Tackling rat running is key for liveable, healthier and safer cities

IMAGE: Part of a street closed off to motorists in Utrecht.

COMMENT & ANALYSIS / LONG READ: Nearly everybody wants to tackle child and adult inactivity and obesity, air and noise pollution, and climate change… right? Well, we’d hope so anyway. The problem is there will nearly always be a strong vocal group against the practical measures required for those positive changes.

Even if Dublin City Council’s communications on the issue was not great to start with, the council need to be commended for trying to stop rat running with its trial in Drumcondra which uses bollards to close a street to rat running.

First of all, I suppose it’s best to talk about what rat running is. On the StoptheroadclosureD9 Facebook page, one person said: “I really object to the term ‘rat running’ with regard to motorists using side roads. It implies an element of antisocial behaviour/joyriding when all people are doing is trying to go about their business without going insane on the static mess that is Drumcondra Road.”

IMAGE: A toddler with an adult walking on the road behind filtered permeability in Ringsend.

So, what is rat running? Collinsdictionary.com says that ‘rat running’ is “the practice of driving through residential side streets to avoid congested main roads”. Oxforddictionaries.com says a ‘rat run’ is “A minor, typically residential street used by drivers during peak periods to avoid congestion on main roads,” and dictionary.cambridge.org states that it’s “a small road that is used by a lot of drivers who are trying to avoid traffic on larger roads”.

Rat running has for too long being allowed to fester and grow in large parts of Dublin and in other urban areas in Ireland. It’s not generally illegal but it is antisocial.

Before the workplace smoking ban there was a cultural denial that smoking indoors was harmless, not really a big issue or a matter of personal freedom (to hell with those who were badly affected by secondary smoke). Now there’s a strong realisation that smoking indoors is not on even at home or in cars, especially around children.

Just as lots of people still find smoking hard to give up, lots will find it hard to give up rat running. Just like smoking, lots of people will find it harder to admit they have a problem which affects other people. Equally some people didn’t see a problem with single-use plastic bags before their use was taxed. But unlike the smoking ban and plastic bags, Ireland is behind the curve on tackling rat running. We’re even in denial

Many of the comments against the Drumcondra trial on the StoptheroadclosureD9 and Drumcondra Social Facebook pages remind me of the letter writer to The Irish Times who asked for traffic be allowed back on Grafton Street. Some people think it should be a right to drive anywhere.

While we (slowly) followed our European neighbours with the pedestrianisation of city centre streets. We never looked at what the Dutch call “compartmentalisation” of residential neighborhoods — basically, a system which cuts rat running to zero and which makes residential streets safer and more attractive for walking, cycling and general street life, including children playing.

A brilliant blog post by BicycleDutch outlines an example of compartmentalisation in Utrecht: In the below image, the area bordered by a distributor street (in green) is divided into 5 areas and motorists must use the distributor street to get from one area to the other: Bollards are shown as red lines:

IMAGE: Via BicycleDutch.

The most well known method of compartmentalisation is the use of bollards or planters (mostly known as “filtered permeability” in the UK and Ireland). On grids of streets, the compartmentalisation effect can be achieved (or enhanced) by having cycling-friendly alternating one-way streets (best described by this post on A View from the Cycle Path).

The main compartmentalisation design with bollards is widely used in the Netherlands (and elsewhere) since the 1970s. It has been proven to be effective in calming streets.

Dublin is behind and seems fearful of taking a systematic approach. But there are many examples of residential streets and roads closed off to stop rat running in the city:

IMAGE: A crowd-sourced map of streets and roads in Dublin closed off to rat running.

Sadly, much of the recent debate in Drumcondra quickly got nasty and ill-informed.

For this article, I looked at both sides of the argument on the StoptheroadclosureD9 and Drumcondra Social pages on Facebook. It’s clear that the local rat running supporters and boosted in numbers by rat running commuters from northern Glasnevin and Ballymun going towards the city or others going from Fairview to Glasnevin.

IMAGE: Filtered permeability allows for a safer environment for walking and cycling.

One of the more silly comments was: “The council is spending time putting bollards where no one wants them while homeless are dying on the streets .You get a grip” — keep building motorways but don’t spend money on bollards.

