How new connections are driving Dublin apart

Progress is never a straight line. Nor is it, according to some, 16 bus-only lines. In one of Europe’s most congested cities, attempts to rectify Dublin’s shambles of bikes, buses, pedestrians and cars have become blighted by protesting passengers, planning meetings, and politics. As Dublin has expanded in recent decades, it has become increasingly apparent- not least to students of the city- how in many areas, from housing to resources to traffic, Ireland’s capital has come to the 21st century unprepared. Figures released by the National Transport Authority (NTA) show that the city’s population is projected to increase by 25% by the year 2025. In light of this, last year, a 20 year plan was released for the upgrade of Dublin’s public transport, encompassing the bus services (under the BusConnects scheme), Luas, rail lines and the introduction of a new rail service, MetroLink.

The intended beneficiaries of the plan are clear: pedestrians, cyclists, public transport users, and the environment. The winding Georgian-era streets can rarely comfortably accommodate the first three, and certainly not without a cost to the latter. Notoriously unreliable and inconsistent buses are jammed alongside time-pressured commuters while cyclists are forced into dangerous, traffic-tightened lanes. A prime example is South William Street. It is Dublin’s most polluted street, described by the Dublin Cycling Campaign as a “public health emergency,” it is one of its most dense with traffic, and was the site of a pedestrianisation protest this summer by the event series Streets are for People, organised by three Dublin advocacy groups, the Dublin Commuter Coalition, the Dublin Cycling Campaign and the Irish Pedestrian Network. Imagining, or perhaps, re-envisioning, a Dublin in a time without cars is in many ways an attempt by these groups to redefine the visceral experience of being in the city, whether as a motorist or pedestrian. Pertinently, to achieve this, reprioritising and redesignating traffic movement is required. 

“Making appropriate accommodations for all road users is the impetus behind many of the Dublin’s activist groups”

Making appropriate accommodation for all road users is the impetus behind many of the Dublin’s activist groups, from the Dublin Cycling Campaign to the Dublin Commuter Coalition. Doing so, the groups claim, would reduce the danger posed by current insufficiencies. For example, segregated cycle lanes instead of the current haphazard road markings would likely lessen bicycle-related accidents. A ubiquitous claim is that the NTA’s plans would also have significant positive environmental impacts. This would not only be achieved because of the predicted shift from usage of cars to buses and cycling, but because in overhauling the bus system the agency announced it would be transitioning to low-emission hybrid buses. An estimated 600 buses have been marked for purchase over the next five years.

However, what constitutes appropriate change has proved contentious. From the issues raised from congestion to bicycle accidents, it is clear that change is necessary. Nevertheless, the issues raised in this preliminary phase have been manifold. BusConnects, the NTA’s plan for the overhaul of the Dublin Bus system, intends to streamline existing bus services and introduce 230km of Quality Bus Corridors (QBCs) alongside 200km of cycle lanes. The former adjustment adds bus routes, but it also redraws and in some cases erases, bus routes that despite their inefficiency have proved vital to many areas. The new plans have thus incited the chagrin of neighbourhoods and housing estates that rely on these services, as well as eliciting relief in those for whom the proposed routes would result in more effective transport routes. 

The bus corridors have been incendiary to some communities who are angered by the encroachment of the newly widened roads into front-gardens and village streets, and fear that their areas would become mere bypasses for commuters. A submission made to the NTA on behalf of Terenure Road East Residents’ Association argues that: “BusConnects … largely focuses on the project as an engineering issue – expediting movement rather than examining its wider effects on the receiving environment.” For others, the risk posed to the Georgian spatial definition of the city which is imbued in now imperilled wrought iron fences and historic architecture of the streetways (and, indeed, is cause for much of the traffic trouble) is their reason for outrage. Many of these living artefacts of old Dublin have been earmarked by the Dublin City Council as protected structures and certainly, they are not short of ardent defenders. 

For some, the new routes place people at greater inconvenience. Others do not trust in the promised frequency and efficiency of the proposed routes. The Terenure Road East Residents’ Association’s submission, for example, hearkens to previous transport developments in Dublin and remarks that: “a residual  feature of such plans is the uncertainty and sterilisation effect caused by the promotion and subsequent abandonment of each.” The loss of trees, some of which have been endowed with heritage status, have been a major focal point, with activists citing environmental concerns regarding their felling.  Exact figures on how many will be lost has been contended, though the NTA estimated that by following the original draft, between 1,500 and 1,600 trees would be lost (residential associations tend towards believing this to be an undervaluation). A “comprehensive replanting programme” has been offered by the NTA. Nevertheless, the disruption of the proposal to the current ecosystem of the city has disquieted residents who have now festooned threatened trees with red and gold ribbons throughout planned bus routes. 

