We have to rescue our city centres before we reimagine them

Government has to give clear advice on returning to work

People on a busy Henry Street in Dublin’s city centre in mid-July. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

People on a busy Henry Street in Dublin’s city centre in mid-July. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

The schools are going back.But tens of thousands of office workers continue to work from home. Google, which employs 8,000 in Dublin, told staff worldwide during the week that they could continue to work from home until June of next year and many other companies are also stretching out return to workplace dates.

The bulk of the civil service and office-based employees of the wider public services remain out of the office. As a result our city centres remain quiet by day and ghost towns by night.

If the Government succeeds in getting the schools back open, then getting some kind of normality back into commercial life and the city centres will be the next challenge. And it will be just as complicated.

Is the Government prepared to give guidance in relation to city centres similar to that given in relation to schools – that it thinks something akin to normal business should be resumed, provided precautions are taken? And if so how do we get around the crunch issue of crowded public transport?

The pandemic has led to some interesting discussions about the future of our cities – and even some progress in areas like cycle lanes. There are opportunities to make people’s live better in the years ahead, lessen long commutes and learn lessons from what has happened – for example the ability of many people to work from home. But before we reimagine our city centres , we need to rescue them.

First off, we will need some policy clarity here, come the autumn.The Government’s advice in relation to returning to work needs to be clearer than that given on foreign travel – here ministers say to avoid travelling even to green list countries unless it is essential, but the Department of Foreign Affairs website says that green list countries are exempted from this advice. Go figure.

Come the autumn, will the advice be to continue to work from home if at all possible, or to came back in to work if possible?

Clarity helps the public make up their own minds – and confidence is, of course, the key issue. For many, getting to work rather than being there is the real worry. A Trinity College survey in May showed three -quarters of people were concerned about using public transport. Spaced out offices may feel fine – but a packed Dart might not.

Real crux

Public transport is back running a full timetable, but capacity is way down – around 50 per cent on Darts and trains in terms of seating and less on buses. More people are cycling or walking,but many of those who have returned to work seem to be driving to avoid the train or bus.

The latest Google mobility data show public transport use in Dublin down 38 per cent on pre-pandemic levels , compared to the national average of a 24 per cent decline.

How on earth are we going to manage public transport when schools return fully, universities partially and people start drifting back to offices? Along with providing childcare, this is the real crux of giving people the choice to return to their workplace, and helping those who already have to .

The Government can tell people that its advice is that it is safe to travel on public transport provided everyone wears masks, and encourage employers to reopen offices while following flexible schedules. Or it can continue to say – including to its own employees – please continue to work from home if you can at all.

Or will it be a case of : “Stay at home if you can, but go into work if you want to?” Will the Luas red line be on the travel-to-work green list? Or the green line on the red list?

If everyone continues to stay at – or near – home our city centres will wither. The Google data shows movement around leisure venues in the wider Dublin area – restaurants, cafes,bars, museums and so on is 39 per cent below the levels of January and February, before the crisis hit, compared to a national average decline of 28 per cent.

Footfall in the city centre last week was 50 per cent down on the same week last year, according to Dublin Town, the retail lobby group.The lack of office staff and business travel and dining is hitting hard. Fears of delayed introduction of the next phrase of reopening here – or even a reversion to earlier phases – has nerves on edge.

Big economic events tend to highlight existing problems. There were already questions over the future of our city centres before the pandemic hit – and our smaller town centres were already in big trouble. with high vacancy rates of 20 per cent plus in many. Just as motorway rerouting of traffic and out out of town shopping sucked the life out of many of these town centres, will the pandemic now mean our city centres are bypassed too ?

The only way people who have the choice to work from home will return is in response to clear advice come the autumn about safe ways of returning to workplaces– and plans in relation to public transport and childcare to let this happen.

You wouldn’t envy the public officials and politicians making these calls . The alternative is that, due to public health advice and the path of the virus, the advice will be to continue to work from home if possible and to socialise carefully and close to where you live.

If this is the case, then we need to consider a strategy that supports many city centre consumer-facing businesses like restaurants, bars, coffee shops and even some retail outlets to stay closed during the winter, or tick over at low volumes, in the hope of better times in 2021. Because they won’t be able to trade in any meaningful way.

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