Some more typical comments include: “Drumcondra is in the city. Of course there is going to be traffic!”, “You also chose to live beside a school”, “we have to accept that we live in a busy city”, “We are long past the days where children could play on the roads like we used to”, and “You bought on a through road get that into your head. Can’t just close off a street because the times have changed, life got busier, people have the right to use it. You don’t own the road. What’s the point in road tax if we can just shut down roads because residents deem it unsafe.”

The problem is that there are both international and local examples showing how residential streets can just be close off a street because the times have changed. Dutch cities were overrun with cars until they said ‘no more’ and started to change things. Now minor residential streets across the Netherlands are typically quite places where it’s safe for children to play.

The comment about living beside a school is an interesting one. Other countries often restrict non-resident parking outside schools. In the UK in recent years, for example, areas have implemented restrictions on parking or even using cars outside school gates.

Many of those who want to keep streets open to rat running claim the traffic caused by the bollards is an “issue that has affected the whole North of Dublin”. But, when reasons for the extra traffic is outlined, they are quickly dismissed. For example, somebody mentioned a collision on Drumcondra Road which had traffic back up to Church Street, but, to the opponents of the bollards, it was all the fault of the bollards.

And, among the rat-running supporters, some admit to continue to rat run on streets on the other side of the Drumcondra Road. With no self-reflection they blame the supporters of the bollards that they are rat-running elsewhere. That actually points to a different problem: The council needs to be looking at tackling rat running on a larger scale.

IMAGE: Bollards placed to stop rat running in Rathmines.

Another objector said: “Our city doesn’t have the great public transport that London has, or the safe bicycle lanes that Amsterdam have for a car free city to be implemented”. The problem here is that Amsterdam started its on-street changes before it built its metro network. Dutch cities started with residential street before cycle paths and such streets remain a vital part of their cycle networks. There’s also plenty of cities like Utrecht which do not have metro systems.

Ireland, not just Dublin, has taken the wrong approach to calming residential streets. The main process followed in recent years is looking at applying 30km/h to streets and working back from that point. The question we as a country need to be asking ourself is what the function of roads and streets should be. From that point you then look at not just the speed limit but also cutting rat running on purely residential streets and properly calming streets by using measures which reduce traffic volumes and, only after that, traffic calming.

The problem with all of this, much like the problem with installing cycle lanes on main roads, it brings up the question of the politics of space. It should be a no brainier that streets and roads which are purely residential and which are not designated traffic routes should not be through routes. But some people think cars should be allowed on Grafton Street.

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13 Comments

  1. This is an excellent piece. I think this is more important even than protected cycling infrastructure. (The two topics are not unrelated, of course.)

  2. Ironically people seem very enthusiastic to close off pedestrian access, especially if they get to take the public throughway and add it to their property. The reason they give is “anti-social” behavior. There is a lane behind my parents house that runs between the rear of two housing estates. The residents of one estate have been trying to close this for years. What will happen if it was closed? Why we’ll just take it in to our gardens they say with a slightly puzzled reaction. Where will all the people who use it to go to the community centre at one end and the shops at the other? Well not through estate A, it’s a fortress, they’ll go through my parents’ estate instead. When I was a teenager there were lots of pedestrian access points and estate A was basically permeable to people on foot. Now almost all of those have been closed. In a council meeting demanding the closure of the major laneway I was talking about one of the residents admitted that she simply unilaterally closed the lane that ran down the side of hour house and extended her wall to block it off.

    Near where I live currently the most direct route to the nearest Luas stop ran down a laneway. One day that lane was closed off. No longer being a teenager I had the wherewithal to go to the council but apparently the house owner got authorization to close this (and add it to his garden) because he claimed it was a magnet for anti-social activity. I would have assumed that the newly opened Luas stop would have increased foot traffic and therefore reduced this anti-social activity but apparently not. Now my walk to the Luas is 20% longer and one lucky householder has added 30 square meters to their property at the public expense. Where were all these people crying about how he knew there was a lane when he bought the house? Oh that’s right, they are in their cars whining about not being able to take short cuts through residential roads.

