The Government isn’t coming to get your car… so, why is an Irish Times columnist acting like it’s possible?

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: In the United States a tactic by the gun industry has been to get people riled up any time restrictions are planned on even assault weapons, which should be confined to military use. “The Government are coming to get your guns,” they say when that would be an impossible task. It is shocking how close this is to some car-minded people in Ireland.

Last week this website covered how Ireland’s National Development Plan isn’t compatible with climate action because of the inclusion of large-scale roads, and the delays for public transport projects.

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Regarding walking and cycling, there are also many issues with progress. Some of these were outlined in the letter to Minister Eamon Ryan. We published Minister Ryan’s reply on Wednesday, but speaking personally: I don’t think Ryan is taking the issues seriously enough and even more clearly not taking action fast enough.

Experts say that electric cars are needed for decarbonisation, but cannot be at the forefront of policy and we overall need fewer cars. But literally nobody is suggesting a national car ban… so, why is an Irish Times columnist acting as they have?

In The Irish Times (paywall), Jennifer O’Connell, for example, wrote: “This is the same Eamon Ryan who two years ago suggested that a village of 300 people in rural Ireland could get around by carpooling.”

I was a bit taken aback at the time, back in October 2019, when I read what people were saying Ryan said on-air on a daytime TV show, Ireland AM on Virgin Media One.

The video clip keeps coming up. And since then, I’ve watched a good few online conversations where people are fully confident that when Ryan said 30 cars for 300 families in a village that he meant that it would be their only transport.

There were car share schemes running in rural Ireland at the time, and Ryan was clearly not suggesting that every family gives up their cars. It was misrepresented straight away in the way.

One Twitter user, just in recent weeks, even asked does Ryan not understand how threatening his flippant ideas are. I mention this because it is refreshingly honest and is key in getting to the issue.

And this issue goes far beyond rural people. Once alternative methods of transport are mentioned, that’s it for some people.

Regardless of the many examples of real-world examples, there are where the alternatives are part of the mix and people still have their own cars. It does not matter. Some people start to project a vision in their minds where they are going to be forced to do this thing, be it cycling or car share or somehow give up their car.

This is not a rural thing alone. I’ve seen it happening in debates about car restrictions in central areas of London and Paris etc too. For example, once cycling is mentioned as an option, people project that in their minds to mean that somebody is going to force them to cycle.

Sometimes advocates for alternatives could be more mindful of this fear, but it is hard to fully work around irrational fear.

As well as being a columnist, O’Connell seems to travel all around the country to meet people to write colourful feature articles. People who are this highly mobile on a daily or weekly basis are more likely to fear the mention of alternatives.

O’Connell’s article starts off calling for greater understanding just after she completely twists the truth. It might make for a nice intro, but it is deeply misleading to claim that “Eamon Ryan’s utopian vision of Ireland as a place where people can get everywhere they need to go by public transport shows the fatal flaw in so much Green thinking…”.

If anything, with more and more delays for public transport projects, Ryan’s vision for decarbonising transport in the short-term seems to continue to rely on people switching from older cars to electric cars — something experts are warning against relying on.

As somebody who lives in Co Mayo, I found this line from O’Connell’s article worthy of rural populism you’d expect from Michael Fitzmaurice or Healy-Rae: “€35 billion is being spent on transport, weighted 2:1 in favour of public transport, cycling and walking over new roads. This is great news for anyone who lives in Dublin and rarely needs to leave it.”

Even before we get to rural areas, the CSO has figures for the urban population between 62.7% and 70%. Regardless of the differences in the measurements, that’s far more than just Dublin or cities.

I know that even pointing at such a stat can make some people in rural Ireland fearful, but the lesson to be learnt here is look for localised solutions rather than fight the idea of things that are part of the solution, even if not for you or your area.

Not long after drawing a misleading image of somebody else’s aimed-for utopian, O’Connell goes on to draw a rather strange vision of Dublin today.

Rather than mentioning the delays in Dublin’s much needed rail upgrades, O’Connell ponders about building underground railways “when sea levels are rising” (err… what?), and claims there’s “a decentish network of spacious bike lanes” (err… where?).

The reality is that sustainable transport in Dublin has not seen the investment it needs while the motorway network was overbuilt to the south of the country.

But building up a narrative that Dublin is approaching at least a decent level of sustainable transport allows O’Connell to say that, if you live in this place, that “it’s possible to see why you might think roads are basically obsolete”.

