the Government needs to fast-track some of its transport projects. Photo: Mark Condren
Vision for future: Graeme McQueen of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce says the Government needs to fast-track some of its transport projects. Photo: Mark Condren

Adrian Cummins has no interest in mincing his words. "I've got in trouble about saying this before, but I'm going to say it again, anyway," the chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland says. "The powers-that-be in Dublin City Council are pushing a cycling agenda and are anti-car - at least when it comes to the city centre."

Cummins is annoyed by plans to turn College Green in the heart of the city into a pedestrian zone, but one where the Luas Cross City and cyclists will also be given precedence. "Are young women on a night out going to get dolled up and then jump on DublinBikes in their high heels?" he says. "Is that how they're going to get around?"

Proposals to pedestrianise this historic core of Dublin - to create a grand €10m civic plaza - have been widely debated over the past 12 months, but Cummins has several reservations about how it will work. "Where is the traffic that goes through that area now supposed to go? It probably looks good on paper, but could it work in reality?"

For now, he - like other business industry bosses - have more pressing concerns about Dublin's south-inner city. "It's gridlock along Dame Street, College Green and Westmoreland Street for large chunks of the day," he says. "It's got so much worse since the Luas begun there [last December] and you would have thought that the council would have had more contingency plans to deal with the traffic once the tram began running."

The arrival of the much-heralded extension of the light rail service has led to traffic problems that took even senior planners at Dublin City Council by surprise. In January and February, social media was ablaze with images of a corridor of stationary buses snaking down the length of Dame Street. Cross-city journeys that used to take 20 minutes in rush hour were now taking more than an hour. Disgruntled staff were having to exit their buses several stops earlier; others were showing up late for work and meetings.

Long trams, running to 55m, had been planned well in advance but their arrival did not go as smoothly as some may have hoped. One celebrated photo showed a newly elongated Luas stuck on O'Connell Bridge and hampering the flow of traffic on both north and south quays.

Then, the council diverted several Dublin Bus routes from the Dame Street/College Green area and - much to the consternation of the taxi unions - prohibited cabs going southbound for three hours of the day.

The measures have been unpopular with many, but the chronic gridlock has improved, even if people like Graeme McQueen of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce says there's a feeling that the council is taking a "piecemeal" approach to alleviating traffic congestion in the city centre.

"I've no doubt that traffic management is a very difficult thing to do but it seems as though there hasn't been a strong overall policy," he says. "They knew Luas Cross City would have an impact for years before it started for business, but don't seem to have thought out how to accommodate the traffic that would be using the same streets as the Luas."

A survey by the Chamber showed last month that the overwhelming majority of members feel Dublin congestion is impacting unfavourably on them. Seventy three per cent of its members reported that traffic problems have had an increasingly negative impact on their business since the start of December, which coincided with the launch of the new Luas Cross City green line extension.

Around one in three firms said that the negative effect of traffic congestion had increased "a lot", while 44pc said the impact had worsened "a little".

McQueen says the Chamber is calling on the Government to fast-track many of the transport projects earmarked for Dublin in the Ireland 2040 plan. "Less than one in five businesses surveyed said that they think the Government is doing enough to improve Dublin's transport infrastructure," he says. "And more than two-thirds said they do not believe the Government is doing enough on the infrastructure front in Dublin."

Several ambitious transport plans had been set in stone for Dublin, including an underground train service, but they were scrapped after the economic crash of 2008. Only one - the construction of the Luas Cross City - was carried out and completed and that was because it was by far the cheapest option.

"In hindsight, it really would have been better to focus on going underground because there are obviously congestion issues when a light rail system has to share the road network with private cars and buses," McQueen says. "Look at similarly sized cities - like Copenhagen - and they've developed metros. It helps to alleviate the problems above ground."

Underground for 2027

An underground was supposed to have opened last year - and may have done had the recession not happened. Now, back on the table, MetroLink will run from Swords in north Co Dublin to Sandyford and take in Dublin Airport. Construction will start soon, although it has not been without its problems with prominent GAA club Na Fianna among those concerned about how above-ground work will affect them. If all goes to plan it will open in 2027.

It's a long time to wait, especially when some believe traffic in the city centre is showing signs of worsening. Richard Guiney, CEO of the DublinTown initiative - a grouping of business owners and creative professionals in the heart of the city - says there is frustration over a lack of a definite strategy to ease traffic, and not just at rush hour.

"There has been talk about buses stopping at High Street [in Christchurch] to facilitate pedestrianisation of College Green and people having to walk into the Grafton Street area from there. It's 530 metres between the two and we just don't think it's feasible that shoppers will walk that distance, especially if carrying heavy bags. Our surveys show 250 metres is about as far as people will willingly walk when they go into the city centre to shop."

