Galway needs to overcome the idea you need more roads before anything else changes

Comment & analysis: “There is evidence that when you have infrastructure for cars you have cars and car drivers, if you are doing infrastructure for cyclists you’ll have cyclists also — that is just simple as that.”

Those were the words of the deputy mayor for transport of Paris, Christophe Najdovski, when this website caught up between meetings at the VeloCity conference when it was held in Dublin just before the pandemic. Paris is transforming its street space away from being car-clogged.

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In the west of Ireland however, there’s strong lobbying in Galway for more roads and the idea that nothing can be done without a new bypass has been weaponised against significant change. The quashing of planning permission for the ring road, on the basis that An Bord Pleanála did not account for the Government’s Climate Action Plan, if anything has strengthened the use of this flawed argument.

Kenny Deery, CEO of the Galway Chamber, a business lobby group, tweeted the following the other day: “Pleased to meet with @OonaghSmyth1 of @RTE_PrimeTime Topic: Galway City Ring Road Opinion: Our city needs change, we need to remove traffic out of the city to help that change = safer cycling, walking, free flowing public transport across bus routes, park n’ride.”

“No GCRR = very little meaningful progress on much or any of the above. Galway needs to support this project, not just for the city, but the wider region!” he said.

And Deery added: “We at @GalwayChamber welcome the review of the GTS [Galway Transport Strategy], agree that far greater ambition is needed in terms of non car movement in the city, however to facilitate this we need this 18KM route from Barna to Briarhill to be delivered!”

In response to somebody who challenged him on this and said that revitalised urban core and greater densification of accommodation can be done without the ring road, Deery said that “ll the signs are telling us not” and that “We’re not able to expedite public trans[port] as we don’t have the space to coexist with heritage / listed buildings, cars & cyclists.”

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how cycling and surface-level public transport are provided for. Let’s go back to Paris and other cities. And, yes, I can nearly hear some readers shout: “But Paris has public transport and Galway doesn’t!!!”

That’s the point. Cities which want more sustainable transport provide space for more sustainable transport. The primary way this is done in older parts of existing cities is by reallocating existing space. This is how it’s been done in not just the likes of Paris and London but also in a range of places from Dublin City to Dún Laoghaire to Utrecht.

But the next counter-argument used is that “Dublin, Utrecht etc have bypasses and, so, Galway needs one first too.”

This counter-argument doesn’t really stand up for a few reasons. First, the likes of Dublin and Utrecht have motorways which are between cities. As shown by the image below (created via the Population Around A Point mapping tool), the population of the area west of Galway City is at most around 30-35k people, most of whom won’t be crossing the city daily. This is the population of a town, but spread across a large area.

With its bypass, Dublin still has chronic congestion because a hugely disproportionate amount of spending was pushed into motorways. Meanwhile, rail projects first proposed in the 1970s and 1980s have still yet to be built. Galway, with a population of just 83,456 people, isn’t going to get a second bypass costing €1 billion and also the sustainable transport investment that it needs. It is a choice.

Utrecht also has motorways around it, but these are mainly for national and even international transport. The city of Utrecht has in the last decade been systematically removing space for cars. Utrecht’s famous transformation of its city centre motorway with 8+ lanes into a canal with just a single traffic lane in each direction is just part of the picture. It has blocked through traffic on wide roads which most cities would never imagine doing so and it continues to remove traffic lanes on main roads, long after cycle paths were provided.

IMAGE: This used to be a motorway.

At this time, there hasn’t been massive motorway expansion in Utrecht to allow for this, but rather both the city council and the regional government have been busy arguing against a national plan to expand a motorway around the city. They want more public transport instead and that plan is now being progressed.

Meanwhile, the existing at-grade N6 ring road in Galway City is 2+ lanes in each direction and a large chunk of it is also a dual carriageway. The likes of the Quincentennial Bridge, the rest of the urban N6, the Western Distributor Road or the Seamus Quirke Road are wide roads with amazingly little urban frontages. These are comparable to the need for a bypass in villages or towns around the country where there’s long-distance national road traffic going down narrow, winding streets a metre or two from the doors of houses or shops.

It could be argued that people waking and cycling shouldn’t have to do so alongside the high level of traffic at places such as the Quincentennial Bridge. But there are alternatives to building a new €1 billion ring road. For example, an alternative strategy to the current transport plan would be planning at least two extra walking and cycling bridges over the River Corrib.

These would be part of high-quality cross-city active travel routes as can be seen in smaller Dutch cities like Eindhoven, Den Bosch and Nijmegen. I mean cycle routes of the type which we haven’t seen before in Ireland — the type that are 4+ metres wide and, in suburban areas, go under or over large roads where priority cannot be guaranteed if the crossing was at grade.

Public transport would also have to be re-examined. And if buses rather than trams are to be the backbone of that, it would need to be more BRT-like, of the kind that can be found in Eindhoven and Utrecht. At a macro level, routing nearly or all cross-city buses via Williamsgate — a street adjoining Shop Street which should have been long pedestrianised long ago — would also have to be looked at. A routing via Bóthar Na mBan would be slightly longer but better for bus flow and connections. That stands even if the priority to car parks has to be somewhat downgraded.

And yes, buses and high-quality cycle routes can be part of the solution. Much of Galway’s traffic problems are internal — only around 3% of traffic in Galway is pure bypass traffic and only an extra 13% is traffic from people outside the city looking to cross the river. A second ring road in Galway would allow for growth in car traffic. Galway has to ask itself if that’s a path it wants to take.

IMAGE: Data from the councils’ Executive Report for the project showing volumes of motor traffic around Galway City, including how just 35% crosses the River Corrib and just 3% of the total is bypass traffic. Graphic by Limerick Cycle Design.

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