If there is any silver lining for Dublin to the health and economic disaster of the coronavirus pandemic, it has to be the emergence of measures to improve life for pedestrians and cyclists.
Dublin City Council was first out of the traps in the repurposing of road space, annexing on-street parking spaces to widen footpaths and installing segregated cycle paths throughout the city, most notably on the Liffey quays, a scheme it had failed to get going for the previous eight years.
The Office of Public Works (OPW) closed all but two of the Phoenix Park gates and banned all parking in the park at the end of March. Initially this was not a cycling or walking-driven measure, but to deter people from breaking the 2km travel restriction. However, as Covid-19 restrictions eased it became more about creating a better atmosphere for people to enjoy the park's amenities. This was made most explicit when it decided not to reopen the peripheral gates as planned on June 29th to "curb traffic volumes" and maintain "safe, quiet, open spaces for pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy".
However, less than two weeks later, on a Thursday evening, the OPW announced the peripheral gates would reopen the following morning. This decision, made by the newly-appointed Minister of State for the OPW Patrick O’Donovan, was never about facilitating access to the park.
What the closure of the gates did make less attractive was the use of the park as a rat run or a commuter route. That this was the real focus of the reversal was made clear when O’Donovan said the park was a thoroughfare in to the city for motorists from as far away as Longford and Westmeath.
As the city and country reopens, perhaps it is understandable car users would rail against the very considerable changes to their pre-pandemic routine.
Anne Crawford owns one of the few businesses operating in the Phoenix Park, an afterschool childcare service located in the special school on the north side of the park, close to the Hole in the Wall pub. She agrees the gate closures had limited impact on those coming to the park for leisure trips, but says they represented a serious inconvenience for working people.
“We opened on the 29th of June, when the gates were meant to have been reopened, but with only one gate [open at] each end, parents trying to drop off and pick up children were sitting for up to 50 minutes on Chesterfield Avenue [the main road through the park].”
Many of these parents would come from the Navan Road direction, so would have no reason to venture into the centre of the park when they can use the Cabra and Ashtown gates, she said.
“All the parents were going ballistic. These people sitting in traffic jams are the people going to work and paying taxes for the upkeep of the park, not the people sitting in the park on the €350 pandemic payment saying it’s all so lovely without the cars.”
Crawford also runs afterschool facilities in nearby Castleknock and Ashtown and said traffic on the roads around both areas improved when the gates reopened.
It would be “fair enough” to close the gates if there were adequate public transport options, she said. “The 37 bus only comes every 20 minutes and even before Covid the trains were packed and now the capacity is reduced. Working people need to be able to drive from one side of the park to the other, not just from Castleknock to Parkgate Street.”
While the reopening of the gates has come as a great relief, she is concerned there may be attempts to reverse the decision. "I know the Green Party wants to close them again, but there will be uproar if they do, particularly when the schools – Mount Sackville and Castleknock College – reopen."
Crawford says she doesn’t really understand the argument for banning cars from peripheral roads and gates. “There are 1,700 acres here and only very few roads. You don’t have to be anywhere near the cars if you don’t want to be.”
Fine Gael Senator Emer Currie said the singular focus on the gates as a solution to traffic management in the park has been misguided.
“The conversation has become quite polarised, you’re either for or against the gates being open, when it should be a conversation about how to retain the best of the park while making sure it is accessible.”
Sudden changes to park access without consultation and the continuing use of what had been billed as an emergency measure at the start of the pandemic travel restrictions, was what had annoyed residents, she said.
“The OPW can’t just close the gates and hope for the best. They must develop a transport strategy for the park that includes public transport options to minimise people’s need to drive in the park. Last year they said they would conduct a mobility strategy for the park, they need to do that and start the public consultation on that as soon as possible.”
Currie said she did not directly advise O’Donovan of her concerns regarding the gates but did speak in the Seanad on the matter.
In Chapelizod, another community on the periphery of the park, some residents started an online petition, a week or so before the Minister made his decision, calling for the gates to be reopened. They cited traffic congestion outside and inside the park, as well as suggesting the lack of cars in the park would mean parts of the park would become “no-go areas due to their isolation”.
The petition attracted more than 1,600 signatures, with more added since the gates reopened.
Green Party Councillor Michael Pidgeon had earlier in the pandemic used the same online platform to seek support to end through traffic in the park. His petition secured more than 7,500 signatures and also continues to attract more.
He was disappointed by O’Donovan’s decision. “The OPW had been extolling the benefits of keeping the gates closed, so it’s clear that the Minister ordered the change personally.”
He agrees with Currie that an “on/off approach to the park isn’t in anyone’s interest” and says a short consultation process based on an options paper should be pursued. Pidgeon remains of the view that most people, on all sides of the debate, want to see less traffic in the park, insisting that the Phoenix Park is “not just some roads with trees on the side”.
