Sunday Longread: Paving the path to rediscovery

With potential plans in place to pedestrianise Dame Street, Dubliners are afforded the chance to reclaim their city

As lockdowns infiltrated the world last March, cities experienced a dampening of background noise that was as unprecedented as the pandemic itself. The major boomtowns ceased to boom, and the usual cacophony of traffic was extinguished by unfamiliar harmonies of birdsong, church bells and the rustling of leaves. Amid the previous whir of engines, city dwellers had relied upon George Berkeley’s “if a tree falls in the woods” theory to verify the existence of such sounds. Suddenly their eyes were being opened to a life beyond the automobile. 

Admittedly, Dublin’s revolution might not have been as prominent as that of London, New York or Tokyo. However, the capital’s citizens did begin to breathe fresher air and see clearer, pollution-free skies as vehicles sat idle in driveways. 

Lockdowns have provided a taster of life sans-cars and as a result, Dubliners are becoming even more intrigued by the prospect of pedestrianisation further permeating the city. After pedestrianisation trials on South Anne Street, Dame Court, Drury Street, and South William Street this summer, 95% of respondents to an online survey voted in favour of permanently pedestrianising the areas.

In a continent ruled by outdoor café culture and car-free zones, Dublin lags behind the major European cities in the realm of pedestrianisation. However, governing bodies are beginning to realise the positive impacts such endeavours could catalyse for the capital city. With the afore-mentioned streets undergoing resurfacing works this month and plans to pedestrianise Dame Street put to public consultation, Dublin is slowly closing the gap on its European counterparts. 

Air pollution is at critical levels in metropolises around the world – and pedestrianisation is one of the most effective means of fighting it. When Paris went car-free for a day in September 2015, exhaust emissions were reduced by 40%. Similarly, during the London marathon in 2018, local air pollution was estimated to have reduced by 89% in some parts of the city. Car transport is the largest source of fossil fuel CO2 emissions. Pedestrianisation reduces local contamination, while also cutting a city’s carbon emissions and tackling climate change. (RTA, 2018)

Moreover, pedestrianisation could forge a world of opportunity for those living with disabilities in Dublin. Speaking from the experience of her father, who used crutches for years and is more recently using a wheelchair, Trinity graduate Sorcha Feehan described how poor footpath quality, narrow footpaths, or tiles that become slippery with rain pose a massive source of peril for someone using crutches. 

“For wheelchair users, if a footpath isn’t flat you won’t be able to wheel your wheelchair on it, the same if it’s not wide enough,” Sorcha explained. “Being able to have two people abreast on a footpath is quite important I think. If you take a lot of the European cities, although they have cobblestones, there’s so much space to walk. The space is really important.”

Navigating a wheelchair through the capital can often land the user in life-threatening situations. Sorcha recalled a nerve-racking episode that occured last Christmas, travelling the short distance from Earlsfort Terrace to Grafton Street. She and her family were forced to repeatedly embark and disembark the footpath because countless points were too rocky or narrow for her father’s wheelchair. “This is obviously so dangerous when you think of the Luases and buses zooming around. You’re essentially risking your life,” she remarked. “Pedestrianisation provides a lot more safety. You have that freedom to wheel wherever you need to on the breast of the area.”

“I definitely think having access to the road for people rather than for cars would be really beneficial for people with disabilities.”

For wheelchair users, traversing the retail hotspots couldn’t be further from therapeutic. “You have to draw a lot of attention to yourself to get help to get inside,” Sorcha added. “There are so many barriers to simply having a nice afternoon in the city, which is just really sad and it shouldn’t be the way it is. It should be easier. I definitely think having access to the road for people rather than for cars would be really beneficial for people with disabilities.” 

“It reminds us how people are oblivious to a struggle until it hits them.”

Sorcha also described how her aunt, who is an architect, spent years neglecting to make her buildings disability-friendly. “She just didn’t get it. Then she had her first child and realised the hardship of having to drag a buggy around everywhere; planning whether you can get in somewhere, are there stairs, paths you can walk on,” she said. “Although buggies and wheelchairs are in different categories, the concept is similar. It reminds us how people are oblivious to a struggle until it hits them.”

As the access of non-essential vehicles is restricted, walking becomes the more enticing option. When MSc Marketing student Meredith Davis moved from the UK to study at Trinity this September, she was “pretty aghast” at both the expense and unreliability of Dublin’s public transport system. After several turbulent trips, she decided to hang up her Dublin Bus boots and began making her way to college à pied. “I realised it’s just simpler to walk”, she admitted. “I can time it exactly and don’t need to worry about getting to the bus stop on time, or fear the bus not showing up.”

Referring to her walking route to Trinity, she commented: “I do find Dame Street to be quite congested with traffic in the mornings. The footpaths are narrow and busy, which means I’m often knocking into people or stumbling onto the road. My walk would definitely be more leisurely and enjoyable, were the street to be pedestrianised.”

Feljin Jose of Dublin Commuter Coalition echoed Meredith’s concerns about the transport system. “We need to make it attractive to use public transport,” he said. “When assessing pedestrianisation, we have to look at how easy it is to get to bus stops. If pedestrian crossings are lengthening the travel time to a stop, that’s not an incentive for someone to take the bus. At the end of the day, we must remember that public transport users are pedestrians.” 

“Pedestrianisation has the power to create large public spaces, attract more footfall into the city and thereby create massive positives for local businesses.”

“It’s about making the best use of our city,” he added. “Pedestrianisation has the power to create large public spaces, attract more footfall into the city and thereby create massive positives for local businesses.”

Blazing Salads, a small vegetarian gem, stands on Drury Street as testament to Feljin’s claim. With their front area now reclaimed, the café can serve customers safely in the outdoors; a welcome compensation at present when social distancing measures must be accounted for. 

“We’ve been here on Drury Street for 20 years,” owner Pamela Fitzmaurice explained. “Where before the street was plagued by a constant loading bay and big trucks coming and going all day, there’s now much less vehicle noise. It’s a lot more comfortable for the people.” 

“There’s no longer a kerb or rise in the footpath which is much nicer for both ourselves and the customers,” she continued. “We’ve been able to maximise the space and now have all our tables outside. It makes for a fantastic dining experience – especially given the current circumstances. The summer trials taught us that pedestrianisation is extremely positive, not just for businesses but for the whole city.” 

The startling loss of indoor space as a result of the pandemic, further amplifies the need to maximise Dublin’s outdoor areas. Covid aside, however, pedestrianisation has the propensity to enhance the lives of many; from students to businesses to those living with disabilities. For Dubliners, the prospect of abolishing the royal treatment of cars sparks a glimmer of hope in arduous times. They fantasise a utopia in which engine “vrooms” are undetectable and clouds of exhaust fumes are a thing of the past. As Feljin emphasised: “pedestrianisation is the perfect gateway to a reimagined city.”