    The comments you quoted are pretty repulsive. They really should be ashamed to post such nonsense but I guess people are willing to be as ridiculous as it takes to get what they want. I really hope the council holds firm against these self centered relics but I’m afraid they won’t.. We get politicians that vow to bring down the water charges but won’t implement a decent Liffey Cycle route. Mayor Quimby is brought to mind. “If that’s’ the way the winds are blowing let no one say I don’t also blow”.

  3. This is not just an issue with urban roads. If we could end rat-running down minor country roads and lanes we could quickly create an enormous network of low traffic cycle routes. This is exactly how many rural long distance cycle routes are created in Germany and the Netherlands.

  4. We live in the area and we’re pro the road closure. The venom that is being directed against us is shocking. People approach us quietly to say the love the quietness but are afraid to voice their opinion openly – it’s shocking.
    MOTORDOM :(

  5. Many country roads in south county dublin have become high traffic areas because of the councils unwillingness to implement the planning regulations. Many farm yards have been taken over by trucking companies and have artics etc up and down small country roads day and night. A look around near the naas road using google earth will show yards with up to forty artics parked where the only access is by narrow winding roads. What is worse is that these yards are near some of the biggest industrial estates in the country which have safe and clear connections to the n7. It would by nice if councils accepted that planning is there to improve the environment for society and not to reward those they favour.

  6. So, I’ve been pointed to comments today on Drumcondra Social group on Facebook which replied to the above article — I’m not a member of the group, so, someone who is might want to tell them I replied here?

    Their replies are interesting but it’s clear that most of them didn’t read the article. Nevertheless, I’ll reply to the comments:

    Alan said: “Load of shite, you live in a city, get used to traffic. If you don’t like go back to the country.”

    Reply: Did you read the article? Can cities never improve? Will we re-open Grafton Street to cars? Why should people have to get use to unsafe and unhealthy conditions?

    John said: “Great article…..close every road with a house on it and the world will be better…..its complete rubbish”

    Reply: Not every road but cells of roads which are purely residential or which are not designated traffic routes should not be through routes

    Lisa said:
    “According to this article those against the bollards are relics, in favour of rat running and it strives to make every argument against the bollards sound looney. I wonder who paid for this article to be written? Talk about balance. And using UK and Netherlands as good examples? mmmm, those countries have better public transport. Here? Non existant.

    Reply: (A) The article deals with the issues and does not engage in name calling. It deals with arguments posted by those against the bollards and it avoids personalising the debate. (B) Nobody paid for the article. (C) As mentioned in the article, Amsterdam started its on-street changes before it built its metro network and there’s plenty of cities like Utrecht which do not have metro systems. (D) There’s lots of places in Dublin with poor public transport, Drumcondra isn’t one of them — it has reasonable public transport.

    Gary said: “Every article from these make cycling out to be the saviour of the world. Yet they never mention the downsides of having to go way out of you way to get to your home or the fact that closing the road just makes the rat runs more focused as happened in Larkhill. Be very careful what you wish for, like an ambulance in a hurry. Seconds count with them.”

    Reply: I thought the article was clear that the downside of having to drive a little further is outweighed by the benefits. As for “just makes the rat runs more focused” — no, the article actually covers that (“The council needs to be looking at tackling rat running on a larger scale” etc).

    Gary also said: “Be very careful what you wish for, like an ambulance in a hurry. Seconds count with them.”

    Ambulances can get past the bollards but the number 1 cause of delay of ambulances in the city is too many people driving cars too often.

    Dermot said: “Agree Susan article is not very balanced and full of irrelevant points which do not contribute to solving the problems caused by the ongoing chaos caused by these Bollards.”

    Reply: Points aren’t irrelevant and articles aren’t lacking in balance just because you don’t like them. The above article is based on evidence and examples and dealing with points raised by objectors.

    Sabrina said: “Terrible one sided article that only insults people’s concerns! I think you’d find most people want traffic calming but not no access to there homes!”

    Reply: The only comment I aimed to insult was the one I called silly. The rest I focused on dealing with what they said. Hyperbolic comments like “no access” to homes doesn’t help the case against the bollards.

    Sabrina also said: “Comparing dublin to Amsterdam or London is just plain silly, not comparable at all! Different problems, public transport systems and sizes! I’m all for cycling but there are plenty of crazy cyclists on the roads too!! There isn’t one solution to make everyone happy but there has to be one that makes everyone a little bit happy/annoyed!!”

