When the Footpaths Freeze, Vulnerable Pedestrians Should Just Stay Home, Says Council Chief

When the city’s footpaths and roads iced over earlier this month, Joan O’Connell still had to go to work.

The many dips in the pavement, to allow cars to slide in and out of driveways, were particularly slippery with ice, she says.

“For anyone who is walking, especially if you have an impairment or you’re using a wheelchair, now you’re on some crazy paving, wobbly waves,” she says.

O’Connell has a physical impairment from a road traffic accident. Going outside in colder weather is a lot riskier than in warmer weather, she says. “I very easily wobble or find it difficult to recover if I lose my balance.”

The bus stop on Cabra Road was like an ice rink, she says. “Everyone was just very gingerly trying to walk on the safest bit, or a patch of grass.”

Like others, O’Connell was surprised by the sudden icy weather earlier this month. They were also struck by how hard – or even impossible – it was to get around, to get to work, say, because the council barely gritted footpaths around estates and bus stops.

“Even as you saw the roads being maintained, where they are gritting, none of the footpaths were,” she says. “At one of the bus stops there, it was absolutely covered in ice, a person in a wheelchair, somebody in crutches going by.”

There are all kinds of suggestions for how the council could do more to enable people, especially those who are more vulnerable, to get what they need to done during snaps like the one earlier this month.

Among the ideas: more gritting, more info on which routes are safe, and a right to remote work for those who are vulnerable.

People with disabilities and difficulty getting around in icy weather should be allowed to work from home, says Declan Meenagh, a Labour Party councillor. “The weather’s getting more and more unpredictable. We need to have an adaptation plan.”

“Stay at Home”

O’Connell says that by the following Monday, 12 November, the footpaths on Cabra Road were still slippy and hadn’t been gritted. So she emailed Paschal Donohoe, the Fine Gael TD, asking him to urge local authorities to do that.

Owen Keegan, the council’s chief executive, responded with an email. It would be a significant increase and reallocation of council resources and much larger grit storage capacity than the council currently has at its disposal, to grit all the footpaths, he said.

He said to avoid accidents, more vulnerable pedestrians should stay at home during low temperatures. “The increased risk of accidents makes this a sensible option.”

Keegan says this matches public health advice in a section on the HSE’s website on preventing falls and trips during cold weather.

“Stay indoors if possible when the weather is bad,” says the HSE’s website. If you need to go outside, it says, walk on a footpath, not the road. The Road Safety Authority says the same.

O’Connell says she expected more from the head of the local authority, than telling her not to go outside.

The tone felt dismissive and insincere, she says. “It really took me aback.”

She’s heard of disabled people often receiving dismissive responses from public bodies when they encounter barriers to getting around, she says.

“But it’s the first time I’ve encountered that, someone in an official capacity, saying stay at home,” she says. “I found that really offensive and insulting.”

Gritting and the Council

The council has 1,800 tonnes of salt stored for gritting priority roads and footpaths, said a council spokesperson on Monday.

The council’s aim is to grit the main roads so that buses, delivery vans and emergency services can use them, they said.

This is around 300km of the city’s main roads, said the council spokesperson. That’s a quarter of the city’s road network, leaving the rest as ungritted roads, usually local ones or estates.

It covers access to the main public transport corridors, Dublin Port and the airport, the main bus, Luas and train stations, the council’s salt depots and the fire stations, they said.

During the recent freeze, the council’s road maintenance services were out for 12 nights, between 2am and 7am, gritting with nine lorries and over 1,000 tonnes of salt.

There are 2,500km of footpaths in Dublin city, they said. Two-hundred staff from waste management services were called in to assist with spreading 15 tonnes of salt per day on footpaths near transport hubs and hospitals, and busy footpaths.

Gritting some strategic footpath locations is a secondary priority, said Keegan in his response to O’Connell, because it means cleaning staff have to be reallocated. “Footpath gritting has generally to be done manually and is very labour intensive.”

Gritting doesn’t totally clear the roads and footpaths of ice, they said, so people should consider the risks of going out in icy weather.

The city generally has mild weather, they said. “Periods of severe snow and ice are generally infrequent and when they do arrive they generally only last for a relatively short period of time.”

Snowfall is projected to decrease substantially by 2050, with “likely” reductions of between 51 percent and 60 percent, according to 2020 climate projection research published by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Frost days (days when the lowest temperature is below 0 degrees celsius), are projected to decrease by between 45 percent and 58 percent, it says.

Ireland is projected to get hotter weather, with increases in heat waves, it says. Up to 15 heat waves are projected for between 2041 and 2060, depending on how much global temperatures continue to rise.

Risks from heat waves, drought, and low rainfall are expected to increase in the long term, while risks from freezing conditions are expected to decrease, says a 2020 EPA risk assessment report.

For Vulnerable People

Meenagh, a Labour Party councillor, who is visually impaired, said he still remembers how he slipped in 2019 on an icy ungritted footpath.

“I use a cane to get around, and I slipped on the way to work, and it really shook me,” he says. “It took me a while to get over it.”

Meenagh says Dublin is a big city and it’s not possible to grit all the footpaths, although more routes should be gritted, and the council should get funding from central government for that.

“We’re not going to be able to grit every road, unless local government is properly funded,” he said.

But the council should create a map for people, showing what routes they are gritting, so that people know whether they can safely get around, or whether they should stay at home, he says.

“It took a while to get the information I needed from the council about which roads were or weren’t being gritted,” he said.

It should also be a right for vulnerable people to remote work, while they cannot go outside in cold weather, he says.

Brenda Drumm, communications officer for the Disability Federation of Ireland, said it is vital that every effort is made to make sure that footpaths, especially those around bus stops, populated areas and near essential services are gritted regularly in this weather.

People should be extra mindful of their own safety and wear suitable footwear if they’re going out, he said.

“From listening in to various reports on radio this week it has been clear that local authorities are working at full stretch to keep the roads and the footpaths usable and safe for people during this prolonged cold spell,” he said.

Keegan’s response didn’t take into account that vulnerable people have to get to work, says O’Connell.

“I’m not going to ring up my employer and tell them I’m not coming into work because Owen Keegan said so. It’s a completely non-response, and a completely insulting response, I thought,” she says.

“This attitude is obviously percolating down from the very very top, the most high official in the council. That was additionally disturbing,” she says.

Feljin Jose, spokesperson for Dublin Commuter Coalition,which represents people who use public transport, bike and walk around the city, said the council should invest in smaller gritting machines to grit paths more efficiently.

“They could also give out grit to community groups around the city that are willing to grit their area,” he says.

It shouldn’t be much of an ask to prioritise vulnerable people in road infrastructure, so that they can get around, says O’Connell.

During cold weather events, local footpaths should be prioritised, especially those to bus routes, she says, because otherwise, the public transport system doesn’t work, even if the roads have been gritted, because people can’t get to the bus stop.

“It’s simply a question of reallocating resources,” she says.

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Claudia Dalby: Claudia Dalby is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She's especially interested in stories about the southside, transport, and kids in the city. Get in touch at [email protected]

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