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Plan to rapidly reallocate Dublin City Centre space to boost walking, cycling, buses

— Stage one is expected to result in a 15% reduction in private vehicular use.
— Public backlash or legal challenges could derail the project, officials said.

A ‘Pathfinder’ project planned for Dublin City Centre could see a faster reallocation of street space from cars to sustainable transport and public space in the next three years, according to a document released under the Freedom of Information to IrishCycle.com.

The College Green part of the Pathfinder project has been reported in the media before, but the Freedom of Information request shows that its scope is much wider. The changes — which could be in place in 2023 — would support BusConnects and the Cycle Network plans.

The project is one of 35 nationally in the Pathfinder Programme. The Pathfinder push to progress projects more quickly was launched by Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan last year. It is a key part of the Government’s National Sustainable Mobility Policy, which aims to support a “50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in the transport sector”.

The document released by the Department of Transport outlines how the Dublin City Centre Pathfinder project includes a reduction in spaces for cars, bus gates, bus-only streets, traffic-free areas, timed restrictions, additional streetscape improvements and greening.

Areas to be “assessed for improvement” in the first stage of the City Centre Pathfinder include the North and South Quays, and the “main arteries feeding into the city centre” including the Beresford Place road gyratory (around Custom House), the “Pearse Street-Tara Street” link, and the “South inner city links including Stephen Green amongst others to reduce the severance effect of this big multi lane roads.”

Dublin City Council’s successful Pathfinder submission said that the project “will make a statement about moving the city centre area to a low traffic environment with benefits for active travel, public transport and the opportunities for enhancing the public space. It will allow these changes to be rapidly implemented and for lessons to be quickly learned.”

But it also warns of risk factors including the BusConnects ongoing network route rollout which is already delayed due to driver shortages. Other factors which may delay or stop progress include the risk of legal challenge, the “public reaction to the scale of change”, and a lack of clear guidance from the Department of Transport on the legality of street changes.

Before the Pathfinder project was confirmed, there was already work being progressed by the National Transport Authority (NTA) to work with councils to renew city centre transport plans for all Irish cities. In response to questions for this article, the NTA and Department of Transport were both keen to highlight that a review of the Dublin City Centre Transport Study is an objective of and commitment in the Dublin City Development Plan, which councillors agreed to.

In theory at least, where Pathfinder really kicks in is faster implementation. The Pathfinder document released under Freedom of Information legislation said that the project will provide “a number of key public space improvements”, “ensure that public transport can operate smoothly” and “provide vital cycle links in the city centre”.

The project will have a large focus on trying to reduce through traffic in the city centre. The document said: “By targeting specifically through traffic routes which criss-cross the city centre it will have the impact of reducing volumes along radial corridors further out, thus allowing for additional interventions in the urban villages.”

It added: “These changes will allow the transition of the city centre to that of a low traffic city centre with enhanced pedestrian and cyclists safety, increased pedestrian space and places to sit as well as a much improved and legible bus service across the city centre.”

Feljin Jose, the chairperson of the Dublin Commuter Coalition, an sustainable transport advocacy group, said that their members will be glad that key city centre routes will be looked at to improve conditions for public transport users and active travel.

He said: “It’s not possible to provide space for the large increase in buses and walking and cycling infrastructure that’s planned in the city centre without reallocating the large amounts of space currently given over to cars in the city centre.”

“Projects like BusConnects and the College Green plaza will achieve some of this but leaves large gaps on wide car-dominant streets like Tara Street, Beresford Place, Pearse Street, King Street etc. We’re glad to see that streets like these will finally be tackled by this project and that Dublin City Council and the National Transport Authority are finally openly pursuing the goal of a low-traffic, public transport and active travel focused city centre,” said Jose.

Warnings of delay

One of the first steps outlined in the application document is that in Q1 2023 Dublin City Council and the NTA will publish an update to the City Centre Transport Study. Then “interim interventions begin at locations across the city centre as Bus Connects Network redesign is rolled out” in June 2023. The document said that by Q4 2024 “Significant Stage 1 interventions have now been installed and changes to the city network have bedded down reducing private car traffic in the city centre.”

But the document warns of backlash and BusConnects staffing issues affecting this timeline. From the delays that have already happened with BusConnects, setbacks with the City Centre Pathfinder rollout are highly likely.

In the section of the application which said the applicant was to “identify the nature of any required support from the [Pathfinder] Leadership Group in bringing the initiative to fruition”, Dublin City Council wrote: “Clear guidelines to be issued for how Section 38 of the Roads Act 1994 should be used by Local Authorities and especially where space within city centres is to [be] reclaimed from Traffic. This would assist greatly in meeting any challenges that may arise from third parties.”

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