Not all local residents’ groups wanted the gates reopened. Pat Allison of the Navan Road Community Council, which has represented residents living to the north of the park for more than 50 years, said local traffic build-up appeared to be more a result of shops reopening than the gates being closed. Some of those arguing for the reopening may have simply wanted to avoid the M50 toll, she said. “The park is not a thoroughfare. It is a garden for the city of Dublin, much appreciated by many families confined to flatland.”
In a similar spirit of sunny optimism, Fingal County Council took the decision to pedestrianise a street in Malahide as part of its Covid- 19 mobility measures.
While the council has converted parking spaces into footpaths to enable social distancing and improved cycling infrastructure in a number of towns and villages, New Street in the north Dublin village is the only one to be fully pedestrianised.
The council's senior executive engineer Andrew Nolan said the project involved considerable research, planning and consultation. Vehicular access for emergency services, deliveries, residents and businesses with private off-street parking was maintained, and additional parking spaces were provided in a nearby car park to compensate for the lack of on-street parking. There was "extensive daily on-site engagement with residents' businesses" as planters and outdoor seating was installed, he said.
Malahide Chamber of Commerce president Derek Fowler, who owns a pub on New Street, said the pedestrianisation has made a dramatic difference to the street. "It's given it a real facelift and brought many more people to the street. I've never seen as many people on the street and they all seem really happy."
The street certainly looks vibrant, with an almost continental feel when the sun is shining and people are eating at outdoor tables. However, the atmosphere is somewhat dampened by the red and yellow Save Malahide Village posters in many windows.
New Street pharmacist Áine McCabe said more than 40 local businesses wanted the pedestrianisation ended because of what they said are “significant knock-on traffic problems”.
Shop Malahide, the advocacy group behind the campaign, is not “anti-cycling or anti-walking”, she insisted.
“That could not be further from the truth. We very much welcome the visitors and residents who cycle and walk to the village and the custom they bring. We believe there is a balance to be struck between facilitating the needs of cyclists and ensuring that traffic flows easily.”
The campaign had advocated for a “shared space” scheme, where car parking would be removed and space reallocated to cyclists and walkers. However consultation was “inadequate” she says and the scheme was presented as a “fait accompli” to businesses.
“This is a plan they’ve had in their back pocket for a long time and they are using the guise of Covid to push it through.”
The council's director of services David Storey is flummoxed by the group's opposition.
“Shop Malahide were at a stakeholders’ meeting on May 19th where this was approved. They were in favour of it and subsequently they came out a week later and went a different route. We are the ones being vilified but they are the ones who changed their mind. It’s completely disingenuous.”
The pedestrianisation of New Street is currently midway through a 10-week trial. “We are actively looking to work with stakeholders and if there was agreement, I would like to continue it beyond the 10 weeks,” Mr Storey said.
On the southside of Dublin, another seaside village has been transformed. Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, has pulled out all the stops in Blackrock, with a new one-way traffic system, widened footpaths and, a rarity for Dublin, a contraflow cycle lane. Segregated cycling facilities are also being implemented all the way to the Forty Foot, a popular swimming spot south of Dún Laoghaire.
The council began the Blackrock scheme at the end of May. After seeking public feedback on the progress to date, it said three quarters of submissions were positive and fewer than 20 per cent negative.
The Dublin Cycling Campaign, always first in the crosshairs if there are shots to be fired at cyclists, has also encountered surprisingly little negative reaction.
“There has been a small amount of negative feedback online, but the majority has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Oisín O’Connor, the campaign’s Dún Laoghaire Rathdown spokesman.
“There was a bit of grumbling about traffic issues in Dún Laoghaire, but that’s to be expected while there are roadworks ongoing. They’ve had to close both sides of the coast road in some sections to be able to do the works safely. Once the works are finished, the one lane along the coast will reopen and things will get better as people get used to it.”
Retail Excellence managing director Duncan Graham puts the success of the measures down to consultation, and maintaining accessibility.
“There has to be engagement with stakeholders, meaningful consultation with traders if any of these schemes are going to work. In Blackrock, traders could see wider footpaths for queuing outside shops were needed, and everyone got a new bike during lockdown, it was like Christmas,” he said.
“So it was easy to get across the logic of better spaces for pedestrians and cyclists. But crucially, even though it is one way, there is still ample street parking and accessibility has been maintained.”
Dublin City Council, which trialled the pedestrianisation of several streets around Grafton Street at the weekend, has not had to deal with any serious opposition to its pedestrian and cycle measures so far, apart from the odd legal letter from multistorey car park owners.
However, as Fingal and the OPW have seen, opposition might be festering, even if the sores have yet to break out.