Galway City Ring Road: A 20th Century solution to a 21st Century problem

IMAGE: The current N6 in Galway, as captured by Google Street View off-peak.

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: There are few topics likely to cause as much frustration and disagreement amongst Galwegians than the proposal to build a motorway around the edge of Galway city. Everyone agrees that something must be done about the state of the traffic in Galway but agreement on what that “something” is, is harder to come by.

The genesis of the current N6 Galway Ring Road project goes back over 20 years to the Galway Transportation and Planning Study in 1999 when a bypass was first mooted for the city as part of a plan by Colin Buchanan Consultants to establish a framework for transportation development in the city and its environs.

IMAGE: The N6 project (image from n6galwaycity.ie).

Since that time, we have seen report after report identifying the challenges Galway faces and proposing solutions.

In 2002, the Galway Transportation and Planning Study Integration report called for a “more sustainable, public transport based, quality driven approach to development within the city”. In 2007 the Galway Strategic Bus Study identified quality bus corridors and park and ride opportunities, and recommended that these be backed up by “integrated land use planning, traffic management and car restraint”.

In 2008, the Galway Transportation Unit was established with the aim to “develop public transportation and other travel modes to the extent that the City will become a model for a sustainable traffic system in an urban environment”.

Next, in 2010, the Galway Public Transport Feasibility Study reported that there is: “scope for a change of a heart and minds towards public transport, together with an unrealised potential for walking and cycling usefully serving to extend catchment of public transport provisions. The realisation of this change however requires a set of compelling integrated measures that are assertively delivered in a coordinated and timed manner.”

Then in 2016, the Galway Transport Strategy was launched. It aimed to address “the need to reduce the reliance on travel by private car… the need to improve accessibility for sustainable travel modes…and to maximise connectivity by walking cycling and public transport”.

Despite these successive calls for investment in public transport and active travel, the solutions pursued by the city and county councils over the last 20 years have focused almost exclusively on road building as a “silver bullet” to solve the complex planning and transportation problems within the city.

In that same period, and for many years preceding, we have seen very little change in the public transport infrastructure of the city. By way of illustration, in 1919 the Galway General Omnibus Company commenced a bus service of 15 minutes’ frequency between Eyre Square and Salthill. Over 100 years later, the equivalent bus route today, Bus Éireann’s route 401, runs at 20 minute intervals.

In 2008, An Bord Pleanála approved the Galway City Outer Bypass project, which was to cost €17m, but this decision was found to be in contravention of the EU Habitats Directive in 2011 by the European Court of Justice following a case taken by Mr Peter Sweetman.

Undeterred, the two Galway councils went back to the drawing board and initiated the N6 Galway Transport Project. Now when you name a “Transport Project” after a road I suppose you shouldn’t be too surprised when the only transport solutions provided are road-based.

And so it came to pass and the current Galway City Ring Road project was born. The project first went to public consultation in 2015 and a planning application was lodged with An Bord Pleanála in 2018. An Oral Hearing is ongoing (albeit in temporary pandemic-imposed suspension) and it seems likely that whatever the decision of the Board there will be a legal challenge.

The proposal for the Galway City Ring Road is predicated on an outdated “Predict and Provide” model of transport planning that assumes that “The improved public transport service can only be delivered if there is a reallocation of road space to support public transport and cycling”. 

We have seen the results of this sort of planning in Ireland before – if we predict that car use will increase, and build roads to cater for that predicted increase, car use will inevitably increase.

IMAGE: Black Hole Theory of Highway Investment from Plane, D. A. (1995), Urban transportation: policy alternatives. In Hanson & Giuliano (Eds.) The geography of urban transportation. (2nd ed.) New York ; London: Guilford Press.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and was perhaps best characterised by the visionary American urban planner, Lewis Mumford, over sixty years ago when he said “Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity”.

The question must be asked – “If the public transport model can’t deliver the necessary improvements to mobility in the city, have we got the wrong public transport model?”. Are we being ambitious enough about our targets for sustainable and active travel? And what are our targets?

Unfortunately, the Galway Transport Strategy and the Galway Ring Road project does not have targets – it has predictions. 

