Monday 16 September 2019

Conor Skehan: 'We must dream big to build a brighter future in our capital'

Great cities are the result of willpower overcoming inertia - and we leave a better urban legacy by looking beyond ourselves, writes Conor Skehan

CHALLENGE: Passengers still use many of the same Dublin bus routes originally established
in the 1920s. Stock picture
CHALLENGE: Passengers still use many of the same Dublin bus routes originally established in the 1920s. Stock picture

Conor Skehan

Nobody expects to disembark from the Boston flight at St Stephen's Green, nor do we expect the Cork train to arrive at the GPO.

How is this different from expecting that every bus from Swords, Bray or Clondalkin should have O'Connell Street or the Quays as the destination?

Our ambitions, expectations and entitlements will need to grow in step with the size of the city. This will require a step-up into entirely new types of thinking about what and how we plan to live and move in our cities.

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It is becoming increasingly clear that it is completely unrealistic to expect to build (or afford) a two-storey suburban house with gardens front and back in the areas between the canals. The need to achieve density and the associated concentration of expensive infrastructure makes inner city land scarce and expensive.

To be clear, this does not mean that dense apartments are the only solution, nor does it mean that there is anything wrong with our wonderful low-density suburbs; there is a place for both. Indeed, the denser the inner-city apartments that we build for rent, the more likely it is we will be able to also supply more affordable owner-occupied suburban housing - due to decreased land pressure.

The growth of cities means adapting to new ways of doing things, which often involves letting go of familiar ways of doing things.

Sixty years ago, it was perfectly feasible to drive to the suburbs for lunch from a city centre job. This is no longer realistic. Thirty years ago, it was normal to board a bus in Swords, Leixlip, Rathfarnham or Bray, expecting to pick up other passengers from each urban village before all disembarking on O'Connell Street or Parnell Square. None of these are realistic expectations any more.

Sixty years ago, Dublin had a population of around 600,000 compared with today's metropolitan area of around 1.3 million, yet we still use the same main bus routes today - indeed, more than 20 of Dublin's existing 110 bus routes date from the 1920s when the population was only 300,000 and most jobs were located in the city centre.

Buses are the great success story of Dublin's public transport system. More people travel into the city centre by bus instead of car - and buses carry nearly a third more than Luas and train combined. But, and this is a big ''but'', transport planners are obsessed with journeys across the canals into Dublin city centre. Increasingly, Dublin's economic activity and transportation needs are located elsewhere - increasingly, in a band along the M50 where the majority of enterprise and employment is located in places like Swords, east Kildare and Sandyford. Routes to these places are not well served - as recognised by the proposals of BusConnects.

We must wake up and realise that we are already living in a new city that bears little resemblance to the city that established bus routes like the 39, 40, 41, 42, 45, 46a, 48a, 49. These can have no place and little priority today - much less in the city that we'll need in 2050. This new city needs new thinking, new urban features - some of which are not even present in Dublin.

Meanwhile, private transport - car, bike, scooter and commercial transport - will not go away, but they will change by becoming electric, shared and small so we can't wish them away.

Investment will need to be accompanied by divestment. Divestment of entitlements. Roads will be widened; trees, will be cut; congestion will be taxed and cyclists will be regulated.

Addressing these issues means thinking really big: entirely new separate routes for buses, cars, pedestrians and bikes; and new tunnels, new bridges, new transport interchanges around the canals/rivers, where passengers step-down from the big half-empty suburban buses into a smaller, fuller, more nimble city centre fleet.

These new hubs will serve layers of separate bus services for the outer, inner and centre city all interconnected with Luas, Dart, bike, taxi and hire cars. We'll also need lots of new radial routes connecting jobs to homes - not suburbs to shop.

Great cities are the result of willpower that overcomes inertia. Success, growth, improvement and enrichment only happen when willpower is engaged and activated. Lazy thinkers imagine: ''If only we had strong leadership, that would sweep aside petty local objections to achieve great ambition.'' This wishful thinking happens occasionally - we call it a dictatorship - and the fruits are visible in a few places around the world as the sterile, stifling monumentalised cities of strongmen.

Arguments against the vision of one leader are not the same thing as abandoning the quest for a shared vision. Sports and civil society have shown how shared visions can lift a place or a people to unimagined success. Dublin is at a stage where it needs to be re-imagined, if it is to achieve its true potential.

In the midst of all of the externally imposed distractions of Brexit and populism, we must remember to keep our heads up and our eyes on those long-term prizes that are fully within our control. We need to start a conversation about what type of city we need. Such conversations have begun - but they are currently split into many smaller debates about College Green, Metro, urban density, building heights, cycle lanes and BusConnects.

These debates are full of snippets describing what some want, while others object. This chaos needs to be harnessed to move onward into a positive vision of what we all want - not just for ourselves, here and now, but also for the fast-approaching future for our successors.

Real urban greatness is hammered out one local meeting at a time; one act of personal generosity at a time and one act of political bravery at a time. There are no easy shortcuts.

Changing minds and hearts to meet these challenges will not be easy - everybody will have to be prepared to give a little and change a little. These small personal losses are the price of a greater city.

Individual victories - to protect my neighbourhood or my habits - come at the cost of bequeathing an impoverished city and a diminished future to our children. The many small losses all add up to block the bigger gains.

Nobody's place will remain the same, nobody's familiar habits and entitlements will remain untouched.

Everybody loses, a little, but the city gains, a lot, by thinking big and looking beyond ourselves.

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