Arguments over Sandymount cycleway shows Dublin isn’t really joining the dots yet

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Covid has vividly shown us the absolute importance of caring for public health at all levels of society, but current arguments and legal actions over the Sandymount Strand trial cycleway show that we in Dublin aren’t yet really joining the dots.

The proposals, billed by Dublin City Council as a six-month trial, are for a two-way cycle lane along Strand Road and Beach Road, which will entirely remove the northbound general vehicle lane. Motorists will be limited to a one-way system. The cycleway is intended by council to link up with the ‘Coastal Mobility Route’ recently built along the seafront through Dun Laoghaire and Blackrock.

Uproar has resulted in some quarters of Sandymount, culminating in last Friday’s order by Justice Charles Meehan halting work until a judicial review has been completed. The review is sought by two individuals who claim it would breach EU environmental law. Opponents of the trial also say that building the cycleway will cause traffic congestion to increase, north-bound motorists to lose access to Dublin’s Port Tunnel, and traffic — including heavy trucks — to traverse nearby residential neighbourhoods and Sandymount Village itself. 

The review is likely to be heard in April. Meanwhile, in parallel to the legal actions, submissions have been made to An Bord Pleanála to seek intervention from a planning perspective.

Disruption of the status quo around transport is often the subject of controversy; changes to established transport patterns will inevitably suit some and inconvenience others. Examples of this are seen in the arguments of cycleway protestors, such as this quote from their principal website: ‘Our senior citizens are … absolutely entitled to visit their grandchildren by car…’.  Council traffic models do show Merrion Road suffering a 114% increase in traffic northbound on foot of the trial and, despite legal restrictions on 5-axle HVs, a number of heavy vehicles do use Strand Road to travel northbound; these vehicles will likely still need to travel in future, and will require an alternative route. 

IMAGE: Cheonggyecheon in Seoul, South Korea previosly had major a motorway before it was removed in 2005 (Photo by: Kyle Nishioka; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

But the effects of extra traffic through the Village and the likelihood of rat-running are amenable to well-established mitigation measures if needed. Many journeys can be re-routed, delayed, or taken by different modes: this area is one of the best served in the country by rail and bus service. Indeed, international evidence repeatedly shows that displacement of traffic isn’t a simple numbers game, that the somewhat wide-eyed sounding concept of ‘traffic evaporation’, cited by supporters of the trial, is well-founded. That’s why major cities like Taipei, Seoul and San Francisco have been able to remove whole urban sections of motorway, and keep their citizens moving.

We know from worldwide experience, too, that rolling out good cycle lanes separated from motor traffic will encourage people to use them, which in turn of course reduces car trips and their associated congestion and pollution.

Dublin’s own Grand Canal route, when finished in 2013, saw a 220% increase in cyclists around and across it, and car commuter traffic in this quarter dropped significantly. We know that most of our car trips in Dublin are less than 5km, a distance that hardly lets a car engine get up to its working temperature. We know that a car going at 50km/h needs thirty times the space of a moving cyclist. We know that even a major switch to electric cars won’t fix the congestion problems or climate impacts of our transport system. We know that, pre-Covid, 9% of people commuted by bike in Dublin and 2% by Luas, despite the roughly €1.1 billion poured into Luas, and the pittance spent on cycling.

But the strongest argument in favour of trials such as Sandymount is the immense positive impact it could have on our public health. Covid is not the only ongoing pandemic: A 2019 DCU study found that Irish children take so little physical activity that 25% of our kids ‘cannot run properly’, that one in two cannot kick a ball properly, and that less than one in five can competently throw a ball.

IMAGE: The Sandymount trial was to be linked with the Coastal Mobility Route which runs between Blackrock and Sandycove.

Our transport system with its unthinking dependency on private car use, our ‘entitlement’ to use cars for even short trips, bears much responsibility for this. Students are forbidden to bike or walk even short trips to school, for fear of their parents and classmates’ parents’ cars zipping past on the school run. Redressing this dependency means reallocating road space. 

