With the recently pedestrianised street having now received an international stamp of approval, there is a new spring in the step of policymakers who want to see Dublin as car-free as possible.
So why is Capel Street the place to be seen for all self-respecting Dublin hipsters these days?
Because last week it was named by Time Out as the 22nd coolest street in the world. “You won’t find the glamorous shops of Grafton Street or the tourist-trap pubs of Temple Bar here,” the global travel magazine told its estimated monthly audience of 242 million people. “Instead you’ll find a whirl of culture and some of the best food in Dublin… [with] genuinely always something new to discover.”
And why has this put a spring in the step of policy-makers who want to make Dublin as car-free as possible?
Because it’s happened just over three months since Capel Street was pedestrianised. Dublin City Council (DCC) will see Time Out’s tribute as a vindication of their decision, which local Green Party councillor Janet Horner claims “has the potential to be transformative for the north inner city”.
While DCC will now press ahead with plans to remove traffic from other city centre areas, this debate is by no means over – with some business owners on Capel Street and elsewhere warning that the policy will have losers as well as winners.
For the terminally unhip, what makes Capel Street so special?
Above all, its diversity. First developed by Humphrey Jervis in the late 17th century as an important link between north and south Dublin, Capel Street was named after the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
Sadly, Arthur Capell later joined a plot to assassinate King Charles II and was locked up in the Tower of London, where he cut his own throat. But Capel Street thrived, first as a swanky residential area and then a commercial hub. In recent years it’s become home to many quirky pubs, independent businesses and ethnic food outlets.
One of its most famous champions is drag queen Rory O’Neill (Panti Bliss), who runs the Panti Bar there and sums up Capel Street’s broad appeal: “You can buy a lightbulb, sexual lubricant and Brazilian rice – [then] get a pint and go to a trad session.”
How did Capel Street become pedestrianised?
It’s a legacy of Covid-19. During the summer of 2021, DCC experimented by banning traffic from Capel Street on weekend evenings. This trial programme proved to be extremely popular and was extended three times.
DCC then carried out a public consultation process, which attracted a record 7,000 submissions. In one survey, over 90pc of visitors, more than 80pc of businesses and 75pc of residents said that pedestrianisation had “significantly improved my experience” of Capel Street.
As a result, the change was made permanent on May 20 this year with only emergency vehicles allowed access as well as delivery vehicles from 6am-11am.
“I’m absolutely delighted,” the Lord Mayor of Dublin Caroline Conroy told the Herald. “I used to cycle up this street to meetings in City Hall and I’d have to dodge the cars. It’s heaven now, night and day… If you haven’t been on Capel Street lately, come into town and see what you’re missing!”
And Time Out clearly agrees with her?
Yes. The magazine survey consulted 20,000 people around the world, telling them it “wanted to know about the places that locals love”. It put Capel Street 22nd on a list of 33, ahead of roads in New York, Sydney, Tokyo and Madrid (Rue Wellington in Montreal came top).
“It might be tough to spot Dublin’s coolest street right off the bat, but spend a bit of time here and you’ll discover that the buzz on Capel Street is like no other in the city,” Time Out reported.
Tellingly, the writer also identified pedestrianisation as a key part of Capel Street’s attraction – saying this has made it “the ideal spot for sipping pints in the sun and just generally hanging out”.
So why isn’t this an all-round good news story?
Because while extra footfall might be a blessing for bars and restaurants, it’s not so straightforward for shops selling bulky goods that are hard to carry.
Louis Copeland is one of Capel Street’s best-known business owners, a tailor whose celebrity clients include Bill Clinton, Pierce Brosnan and Brian O’Driscoll. Last May he slammed the vehicle ban as “a crazy decision… the city centre equivalent of trying to pedestrianise the M50”.
“Nobody is going to take a chainsaw on the Luas,” Mr Copeland told The Irish Times. “[Pedestrianisation] is going to put people off coming to the street if they can’t park outside for collections.” Mr Copeland has since softened his stance, but called for some sort of “compromise”.
It’s not just high-end retailers who have reservations. “You have five charity shops on the street, all of which depend on people dropping by and leaving in donations from their cars,” Michael Burns, who runs Goodwill Thriftshop, told TheJournal.ie.
“Can you expect an elderly lady to drive to Jervis Centre and walk over with boxes of books? Not going to happen.”
But is this now a done deal?
Not quite. There is still the possibility of a legal challenge, which independent councillor Mannix Flynn predicted at a DCC meeting last May. Mr Flynn recently took a High Court case with local residents against the proposed Strand Road cycle lane in Sandymount – and won.
However, Transport Minister Eamon Ryan has claimed that a car-free Capel Street will soon be taken for granted. As he points out, nobody today wants to put traffic back on Henry Street or Grafton Street (which both switched in the 1980s).
“Every single time we pedestrianised, people were fearful it would do real harm. We’ve never reversed one of those decisions… this is the way ahead.”
Finally, what’s next on DCC’s pedestrianisation agenda?
Quite a lot. Councillors recently voted overwhelmingly to put the full pedestrianisation of South William Street in DCC’s new Dublin City Development Plan 2022-2028.
Parliament Street went car-free for three evenings a week during July and August and council proposals to make it permanent will be unveiled this month.
The big prize, however, is College Green. DCC has been intent on turning this prime central location into a European-style public plaza since 2016, but the project keeps running into delays. In July, for example, a change to EU procurement rules meant that DCC had to cancel the design contract and advertise it all over again.
The arguments will continue – but now that “cool” Capel Street has received an international stamp of approval, Dublin’s pro-pedestrianisation lobby is definitely on the front foot.