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Is the city running out of time?
Luas Cross City is on target. You’ll likely be able to book your tickets from Cabra to Stephen’s Green, or transfer from the Red Line to the Green Line at Middle Abbey Street by November or December 2017. “Ghost trams” could be testing the new service as early as the end of next summer.
But for it to run smoothly and reliably, it is pretty certain that Dublin City Council’s City Centre Transport Study will need to be agreed and in place. Without it, €330m of shiny light-rail kit could well be stuck in traffic like everybody else.
Announced at the Dublin City Council Transportation Strategic Policy Committee on 5 October was news that the transport study needs to be subjected to an “Environmental Impact Assessment”.
A scoping study has determined this, even though it could well be argued that the strategy – a coordinated bundle of traffic-management measures – and its targets have already been environmentally assessed and approved as part of the new Dublin City Development Plan.
An Environmental Impact Assessment is a matter for An Bord Pleanála, and is no small deal. The documentation alone usually amounts to a few good doorsteps, never mind an extensive team of experts to do their work. This will no doubt be high-priority, but if offered a decision by the board next summer, the council would probably take that.
And then what will that decision be?
The transport study is a very good one. Last week, Dublin Inquirer reported how expert retail studies and the wider public have both given it a big thumbs up. A minority of some of the city’s largest retailers (who, by amazing coincidence, also own or are involved in car-park operations) still struggle to see its simple and effective logic.
The logic is this. A series of “bus gates” will effectively ban through-trips from the city. A reduction of possibly up to 30-40 percent of private vehicles allows more priority to be given to public transport, cycling, and walking. Everybody benefits, even car drivers going to the city-centre car parks.
So far, so sensible, but the transport study could have an Achilles’ heel. The city centre is also the hub of the public transport network. If the hub fails, the network fails. If the network fails, everything fails. For example, during the recent bus strikes, retailers reported sales down by 50 percent, or more in some cases.
And it isn’t fully clear how public transport will work under the new traffic scenario.
The study itself has a lot to say about public transport, but avoids setting out specifically how the revised network will operate. There is a vague-ish reference to a “review of the overall bus network in the City Centre area”, to be carried out by the National Transport Authority (section 220.127.116.11. of the document).
In subsequent public presentations, images showing extensive use of Parliament Street are provided (shown here below), causing significant concern among Parliament Street traders.
Only on the Dublin Bus website is a list of affected services provided. What appears to be happening is that the said list of services, having been drawn up, are to be rerouted to the next available river crossing. It might work. But what if it doesn’t work and are there better alternatives?
At the same Transportation Committee meeting, James Leahy, secretary of An Taisce, asked what modelling of the new plans has taken place. For transport planners, modelling is a way of assessing future options, hopefully in a detailed way that can be viewed and assessed by the non-expert.
The official reply was that the NTA’s “SATURN” model had been modified and utilised. That’s jargon to many, but SATURN is a hefty, often blunt modelling instrument, most effectively used in wider regional assessments, not complex and dynamic city-centre environments.
The council also promised that a “microsimulation” model is forthcoming. This should entail a much more detailed, real-time and true-to-life simulation of how on-street traffic operations will actually work. Think video games and CAG (computer-aided-graphics) and you get the idea.
The council planners said a “technical note on modelling will be circulated in the next couple of weeks”. It will be fascinating to see what this reveals, and much may depend on it. Without it, nobody can really say whether the city-centre strategy will work or not.
Local retailers are fearful of close on 200 buses per hour on a trading street like Parliament Street, but bear in mind that up to now College Green accommodates 400 buses per hour. The problem is, without proper visualisations of how the city is intended to operate, we just don’t know if it’s a good idea.
Finally, there is a bigger-picture question that needs to be asked here. Why are we waiting for something of this importance, with little more than a year to project-live?
Undoubtedly, there are town by-passes up and down the country with significantly more resources allocated to them. These all require feasibility studies, economic appraisals, traffic-modelling reports, optioneering studies – consultants will get large six-figure sums, if not more, to make sure that these schemes work.
All this is done long before the respective local authority goes to the planning board. Yet arguably the most important and sensitive transport planning project in the state – the redesign of the capital’s city-centre no less – appears to be running on a shoestring.
At least the commissioning of an Environmental Impact Statement will summon an enlarged team of experts, however late, to bring extra analytical power to the project.
Either way, let’s all hope they find that either the strategy stacks up, or that a better alternative emerges.
[CORRECTION: This article was updated at 21:00 on 20 October. James Leahy is secretary, not director, of An Taisce.]
What’s I find most concerning about these plans is that there is little consideration being given in the surrounding debate about where this traffic (particularly private cars) will go, because it has to go somewhere else to get through the city centre. Take Clanbrassil Street for example, which is a largely residential street and now has near rush hour traffic levels throughout the day, even on Saturdays and Sunday’s, since the Luas works began.
There needs to be a more strategic focus here to consider the city centre in the context of the whole city, to consider how we manage traffic flows in that broader context, if we are to restrict through traffic in the centre.
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