    Reply: Actually Amsterdam and Dublin are similarly sized and have similar populations, and Amsterdam started tackling rat running when its public transport was far less developed. But cities of all shapes and sizes in other countries have tackled rat running.

    Cities should be doing what’s right, not trying to make everybody happy. I’ll go back to the smoking ban analogy — loads of people were annoyed (many very strongly so) but most people got use to it and got over it.

  7. The people who wrote those comments genuinely disgust me.

    For example, the “seconds count” for an ambulance guy is almost certainly happy to contribute to those roads being jammed up with cars either cutting through to save a few seconds of their own time or by parking their car half on the road and half on the path narrowing the road. Don’t expect me to think that person gives a damn about ambulances. They only care about themselves. The other idiots on their facebook group might accept that as true purely because they think it makes them seem less self-centered but nobody with a brain is going to be fooled.

    The “cities have traffic, get used to it” guy should get used to the fact that cities aren’t designed for every person to drive their private car everywhere. Cities suck for driving and he should get used to it and stop whining like a spoiled brat who has been told he can’t have ice cream for every meal.

    The whole “cyclists think they are saviors” thing is a straw man made ridiculous by the fact that this road closure has virtually nothing to do with cycling or cyclists. It is supposed to improve the quality of life for residents and make the area safer for their children. What we actually have here is a bunch of selfish, car obsessed idiots who prize their own convenience over other peoples well being and safety.

  8. Eric,

    I understand the frustration that is evident in your astute posts, but insulting the people that are trying to justify their behaviour to themselves is not going to convince them to change and it is not helpful. It is human nature not to want awkward facts to be true, and to rationalise and justify rejection of any change in behaviour that involves having to do anything you do not want to do.

    We all need to change our behaviour, but many of us are unable or unwilling to even try. Some don’t care, sure, but most know in their hearts that they should at least try to do the right thing.

    Cyclists are hated for, in one small way, trying to do the right thing, for reminding people that they could do better, that they should do better. So the behaviour of some asshole cyclists is seized upon as evidence that these people and their message are not reasonable.

    We need to keep up the rational arguments that back up our position, and that Cian continues to grind out, bless him. Maybe we also need to appeal more to their self-interest and that of their families. Personally, I want to be able to look my kids in the eye in twenty years and tell that I tried to do my best.

    Ultimately things will change, as they must, but it won’t be because people are being insulted on the internet for their poor behaviour. It will be because a new generation who will be most impacted in the future by what we do now will find their voice, and it will no longer be possible or acceptable to pretend that there is any other option.

  9. I don’t really buy that. It is utterly obvious that the comments linked above were written by selfish morons. I don’t think pretending otherwise and coming up with some nonsense about how “they make a good point but…” will convince them. Nothing will convince them. Those people are lost causes.

    We get told the same thing all the time. Don’t insult the guy who tried to run you off the road because he wanted to turn left and you were in his way. Don’t insult Trump voters who want to “Make America Great Again” without knowing what that even means. Don’t insult the Brexit voters who claim they are slaves under the yoke of the EU master.

    I’ve seen articles that tried to be even handed being served back where criticism is ignored and anything positive is spun as “even cyclists admit this is good”.

    These people want to be able to claim all sorts of things about those that just want a livable area. They claim they too dumb to realise they live in a city (because apparently that means car-centric). They claim that they will kill people (due to some gibberish about ambulances).. Others of the same ilk have claimed that the Liffey Cycle route would DESTROY the Croppies park. Can we not fight fire with fire? Is it not ok to call these people what they clearly are? Would turnabout be fair play if I was to suggest that their determination to run traffic through residential streets means they want to kill children so long as I don’t call them assholes? Can I insinuate that the person who set up the straw man whereby he treats every road with a single house on it as a “residential area” is an utter moron so long as I don’t actually use the word?

