Waiting for go


Could the ban on heavy vehicles in Dublin's centre, along with the new Samuel Beckett Bridge, transform the city, asks Kate Holmquist

Dublin's choked quays will be transformed in nine days' time when UFOs are banned from entering the city. Okay, not really, but you'd be forgiven for thinking it if you'd seen the new sign posted around the city centre's new five-axle cordon: a red circle depicting a Star Wars P-38 starfighter with a red line through it and the number 5. Actually, the mysterious object is a truck axle. For the mechanically challenged, the axle is the metal pole that connects each pair of wheels on a vehicle, such as a HGV (heavy goods vehicle).

From 7am on Monday, February 19th, when the ban comes into effect, gardaí and traffic controllers will be busy examining HGVs entering a roughly diamond-shaped cordon around the city between the hours of 7am and 7pm. To carry out deliveries and pick-ups during those hours, drivers of HGVs with five or more axles will require a €10 permit that they can buy on the internet, but the charge will not come into effect until May. The result, promises Michael Phillips, director of traffic at Dublin City Council, will be free-flowing traffic, cleaner air and improved safety, while buses may at last have a chance of running on time.

Amanda Kealy Baker, balcony floral decorator who lives on Sir John Rogerson's Quay, walks the quays daily and has already noticed a difference since the opening of the Dublin Port Tunnel. She says: "I'm looking forward to less pollution and safer walking with the ban. I think it's brilliant for the city."

But sceptics are asking: why is the ban from 7am to 7pm only? Why not 24 hours? And why weren't four-axles included in the new restrictions, since four-axles make up the majority of big trucks and can be as big as five-axles? The final decisions on these matters were negotiated with city councillors by Phillips, the city engineer who describes himself as "the fall guy". He was appointed director of traffic in April 2006 after supervising the construction of the Port Tunnel, the water treatment works and the Liffey's two most stylish bridges, the completed James Joyce - designed by Santiago Calatrava - and its beautiful but yet to be constructed sister, also by Calatrava, the Macken Street bridge. This bridge, which will begin construction this spring and is expected to be completed by 2010, is to be called the Samuel Beckett - rather appropriate for commuters stuck in an existential state of waiting in traffic.

Phillips describes Dublin's traffic tangle as "a huge puzzle" that traffic experts run on computer models to see whether moving just one piece can clear major blockages that frustrate commuters.

The puzzle isn't insoluble, but every move has an effect on dozens of other elements. One move can prevent the frustration of watching the lights change from green to yellow to red to green to yellow again while stuck facing a bus or lorry blocking a yellow box. Another move in the puzzle can save the life of a cyclist, a pedestrian or a child in a buggy.

Traffic co-ordinators, as Phillips explains, seek out the puzzle moves that will make most pieces click smoothly into place with the least protest from hauliers, business owners and commuters. Since Dublin city councillors must approve all changes, politics are never far away.

The hauliers decided to support the five-axle ban on the grounds that a four-axle restriction would be delayed, probably for two years, says Phillips. But many hauliers still aren't completely happy. "There's potential to create bedlam in the evening after 7pm," predicts Larry Quinn, spokesman for the Irish Road Haulage Association.

DR MIKE MCKILLEN is a scientist at Trinity College Dublin and a safety expert, who drew up a submission to the council by the Dublin Cycling Campaign. The submission labels HGVs and their drivers as "serial killers". Dr McKillen says: "The ban on five-axles from 7am to 7pm will not eliminate the danger to cyclists and pedestrians. Many of the cycling deaths have been with four-axle cement mixers, which are massively heavy. I had to provide CPR in vain to a cyclist who had been knocked down and crushed by a 4-axle Readymix concrete truck on Sat 21 Sept. 2006 at Lr. Gardiner St. The chap died in my arms due to massive internal crushing injuries. Students from TCD and DIT often cycle home at 9pm and 10 pm at night when the libraries close. We have to ask, are trucks appropriate at all in a medieval city?"

Eamon Ryan, transport spokesman for the Green Party, believes "it doesn't make sense. Seventy per cent of trucks in the city are four-axles or less. After 7pm the risk is greater due to pedestrians walking in the dark having had a drink, and because there is less traffic so trucks can travel at higher speeds. There should be a 24-hour ban on four- and five-axles."

Phillips's response to the issue of cyclists and pedestrians being in danger after 7pm is that a new 30 kph speed limit will shortly be introduced in the city so that trucks will have to go slowly, even during light traffic periods.

Seán O'Rinn, former haulier and organiser of Quay People, a residents' group, also thinks the ban doesn't go far enough: "The quays are still a hostile area for humans, especially families with young children. We're living in a commercial truck war zone. I've had concrete power-floating going on beside me at 1.30am. I'm disappointed that four-axles weren't included, since they can be just as big and include the cement trucks. The ban should have been 24 hours, to take account of people living in the area. And I have doubts about how the Garda will enforce the ban, considering that they're already busy trying to stop the crime and shootings in the area."

Phillips replies that the ban (except with permit) has been limited to five-axles and to a 12-hour period because it was the only way to get hauliers and business leaders to agree to it. "The main reason for designating five-axles was to introduce the concept of a heavy goods vehicle cordon strategy that would work," he says. "We have signalled that four- axles will be included after two years, which gives hauliers time to adjust their fleets. We had to take into account the size of the cordon and the size of the trucks and consider whether business would be able to operate within this restriction. Because if the economy of the city centre is not working, we have a far more serious problem than traffic."

His long-term aspiration is to ban cars and trucks without permits from the heart of the city within the next five to 10 years. This will depend on how long it takes to get the Metro and new Luas lines up and running. The Samuel Beckett Bridge must be completed before work on the Metro and new Luas stops near College Green can begin, because during that construction work cars will have to be diverted across the Liffey via the Samuel Beckett.

The city council will also have to purchase land on which to build park-and-ride sites on the perimeter of the city. Phillips's proposed non-car zone will encompass College Green (in front of TCD) as far as Grafton Street, Westmoreland Street, D'Olier Street and a stretch of Dame Street, possibly as far as Trinity Street. Meanwhile, orbital and radial quality bus corridors are being built in an outer ring from Blackrock to Dundrum and from Rathfarnham to Clondalkin, so that commuters will no longer have to travel into the city to get from one suburb to another.

In the meantime, the traffic controllers who sit at a bank of screens at the Civic Offices can slow down fast-moving vehicles by ensuring that they hit every red light. Their cameras can see licence plates and the Garda see the same pictures the traffic controllers do. There are 45 gardaí on motorbikes ready to apprehend offenders.

As for hauliers' fears that freight costs will double, Phillips says the big retailers are already delivering at night and some are even using smaller trucks operating from depots, as is the norm in other European cities. Trucks will move more quickly after 7pm, which should save hauliers money, balancing out the extra costs of higher pay and shorter hours for truck drivers at night, he adds.

Whether the five-axle restriction can be enforced is a problem for the Garda, which is already lobbying the city council to introduce an "on the spot" fine system. UK and European truck drivers cannot be summonsed, which allows them to ride roughshod over the rules, so getting a ticket isn't a deterrent. When a garda sees a five-axle within the cordon, they will get on the radio and check the database for a permit number. If there is no permit, the garda will follow the truck to a point where it can safely stop without blocking traffic, says a Garda spokesman.

To the naysayers, Phillips has a suggestion that throws responsibility for traffic back on the drivers. "Every commmuter should make two days a week a car-free day."