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Ed Power’s review of Róisín Murphy’s Big City Plan feels like a grab-bag of media talking points on cycling, transport and planning

COMMENT & ANALYSIS / LONG READ: If there’s one crtism of Róisín Murphy’s Big City Plan, which aired on RTÉ One this week, it is that it tried to deal with too many issues in one programme. It made for interesting TV watching but by exploring so many issues in less than one hour, it was never likely to fully live up to its title or heavy advertising.

There’s so much to cover in the idea of a ‘Big City Plan’. So, I was a bit stunned that the programme tried to look at not just the inner cities of Dublin and (a bit on) Cork but also the outskirts of Galway and the centre of towns in one episode. Towns have some of the same issues as cities, but it’s a whole other programme to cover them.

I like Murphy’s ideas overall. And, as Ed Power points out in his Irish Times review of the programme, she’s a very likeable presenter. But, while it’s hard to accept all of his criticisms of the programme, he rightly pointed out that it came across a bit mixed up at times. Likely due, again, to the volume of subjects it tried to cover in a limited time.

Don’t get me wrong, it was an overall enjoyable programme. But parts were jarring — such as apparently, well-off middle-aged owners of expensive city centre houses talking about “transient” residents and renters. Although this was somewhat balanced by a separate interview with housing expert Lorcan Sirr, who stressed how unfordable housing is now to younger people compared to when most people in their middle age bought their way onto the housing ladder.

I’m a former Dublin city centre renter who left Dublin for work elsewhere in the recession. We not only had a young child while living there, but, if you spend enough time there, you can plainly see that the city centre has families in it already.

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But I don’t just have anecdotes. In the local electoral district around Smithfield (ie where one homeowner who was featured lives), nearly 400 of the 4,471 people living are children aged 14 or under. That’s from Census 2016 data.

As above, I’m not here to blankly defend everything in the programme.

In his review, Power concludes that Murphy is “passionate about the subject but her arguments will strike some as a grab-bag of chattering-class talking points that really make sense only if you live within a quick trot of the city centre” and that “It’s hard not to conclude that if the change advocated in the film were ever to come to pass, it would make life much better for that minority, and far worse for those waiting in the rain for buses that never arrive.”

I have to say, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea of the 15-minute city concept, which is mentioned in the programme and which Power also takes issue with. It’s a term that was very quickly adopted to mean different things and is so far from reality for many that it will easily frustrate people.

But it’s unclear what “minority” Power is talking about — pre-pandemic traffic counts showed 71% of people entering the city centre in rush hour were doing so outside of cars.

Having “buses that never arrive” is only a reason to change things so that it no longer frequently happens, it’s not an excuse not to take space from cars to improve sustainable transport and make our cities more livable.

He said that because of that bus never came he “had no choice but take the car” into the city centre to review a concert (fair enough). But he added: “Driving into town, I spent 20 minutes idling along the north quays from Heuston Station – a central artery into Dublin from the unglamorous and often forgotten west of the city – gazing at an empty cycle line.”

This is Emer O’Kelly in the Sunday Independent about that same cycle lane:

IMAGE: An extract of an article by Emer O’Kelly published in the Sunday Independent.

The problem is, O’Kelly made her comments in 2015. Nearly half a decade before cycle lane protected cycle lanes were added to just sections of the quays. Yet, she thought the then imaginary cycle lanes were causing traffic back then.

In the main photo of this article, is an example section of the cycle route along the quays. In the whole photo, the count of people I can see is:

— 0 people in cars
— 0 people in buses
— 4 people on bicycles
— 8 on foot
Total: 12 people

If those 12 people were in cars, the cars would be far more visible. That’s a prime reason we overestimate how many people cars carry. Another is that those relatively large cars are inefficient — so

It’s a really busy bus lane and road, but sometimes it’s not so busy. The same goes for the “empty” cycle lane. The fact also is that the quays narrow ahead, so, this was always a bit of a pointless stacking location leading into a pinch point.

Power said the programme “feels in denial about the reality that, for better or worse, ours has for decades been a commuter and car-based society and that changing this can be achieved only through long-term planning.”

