Photos by Conal Thomas

Mary Gleeson just wants to get her daughters to school and camogie practice safely.

Every morning she walks 9-year-old Ellie and 11-year-old Katie May to school. They set off from their house on Kilmainham Lane at 8:20 am.

Three evenings a week the girls, with Mary in tow, set off to camogie practice in the evenings as well, starting out at around 4:30 pm.

For seven years now, Gleeson has taken these 20-minute walks with her daughters daily.

But, Kilmainham is no place for pedestrians, says Gleeson. She’s no longer sure what steps she can take. “We just want to get there safely,” she says.

One possibility is to create an organisation to advocate for pedestrians in the city, something that has been tried elsewhere, and has shown some success.

Persistent Problems

“There’s definitely an increase in traffic,” says Gleeson, waiting for the green man on the South Circular Road. “Kilmainham Lane, the last couple of years, it’s a rat run out of town.”

We’re facing onto the Kilmainham Courthouse beside Kilmainham Gaol. Behind us, to our right, is the entrance to IMMA.

Gleeson points out motorists on their phones, motorists not paying attention, motorists stopped in the yellow box near the crossing.

She says she doesn’t want to come across as “that one”, but driver – and cyclist – behaviour on her daily walks has spurred her into action.

In July 2012, she wrote to Dublin City Council, laying out the difficulties pedestrians encounter in the area. At the junction, she points out how the green man lasts longer than it used to. That was victory one for the mother of two.

But the problem of light-breaking persisted, she says. In March 2013, she wrote to the council about the issue. It reviewed the junction again, and made some changes to the light sequence. “However,” noted the council, “cars are still breaking the lights.”

Towards the school, Gleeson points out the usual problems encountered on the route – a motorist trying to turn left into the right lane near the light, an illegal taxi rank blocking the footpath, a blue van going through an amber.

Gleeson says she drives, cycles, and walks in equal measure, but that for the school route can’t justify turning on the ignition. Although she wishes more people would do the same, she says she understands why they don’t.

“More people would walk to school and back if it wasn’t so dangerous to do it,” she says. “But because it’s so dangerous around here, it’s chicken-and-egg.”

Despite her correspondence with Dublin City Council and the Gardaí, Gleeson says all the changes or improvements available have been made. And still the problem persists.

On the one hand, she admits that the problems aren’t easily solved. On the other, she believes that better enforcement might make a difference.

“It’s a matter of stopping people who are on mobile phones, pulling people over who break red lights, and driver education,” she says. “It’s driver behaviour.”

Gleeson herself says she’s stopped a number of motorists on her daily walk.

When she knocked on one driver’s window, it made him jump and drop his phone. Another was humbled when Gleeson questioned her light-breaking.

“She said, ‘Oh God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t see them [the kids],’” says Gleeson. “I said, ‘I know you didn’t see them, that’s what I’m telling you, you were looking at your phone and you broke a light.’”

Only last week, she gestured for another motorist to get off her phone. “She just yelled, ‘Fuck off!’” Gleeson says, laughing.

Gleeson admits that, yes, people have bad days – motorists, cyclists and pedestrians – but a step inside a regular pedestrian’s shoes may help change attitudes in Dublin, she thinks.

A Lack of Understanding

Dublin City Council places the pedestrian at the top of its model hierarchy. But there’s a lack of advocacy at work in the city at present.

We have a cycling and walking officer, numerous cycling advocates, and an ever-expanding cycle network. On the walking front, the council says it’s trying.

“Pedestrian movement is given priority,” according to the press office. “All public realm improvements strive to constantly enhance the walking experience in the city.”

The council has engaged in a “Safer Roads for Dublin” campaign with the Gardaí and St Columba’s national school to highlight the issue of red-light running and its effects on pedestrians.

There have also been a number of engineering solutions – as highlighted by Gleeson – and public-realm improvements put in across the city, says the press office.

But still, says Gleeson, driver behaviour poses a threat. “I think people need to spend a day walking to work just to get the other person’s perspective,” she says.

“I know people might be in a hurry, but you don’t need to endanger my life and the life of my children,” she says. “There’s just such a lack of understanding from each perspective.”

While Dublin City Council works on improvements to the public realm that benefit pedestrians, the Road Safety Authority is more concerned with just keeping pedestrians alive.

The main issue is to make sure pedestrians know how to cross the road correctly, according to the RSA’s press office. And it has launched a campaign encouraging pedestrians to wear high-vis jackets.

“These two issues are of particular importance as two-thirds of pedestrian fatalities were found to happen at night,” according to the press office.

Back on the school route, Gleeson waves to other pedestrian parents.

“My daughter is in fifth class now. I should be able to let her walk to school on her own,” says Gleeson. “She needs to learn these skills, but it’s just too dangerous.”

Another car rounds the corner sharply as the traffic grows heavier heading into town.

There’s one possible solution that Gleeson hasn’t tried: organising Dublin’s pedestrians to demand better, safer walking routes in the city.

Towards Advocacy

Walk 21 was established in 2000 and is based in Cheltenham, in England.

Development Director Bronwen Thornton says the network started as a conference for pedestrians. It’s since branched out into political outreach and walking surveys.

“Walking traditionally suffers a lack of advocacy and representation,” says Thornton. “A lot of that is because we don’t have a thing, a bicycle or a car.”

But there are still ways of galvanising people. Walk 21 has promoted the health benefits of walking, its environmental impact, and what it means to have a walkable city space.

In 2014, the group established the International Walking Data Standard.

“Walking was under-represented,” she says. “Therefore it doesn’t get the recognition, and it doesn’t get the funding. The whole momentum behind data is to get walking on the agenda, to get it to the table.”

Through vocal networks, walking advocacy helps raise pedestrian concerns and puts walkers front and centre. Making the city environment safer for pedestrians makes it safer for everyone, says Thornton.

“People think you can’t upset drivers. We have a cultural bias to look after cars, to provide for cars. But there is a tension there so a lot of cities improve the pedestrian environment, making it safer for people to cross the road. You have to actually encourage people to come and choose walking,” she says.

In London, for instance, Wanstead High Street in the Redbridge area achieved an average increase of 98 percent in pedestrian numbers after enhancing the walking routes between its two stations, the bus terminus, school, library, and the high street.

That’s according to The Pedestrian Pound: The Business Case for better Streets and Places, published by the Living Streets initiative in 2014.

So, could a Dublin pedestrian advocacy network help Mary Gleeson?

Maybe, she says. But driver behaviour needs to change.

“There’s no vested interest in walking,” says Gleeson. “So who cares about walkers? But it’s part of government policy, it’s part of Healthy Ireland, 20 minutes walking or 30 minutes walking a day.”

A pedestrian advocacy group could help promote walking at least, she says.

“But our specific junction, series of junctions, is on AA Road Watch every morning,” says Gleeson. “So I would hope that people would be mindful, whether they’re on foot, or whether they’re on a bike or in a car, that they’d be mindful that there are kids walking to school every morning.”

It’s just for that half an hour in the morning, half an hour in the evening. “We just want to get to school safely.”

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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