The cost of the Galway Transport Strategy, including the Ring Road, has not been clearly defined but different figures in the public realm suggest it could be of the order of €1 billion. And what are we getting for that €1 billion? A reduction of five percentage points in mode share for cars, an increase in public transport use from 5.4% to 6.8%, and an ultimate figure of just 6% for cycling. This is an absurdly low return for an investment of that size in a city with a population of 80,000 people.

The improved public transport offering set out in the Galway Transport Strategy on its own would result in a 17% increase in public transport trips whereas the public transport plus Ring Road would result in a 22% increase in public transport trips. The heavy work here is being done by the public transport solution, not the road, but even here there is a startling omission from the figures.

The analysis of the Galway Transport Strategy, which forms the justification for the Ring Road, contains limited demand management interventions. That is to say, it has not looked at measures to reduce vehicular traffic on the existing road network. 

Transport Demand Management has the potential to radically alter the findings of the transport modelling. The Department of Transport Tourism & Sport has only last month commissioned a Transport Demand Management Study for Galway. Any decision to approve the development of the Ring Road is premature pending the completion of this study.

The case for the Ring Road also claims that it will “reduce the number of cars on the roads within the city centre” and help to “create a safer and calmed environment in the city centre more conducive to walking and cycling“, yet the model shows increases in traffic volumes on key arterial routes into the city including the Headford Road, Tuam Road, Bohermore, Old Dublin Road, Moycullen Road, Letteragh Road and Rahoon Road (see above graph). It also shows increases in traffic volumes on minor roads in Salthill, Shantalla, Newcastle, Menlo, Mervue, Renmore and Ballybane.

It will take traffic off the roads with the greatest capacity (Bothar na dTreabh; Sean Mulvoy Road, Quincentenary Bridge; Seamus Quirke Road and the Western Distributor) and increase traffic on the roads with more limited capacity. Again, this seems a very poor return on our €1 billion investment.

IMAGE: Ghent circulation plan.

We need to look to other comparable cities which have successfully delivered sustainable transport solutions – what they have in common is that they have set ambitious targets for modal share. For example, Ghent in Belgium, a city four times the population of Galway implemented a plan in 2017 to increase cycling modal share from 22% to 35% by 2030. They achieved the 35% just two years into the plan and are now revising their targets upwards. The plan has also resulted in a 12% reduction in rush hour traffic in just two years and air quality in the centre improved by 18% in the first year.

Their 2030 target for car usage is to reduce it from 55% to 27% and to increase public transport usage from 9% to 20%. By these standards the results we are getting from the Galway Transport Strategy and Ring Road are ludicrous.

We need to ask ourselves, what volume of private car traffic can the existing road system handle? And how do we reduce car-dependency to reach that figure? 

60% of all traffic originates and terminates within the city boundary. How do we get to a situation where the car is unnecessary for those journeys? Over 60,000 people live within a 20 minute cycle of Eyre Square. What does an active travel network look like in a city where it is more attractive to walk or cycle than to take the car? What does a public transport system look like where it is more convenient to take public transport than to take the car? How do we need to plan the three large regeneration sites in the city to ensure that they deliver on a vision for a sustainable and liveable city? 

If the Ring Road proceeds it will alter the landscape of Galway irreparably and will result in the demolition of over 40 houses. One of the homeowners described the project as a “fork in the road” for Galway. Do we want to continue with outdated 20th century car-dependent planning? Or do we want to build a 21st century city that is resilient and sustainable?

Ciarán Ferrie is an architect and Galwegian living in Dublin, he is a co-founder of I Bike Dublin.

1 Comment

  1. Just to note on this part

    “A reduction of five percentage points in mode share for cars, an increase in public transport use from 5.4% to 6.8%, and an ultimate figure of just 6% for cycling. ”

    As far as I remember these numbers are only for the “city centre” zone in Galway. At the hearing the council’s engineers indicated that in fact their analysis divides the city into five zones. They only give the predicted numbers for the city centre. In our reading so far we have not found an analysis of the final modal share walking/cycling/car/public transport/ in the other four zones of the city. Why have they not provided these numbers? Is it because the Galway Transport Strategy’s traffic models predict that walking cycling and public transport use will fall in the other zones?

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