Varadkar’s stance on 2nd Galway ring road doesn’t bode well for quick climate action on transport in Ireland

— Claim road will free up space for walking and cycling isn’t backed by evidence or experience.

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: On Monday the IPCC issued their ‘bleakest warning yet’ on impacts of climate breakdown. Hans-Otto Pörtner, a co-chair of a working group of the IPCC, said: “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”

Then, three days later on Thursday, the Tanaiste Leo Varadkar, was on Galway Bay FM defending a project which will not just increase emissions on transport, but will lock in commuting and development patterns that are destructive for the environment and the climate.

Leo Varadkar is currently Tanaiste and is due to become Taoiseach again (for international readers: he’s now deputy prime minister and will become prime minister again).

A judicial review of Galway Ring Road has been lodged by Friends of the Irish Environment. This was after the ring road was approved by An Bord Pleanala, a national planning board, despite the project meaning there will be an increase in carbon emissions because of the road. This isn’t the emissions from building it, it’s on-going emissions.

Varadkar went on Galway Bay FM yesterday and claimed that the road will “free up” space for walking and cycling. This is often repeated. But regardless of how often it is repeated, it’s simply not true.

It is unclear if Varadkar is misinformed or willfully spreading misinformation.

Look at Dublin: The city is long bypassed by the M50 which had lanes added to it at huge cost while Government after Government refused to give any priority to public transport investment. Yet, transferring space and junction time to walking and cycling is a struggle.

This is even the case in the Phoenix Park, near Varadkar’s constituency where he has openly objected to fairly tame traffic restrictions. I mean if these are his views about a park that he’s expressing openly, how strong is he against sustainable transport and liveability measures in private?

Bypasses are needed to take heavy trucks and inter-urban traffic out of restricted city centres and similar urban areas. Galway’s first ring road has already done this. The N6 in Galway is often claimed to be nearly something like a city centre street when it’s four lanes wide with very few access points or anything fronting it.

It’s four lanes wide the whole way around the city centre before it feeds into routes going to the north-west and south-west of the city. A good chunk of it is an actual urban dual carriageway and then the rest is a wasteland of four lanes.

It would be different if there was a holistic plan to turn the current N6 into a different use like a more modest with more greenery and housing etc, as proposed for Paris’ ring road by the Mayor of Paris (and strongly opposed by those in regional government).

Back in Galway, not only is there no radical plan for after the second ring road is built, the actual plan for even the city centre after the ring road is so weak it’s unbelievable. Galway City Council should and council be doing more now to reduce the dominance of cars and improve sustainable transport in the city centre than they plan to do after the ring road.

There’s tons of evidence worldwide showing that if you keep building extra road capacity, traffic will fill it up. But here’s the thing: The planning file for the road says the same thing. So, there’s you don’t even need to go looking for international evidence.

The data supplied by the two Galway councils involved and their consultants shows that the new road will increase traffic on many roads across the city (image 1 below, from the planning file), and the data shows that very little of the traffic is bypass traffic in the city (image 2, from council data, graphic by Limerick Cycling Design).

But despite the IPCC’s warning and all of the evidence, Varadkar is claiming he supports sustainable transport while actually supporting more roads.

When Keith Finnegan says that some people say there are alternatives to the road, Varadkar even says he’s had those arguments with transport Minister Eamon Ryan.

The context here is that while Varadkar has been transport minister, a minister in different departments and leader of the Government the focus on sustainable transport has been at best poor. The larger public transport projects kept getting delayed and roads keep getting built — just to be clear here: This is not just an issue for Fine Gael.

It’s an issue for Fianna Fáil, Labour and even the Greens. It’s also an issue of the opposition and the media when they take it all as a given. Big projects like Dart expansion and Metro are planned, but these are projects now that should have been built at least 20 years ago. And we’ve been here before — both Metro North and Dart Underground had planning permission even but were never built.

Of course, Varadkar dresses his point of view up as “some roads are needed”. Some roads are, just on safety alone. But the evidence shows the second Galway ring road isn’t one of them.

And throughout the interview, he keeps repeating the factually incorrect claim that nothing can be done without the bypass and that it will free up space.

Varadkar attacks environmentalists in the interview while — on purpose or otherwise — blurring the lines between what people want (ie clear populism for roads), and democracy and the rule of law. Rule-of-law based representative democracy is supposed to look out for the common good and greater good rather than follow the lines of populism on roads.

EU law outlines that alternatives must be examined, but the planning file for the ring road outlines no viable alternatives. This is a bit simplified, but, basically, it claims you need the second ring road before doing anything. But we know based on the data (presented above) from the planning file that this is not true.

The same old excuses heard around the world — which boils down to car-populism — is the reason why a trial of the Salthill cycle path is not in place.

What’s missing in Galway and too much of Ireland is leadership with a vision that can break free from car-populism. We know from Paris, Gent, Seville, London, etc that brave leadership is rewarded a majority of voters. Shop Street in Galway is a micro-version of that, taking cars from the street was claimed to be not workable until it was pedestrianised and now nobody wants to look back.

Leadership and vision are what Galway needs, not an urban motorway that is going to cost €1 billion or more. The kind of leadership that is needed is that which would be using its power to show how moving away from the car- and carbon-heavy status quo will benefit the people of Galway, wider society and businesses. Varadkar so-far is just defending the status quo.

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


  1. In years to come people in Galway will look to other cities with their improved infrastructure and wonder why they have such a bad traffic problem and wonder why they can’t do anything about. And then they will tell themselves that Galway is different and things that work in other parts of the world or Ireland just don’t apply there. And then they will realise they need a ring road around the ring road to reduce the traffic. And so it will continue. But seriously, It is a pity. If the graphic above doesn’t make you pause and look at alternative options then nothing will. Ultimately people are probably arguing for the same thing (to reduce traffic) but those who think building more roads will do this have won the argument.


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