Dublin City Council say there are no plans for buses to terminate on High Street and it points out that the future plan is that many of the routes will travel down Dame Street, stop, and then turn back. But Dublin Bus has suggested that some routes may have to terminate at Winetavern Street in Christchurch in order to facilitate the College Green plans. In a hard-hitting statement, it suggested that such a move would be "socially regressive" due to the large number of people travelling into the city from disadvantaged areas and being deposited much further away from their work than is the case now.

Meanwhile, Richard Guiney says the appeal of the city centre is showing no sign of abating, especially when footfall exceeds 600,000 people at busy times of year, such as the run up to Christmas. "Those people have to be catered for so any future strategies need to be mindful that some people will still need their car. Not everybody is happy to cycle."

Dublin City Council's most senior traffic planner, Brendan O'Brien, has heard all of the complaints and is sympathetic, but he rejects the idea suggested by some business owners who spoke to Review that they were not informed of future traffic management plans."We have publicised it widely and have consulted with businesses in the area," he says. "Those businesses on the doorstep of College Green are very much in favour of the proposals."

O'Brien believes the creation of a College Green civic plaza will come to be seen as a fundamental part of the Dublin of the future. He hopes that tomorrow's generations will look at photos of the traffic-choked area in front of Trinity College and to the side of Bank of Ireland - the former Grattan's Parliament - and wonder how the populace could possibly have tolerated such conditions in a site of great historical and civic importance.

"We're working on Euro 2020 at the moment - Dublin will host four matches - and obviously College Green, were it pedestrianised, would have been an ideal place for a [Uefa-designated] fan zone." He says that even if An Bord Pleanála green-lights the proposals as they are now, it simply won't be possible to have College Green fully pedestrianised by then.

"We have about the same number of people passing through College Green as uses the M50 [one way] on a daily basis [approximately 80,000] but obviously nobody would want them all to be in private cars. The vast majority of people are on foot, on public transport or on bicycles. The numbers of cars going though there has been cut massively, mainly because private cars are not permitted in the area between 7am and 7pm every day. Car users have already found alternative ways to get around."

Numbers commuting to the city centre have returned to the highs of the late Celtic Tiger years but O'Brien says they are getting about in a very different way. "Car use has gone down significantly," he says. "There has been a huge rise in the number of people cycling into the city and those numbers continue to grow."

The introduction of the DublinBikes scheme in 2009 greatly helped boost the number of daily cyclists and O'Brien points to initiatives such as the Port Tunnel and dedicated bus and cycle lanes have encouraged more people to rethink their car use. He says 32pc of commuters used cars to get into the city centre in 2016. Two years on and the proportion is down to 30pc.

"I think there's an appetite out there for less cars in the city centre," he says, "but Dublin City Council is not anti-car. We put a huge amount of work into making the rest of the city - and it's vast - works as well as it can. And the car is fundamental to making that happen."

Contentious 'Corpo' traffic plans through the years

GIANT BUS STATION IN TEMPLE BAR

The Temple Bar that we know today may have looked entirely different had plans drawn up by the German traffic planner Karl Schaechterle in the 1960s come to pass. He saw the historic region to the south of the Liffey as the perfect place to locate a massive bus station - and the city planners largely seemed to agree with him.

Right up to the 1980s, his controversial proposals looked like they were going to come to fruition, but Temple Bar got an unexpected lease of life as something of a bohemian quarter as a result of the artists and creative people who had moved there to work, thanks to the cheap rent. Schaechterle's scheme was abandoned at the end of the decade and a regeneration of the area kicked off in 1991.

ROAD-WIDENING IN THE LIBERTIES

The dramatic increase in car use from the Lemass years of the mid-1960s led to severe congestion problems in Dublin, especially on the narrow streets leading into the city.

Corporation planners thought the key way to address the problem was to widen roads, effectively putting dual-carriageways into historic areas. There was considerable anger from conservationists when it was announced that Cork Street and several streets in the historic core of the Liberties would be widened.

Their pleas to retain the character of St Patrick's and St Nicholas's streets fell on deaf ears as the bulldozers moved in. Road widening also forever changed the character of Cuffe Street in the south inner city and Parnell Street, on the northside.

PEDESTRIANISATION OF GRAFTON STREET

The country's most prestigious shopping street was pedestrianised for a six-month trail period in the early 1970s but cars would not be permanently banned there until 1982.

Today, it's impossible to imagine the street full of traffic but there was considerable opposition to the move at the time. Many businesses expressed concern that pedestrianisation would hamper trade - but the opposite turned out to be the case and by the early 2000s, the street was commanding some of the highest rents per square metre in the world.

@johnmeaghermuso

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