In this Saturday big read, our journalists explore the challenges facing Dublin, Cork and Galway as they eventually emerge from lockdown
As Covid-19 restrictions begin to ease, how will some of Ireland's major cities eventually emerge from lockdown?
PLANTS drooped in hanging baskets, the clothes in shop windows were a season out of date and the remnants of decorations from a hastily abandoned St Patrick’s Day still hung in doorways.
But other than those sorry reminders, Dublin on day four of phase one of the great reopening looked a lot like Dublin before anyone had ever heard of Covid-19.
At least, from a traffic perspective it did.
Even with a very limited workforce back on site, roads were full of cars, College Green was heaving, cyclists were squeezed and pedestrians were struggling to get into their stride as roadworks, red lights, parked vans and narrow paths impeded their progress.
It was a heartening sight in ways – an indication of how quickly a locked down city can return to normality. But it also represents a major headache. If Dublin feels full with only a fraction of its usual activity taking place, how will it cope during the next phases of reopening when more people pour in but they have to find space to stay apart?
It’s a dilemma for all cities. They have the greatest concentration of businesses, shops, institutions, events, attractions, residents, visitors and commuters.
Space is constantly at a premium and the battle for it is about to intensify.
Some cities have come up with creative responses, using the pause in normality to reshape where and how people move around.
Paris has banned cars from its iconic Rue de Rivoli, the grand boulevard that skirts many of its finest attractions.
Vilnius has turned its centre into one big open air café, giving businesses bar free access to public squares and parks.
London is embarking on the urgent development of a “bike tube” – an extensive network of above-ground cycle lanes that follow the lines of the underground rail.
And from Berlin to Bogota to New York, authorities are rapidly pedestrianising, widening footpaths and creating pop-up cycle lanes.
Most are temporary measures but may be extended, tweaked and gradually
embedded in the permanent restructuring of the cities.
The logic is two-fold. Public transport cannot carry anything like previous numbers if social distancing is to be observed but if tens of thousands more commuters start travelling by car, cities will become incurably gridlocked.
The measures also improve air quality, preventing emissions that cause respiratory illness and, in the case of Covid-19, appear to have allied with the virus to escalate the number of fatalities.
Besides, most people seem to like the idea of cities designed around the needs of humans rather than vehicles.
Dublin City Council has been tinkering around with making the city friendlier to walkers and cyclists for years but has made little progress.
Some works have been carried out in recent weeks, however, and a mobility plan jointly unveiled on Thursday by the council and National Transport Authority contains proposals for much more.
Public transport in the city will be able to carry just 20pc of its normal capacity so long as social distancing is required.
Journeys by foot will have to double and treble by bike, if the city is going to accommodate even three-quarters of pre-Covid commutes.
The mobility plan will devote much more road space for bike and bus lanes, use loading bays and parking spaces to widen footpaths, and give pedestrians, cyclists and buses priority at traffic lights.
Buses will be diverted to allow for the gradual pedestrianisation of College Green, other areas will be identified for pedestrianisation and outdoor tables and seating will be allowed where possible.
Bus stop platforms will be built to give room for queues, stops in tight spaces will be removed and delivery and loading times will be altered.
Fourteen key routes are prioritised and four distinct commuter belts identified. Those living in the first two, within 2km or 5km of the city centre, will be encouraged to walk or cycle while those within 10km or farther out will be urged to bus or bike or bus and bike.
Dublin City Council says the plan is a “live” programme. “Over the next few weeks, additional areas of the city and proposals will be added,” it says.
It may not be the way he wanted change to come about but Kevin Carter of the Dublin Commuter Coalition is pleased with the works done so far and with what the plan proposes.
He just hopes it can transform mindsets as well as streetscapes.
“I was really optimistic until two days ago (day two of the reopening) when I saw the new pedestrian area in Stoneybatter demolished,” he sighs.
The council widened the footpath into the road using painted markings and a row of orcas – slim, bendy, lightweight bollards that are particularly bendy when delivery vans drive over them.
“There has to be enforcement. We saw how quickly the gardaí put up checkpoints to stop cars during the lockdown and we need to see that level of attention maintained as we come out of lockdown,” says Mr Carter.
“If we don’t have gardaí doing it, we need traffic wardens with real enforcement powers.”
But they can only enforce what is agreed and that’s when the plans may run into trouble. An outline released a fortnight ago was criticised by some business groups alarmed by restrictions on cars.
The detailed plan quantifies those restrictions. They’ll cut car capacity by 30pc.
Martin Harte of the Temple Bar Company wants to take things further and is seeking pedestrianisation of the entire Temple Bar district.
His proposal, would mean a swathe of the city from Stephen’s Green through College Green to the Liffey’s south bank would be car-free, extended to the north by the already pedestrianised areas of Henry Street, Mary Street and Smithfield.