The World Health Organisation has had a major focus on this prior pandemic of physical inactivity, citing cardiovascular and diabetes effects in particular. WHO publish a tool for assessing the economic effects of cycling and walking plans like that on Sandymount Strand, and such diseases count for the biggest economic impacts. Running such an assessment at UCD’s School of Geography recently, the WHO tool indicated that potential health benefits of the Council’s long-planned Liffey Cycle Route could amount to over €200 million.

This figure was based on the route encouraging a growth from quite low bike-commuting numbers to a proportion of trips just above what were seen in the central city — all in pre-Covid figures. Of the 100,000 or so commuters entering the western Liffey district daily, 10,000 new cyclists could be generated by providing a high quality of service for cyclists, the figures indicated. Over a projected 20-year cycleway lifespan, those 10,000 Dubs taking regular exercise and fresh air would account for a huge amount of healthcare savings.

The WHO assessment tool combines Irish data for average distances cycled, mortality rates, fiscal values for mortality, etc. Health is, of course, not a value we like to put cold, monetary prices on: mental health benefits, avoidance of minor illnesses such as a bad back, and bumping into friends along the route — issues more important than ever during lockdowns — are all part of getting out on a bike, and near-impossible to accurately cost.

But if sound, evidence-based decisions are to be made on how we invest in and manage our shared public roads and spaces, economic assessment of health impacts must logically form part of the process.

Sandymount Strand currently presents a hostile, scary experience for cyclists — parked cars sprawl off the footpaths, the lanes are narrow — but not narrow enough to put hurrying motorists off overtaking — and there’s a plethora of tricky mini-roundabouts. Despite this, almost 1 in 10 residents in the encompassing Pembroke Ward biked to work or school pre-Covid. The Strand’s 5km radius is crammed with schools, social centres, businesses and amenities, so there’s huge potential for cycling growth.

That’s to say nothing of its proximity to the city centre and Docklands, or its function as a through-route: once 5km restrictions end, the trial cycleway will encourage thousands more cyclists from southern suburbs to bike into the city along a safer, quieter Strand: Council tallies showed a doubling of cycling levels during the first lockdown along nearby Rock Road, and the increase in bike numbers on the since-completed Coastal Mobility Route from Blackrock to Sandycove has been, literally, phenomenal: Weekly cycling numbers jumped from 4,000 or so to 20,000 at the peak last September.

In the absence of health economic figures for Strand Road, we can only look at the above factors and say that, if an increase of cyclists along the Liffey would engender €200m in benefits, it’s well worth considering what the figures might look like for Sandymount, and making them part of the debate. 

Will Andrews
Will Andrews is an architect and cycling advocate from East Wall, Dublin.

12 COMMENTS

  1. What an excellent article – considered, well-researched and well-argued. I also think there’s room, as Cllr Michael Pidgeon said recently, for a more cohesive national communications strategy around cycling and walking in particular and road-using in general. Ideally one which sets up a hierarchy based on vulnerability, rather than the current system which gives most rights to those with the most speed and power. One where everyone works together to look after those who are most vulnerable, instead of capsuling around their own comfort. We cyclists can play our part not just by campaigning for better infrastructure for ourselves, but by better respecting and taking care of more vulnerable road users and by acknowledging similar positive actions by motorists.

  2. The need is for a road under the Sandymount & Merrion Strand Cut & Cover. Could be done in 2 years by an efficient builder. At present there is space either end at the Nature park & opposite the new Tara Hotel on Merrion road. put the cyclist in the tunnel with artwork on the walls.

  3. The issue that the residents have is not the cycle track per se. It is the pollution and traffic chaos from the post covid diversion of 8,000 or so cars a day from the Strand Road. This is a DCC figure from Feb 2020 (pre covid). DCC stats also show that 90% of the Strand Road traffic is not from (or going to) the area so it is simply unfair to push this volume of polluting traffic into the narrow streets of Sandymount, Irishtown, Ballsbridge and Ringsend. NOx has now been proven as a serious health risk. To deny that diverting these polluting vehicles on to our side streets is a significant danger to us and our children is simply not tenable. Even optimistic “traffic evaporation” assumptions and modal shifts of say 50% simply to not address this pollution issue. The streets that end up taking the traffic, whether it be the doubling of traffic (116%) on the Merrion Road or the already (pre covid) jammed Pearse Street do not deserve and can not take any additional pollution.

