COMMENT ANALYSIS: We already know that the planning system, including An Bord Pleanála, needs reform in the area of data centres planned without sufficient renewable power supply going hand-in-hand. But the planning system also needs reform to stop it from allowing other projects that will significantly increase carbon emissions.
An Bord Pleanála on Friday is expected to announce its decision on the N6 Galway City Ring Road — it will be a real test to see if our planning system is fit for a world where we need climate action, not more of the same.
For details on the background of the project, is worth going back and reading Ciarán Ferrie’s article from last year: Galway City Ring Road: A 20th Century solution to a 21st Century problem.
The project, if built, would increase emissions in construction, destroy a large number of houses, and increase transport emissions first in the short-term while we’re trying to reduce emissions to meet our targets, and then on an-going basis and will have knock-on effects on transport and land-use. The project’s planning application documents even show an increase in car use in Galway’s city centre.
We know that it will increase emissions not because of something objectors have unearthed, but because it is in documents compiled by the road’s developers, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, Galway City Council and Galway County Council.
I should stress that the project would be Galway’s second bypass — the N6 already bypasses much of Galway City and clearly it bypasses the city centre. This is true even if part of the city has grown around it.
Just like Dublin growing beyond the M50, it isn’t a reason for another bypass. The M50 is a motorway and the current Galway ring road isn’t. But the M50 connects to motorways in all different on all sides of Dublin. There is unlikely to be a motorway west of Galway City.
I’m writing this not just from the perspective of somebody who supports sustainable transport and planning, but also as somebody who lives in a neighbouring and a more rural county — for many health services, Galway City is our nearist major hospital.
It is claimed that the new bypass will help people like my family, whose children have had to be brought to Galway University Hospital by car. But that’s not true or at least it likely won’t be for anything other than the short term.
All of the N6 between the M6 motorway on the east side of the city, to the roundabout where it connects with the N59 national secondary primary road on the west side of the city, is all dual carriageway or four or more lanes wide (without bus lanes).
To the south-west (with the exception of I think one or two businesses), the Seamus Quirke Road and the Western Distributor Road both act like roads rather than streets. In other words, these roads have limited entrances and no shop or houses fronting onto then. This makes them roads — not streets or Stroads.
The designs of these roads should be improved on, and are hardly ideally located. But the idea pushed by backers of the bypass that these roads are part of the city centre is nothing but nonsense.
The vision of cars and trucks on the current N6 as if they were creeping through narrow roads is just not accurate.
The Western Distributor Road could and likely should be extended out past the bulk of housing around Barna so that non-local traffic is not using roads like the Kingston Road. That would not require a large-scale project like the currently planned bypass.
But it is worth saying that no matter what road could go around the main village cluster of Barna, beyond it is ribbon development — mainly unsustainable sprawl. One-off housing along the main regional road and down every narrow road off it. And even down roads off those roads.
It keeps going and keeps going with very few significant gaps between Galway City and the Aran Island Ferry Terminal at Costelloe Bay — that’s nearly 30km of near-continuous ribbon development. It would be continuous if it was not stopped by a landscape of hard rock, bog, and river… and maybe one or two landowners who have not sold or built on their frontage.
Not only is there no city west of Galway City, but there’s not even a large town west of the city.
Clifden — which is over 70km from the edge of Galway City via the N59 and longer via the Barna Road — is the only urban area larger than a village west of Galway City and it has an urban population of hardly over 2,000 people in the last Census.
And that was not caused by the known issue of urban boundary changes that affected the figures of some towns in the last Census. Connachttribune.ie reported that both declined significantly between tween the Censuses.
If you think a second bypass of a city 70km away is the solution for a tourist town on the edge of the Atlantic, I think you might be road mad.
The image below is a drawing showing the western end of the bypass project — the coloured area is the end of the new road and the smaller square-like and rectangular shapes shown here are mostly one-off houses.
The National Development Plan 2018-2027 estimates the cost of the project between €550 and €600 million — local media reported an upper end of €750 million in 2015. So, realistically, it is more likely to be closer to €1 billion. It might or might not reach €1 billion, but it will be close to it.
Regardless of the public reasoning given, this project is all being done to enable more car-dependent housing in the city and service sprawl which, will lead to more sprawl.
Even if all of the cars which use the new road or any road in Galway were electric, it is not sustainable in a broad sense of the term. Close to €1 billion would be better spent on a network of sustainable transport including walking, cycling and public transport.
A different vision is needed
Some might scoff at the idea of cycling in Galway, but a relatively higher amount of people already cycle in Galway than in Cork where the weather is better. A load of children using Cycle Buses in Galway show what’s possible. The difference between the numbers of people cycling in Ireland compared to the Netherlands is the infrastructure, not the weather or the topography.
Galway could learn from cities like Eindhoven in the Netherlands which quickly went from being known as a car city to increasing cycling and public transport use with high-quality cross-city routes for both cycling and buses. It’s not just about cycling, but able cycling as part of the mix. Some will still drive and others would take public transport.
Many claim that light rail is unsuitable for Galway, but that’s Irish thinking about public transport and rail. A tram or tram-train (or very high quality BRT) route, stretching from the west side of Galway City to Parkmore and/or Oranmore, fits with the city’s narrow profile — with a lot of housing on one side and work places on both sides of the River Corrib.
All existing houses would be a relatively short distance from one high frequency route and the route could allow for housing densification on many sites, and for the built out of new areas with a sustainable transport link at the heart of the plan. Housing and transport need to be looked at in a more interlinked way in Ireland. There’s especially little understanding that new rail projects are mainly justified by densification and that rail projects and planning for housing need to be linked more closely.
Be it whatever mix of walking, cycling, buses and rail, spending €1 billion planning for a future in Galway where there are more people and fewer cars sounds like a better deal for not just Galway but for the country and the environment.