“We want to make Temple Bar the safest place in Ireland, if not Europe, to socialise,” he says. “You can’t tell people to stay two metres away from each other and have cars in that space.”
Closure to vehicles after 11am would be fine, he says, but it must include East Essex Street, a main thoroughfare, and there must be bollards or other ways of enforcing the closed hours. “Almost since Temple Bar closed, we’ve been working on how it will reopen but we want to do it properly, not quickly,” he says.
As a cycling commuter, Alan Robinson of the Dublin Docklands Business Forum commends the mobility plan but he says a much more radical revamp is needed.
“Docklands was developed to accommodate 45,000 employees but we only built residences for 10,000 so that leaves 35,000 travelling in every day from parts of the city and the surrounding counties that they can’t cycle or walk from,” he says.
“They can’t all take buses if they’ve to drop children off at crèches or schools, they don’t all have cars and the city doesn’t want them driving anyway. There is no transport plan at the moment that I can see working for them.”
To build sufficient homes would mean lifting the lockdown on apartment block height restrictions, he says.
“We could build as high as you like in Docklands without any impact on the architectural heritage of the city. It would be a modern core of the city that would take the heat off the Georgian core.”
He acknowledges his wish-list is beyond the scope of the mobility plan but he says that’s down to lack of foresight: “We’re trying to plot a way out of a pandemic crisis and heading for a transport crisis instead, at least some of which could have been avoided by better planning.”
THE Covid-19 pandemic is set to transform the face of Cork city centre.
Ireland’s second city is slowly emerging from lockdown with a greater emphasis than ever on pedestrianisation and the continental-style boulevard culture it had for so long sought to achieve.
Roads that were pedestrianised during the pandemic to allow for the combination of social distancing and exercise may now remain car-free while the city is urgently looking at a northern park-and-ride site to remove further vehicles from the city centre.
The entire retail make-up of the centre also faces being altered with outlets both large and small set to fall victim to the Covid-19 fall-out.
The closure of Debenhams – once the jewel-in-the-crown of St Patrick Street shopping (formerly Roches Stores) – has left a gaping wound in the city’s retail centre.
Dozens of other outlets including boutiques, cafés and restaurants remain uncertain if and when they will be able to re-open.
Cultural hubs such as Cork Opera House, Triskel and Everyman Palace remain closed.
Luigi Malones general manager Morad Gharib said he fears there will be no speedy return to “normal life” until a vaccine is developed and is freely available.
“We are now open for takeaway orders five days a week,” he said.
“Before the Covid-19 pandemic we had around 60 full and part-time staff. Now we are down to eight full and part-time staff.”
“I think it will be a very slow bounce-back from the lockdown. We are waiting to see what the Government is going to advise restaurants about social distancing for customers.
“We are one of the lucky restaurants in that we have a lot of space here at the Luigi Malones premises on Emmet Place. But other restaurants aren’t so lucky.”
Cork businessman Don Jeffery warned the sheer number of schemes now being proposed to help the private sector is confusing.
“It’s baffling to consider the number of schemes being mooted as ways to help SMEs to re-boot their business and cope with the potential mountain of debt that each may face.
“They may in fact persuade far too many to throw their hat at the notion of continuing in business at all.”
Cork Business Association president Eoin O’Sullivan stressed local retailers will need every support over the coming weeks and months to recover from the pandemic hit.
Galway City Council is facing a loss of up to €30m to its budget due to the lockdown.
The city economy largely depends on tourism and hospitality and it has been wiped out.
Reopening the city is essential and business owners and the local authority are committed to doing so as quickly as possible.
But reopening Galway city centre and observing social distancing is not easy given its narrow streetscape.
A city mobility team has been set up to consider measures and supports required due to Covid-19, to support businesses and residents and to maximise the use of public space.
The team met for the first time last week and while the implementation of major changes have been discussed, nothing has been decided.
The roll-out of a newly developed app will audit footfall on footpaths across the city. It will identify corridors and locations where improvements to pedestrian safety, like wider footpaths and increased pedestrian zones, are needed.
Extensive mapping and surveys supported by on-street visual analysis are under way to identity pinch points in Salthill and Eyre Square, where priority will be given to optimising public space.
The big question is how will Galway’s many pubs and restaurants reopen for business and achieve social distancing?
Gary McMahon, head of corporate services, communications and community at Galway City Council, said a progress report on reopening the city will be published shortly. But he admitted it is complicated.
“When you think of the geography of Galway city, it is pedestrianised from William Street, down Shop Street and down to the bottom of Quay Street. That’s all well and good.
“But when businesses are starting to open back up along that route, they will want to move onto the street to facilitate social distancing. We are talking about narrow streets with business each side, and we have to accommodate a flow of pedestrians.
“To affect social distancing people are doing something they have always done, which is stepping out onto the road. Now, as traffic picks up again, what do we do?”
Solutions to such issues will be under consideration.
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