    • @Eugene Doyle — the city council’s data shows under 7,700 motorists going northbound on Strand Road pre-Covid — but nothing suggests that even half of these would divert to the inner streets in Sandymount.

      In fact it seems very unlikely given that traffic counts show that 60% of the Beach Road / Strand Road northbound traffic is going towards the south city centre without crossing at the Eastlink. So, why would that 60% try to make it through streets in Sandymount? Then others will take to bicycles or public transport and others will divert to other roads including the M50.

  4. Thanks for kind comments, @MiaGallagher – good idea for a national communications strategy!
    And basing that on a hierarchy of road users, as @MikeMcKillen mentions and as the Design Manual for Urban Roads urges, placing bus users, pedestrians and cyclists near the top.
    We also need a clear hierarchy of decision-making, where the decisions of a democratically-elected Council operating on an agreed ‘Dublin Agreement’ aren’t thwarted from completing initiatives that are valuable at a city-wide level….!

  5. @Eugene …sorry, but I have to ask: Have you read the article? It refers to urban motorways which were removed and the predicted chaos did not happen… Why do you think it would be different with Strand Road which is not a motorway by any measure?

    The city council has said that most of the people driving on Strand Road are not stopping along the road, but the council has also said most of those people are not going towards the Eastlink but rather they are going towards the city centre, so, most of people would have no reason to divert via the inner roads in Sandymount.

    The flawed traffic modelling which is not set up to show even a single person switching to their bicycles or other modes, but, in that worse case which is unlikely, it also shows a decrease of traffic in Irishtown and Ringsend — there’s no reason people would divert back towards those areas.

    Pollution will remain the same or worse if everything stays the same on the roads. The way to reduce pollution is to reduce road space for cars.

    A trial will show what happens. If it’s as bad as people are claiming, the trail will be abandoned in a short time.

  6. @Eugene Doyle
    It is a trial. The reason there is so much resistance to it is because those resisting do not really believe that it will produce anything like the traffic or pollution increases the flawed DCC model predicted but instead, as has happened elsewhere, it will be hailed as a huge success and adopted, so they need to stop it now.

    Ultimately this is about privilege and entitlement.

  7. Cian…..Great Article all round. But I am surprised you did not include the example of Utrecht, where they originally filled in a canal to build a motorway and have since rebuilt the canal in the City Centre?
    We need to hera the full benefits of schemes up front and get them out there into the public domain

  8. @Eugene It’s. A. Trial. If it doesn’t work, it’ll be stopped. All the protestations around how it will make things worse for everyone sounds like you’ve already run the trial. But you haven’t, so let the bloody trial go ahead and see what happens. Models are only models. Estimates. They don’t predict what will actually happen. Actual evidence from all across the world shows that providing space for people to walk and cycle, and disincentivizing people from using cars, reduces pollution, stress, noise, danger and makes people healthier and safer. *Maybe* Dublin is different from absolutely everywhere else in the world and maybe the cycle-route will make things worse. But if it does, then he trial will show that, and because it’s a trial, it can be reversed. But all the car-proponents in Sandymount don’t even want the trial to go ahead. Moronic.

  9. @Cian, the 8,000 vehicles per day northbound (Feb 2020 per DCC stats) equates to just under three million vehicle journeys per annum on the Strand Road (pre-covid). Under the proposed trial, the pollution from these vehicles will be transferred to Merrion Road, Tritonville Road or elsewhere in the city. Even allowing for modal shifts to cycling, there will be a massive increase in pollution on the street my family lives on, from the vehicles that used to drive on Strand Road. DCC’s criteria for success of their trial is delivery of a safe cycle path on Strand Road. The trial will not be deemed a failure based on increased pollution levels on Merrion Road or Tritonville Road. I can only assume this is because it is inevitable that there will be increases in pollution on such roads. If you and your family lived on one of these roads would you support the diversion of these polluting vehicles from Strand Road? Would you support it even though dramatically increased pollution on the street you lived on was not deemed a reason to deem the trial a failure? As in my previous comment, it is grossly unfair and detrimental to the health of my family and neighbours.

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