The problem is: Nobody is saying roads are basically obsolete.

Next, we’re treated to a one-sized-fits-all vision of sustainable cities of just being Manhattan-style and our good old friend sprawl gets a mention.

O’Connell then details actual issues with sustainable transport now in rural Ireland. The article seemed hopeful for a second. Like it was going to turn a corner to a brighter vision for the future.

But what do we get? The suggestion of planning for San Francisco-style tech buses, where people can work on the bus on their luxury private company bus away from the unwashed public. These became a flashpoint about housing in San Franscisco.

See, we need roads, because the buses and bicycles need roads, O’Connell argues. At this point, I’m actually wondering: Does she really believe that somebody is saying that roads should be obsolete or no roads at all should be built? Does O’Connell know the argument about roads is regarding massive roads which mainly exclude bicycles? Or was the bicycle bit put in there as some weird olive branch gesture to suitable transport beyond buses?

New large roads are not overall, as O’Connell put it, an essential step towards suitable transport. Such ideas were pushed by 1970s traffic engineers who wanted — and were sometimes successful in destroying cities with roads. In light of the desperate need for both short-term and longer-term climate action, large-scale road building on the justification that buses will use them is even more dystopian now.

But sure, decarbonisation? Isn’t that something the farmers have to do?

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  1. The main problem with this article is not the content which is mostly off the cuff nonsense coming from O’Connell’s imagination. It is that such a poorly researched polemical article could be published by a paper of record.

    That said, there is a fundamental issue with the settlement patterns in the countryside. There was an explosion in one-off housing facilitated by rural politicians and lobby groups from the late 90’s until the crash resulting in a huge increase in the number of houses that can really only be reached by car. Almost every minor road in certain counties has a large number of houses along it, resulting in high traffic and danger to cyclists and pedestrians. The justification given was that people needed to live near where they were born, but the increase in building was on a much larger scale than that undertaken by any previous generation. “Road Frontage” to this day is a euphemism for the potential wealth of a farm in the form of sites that can be monetized and we all know what “Site farming” is.

    Many warnings were given at the time not least by the Green party and the government itself that this development pattern was unsustainable, but these were predictably derided and dismissed by the same people that are now claiming that national transport plans do not account for rural Ireland and sticking paster solutions such as the Rural travel initiative were put in place for a few years until they inevitably failed. See this article from 2003:

    So despite the Minister himself and his party having been extremely vocal in their warnings against this policy when it was still possible to curtail it, he is now “living in utopia” by suggesting that beds made must be lied in and the focus of transport policy is moving away from rural dispersal and car domination for good. The truth is that this is the only way forward. Public transport only works for larger settlements. These need to be provided to a good level on a regular basis between larger towns and villages. Those on boreens miles from anywhere will continue to rely on cars and will ultimately pay the price of choosing an unsustainable option when towns inevitably become the focus of all future development in the years to come. This is not utopia, it is hard-nosed realism.

  2. One thing that always surprises and saddens me in rural areas is seeing locals walking along dangerous narrow roads wearing high-viz while cars whizz by presumably in an effort to get some exercise. It is an indictment of rural Ireland that there are no off-road paths that they can access in their locality. I’ve no doubt that they could drive 10 miles or so to find somewhere pleasant to walk but parklands and pubic forests are few and far between. In England, Scotland, Wales, France and Spain to name but a few there are networks of interconnected pathways in most rural areas that allow locals to enjoy the land to which they are attached. But the Irish obsessive attachment to the land seems to have resulted in a myopic hoarding mentality that rejects any notion of shared access.

    So when it comes to what can be done to improve cycling and walking measures in those rural areas, the options are limited. Perhaps a network of rural cycle roads could be worked out, there are still in some counties minor tracks that remain open and have not yet been absorbed into the local farm, but these are disappearing and are probably too disconnected to ever make up a viable network. Reclaiming those that have disappeared would be an immense task as the ownership and right of way laws are so weak. Even reclaiming former CIE railway lines has proven difficult in some areas. Turning existing roadways into low traffic cycle routes is of course an option and might work in areas of low population, but there would inevitably be resistance to any additional infrastructure in the form of speedbumps and speed limiting measures on these roads in favour of the usual signs and paint solution that amount to lipstick on a pig and are almost entirely ineffective.


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