Some argue that the NTA’s proposals are insufficient to deal with what they perceive as the central issue with road usage: private cars. Helen Callinan, who co-authored a submission to the NTA regarding proposed corridors in Rathgar, remarks, “there are no congestion charges proposed (we have asked); no park and ride facilities and no move to stop commuters coming to Dublin by car. The motorways are being widened to funnel more cars into this city. The city can’t cope.”  A group of professors in the Departments of Botany and Zoology  in Trinity, writing to the NTA to express their concerns with the proposals, acknowledged the “essential requirement of planning needed to increase the sustainability of our transport system,” but  commented that there was a “lack of adequate consideration given to the removal of garden and street trees and shrubs throughout the proposed core bus corridors.”

Creating and maintaining accessibility for all people is also a concern. Certain measures like pedestrianisation, could proffer people with disabilities ease of access in such areas. A reworked public transport system similarly offers planners the opportunity to create a system that comprehensively deals with the needs of all passengers. Whether the NTA is availing of this opportunity is questionable. Last October, the Minister of State for Disability Issues, Fintan McGrath TD, wrote to the NTA: “In respect of disability and access I’m not getting the sense from studying the proposals that there were any prior or meaningful consultations with disability groups such as the Disability Federation of Ireland (DFI) or Inclusion Ireland or others.” Meanwhile, the National Council for the Blind Ireland (NCBI), while appreciating the need for BusConnects, has noted that certain aspects of the proposed infrastructure pose “serious safety concerns” to visually impaired patrons. 

The plans, however, are just plans for now. People are aware of this, and so the fight to shape the city they live in continues. The phased public consultation with communities  that would be affected by the planned infrastructure officiated by the NTA drew to a close in May and the redrafting phase has begun. When this has concluded, with the intended end date being September, the NTA will complete technical, environmental, and transport impact assessment work before submitting a final proposal by November to the national planning agency, An Bord Pleanála. 

For the past year, and for the remaining months, it will be a battle of compromises. Some areas, such as Inchicore and Stoneybatter, have negotiated at least partial redesigns of the plans for their areas which are now tailored better to the communities requirements while still improving transport facilities. Others have been less successful or are still locked in debates about how they want the Dublin they know, love, and hate to function in the future. Work remains very much in progress.

…it’s extremely important that the student movement also gets behind proposals for sustainable transport, as our future depends on this.”

Not least affected by the proposals are students, though student activism on the issue has perhaps not been proportionate as of yet. “Student advocacy groups definitely should be more involved with the NTA’s public consultation process,” says Tate Donnelly, chairperson of Trinity Young Greens. Donnelly adds: “Policies such as the construction of the Metro, BusConnects proposals and the expansion of the Luas are all extremely important to students for a number of reasons and their voices must be heard.” With students travelling almost daily within and from outside Dublin, their reliance on the transport system is heavy.  Donnelly says: “Not only do students use these services every day and do our daily commutes rely on them, but it’s extremely important that the student movement also gets behind proposals for sustainable transport, as our future depends on this.” 

What the future of Dublin looks like depends on who you ask. At the heart of the debate is the question the city has perhaps been putting off for too long: how can 21st century Dublin negotiate itself with its tangible history? For some, the clean and efficient transport marries perfectly with a brimming, energetic urban community. Donnelly comments: “Dublin must be a city that can thrive in the future, and for that to happen it needs to have a much better, more capable, and more efficient public transport system, as well as a massive improvement in infrastructure for walking and cycling.”  For others, the question of compatibility between increased infrastructure and Dublin’s physically expressed identity is a lot more questionable. The partnership does not come free of terms and conditions, whether or not these are worth subscribing to is contended. 

Though the debate has become increasingly entrenched over the past few months, a commonality between parties is the acknowledgement that change is necessary. The trenches have not necessarily been dug between aficionados of the past who ignore the city’s evolving needs and valiant modernists. Predominantly, it is competing visions of how a Dublin that needs to change should change that spur the debates locally and politically.