Is there anything to be said for another road? Since the introduction of the Climate Act in 2021, the proposal to build a second ring road around Galway city has changed from a merely terrible idea, to an illegal one. The sooner planners, local authorities and Transport Infrastructure Ireland realise this, the sooner a safe, affordable and uncongested transport system can be delivered for Galway and other towns and cities across Ireland.
The Galway City Ring Road, for which planning permission will shortly be quashed, was not to be a “bypass” to allow cars to avoid the city. Rather, it was designed to deliver more cars into the already congested medieval city, at a cost of hundreds of millions of euro. This was made clear in the planning reports put before An Bord Pleanála.
The planners of the Galway City Ring Road saw an increased number of private car journeys as a positive effect of the project, which in their eyes would outweigh the “significant negative impact on carbon emissions and climate”. The report found that the ring road would not result in any change in favour of the use public transport or active travel. Most bizarrely, the planners acknowledged the ring road would do nothing to relieve congestion, with longer average journey times expected, due to an increase in the volume of car traffic.
The sooner local and national authorities abandon the 20th-century mindset, where the solution to every problem is another road, the sooner a safe, affordable and uncongested transport system can be delivered for Galway and other towns and cities across Ireland
Thankfully, since the Act, such proposals are not just foolish, they are also illegal.
In agreeing to quash the ring road’s planning permission, An Bord Pleanála accepted that they had failed to “consider” the 2021 Climate Action Plan. That, however, fails to recognise the obligations created under the Act, which require public bodies to act “in a manner consistent with” the most recent Climate Action Plan and the furtherance of the national climate objective (ie net zero by 2050). Merely considering a Climate Action Plan is no longer sufficient.
The 2021 Climate Action Plan requires a number of actions in respect of transport policy, all of which are inconsistent with the Galway City Ring Road. A key requirement of the Climate Action Plan is that planning policy will work to “reduce demand for travel by car, travel distances and journey times”, all of which the ring road either fails to do or actively works against.
The Climate Action Plan also incorporates the Five Cities Demand Management Study, the purpose of which is to identify suitable actions to reduce demand for private car travel in Ireland’s five largest urban centres — Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway.
It says, “In most cases, providing additional road infrastructure in response to congestion is unlikely to solve the issue. There is limited space to provide significant extra road capacity, particularly in historic medieval cities such as Galway and Waterford. More importantly, there is the likelihood that additional road capacity will induce additional car-based travel, ultimately resulting in a further increase in emissions and a return to the congested road conditions, but with even greater environmental damage, due to the increased volume of road traffic.” The planners of the ring road take these requirements and seek to do the exact opposite.
Of course, the overarching purpose of the Climate Action Plan is to reduce carbon emissions, so as to reduce man-made climate damage. In this regard the ring road is irredeemably flawed. Where the planning board’s own decision states that the ring road is “likely to result in a significant negative impact on carbon emissions and climate”, no amount of reconsideration could make the project compliant with the Act.
Despite the obvious failure of the ring road to comply with legal requirements, the immediate reaction of Galway City Council, Galway County Council and Transport Infrastructure Ireland to the quashing of planning permission was to stick their heads further into the sand.
Their joint statement described the abject failure of the ring road to comply with the Act as “a very limited ground” and stated that the local authorities “intend to continue to progress the delivery of the” ring road.
The quashing of the planning permission for the ring road for a failure to comply with the Act is not a “limited ground”, which could be overcome with further consideration. It is the end of the road for this project.
Legally, additional roads that induce further demand for car travel and do nothing to ease congestion can no longer be built
It should mark the end of a century of poor transport planning in Ireland, from ripping up railways to the constant prioritisation of cars and on-street parking, despite most of our towns and cities being completely unsuited to being dominated in this way.
The congestion problems faced by Galway are the direct result of these mistakes, and are mirrored across Ireland. The solutions will be surprisingly straightforward once the mindsets of decision-makers are changed. They involve allocating road space to public transport, active travel and blue badge holders, and reducing the absolute priority currently given to private cars and on-street parking.
Legally, additional roads that induce further demand for car travel and do nothing to ease congestion can no longer be built. In failing to recognise this, public authorities fail the cities and counties they serve.
The sooner local and national authorities abandon the 20th-century mindset, where the solution to every problem is another road, the sooner a safe, affordable and uncongested transport system can be delivered for Galway and other towns and cities across Ireland.
Donnchadh Woulfe is a barrister and member of Comhshaol — the Climate Bar Association. He represented Friends of the Irish Environment in its successful challenge to the Galway City Ring Road