Friday 15 December 2017

Ideology and theory threaten to stop traffic in Dublin city centre

Critics say the council's plans to pedestrianise the city centre will stymie nascent recovery in the capital. Donal Lynch heard their concerns.

Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It's a Friday lunchtime at Arnotts department store in Dublin city centre and trade is brisk. A steady stream of customers have kept the tills ringing all morning in keeping with the broader recovery in consumer confidence which has bloomed in 2015. Profits increased to €12.5m last year and most observers expect that this year will be even better. But while the resurgence of the iconic store seems like one of the more visible signs of recovery it still feels a little precarious.

Proof of the fragility of consumer confidence is right down the street. The closure of Clerys, which was thought by some to have benefited Arnotts, in fact caused a decrease in footfall on O'Connell Street, and, according those who run it, Arnotts' nascent recovery could be stymied by any number of factors. Chief among these, according to its CEO Ray Hernan, is the "ideological and highly theoretical" proposal by Dublin City Council to pedestrianise large swathes of the city centre, including College Green, Westland Row and Suffolk Street.

The Dublin City Centre Transport Study proposes a €150m investment on greater facilities for walking, cycling and public transport, and includes restrictions on private cars and taxis, while adding wider footpaths. The study looks at dramatically altering two major transport corridors through the city, east-west along the quays, and from College Green to Parnell Square. Traffic planners say these route are like "highways" curtailing access within the city and the study proposes "through traffic" would be diverted to more orbital routes (which are ill-defined).

The proposals, which were drawn up with the aid of the National Transport Authority, have been available for consultation from June by members of the public and interested parties in the city's libraries and on the city council website. The deadline for these was recently extended by three weeks. Some of the measures proposed are already included within the City Development Plan but others will require planning permission.

According to some major retailers in the city centre, the problems with the study and the consultation process are wide-ranging. "To put it quite simply, under the proposed plans we will not be able to accept deliveries; we will not be able to get goods into our store", Hernan says.

"And it's debatable whether customers will be able to get goods out of the store especially if they can't bring them to their cars. There is an underlying assumption that runs though the whole proposal that those customers who are not allowed to drive into the city centre in the future will migrate to bikes, public transport and walking. That's a big leap. We were at peak volume for cars in the city centre in 2006 - car traffic volumes have dropped 17pc since then - but the figures in the study still derive from that period," he adds.

Owen Keegan, Dublin City Council boss, is a veteran of unpopular wars on traffic. He introduced clamping to the city in 1998 when he was the director of traffic for the council. More than 56,000 vehicles were clamped in the capital in 2014, resulting in more than €4.2m in fees to the council, but clamping's efficacy in improving traffic flow remains controversial.

During his tenure as Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown council boss, he undertook an ambitious spending programme and approved of a controversial and experimental roundabout system in Killiney Towers that incorporated a cycle lane which, after much debate and confusion, had to be rebuilt at a cost of almost €500,000. On Keegan's watch, the retail sector in the borough was hit hard by parking rates which have been described as "punitive"; the journalist John Waters briefly went to jail in protest.

Keegan is perhaps most closely associated with the Garth Brooks debacle last summer, in which five proposed concerts by the country music superstar could not go ahead, in part because of of the council's refusal to grant permission for them. It was estimated that the loss to the local economy was some €50m, with Keegan later saying that he felt the long-term needs of the city took precedence over "short-term commercial or economic considerations."

Now it seems the commercial and economic considerations of a local economy struggling back to its feet are again playing second fiddle to the concerns of Dublin City Council. Thomas Burke of IBEC, a body which represents retailers, last week urged the council and the Department of Transport to increase the level of consultation with the retail community in the city and to reconsider the elements of the proposals which relate to traffic management and accessibility. "The industry directly employs 27pc of Dublin's entire private sector workforce - a total of some 70,000 people. The overwhelming majority of large city-centre business owners we've spoken to have expressed serious concern at the plans as currently set out and the impact they would have on footfall and turnover."

Burke points out that the shops in the city centre already face serious competition from out-of-town centres like Dundrum and Liffey Valley, and this will only intensify if shoppers are prevented from driving in the city centre.

"A vibrant city centre is important for Dublin. These proposals have the potential to suck the life out of the city centre, is that really what they want?"

It's not just the retail sector that is dubious of the proposed changes. Katie Cantwell, who owns and runs the KC Peaches chain of cafes across the city centre, told the Sunday Independent: "I am opposed to this proposal as I do not believe that current or planned public transport can support the flow of people into the city centre. If they could ramp up public transport to ensure the flow of people to the city centre would remain consistent to current levels, I would be interested in reviewing this further."

Not everyone is against the proposed changes however. At Cafe Napoli on Westland Row, one of the streets which will be accessible only to public transport under the plan, the manager, Jovita, explained that the proposals will have "little impact on business, and if there is an impact it might be positive.

"Most of our customers come from the Dart, so perhaps there will be even more of those if (pedestrianisation) goes ahead. We serve a lot of tourists who come to see the house where Oscar Wilde was born. It's a very busy street and they have no space to stand back to look at it or take a picture. I think it would be an improvement for them if the street was pedestrianised."

Supporters of the proposed plans also point out that pedestrianisation of Grafton Street was fought tooth and nail in the late 1970s. People even marched to protest the plan, which was delayed for a number of years, whereas now the street is the most commercially attractive in the country and nobody would want to see it opened to traffic.

To walk through Dublin city centre is to experience irritatingly and sometimes dangerously-packed footpaths which have struggled to accommodate a resurgent workforce and the record tourist numbers which have arrived this summer.

Dublin is already the fourth most congested city in all of Europe, and if the city centre's slow slide into permanent gridlock continues that too may have an adverse impact on the local economy.

But for retailers there is a balance to be struck and perhaps none is better positioned to articulate this than Stephen Sealey of Brown Thomas, which straddles pedestrian and non-pedestrian Dublin.

He told the Sunday Independent: "We are not opposed to change, we're open to it, in fact, and something does need to be done. Brown Thomas's own success has been based on reinvention. But these plans are not thought through. The big issue is that the plan is very light on specifics and it really fails to understand the importance of the car user in the economy of the city. 28pc of the spend in the city centre comes from people travelling by car. For Brown Thomas that's between 40pc and 50pc," he adds.

"The plan also fails to distinguish between the commuter and the leisure-user. It doesn't understand the mentality of the car-borne shopper. If you make it difficult for them they'll go elsewhere. This plan will not get the city where it needs to go, it will be destructive in the short term and will not achieve its goals in the long term."

And he points out that the proposals are already having an effect on the way businesses are run: "Frankly, these plans will cause [Brown Thomas] to reconsider some investment plans we had in the city centre. That's the reality."

Sunday Independent

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