Conor Skehan claims to be an urbanist yet makes a Newstalk presenter sound like he’s the head of the “War on Cars”

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Conor Skehan yesterday, while claiming to be an urbanist, made Kieran Cuddihy, presenter of Newstalk’s The Hard Shoulder, sound like he’s the head of the “War on Cars”.

I know some readers think there’s no point tackling this stuff from Skehan. And others will think that the article the other day, which covered how vagueness is key to misinformation from Skehan and others who don’t want to see an end to car dominance in Ireland, was enough.

But because he mixes fact and fiction, it’s worth debunking some of the claims Skehan made on Newstalk yesterday. For those who don’t know, Skehan is a Sunday Independent columnist, a former lecturer at TU Dublin, and he is a director of a consultant firm that focuses on Environmental Impact Assessments and other planning work.

VIDEO: If we’re to believe Skehan, Dutch suburban areas like this one are exactly the same as in Ireland.

Of course, on Newstalk, he included the usual, like “we need to have a more evenhanded approach” (as if much of Ireland’s urban areas are evenhanded to anybody outside a car) and “focuses too much on the able-bodied” (as if everybody with mobility issues are all in cars or as if somebody is suggesting zero car access).

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When Cuddihy put it to that maybe so many people are driving because there’s few or no alternative, Skehan deflects (“I don’t even drive” etc). When Cuddihy puts it to Skehan that if the new car parks were built they’d cause induced demand as the population increases he defects again (“people will always use some sort of transportation,” as if people cannot cycle).

That’s the usual guff from most objectors to even slightly affecting car use.

But Skehan, of course, goes further. He claimed: “Even countries with the highest level of cycle use in the world, the Netherlands, never topped 16% — and that’s only in some of the bigger cities.”

That statement is clear misinformation and maybe it should be treated as disinformation as Skehan is claiming to be well-informed on these issues, yet, he keeps making factual errors. The national modal share for cycling in the Netherlands for all trips is at around 27%:

IMAGE: From the Netherlands Institute for Transport Policy Analysis, data based on Netherlands Travel Survey (OViN) 2016 by Statistics Netherlands (CBS).

Skehan made two mistakes there. As well as getting the overall national picture wrong, he claimed: “…and that’s only in some of the bigger cities” — Amsterdam and Utrecht have both surpassed 50% commuter modal share (and so has Copenhagen in Denmark).

And, after concerted efforts, Utrecht is nearly a 50% of all trips (getting high suitable transport for all trips is harder than just for commuting trips which are mostly at peak times):

IMAGE: Data from Municipality of Utrecht, translation by BicycleDutch.

Yes, the Netherlands has a higher level of car ownership. He’s correct on that. But the Netherlands, and cities and countries in Europe show that the link between ownership and high usage can be disrupted. At a micro-level — you can see this with examples of people who own cars but still cycle or take the Dart, Luas or bus on trips to work or elsewhere.

In one part of the interview, as with his Sunday Independent article, Skehan again seems to refer to Malahide without wanting to name it for some reason and he said that a car park provided by Fingal County Council that is 240 metres away from a shop is too far. Then he says that we should pay €15 million a pop for underground car parks to hold 300 cars within a 250 metre walk of town centres all across Ireland… will the shops at the edge of that 250 metres complain?

Skehan is correct that some towns across Europe provided off-street parking as they pedestrianised large sections of their urban areas. But other places did not, he’s wrong to imply that parking is never reduced in other countries or that modal change does not happen. He uses a grain of truth to try to change a whole policy direction… or maybe just carve up some talking head or consultancy work.

Nobody is suggesting removing all the parking or banning cars in towns or suburbs (and almost nobody is really talking about zero car access to city centres), what policy and a lot of people want is an actual more evenhanded approach where alternatives to the car like cycling and public transport are given the space and priority they need. Like has happened in other places.

Skehan said: “I spent a lifetime taking my students to countries all over Europe to show them places and degree of success you can reach with that and the core word is degree. We can all stand in the middle of Copenhagen and the middle of Amsterdam and see exceptional exceptions but when we got out to the suburbs of Copenhagen or Amsterdam, it is exactly the same as it is in Ireland.”

As the final part of this article, I’ll let readers decide that one: The following are photographs of suburban, non-city centre locations around Utrecht… are these exactly the same as in Ireland?

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