Fiachrá Duffy cycles between Rathmines and the city centre nearly every day, he says. He’s “had some close calls, mostly with cars and vans”.
That’s made him aware not only of having to stay clear of big vehicles, but of being forced to go around them when they’re in cycle lanes – and out into other traffic.
“I’m very conscious about making cycling as easy and accessible as possible, not only for myself but for others,” Duffy says.
So when Duffy saw an advert on a bus shelter for the (relatively) new HGV Permit Checker app, he downloaded it to his phone.
The app lets users check whether a big lorry with five or more axles has a permit to be in the city or not, and also sends the answer to the council.
He forgot about the app until last week, he says, when he saw a big lorry. “I thought, I’ll give this a go,” Duffy said.
He pulled his bike over got out his phone, keyed in the truck’s registration, and dropped a virtual little pin onto the map to show where it was. The result: it did not have a permit, he says.
But then – nothing. No feedback, no report that the driver or owner of the HGV had been fined. The system’s just not set up to provide that.
“It can be a bit disheartening – if you report vehicle after vehicle and nothing happens, why would you keep bothering? What’s it achieving?” Duffy says.
Dublin City Council launched its HGV Permit Checker App back in July, but there are questions about how effective it is, and how vigorously the council and the guards are using it to enforce the restrictions on big trucks driving in the city.
The Permits System
After the Port Tunnel was built in 2006, heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) began to be restricted from driving in the city centre.
The council launched an HGV Management Strategy in 2007, which drew a virtual barrier around the city centre.
An HGV now needs a permit to enter this “cordon zone” between 7am to 7pm, seven days a week. They can get one to load or unload goods – or just to travel through the city, if an HGV isn’t allowed to take the Port Tunnel, because its too big, or carrying goods that aren’t allowed in there.
The system, the council has said, is designed “to encourage maximum use of the Port Tunnel by port-related traffic and to enhance the city centre environment”.
HGVs that drive into the cordon zone without one of these permits are subject to fines. And that’s where the app comes in.
So far, the app has been downloaded 1,123 times, according to a spokesperson for Dublin City Council.
How many times has it been used to check whether an HGV has a permit to be in the cordon zone that day? “We only record the number of vehicles that are checked and found to have a possible infringement,” the council spokesperson said.
And how many times have vehicles been found not to have a valid permit, and this violation has been logged? “961 entries with 521 of these having a valid REG against details already held in the HGV permit system,” the spokesperson said.
So does that mean that of 961 vehicles reported that were found to have a possible infringement, 440 were found not to have permits? The council had not clarified this by the time this article was published.
The council spokesperson also did not give specific numbers on enforcement actions taken based on these reports.
“Numerous companies have been contacted and told their trucks were in possible violation, a list of trucks which appear regularly as not having a permit has been sent to An Garda Síochána,” the council spokesperson said.
In 2018, before the app was introduced, three drivers were prosecuted who had invalid permits within the cordon zone, a Garda spokesperson said. “In 2018 drivers could still be issued with a permit during the time of being stopped by Gardaí, which would then validate the journey,” she said.
In 2019, has An Garda Síochána prosecuted anybody with an invalid HGV permit in Dublin city as a result of it being flagged by the HGV Permit Checker app? “The app is only used an indication,” she said.
If they were successfully prosecuted, it would be up to the courts to decide the penalty, the spokesperson said. “The penalty is imposed by the Courts as this is not a fixed charge notice offence and falls under the general penalties Road Traffic Act – max. €1,000 fine, District Court,” she said.
Cyclists and large trucks often do not mix well on the streets, and some cyclists have long been calling for tighter restrictions on the number of HGVs allowed into the city.
The introduction of the app has not noticeably decreased the number of HGVs in the city centre in recent months, says Ciarán Ferrie, a member of I Bike Dublin, an advocacy group for Dublin cyclists.
But that is not necessarily the point of the app, Ferrie says.
“There is a question there as well as to whether this app is about reducing the number of HGVs or just checking whether the HGVs that are on the road have the permits to be there,” he says.
“And that opens up the issue about what permits are being issued and are they being issued in a reasonable manner,” he says
I Bike Dublin is not only concerned about the number of HGVs being given permits to drive through the city, but also the type of permits that are being given out.
Factors such as at what time of day is the council allowing the HGVs to come into town and what route are they putting the trucks on, says Ferrie.
“One of the concerns that we have is if there are HGVs on the road during busy rush hour where most people are cycling and if the permits are being issued are they being issued with time limits,” says Ferrie.
When applying for a permit on the website, drivers must let the council know their planned route, but not their planned time of arrival and exit.
Applying for a permit can be tricky, says Cyril McGuinness, chairperson of the Dublin branch of the Irish Road Haulage Association.
It requires the applicant to input the truck’s destination. But the website often fails to recognise even major sites, McGuinness says.
“You’ll have great difficulty taking loads out of Guinness. They won’t accept Guinness and they won’t accept Diageo,” he says.
“If I’m going into factory A and I can’t get it on the [system], so I’ve rang them and they actually told me to put down Dáil Eireann,” McGuinness says.
“The system from day one had its faults and never worked. I hate using the Dublin City permit,” he says.
“It’s more of a revenue exercise than anything,” he says.
Duffy, the cyclist who has used the app on lorries he’s spotted while riding between Rathmines and the city centre, says he found three permitless trucks in two days.
Since he took the time to stop on a cold November morning and report the trucks, he’d like to know that the council and the guards have done something with that information, he says.
“Otherwise, it can feel like you’re shouting into the void,” he says.
Since the app doesn’t collect any contact information from users, the best way to let users know that their efforts have been worthwhile might be with an advertising campaign.
“They ran a poster campaign to advertise the app. It’d be great if they gave some sort of feedback on that: ‘We’ve had this many reports and here’s what we’ve done,’” he says.
UPDATE: This article was updated on 22 Nov. 2019 at 11:21 to include comments from a Garda spokesperson.