It wouldn’t be the whole of the city centre.
The idea is that a couple of busy streets in Dublin city centre would be closed to cars for a couple of hours each Sunday to bring down air pollution “and give the city back to its citizens”, says Kieran Ryan of the Dublin Cycling Campaign.
The proposal has been in gestation for a long time, and those behind the call hope the council will consider piloting it this coming summer, says Ryan.
“We’re asking for it on a Sunday, to have as little impact as possible [on traffic],” says Ryan. The campaigners are also suggesting that public transport be free on those days.
They’re not the only ones pushing the idea.
Green Party Councillor Patrick Costello says he has a similar proposal working its way through council channels.
A couple months ago, he put in a request to Dublin City Council Beta Projects, which trials ideas for improving the city, to have a car-free day in the city. His request was picked by the team as a priority for the coming months, he says.
Dublin City Council hadn’t yet replied by the time this was published to queries sent on Tuesday about whether it might pilot the idea, or some form of it.
But to press its case for a car-free day, Dublin Cycling Campaign is trying to get 3,000 signatures on an online petition. As of Tuesday 15 May, it had 2,052.
Other cities have done it. In September, Paris is scheduled to hold its third car-free day. The first, in 2015, saw a 40 per cent reduction in levels of nitrogen dioxide, a common pollutant, in the city.
A study by King’s College, London showed that nitrogen oxides fell by 89 per cent during the most recent marathon in the UK’s capital.
A spokesperson for Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency said that although it would be difficult to link a specific event to a drop in air pollutants, a car-free day every week would have a positive impact.
“The EPA is keen for people to reduce the number of car journeys they are taking as every single one has an impact on air quality,” said the spokesperson, by email.
Not everybody backs the idea, though.
Richard Guiney, the head of the city-centre business group DublinTown, said its “overall view is that the city is a shared space, and we need to share it”.
Guiney says DublinTown wouldn’t be in favour of excluding any one form of transport, and that many customers of city-centre shops travel in by car.
A National Transport Authority survey in October 2014 found that car users accounted for 18 percent of the spend in the city centre over four weeks.
“I don’t subscribe to the view that cars are either good or bad; they’re one form of transport,” Guiney says, adding that he doesn’t think there’s a massive problem with pollution in the city either.
A quick google of “car free day Dublin” shows that earlier attempts to clear the streets haven’t always been successful.
“In about 2000, there were car-free days,” says Costello. “It was an international thing. Other cities kept it going, but we let it wither and die.”
The point was to challenge people to get out of their cars, but it became less ambitious, says Costello. When a car-free day happens, though, people seem to like it.
“When I attended the 1916 centenary celebrations, I was surrounded by Dublin city councillors talking about how great it was” that the streets were open and airy and closed to traffic, he says,
Costello says he finds it frustrating when people see the pleasure of it, but are reluctant to make it happen.
He thinks that between his request to Dublin City Beta Projects and the petition, “it’s an idea whose time has come”. But it “needs institutional support from council officials”, he says.
“We need to prove that it can work by doing it well,” says Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey. “It needs to work with public transport.”
It’s not so much cutting pollution that motivates Lacey, but the need to bring people back into the city, he says.
“People talk about how difficult it is to shut down the city, but we do it all the time for events,” says Ryan, of Dublin Cycling Campaign. “So why can’t we do it for ordinary citizens?”
It would be just a “viable trial where one or two main streets are shut down for a few hours on a Sunday, to give the city back to the people”, he says.
“A lot of the time when we’re talking about these things, we’re thinking about people who are able-bodied,” he says, but a car-free day would also make getting around easier for people with mobility issues, or visual impairments.
Mike McKillen, also of Dublin Cycling Campaign, lists O’Connell Street and the quays as the roads he would prefer to see shut down and freed up for pedestrians.
Ryan is more low-key. South William Street or Dame Street from George’s Street to College Green would be good options, he says.
This kind of street shut-down is a frequent occurrence in the city, he says. It’s done for marathons, concerts and the Great Dublin Bike Ride – and it’ll likely be done for the upcoming papal visit.
“It’s democratically giving the city back to the people for a few hours every week,” he says.