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.”
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:
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).
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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:
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.
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.
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.