    In 30 year we will probably be looking back at this time and wondering how we managed to become so utterly dependent on the private car and how people could have been so foolish as to demand ever increasing resources dedicated to the most inefficient transport option. How it could have come about that a PR flack for the AA was frequently called on to talk as an expert on transport matters in general. The people writing those comments will, like pub smokers and drink drivers before them, say “well in those days everyone thought you had to have a car and more roads would make things better and 30kph limits were unworkable” but I hope a tiny voice in their head will tell them that they held out long after it became obvious because they were selfish idiots.

  10. I agree with Eric. Some people are just idiots and need to be called out on it. And other people are just selfish arseholes, and also just need to be called out on it.

    Sure, not everyone has to take this approach, but I prefer to, and will do where I deem it appropriate.

    The majority of trips in Dublin are only of a couple of KMs, and yet people still get into their noisy, space-occupying, dangerous polluting metal boxes and demand that they should be allowed to drive wherever the feck they please. It’s utter madness and it needs to be called out. The polite engagement by the likes of Dublin Cycling Campaign hasn’t really got us anywhere.

    Yes, I think people that oppose sustainable transport options and insist on using transport modes that degrade my living environment should be called out on it, in all sorts of ways. Do it politely if you want, but non-polite ways are also appropriate.

  11. I fully understand the anger, and I am not saying we should try to meekly explain in the face of irrational outrage and abuse. I too have no time for the selfish arseholes who only think of themselves, but many people genuinely believe their position to be reasonable, and need to be convinced otherwise. In this case, for example, some of those who live in the area clearly do not see why they need to take a big detour to get to their house because of bollards. It’s not an entirely unreasonable point in the absence of an understanding of the context of what putting in bollards is trying to achieve; the concept of compartmentalisation, as well as the obvious improvements in road safety that directly benefits their kids. Cian does a good job of outlining these things, but compartmentalisation is not a straightforward proposition, and it may not have been fully explained to people before. They are not necessarily morons, and I personally don’t think that calling them that will not win the argument no matter how correct or righteous your position. Doing that only helps to convince anyone that is wavering or has doubts to throw their lot in with the arseholes if only to spite you.

    It is certainly true that any half way decent socially progressive idea in this country does seem to be shouted down by outraged nimbys who don’t want to try to understand the benefits of anything and have no concept of or interest in the greater good, and that is incredibly frustrating. And yes such people still tend to get their way thanks to supine politicians, often with the help of shady and manipulative business lobby groups. But change is still happening faster than it ever has. Virtually no one under 25 thinks like these people anymore. Dublin has increased the number of cyclists exponentially in recent years despite all the cranks and gombeen politicians and nimbies and selfish arseholes. We need to convince more people and get more people on our side, not make enemies of them.

    What we should maybe be doing a little more is organising at a local level. Attend these public meetings en masse to put our side of the argument, and to show that it has support. Take a leaf out of the Yimbies book, not that I’d agree with everything they do or stand for, but their tactics are getting results.

  12. Latest from Drumcondra Social:

    Eoin: “Most cyclists are now at speed on the footpath. Terrifying old and infirm people plus young people. Try crossing the bridge at peak time. Cyclists abuse and try to run over you. Never sorry when one dies.”

    (some people challenged him but then…)

    Lisa: “I agree Eoin. All should have respect for the road, cyclists and motorists alike. The unfortunate tone of the article written by IrishCycle.com paints a very poor picture of the residents and others affected by the bollards. Very one sided but cyclists shouldn’t be branded loons just because the author did.”

    For the record again: I didn’t brand anybody as loons.

  13. There is a road in Marino behind Marino Mart that is two way for Cyclists but one way for Cars with around four signs telling Motorists they cannot go up it . But they all blithly ignore this and drive up it mostly to Rat Run to the Malahide road and escape the Lights and Traffic on Marino Mart Malahide Road corner. A lot are also Residents of this Road and Roads further up in Marino .

    When I have used this road I often got cars Beeping me out of the way, I often ignored them for spite then a big argument with them. They would get into a rage and issue all kinds of threats when told they were breaking the law. One day a car flew past me up the road at speed and nearly collided with a car coming down it. He had an argument with me further up the next road outside his House. This road needs Bollards by right to fix the problem but it looks like the Councillors are afraid of their constituents to put them in,and so the road is left in a kind of Limbo.

    It needs A Camera to catch these Feral Motorists and fine them because there is no Police to enforce it.

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