Maybe I’m taking Power up wrongly on “long-term planning” and the thrust of his review where he mentions transport, but it seems to be the age-old attitude of “nothing can change without large projects” or some vauge masterplan, as if there has not been already long-term planning in this respect. This is a common theme around change across the world, but it’s not how change works. The data and case studies show that this is true not just of Paris or elsewhere, but also of Dublin City Centre.

So, Power’s phrase that our car-based society “cannot be wished away with a splash of cycle lanes and enthusiastic talk about a ‘15 minute city’” rings kind of hollow along with what else he wrote. More needs to be done, but progress to improve public transport and what’s so-far is planned, cannot be washed away because it doesn’t fit into a journalist’s anecdotes.

Indeed, the most substantial thing to affect cars moving on the quays in the last decade was the doubling of sections of bus lanes and adding of bus priority traffic lights on Bachelor’s Walk. Yet, it has hardly been featured in newspaper. Cycle lanes, however, keep getting mentioned as a claimed source of congestion, even before they are built.

“It is frustrating the film does not grapple with that reality,” writes Power. I think he is right on this, but maybe not in the way he thinks. Because it was such a jam-packed show, it didn’t go far enough in looking at misconceptions about how change happens, how you change our transport system in the right way, and also the many different parts of the opposition to change. All of this would be a bit too much to ask of a show lasting less than an hour.

Maybe the programme also suffers from having mainly an architect’s view of a city, with transport as a kind of secondary thing? Don’t get me wrong, if someone asked me to plan an hour-long show, it’d be misbalanced towards transport. Different people will have different outlooks.

If Murphy’s views are embedded in her city-centre-property-owner thinking, then are Power’s criticism embedded in car-owner suburban thinking?

Where Murphy said “To the detriment for those who would like to live where they work”, Power said that it means to the “detriment of the well-off who can afford central Dublin prices and do not need a car”… which begs the question: Are the well-off really the only ones without cars in Dublin?

First, many property owners living in the city centre have cars (disproportionally so compared to renters), even if they use them less than their suburban counterparts. One of the property owners featured on the Big City Plan mentions how they have a car but don’t use it much, while some of the strongest opposition to a cycle route in Dublin was from car-owning homeowners who live around Fitzwilliam Street.

On the other hand, the majority of city centre households do not have cars, and fewer of them use their cars to commute. Not only that, but as already mentioned, the vast majority of commuters who travel into Dublin city centre do not use cars to do so.

Power said: “The prohibition of cars from central Paris is presented as an example to follow – but the fact that Paris has a functioning transport system, while Dublin and its vast commuter belt do, not is glossed over.”

This is such a familiar response to when Paris is mentioned… as if Paris also doesn’t have a vast commuter belt, as if there weren’t legal cases against removing space for cars in Paris, and as if there weren’t people from Parisian suburbs saying their areas are poorly served by public transport.

And maybe the biggest ‘as if’ is: As if more commuters won’t switch to sustainable transport and as if public transport isn’t being improved.

The apparent denial or failure to mention that the process of improving sustainable transport has already started is more stunning than anything in the Big City Plan. Denying that BusConnects has already started to add frequency and capacity, and denying the start of 24 bus services. Could the roll-out be quicker? Sure, but change is usually more complicated.

Power also complains that, in the programme, an architecture graduate in Cork has an idea to turn central car parks into apartments “with no mention of the fact that public transport in Cork is not fit for purpose” and people using the car parks have little choice. I know I’m accused sometimes of being anti-car, but I’d share Power’s concerns on this issue.

At least without more detail, which wasn’t covered in the show. Dublin is getting to the stage where owners of city centre car parks are starting to look at different uses of part of the car parks, Cork is still at the stage where the off-street car parks allow for more space to be taken away from cars moving and parked on-street. It’s a process.

The ‘Big City Plan’ title and hype may be done the programme a disservice to a reasonably rounded factual programme. Or maybe people like myself and Ed Power are a bit too critical at times? Without a big title would we have all watched it? One way or another, the review of the programme was far more flawed than the programme itself.

Journalists likely need to lay off calling other people’s work “talking points of chattering-class” when their review in itself is a set of more flawed media-head talking points. Meanwhile, RTE would not go astray in commissioning Róisín Murphy to work on a series to flesh out the issues outlined in Big City Plan.

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