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An enlightened new era for street design was promised by a government-sponsored guidance manual, published in March 2013. Out went the old thinking about fast-moving “distributor roads” fronted by blank walls and housing estates with numerous dead-end streets.

The accumulated wisdom of two generations of road engineers grappling with traffic in towns was turned on its head by the new Design Manual for Urban Roads and Streets, issued jointly by the Department of Transport and the Department of the Environment.

No longer were there to be sheep-pen guardrails to corral pedestrians at major junctions. Zebra crossings, where pedestrians have absolute priority, were back in favour rather than the standard crossings where you vainly push a button to request a sliver of “green man” time.

But there is no sign that this has made any impact on the thinking or practices of Dublin City Council’s road engineers. For them, the big deterrent is a clause in the manual, which says designers “must exercise a duty of care” and had no “immunity from legal obligations”.

Transfixed like a rabbit in headlamps by the fear of being sued for damages if accidents could be attributed to some failure by them, the engineers are still applying old thinking – as exemplified by guardrails on the new traffic island at the northeast corner of St Stephen’s Green (pictured above).

What the old thinking did, DMURS says, was to “inadvertently transfer risk from motorists to more vulnerable road users”, making spaces that feel safe for driving at speed often hazardous for walking or cycling because they induced a “false sense of safety” among drivers.

The advice it gives to local authorities is to get rid of guardrails, provide more zebra crossings, “de-clutter” streets by removing traffic signage and permit commercial or other non-residential buildings to flank distributor roads, making them less hostile to pedestrians.

“The streets of our cities and towns, suburbs and villages, should be safe, attractive and comfortable for all users [including] pedestrians, cyclists and those using public transport”. Its basic message is that motorists “should no longer take priority” over other road users.

By giving a false sense of safety to both drivers and pedestrians, the 165-page manual says, guardrails “block inter-visibility between drivers and children”, result in pedestrians being “trapped” on carriageways and “create a collision hazard for cyclists” on nearby cycle lanes.

“Guardrails should not be used as a tool for directing and/or shepherding pedestrians”, it says. “Guardrails should only by installed where there is a proven or demonstratable safety benefit, for example where people may inadvertently step onto the carriageway.”

DMURS cites the example of Kensington High Street in London, where a “major de-cluttering” exercise removed all guardrails and minimised signage and road markings. On completion, vehicle speeds decreased and the number of accidents fell by 43 percent within two years.

“Designers must broaden the scope of issues that are considered . . . Whilst the movement of traffic is still a key issue, there are several others, including a ‘sense of place’, which are of core significance to the creation of safe and more integrated street designs,” it says.

There is such sensitivity about DMURS among Dublin City Council’s roads engineers that it took repeated requests to the council’s press office to elicit a response to queries about whether they were now taking account of the manual’s (very specific) guidance on designing roads and streets.

Press officer Alan Breen eventually explained that the new guardrail at St Stephen’s Green was put in place “due to safety concerns regarding pedestrians not following the line of the footpath”. However, he added that they were now reviewing the need for it and whether it could go.

“DMURS recommends avoiding the use of guardrails, but DMURS is also clear that the legal responsibility is still with the designer for all designs,” he said. Indeed, as the manual itself notes, compliance with the guidance does not override their potential liability for accidents.

As for removing the many other guardrails in the city centre, Breen said “the advice from the department regarding DMURS is that it is not retrospective” – even though it clearly is. This appears to be another case in Ireland of “never mind what is said, just carry on as before”.

According to Dublin City Council, “any designs that are in place already do not have to conform with DMURS, so obviously any new designs or alterations to any existing areas do. DCC’s focus at present is on the city centre study and on the cycling network as money becomes available.”

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald is the former environment editor of the Irish Times, and the author of several books, including The Destruction of Dublin (1985), Saving the City (1989), and The Construction of Dublin (2000)....

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  1. Having just moved to London, and trying to cycle to work the other day, I realised just how cushy Dublin is for cycling around. It still has a long way to go, as Frank points out, to bring drivers back from their perceived ‘king of the road’ attitude, but by comparison London drivers are careless and incredibly arrogant – I’m surprised anyone here cycles.

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