Capel Street backlash a portent of trouble ahead

Dublin City Council will need to tread carefully over future of pedestrianisation

 Dublin City Council  says it will continue the pedestrianisation trial of Capel Street for another month, while it conducts its consultation. Photograph: Alan Betson

Dublin City Council says it will continue the pedestrianisation trial of Capel Street for another month, while it conducts its consultation. Photograph: Alan Betson

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Last Monday, Dublin City Council issued an upbeat message on Twitter about the success of the pedestrianisation of Capel Street at weekend nights.

“Over the last 11 weeks, more than 300,000 people have experienced the traffic-free streets of Capel Street and Parliament Street,” it said. “This weekend is the final scheduled weekend so be sure to check it out!”

To say its chirpy tweet didn’t hit the right note would be a colossal understatement.

The Twitter pile-on was instant and harsh, but essentially it boiled down to a mystification as to why the council, when it acknowledged the success of the scheme, was, in the same breath, ending it.

The council was taken aback by the reaction. It had genuinely meant its post as a celebratory message, to ensure people didn’t miss the last hurrah of the summer.

It had, it said the following day, always intended to undertake a public consultation process and assessment on the future of the scheme following the trial. It might have saved itself a lot of grief had it mentioned this in its tweet.

Ultimately the council temporarily dampened down the rage by saying it would continue the trial for another month, while it conducts its consultation. What the whole episode illustrates is the surprising new passion evoked by pedestrianisation schemes, both for and against them, that has seen some end up in the courts.

Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council also trialled a pedestrianisation scheme this summer. Lower George’s Street in Dún Laoghaire town was, on July 5th, pedestrianised, or rather re-pedestrianised, having previously been traffic free for about a decade up to 2008.

The council also issued a statement this week celebrating its success, highlighting a 13 per cent increase in footfall on the street. However, it has always been very clear that the pedestrianisation trial will be in place only until September 30th.

“We are going to follow through on what we said we will do. It is a trial, taking in the summer and September, so we can understand how it works when the schools are back and people are back from their holidays,” the council’s director of services, Robert Burns, said.

“We will then have hard data we can analyse, along with people’s opinions of how the scheme worked, and we can then make a set of recommendations to the councillors about what might happen in the future.”

Fingal County Council has pedestrianised just one street, New Street in Malahide. Last summer the council made the street traffic free, which sparked a concerted campaign of opposition before it was rescinded last September.

However, following public consultation earlier this year, the council reinstated the pedestrianisation on the June Bank Holiday weekend ahead of the lifting of restrictions on outdoor dining.

The council has previously said it would like to make the scheme permanent, but it said it was not in a position to comment on the matter at the current time, because it was before the courts.

Local resident Nicola Byrne, who lives on a parallel street, brought a High Court action against the council claiming the pedestrianisation of New Street had increased traffic and anti-social behaviour in the village. She had sought an injunction to reverse the pedestrianisation ahead of her main challenge being heard, but this was dismissed earlier this month. As a result, the pedestrianisation remains in place for now, with the substantive case due back in the courts in October.

Back in the city centre, the council has already permanently pedestrianised some streets, since the advent of the pandemic. Last summer it trialled the pedestrianisation of a number of streets around Grafton Street, which has itself been pedestrianised for several decades. This year, it made the measures permanent, banning cars from South Anne Street and Dame Court and partially banning them on Drury Street and South William Street, to maintain car park access.

Support

Public consultation had shown almost universal support for these measures; 97 per cent of respondents were in favour of their implementation. Some businesses have reservations, with the small independent retail group Dublin Can Be Heaven concerned a “hostility” towards drivers was being fostered, despite car parks remaining open.

The larger Dublin Town group, however, felt the pedestrianisation should have gone further, particularly on South William Street, saying the “part-pedestrianisation” of streets “is confusing for customers and may act as a deterrent to their full use of city streets”.

The group is slightly less radical when it comes to Capel Street. The pedestrianisation of Capel Street is already far more modest than on the southside streets. Apart from one small section of 60m at its northern end that has been permanently pedestrianised, the car-free hours have been limited to 6.30pm-11.30pm on Friday, Saturday and Sundays.

However, Dublin Town recommends scaling this back to a 7.30pm start, to avoid “conflict and potential challenges”.

While the group has not expanded on the nature of the conflict and challenges, it is obvious they will be between those who want to keep cars on the street, and those who do not want them, with those who want varying contractions or expansions of the times and days cars are banned also in the mix.

If the council thought it got a hard time this week, it had better toughen up for the battle ahead.

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