Fewer people are driving their cars into Dublin city across the canals than before the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the council’s latest annual “canal cordon count”.

And the council is working on plans to cut these numbers further, by rerouting drivers whose destination is not in the city centre around it, instead of through it, said council transport head Brendan O’Brien.

Between 7am and 7pm, 68 percent of vehicles crossing the canals – mostly private cars – were not heading to a destination in the core city centre, O’Brien said on 7 June during a meeting of the council’s transport committee.

That’s the area roughly between the Mellows Bridge in the west and the Butt Bridge in the east, Mountjoy Square in the north and Iveagh Gardens in the south.

Slide from Brendan O’Brien’s presentation. Credit: Dublin City Council

The council is in the midst of drafting a new city-centre traffic plan to run up to 2028, he said. One goal will be to get many of those drivers to go around and not through the core city centre, he said.

That’ll probably mean some traffic-free streets, he said. “But in general, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to get to a point where you’ve got low-traffic streets, so the traffic there has a reason to be there, it’s not going through.”

It’s a remodelling of the city centre in a way, O’Brien said, opening up room for pedestrians, cyclists, and buses to move more comfortably. “We’re not saying that all cars are going to be removed from the city.”

Irish Parking Association Chairman Keith Gavin, a member of the transport committee, expressed “some alarm” at the plans to further reduce car traffic into the city centre.

“I’m concerned that the wider council and the councillors themselves are not, you know, seriously considering the economic implications these developments and trends will be having on the city centre as a retail destination,” Gavin said at the meeting.

Richard Guiney, CEO of DublinTown, which represents many city-centre businesses, did not voice similar concerns at the meeting, though he was there.

Why not? “Almost 80 percent of people coming to Dublin City use sustainable transport [feet, bicycles, or public transport] to access the city,” Guiney said by phone on Friday.

Getting into town these days

Every year, the council leads a count of how many people cross into Dublin city at 33 locations along a loop formed by the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal in November between 7am and 10am. It’s called the “canal cordon count”.

At Wednesday’s meeting, O’Brien presented the latest findings.

There have been ups and downs between 2006 to 2022, it showed, but the peak was 217,223 people coming across in 2019. In 2022, the figure was 177,243.

That’s a decline of more than 18 percent in the number of people coming across the canals into town during the morning peak.

The cause? Probably more people working from home, the report suggests.

It says that between the third quarters of 2019 and 2022, the percentage of people who usually work from home shot up from 6.5 percent to 30 percent.

That has meant fewer cars, buses, pedestrians, cyclists, taxis and motorbikes crossing the canal cordon overall during the weekday morning peak hours in November 2022 when the count was conducted, compared to 2019.

Guess the trends in how people are travelling into the
city, and draw the rest of the graphs

Of that reduced number crosssing the canals, the largest share still come into town by public transport, according to the canal cordon count report. In 2019, 53.5 percent did, and in 2022 that was up to 55.1 percent, it says.

Private cars are next – and also up. They carried 26.7 percent of people into the city during count in 2019, rising to 27.7 percent in 2022, the report says.

But the shares of people walking and cycling into town during the morning peak have each fallen, the report said.

Some 11.4 percent of people coming into the city were on foot in 2019 but only 9.6 percent in 2022. Six percent of people counted were on bicycles in 2019, which fell to 5.4 percent in 2022, the report says.

O’Brien and several councillors suggested that the shift to working from home, and more flexible schedules, has disrupted the earlier norms of travel patterns into town, focused on weekdays with morning and evening peaks.

For cyclists, O’Brien shared charts from council data showing a decline in the numbers coming into town during the morning and evening peaks during the week, but an increase in the numbers coming in at the weekends.

Guiney said DublinTown’s research on footfall in town has also shown a changed pattern. This May, it was down about 10 percent on weekdays compared to 2019 – but it was up on weekends.

On the phone Friday, Guiney said he wasn’t able to share the research report he was quoting those numbers from, for business reasons.

Rerouting drivers

As well as the canal cordon count report, at Wednesday’s committee meeting O’Brien talked about the council’s progress on a new city-centre traffic plan.

In the new-ish Dublin City Development Plan 2022–2028, councillors set out a vision for how they’d like to see the city develop, and several of those priorities point to a need for fewer cars in the city centre, O’Brien said.

