Stopping rat running car traffic isn’t a “car ban” for the Phoenix Park or anywhere

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: During the lockdown social media was full of images of individuals and families enjoying the Phoenix Park without motorists flying around the park, as was the case in the old normal. While banning cars from such a large park might be a step too far at the moment, a petition was started by Cllr Michael Pidgeon calling for “no more traffic through the Phoenix Park”.

The petition — which has now nearly 4,500 signees and still rising fast — makes it clear over and over again it’s not talking about a car ban.

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The headline states: “Give us the summer: no more traffic through Phoenix Park!” and the sub-headline says: “We want to stop all private motor traffic going through the Phoenix Park”.

In the finer text of the petition, Cllr Pidgeon goes on to say: “The Phoenix Park is a destination – not a shortcut! The past weeks have shown just how important the park is – and how much better it is without heavy car traffic. It’s calmer, quieter, safer and cleaner. Fewer cars have meant more people.”

“This would still allow motor access to park facilities and institutions”

“We want to see an end to motorised through traffic. This would still allow motor access to park facilities and institutions, but would end the use of the park as a road to get from one side to the other. This could be achieved easily with bollards or rule changes, while ensuring that people can still access the park – regardless of age or ability,” he wrote.

Cllr Pidgeon added: “It’s time to make the park for the people who want to use it – not just those looking for a shortcut! This measure could be trialled throughout to the end of summer, at least until schools reopen.”

A glance at the headline should make it clear that nobody is talking about a “car ban” in the park. Cllr Pidgeon clearly outlines how car traffic will be maintained. But we have apparently respectable media outlets like The Irish Times posting questions like this on social media: “Do you think cars should be permanently banned from Dublin’s Phoenix Park?”

Even with such a black and white question, so-far 75.9% of respondents said yes to a full ban. However, the framing of the question is a negative and is a distraction to a far more practical and workable proposal.

This is a recurring issue with The Irish Times and other media outlets from RTE to Newstalk in framing livability and sustainable transport issues negatively. Some of the media’s framing of these issues is as clear as day, but many journalists get (understandably) defensive when such is mentioned. Everybody is for more livability, “for cycling”, and against pollution etc, but the debate is poisoned by too many lobbyists, politicians, journalists and broadcasters.

The debate over the Phoenix Park is an explosion of echo of a smaller issue which we refer to as the “Drumcondra bollards” issue, which this website details the end of here. Many residents at first went along with the people who called it a “car ban” or similar such claims and went along with the objectors. But by the end of the trial of the rat-run-blocking bollards, the majority of people wanted the bollards kept. They could see that their area was nicer in so many ways without rat running motorists.

The same thing applies to city centres — a number of cities recently have implemented what is called traffic circulation planning. These are effectively car reduction measures which push a change to sustainable transport while keeping car access for those who need it. These can be incremental change or big-bang changes as carried out in Groningen in the 1970s and Ghent in 2017 (see video of process and results and details of plan from the city).

But where will all the car go?

If the discussion is not too poisoned, then anybody advocating for the closure of rat runs will be asked: “where will the traffic go”. TU Dublin (formally DIT) lecturer, David O’Connor, explains this in his article ‘So Where Will All the City-Centre Traffic Go?’

Traffic evaporation isn’t just a weird thing which happens in other countries — according to traffic counts of all modes entering Dublin City Centre, there’s about 30,000 fewer cars in the last traffic count compared to the oldest data we have access to from 1997. That’s in the context of far more people now traveling in (but just using sustainable modes) and also far more people living in the city centre. Yet, cars are still given the bulk of street space.

The argument that blocking one route for cars via the Phoenix Park is unfair to residents of Dublin 15 who should have more transport options is understandable, but we also need to balance that with two other realities. Many have been forced to move to the suburbs for various reasons, but nobody should every had been under any illusion that the status quo of cars dominance in the city could continue, even when public transport improvements have been slower than expected.

Fairness and realities 

The first reality is another sense of fairness we must look at — nearly all of the city centre within the canals is a residential area. Most areas reach a population density of over or close to 10,000 people per square km. That’s the equivalent to the population of many towns in Ireland in just a square km.

There are parents of asthmatic children who live in the city centre who want and need change now — it might not be a nice thought, but children coughing up blood with phlegm or otherwise finding it hard to breath is the reality caused by motor traffic in the city. Outside the colder months of the year, cars are largely the source of air pollution in the city. Even one city councillor said in a recent debate that she found the city centre that way because of her asthma.

Observers in Ireland sometimes like to call cycling campaigners “cycling lobbyists”. The reality is different. For example, what cycling campaigners want is cleaner air, such as shown in the results of “Mini Holland” schemes in car-focused outer London. Now newspapers like the Evening Standard can report: “Researchers at King’s College London predicted five-year-olds in Waltham Forest would each live on average for an extra six weeks. They were born in 2013, when the bike scheme was introduced in Walthamstow.”

If COVID 19 (which is reportedly worse in areas of high pollution) doesn’t bring health and air pollution to the forefront of politician’s minds, I don’t know what will. This is a central part of what a cycling city can offer and campaigners must not shy away from it when debating removing traffic lanes or closing streets or roads to rat running.

The second reality is that Dublin city centre just won’t fit as many cars as before lockdown and, even after the threat of COVID 19 has past in months or a year from now, most people won’t want things to go back. In the short-term, pedestrians traffic lights have changes to avoid crowding on footpaths means that Dublin city centre cannot handle pre-COVID 19 traffic levels, with peak capacity cut from 46,000 cars to around 27,600 cars, according to the council.

Change is a messy business 

Ireland as a whole needs to move away from the debate on if progress should happen in reducing car use and start to talk more about how it can happen without impacting on too many people. Change is a messy business, the debate needs to look at how it can be as fair and workable as possable.

Leeway must be given to members of the public who have not been exposed to debate more than at surface level. But the people — including lobbyists, politicians, journalists and broadcasters etc — who should be more engaged in the issues long before now, are not all Father Dougals and should know better than to continue to engage in tired old arguments repeated for decades on the airways.

Stopping rat running, and things such as as building cycle paths, expanding footpaths, and installing bus gates, are standard elements on the path to more liveable, healthier and sustainable areas. We have crisis ongoing in climate, air pollution, inactivity, and housing — no city or town can wait for a perfect public transport system or any other unrealistic requirements people have in their minds before stronger change happens. We don’t have the time.

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