Dublin City Council is right to want to press ahead with reducing traffic and creating a pedestrian plaza at College Green, but there is also a need for bigger thinking when it comes to dealing with growing traffic and public transport conflicts in the inner city.
The city is bending over backwards to make the new tram link work, and work at quite a high frequency. Trams are passing the front door of Trinity College every 2.5 minutes, and that is set to increase to every 90 seconds, we have been told, once new tram sets have been delivered.
To accommodate this, currently, pedestrians are being made to wait longer, in some cases more than four minutes. The CEO of Dublin City Council, Owen Keegan, says this is “completely unsustainable”. He is right about that much.
The irony is that such a huge and successful effort was made to accommodate the construction phases of this large-scale infrastructure project.
Plans for the management of the Luas Cross City construction stages were worked out and agreed well in advance. A monumental task of coordination and planning between agencies, contractors and the commercial sector ensued to keep the city running while undergoing a major operation.
But now that the street tram system is operational, clarity of purpose seems to have atrophied and there are hints of a reversion to bun fighting between agencies (a favourite Dublin past-time, of course, complete with voyeuristic fan-base).
Unless, of course, it was foreseen that the system would work only if the College Green space was closed off to east-west vehicular traffic. Whether or not that is the case, it was decided to do just that in a strategy document heralded to “protect” the big light-rail investment, the 2016 Dublin City Centre Transport Study.
Bizarrely, this strategy, which was widely supported at the time, seems to have been either forgotten or de-prioritised. For example, it was not mentioned at all by the CEO in his recent radio interview on the topic.
Out of 11 proposed traffic-management interventions in the study, only three can be said to have been implemented. One of these, the “North Quays – Bachelor’s Walk” bus-priority measures was even significantly watered down, but nonetheless improved traffic conditions and city-centre access very materially.
Positive results like that can be as rare as hen’s teeth in the ever-chaotic world of urban traffic and suggest, if nothing else, that all 11 priority measures should be looked at and implemented in full.
There is undoubtedly a place for a pedestrian plaza at College Green. And surely a great one at that.
To the north the first bicameral parliamentary debating chambers (which ought to have be returned in full to the state when the opportunity existed). To the east, a heritage university square of great beauty. And to the south, as fine a shopping precinct as any city can boast.
Niall McCullough, in his nostalgic but masterful text Dublin: An Urban History: The Plan of the City, calls College Green the “assembly room of the city”. It should become a place for reflection, enjoyment, and celebration. The designs by Dixon Jones/Paul Keogh Architects are deserving of a public hearing at minimum.
Yet College Green at present is, quite frankly, a chaotic mess. People – whether on bike or foot – are clearly giving it a wide berth or the thumbs down. #LuasHenge is only symptomatic of its neglect by the public authorities.
The difficult and wicked question remains: if there is to be a public plaza, where to put the buses? One thing is certain … this is not a matter of shoving them to one side, or to the next bridge up, in order to make the expensive-to-build Luas work. That would be a false economy as the city buses transport far more people than the Luas.
But there is really no need for every transport service to pass straight through wherever the perceived centre of things is. A city centre is supposed to be a place for people and culture, not a transport interchange.
There is plenty of evidence that people are very happy to walk in a city centre, especially if it is an attractive one. One study from an Australian city tells us that 80 percent of people alighting from public transport walk more than 400 metres to their end destination. While no such surveys exist in Dublin, there is little reason to think we are any different.
Zurich, which has simply the best public transport system in the world, has no public transport in the immediate city centre, just a large pedestrian zone looped by seamlessly effective services and magnificently designed interchanges.
The city should be thinking of pedestrian and cycle-friendly environmental cells, well accessed by a grid of protected, high-quality public-transport arteries.
Getting the city-centre network right is central to the success of the National Transport Authority’s BusConnects project, which is also relevant in this context. This represents a wise investment in bus services to access all of the Dublin city and suburbs area.
Along with the unparalleled recent growth in cycling, this represents the best chance for a sustainable transport future in the city of 1.4 million people.
So there is a bigger picture when it comes to College Green. Stakeholders, including the bus agencies and business sector, should understand this.
Specifically, there needs to be a bigger vision than making Luas Cross City work, simply because it cost a lot of money to put it there.
That means getting rid of unnecessary through-trips. It means making the city centre local- and commercial-access-only for car trips.
The taxi sector needs to better regulated, and overall numbers reduced as public-transport services are improved.
It also means a reduction in private parking, and the ending of the entirely dated practice of on-street parking (with the exception of necessary provision for commercial and mobility-impaired access).
Above all, the city needs a clear vision to develop a high-quality public transport network. But it has to develop and look after its public spaces as well.