Vagueness is key to misinformation from Skehan and others who don’t want to see an end to car dominance in Ireland

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: A “150-year-old pharmacy at the heart of a Dublin village ceased trading” due to pedestrianisation sounds dreadful, so, why didn’t Conor Skehan mention the pharmacy or even the village name in his Sunday Independent article?

Maybe because the story isn’t as clear cut as Skehan was making out? The 41-year-old Irish pharmacy chain, McCabes, was merging two of their stores together. McCabes had started to run two stores in Malahide — one at The Diamond, beside the pedestrianised New Street, and, the other, a larger store less than 50 metres away, at the Malahide Shopping Centre.

Skehan is a columnist, consultant and former lecturer at TU Dublin.

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Not only does he have a history of antics on these issues, but Sunday Independent columnists have a history of getting carried away with the thought of walking and cycling improvements in car-sick Ireland. One infamously complained in a column about the traffic caused by the Liffey Cycle Route, years before there was even a small bit of the current interim project in place. So, both he and the newspaper he was writing for has a track record on issues like this.

Skehan continued: “Also last week in similar circumstances, jewellers in Dublin’s Fairview announced they are closing their family business after 40 years. The cause is claimed to be the loss of on-street car access and parking to facilitate new pedestrian and cycling facilities.”

The phrase “claimed to be” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there.

Damien Duggan, a Fairview-based jeweller, has been arguing against the Clontarf to City Centre bus and cycle route project for years on social media. Just over a week ago DublinLive.ie reported that Duggan is “being forced by a new cycle lane to close his shop”. I’d be surprised if Duggan was not replying to this article explaining it all, but before he does: He says he’s not retiring and that he’s going to work for another jeweller.

But just consider this: He announced the closing down sale the same day as major construction works started on the project. Just a few hours into road works getting ready for the start of major construction was enough for him to close down his 40-year-old business.

There’s no denying it’s a huge project that will include everything from new footpaths and trees to water main replacement as part of a major boundary-to-boundary street redesign and renewal — anybody denying there won’t be disruption especially while construction is ongoing is fooling only themselves. But there’s something wrong when a few hours of work or the minor prep work before it, amounts to the “cycle lane” “forcing” the closure of his businesses.

“No consultation,” Duggan said on Facebook in February for a project which has been subject to heated and pro-longed debate before it was approved by councillors in 2017 and ongoing consultation with business and community groups since then.

Skehan continues: “Meanwhile in Lucan, more than 7,000 people out of a population of 15,269 have formally objected to a redesign of Main Street, mainly because of the associated loss of parking spaces”… sure, but he forgets to mention it was a total loss of 10 car parking spaces and a hell of a load of scaremongering.

He claims “Enthusiasts are often unaware how much ‘mere details’ about slope, steps, traffic, path width and distance attract or reduce ‘footfall’ — the holy grail of urban life”… has he ever met many cycling and pedestrians “enthusiasts”? I mean most of us would bore anybody willing to listen to death with details.

Skehan said that public realm and sustainable transport projects are “actively opposed by local businesses” but objections are dismissed because walking and cycling are “intrinsically good” — that’s some step down from him calling cycling the “fads of the few” in a previous article.

The phrase “intrinsically good” is a method of superficially attacking all of the benefits of cycling without actually dealing with any of them and mentioning that walking does not suit some people when there’s rain.

But he also never really accepts that our car-centric urban environments are proven to be rubbish for society, health, the environment and, in the long run, bad for business too. There’s a reason that the inside of large shopping centres emulate pedestrian areas — places that are less car-centric are good for business.

Then he said: “In reality, badly designed public realm schemes can be extremely harmful for business and community well-being,” but the actual reality is that case study after case study shows that concerns from business are usually, at worse, overstated and most of the time businesses benefit from walking and cycling improvements.

Skehan states: “A big factor is an ill-informed, unbalanced, uncritical and arguably biased attitude towards cycling combined with a worsening hostility toward car usage.” But Skehan doesn’t really go into what he means by ill-informed and just claims “This serious issue involves failures to address the mobility needs of large swathes of the population — especially older citizens and women”… as if older citizens and women don’t exist in the Netherlands, Denmark or Paris or Blackrock or anywhere reallocating space from cars to suitable transport.

Or as if everybody is going to be told to give up their car or never to use their car — this is a common but dishonest tactic used by objectors to active and suitable transport projects across the world.

See, Skehan knows all about these kinds of things and he knows the councillors, planners and engineers in Ireland have not considered the rain… again as if rain and other bad weather also don’t exist in other places.

I wish I could parody this better, but he’s a professional who used to lecture in this area for decades and is still works in this area and yet he’s still living in a little bubble where he thinks places cannot be changed for the better with less of a focus on cars.

But it gets worse. While we’re in a climate crisis and inactivity crisis, not only does he call for no parking spaces to be removed, he then suggests that “Perhaps” we invest in new multi-storey or underground car parking. He even estimates this at €15m per village.

Did I mention that parody is dead? Because Skehan actually wrote: “Progress isn’t cheap. If we’re serious about sustainable mobility then we need to invest in cars and parking” and then he suggests spending the yearly walking and cycling budget or its equivalent amount — €350m — on new car parks to “revitalise more than 20 towns a year”.

Then he tramples on the grave of parody. He said: “These problems strongly mirror similar planning mistakes in the past. In the 1960s and 1970s many cities were badly damaged by placing excessive emphasis on faster cars.”

Now this is not just trampling on parody, it’s revisionism. He’s saying that 1960s and 1970s were not wrong about cars focused areas, they were just wrong on having “faster cars”.

Forget about any “intrinsically” good things about walking, cycling and public transport, our cities will clog up and failed to be able to function, never mind grow, without alternatives to cars.

And at the end of his article, he ramps his rhetoric up with more vagueness and asks “Are we really prepared for the hearts of our towns to become collateral damage of these failed experiments?” but he does not give even one concrete example of a “failed experiment”. This vagueness, while he’s claiming to look at the details, is the key to Skehan’s misinformation.

Clarification: It was originally stated that Skehan is a lecturer at TU Dublin. This article was edited shortly after publication to reflect that he is no longer a lecturer at TU Dublin.

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