Low-hanging fruit might be rerouting cars that travel through the city but aren’t stopping in the city, so they steer around it rather than through it, he said.

Council official Brendan O’Brien at the transport committee meeting. Credit: Dublin City Council webcast

He offered a few different ways of looking at how many vehicles are going through – instead of to – the city centre.

During the canal cordon count, so during the morning peak, 20 percent of vehicles coming into the zone between the canals are through traffic. Over the 12 hours between 7am and 7pm, 37 percent of vehicles were just passing through that zone.

Narrowing in on a smaller core city centre area roughly between the Mellows Bridge in the west and the Butt Bridge in the east, Mountjoy Square in the north and Iveagh Gardens in the south – during the morning peak 53 percent of vehicles were just passing through, and during the 12 hours it was 68 percent.

“Removing those trips will free up space for the more sustainable modes and allow the BusConnects corridors to function and allow the network redesign to function,” O’Brien said, talking about the National Transport Authority’s redesign of the city’s bus system.

It will also make room for walking and cycling projects the council has been planning, O’Brien said.

“So, you know, visions like Parliament Street with a two-way cycle track and with wider footpaths, etc, [and] the works that we’re planning to do, the upgrade works in Capel Street,” he said.

Said Green Party Councillor Donna Cooney: “There’s no benefit, no economic benefit to the city whatsoever in having those vehicles, you know, travelling through the city.”

“Those that live in a city [are] putting up with this traffic that isn’t you know, it’s definitely not of any benefit to them,” she said.

Why are cars that aren’t going to Dublin city driving through it? asked transport committee member Martin Hoey, of the Finglas South Combined Residents Association. O’Brien said the council is going to look at that.

Of course, there can be tolls to pay on the M50 going around the city, but there aren’t on the city’s streets.

Green Party Councillor Janet Horner said that, recently, when she was driving in the city, Google Maps routed her along the quays.

She would instinctively try to avoid the quays, she says. “Because traffic is terrible there but also because it seems highly anti-social to be driving a private vehicle along the quays if it is at all avoidable.”

Yet Google Maps continues to direct people to these spots, she said. “I guess I’m just wondering if as part of this we’ll look at how we can engage with smart solutions and technological solutions to try to direct through traffic away from the city centre core?”

Google Maps is “quite a powerful tool”, O’Brien said. When it removed Capel Street as a route for car traffic, “a lot of the problems disappeared”, he said. “So it is something we do talk to them about.”

O’Brien said the council aims to have a draft version of the new city-centre traffic plan out for public consultation, “hopefully by the end of the summer”.

Car-less shopping

As what people do in town and how they get there changes, Guiney, of DublinTown, said retailers should work together to make shopping in town easier.

“I think one of the things that we would have in mind is the development of something like, you know, a delivery service out of the city,” he said by phone on Friday.

In 2014, his organisation did a consumer survey and shopping was by far and away the largest reason for people to come into the city. But that has changed, Guiney said.

“Relatively speaking, more people are now coming to dine in the city, and socialising in the city is actually the biggest draw,” he said.

So when people come into the city to go to the theatre, or the cinema, or whatever, it’d be good to make it easier for them to also do a little shopping, and not then be loaded down with bags.

“So people can shop, socialise, don’t have to worry about their bags, and we deliver them to the house,” he said.

A delivery service could be a particularly good way to tempt all the people who travel into the city by public transport or bike or foot to do some shopping while there, Guiney said.

“I think what I have in mind is that we’d have a bag-minding service like we operate at Christmas where we have a shop-and-drop where people can drop their bags in and then we can organise through that to have them delivered,” he said.

Also, companies could offer the service within their shops. So somebody could buy something and then leave it in the shop and ask to have it delivered to their home or office or wherever, Guiney said.

The retailer could then drop that and other parcels into a delivery hub, and from there, a delivery person would collect the parcels and take a bunch of them out on a route delivering them to where they needed to go.

“Dublin is very heavily dependent on inward investment,” Guiney said. “And I think that if we’re not seen to be a sustainable city in 10 years time, it’s going to really impact on the decision to invest in Dublin.”

Sam Tranum is a reporter and deputy editor at Dublin Inquirer. He covers climate, transport and environment. You can reach him at sam@dublininquirer.com.

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