Comment & Analisis: In a time of increased levels of challenging debate on issues, including housing, allocating more road space to people, and the role of government in shaping our cities, it’s essential to make space for meaningful conversations around city planning. However once suspicion and mistrust have poisoned an engagement process, it’s nearly impossible to change people’s minds.
Unfortunately, the Limerick Cycling Campaign currently finds itself in the midst of this poisoned engagement process. Recent decision-making in Limerick by elected representatives to proceed with a much-anticipated active travel route by coming down hard in favour of residents to keep their car parking spaces at the detriment of safe space for cyclists has been welcomed by some and condemned by many.
The South Circular Road project that aims to connect the east side of the city, including the hospital, a large industrial estate and the largest residential section of the city, with the city centre and many second and third-level institutions, has been in the pipeline for 8 years and sees an investment of €6m in the city.
Throughout the engagement process, there have been many points of dispute, as is to be expected in matters of urban planning. One of the big issues was a perceived lack of consultation, even though this active travel project facilitated more public engagement than any other previous project.
Some residents had a problem with the proposal to remove their on-street parking and called for the project not to proceed without full neighbourhood consensus and agreement. To do otherwise apparently was ‘undemocratic’! Yet, the fact remains that after criticising the lack of consultation on the proposed scheme, those opposed welcomed a project they had never seen, which the council spent a week redrafting and which almost 4 weeks later has not been approved by the NTA… Where is the democracy in that?
Other residents welcomed the change to their street and advocated strongly with the support of the Limerick Cycling Campaign and many others including local employers and business representative body, Limerick Chamber of Commerce, to go ahead with the proposed route, ensuring segregated cycling for the many that want to commute by bike to and from the east side of the city.
The final decision has been a disappointment to cyclists as it failed to deliver a connected route by breaking the route as it gets closer to the city centre.
Fianna Fail (with the notable exception of James Collins), Fine Gael and Sinn Fein councillors voted to make a section of the route more unsafe than it is currently, by bowing to pressure to maintain car parking space on a very narrow section – and reintroduce bi-directional cycling (it is currently illegal to cycle outbound on this route).
So, what was once unsafe, is now by a stroke of the pen apparently safe. Their decision was based on the perceived rights of the residents on this particular stretch of the route to their on-street parking, even though they have some of the largest gardens in Limerick. Interestingly, houses further along the route without any gardens were not permitted the same consideration.
Since the decision was made active travel advocates have been calling on the Active Travel Team within Limerick City and County Council and the NTA to intervene to ensure that this lack of oversight is further examined and scrutinised.
In efforts to highlight the serious issues this stretch of the road presents to children that want to cycle, teens that do cycle and all other bike commuters, campaigners have insisted that the councillors that led and made the decision are held accountable.
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Social media has been the main avenue for discussion, where hashtags such as #ButlersBollards have been used to draw attention to the decision by local Fine Gael councillor and former two-time Mayor of Limerick, Cllr Daniel Butler to introduce the amendment that led to this decision being made.
In fact, not only did the councillor introduce the amendment, but he clarified at the council meeting that the NTA and the Active Travel Team had rubber-stamped his amendment, a claim since disputed by the NTA.
However, Limerick Cycling Campaign efforts have been met with a mixture of armchair criticism, faux discontent, and passive-aggressive “disappointment,” from some local councillors culminating in a spate of tweets calling some campaigners “online bullies”, engaging in “online harassment” and using “aggressive bullying politics” in what can only be considered an attempt to stop debate and any further discussion about the safety concerns surrounding this project.
These attempts to conflate activists calling out the lack of transparency in local authority decision-making with cyberbullying only serve to weaponise those that want to silence dissent and curtail critical engagement around what is a very serious issue for a growing number of people.
This is not the first time active travel advocates have been targeted — it happened during the debate on pedestrianising sections of O’Connell Street in 2019 and again during the pandemic, when calls for more space for pedestrians and cyclists were called ‘sinister’ by a Fine Gael councillor.
Whilst some local councillors that supported a safer solution have also come out calling the amended South Circular Road proposal “a watered-down Mickey Mouse scheme”, “akin to removing the fire alarm from a block of apartments” – it is the campaigners, the activists, the volunteers, the tired parents, that have been tagged as online bullies.
It is a well-used political tactic and one which unfortunately has really taken root in local politics over the last couple of years resulting in a steady flow of mock outrage at any manner of constructed hypothesis around topics such as gender, political ideology, class, cycle lanes, etc.
These tactics work as it fills people with fear about agreeing with one commentator or another and what that potentially labels us — therefore, most of us stay silent.
Data repeatedly shows that people from equity-seeking groups are underrepresented in traditional decision-making processes. Additionally, those who are supportive, or even indifferent, rarely show up to public meetings. This disparity can skew perceptions of support for a particular project, and make it harder for cities to approve projects that don’t align with the status quo. It can also make engagement dangerous.
Harmful rhetoric and stereotyping can dominate the conversation and therefore decision-makers fail to hear valuable voices and perspectives, hence the need for strong robust challenges from advocacy groups such as the Limerick Cycling Campaign.
If a cycling campaign cannot challenge decision-making on active travel that by every standard is considered unsafe, then what is the point of it? Whose interests are being served if cycling campaigns are muted and afraid to challenge for fear that threats of online bullying are heralded at them every time they do? Who benefits when debate is shut down? Who benefits when parents, public health advocates, cyclists, and environmentalists are called online bullies for their attempts to ensure local politicians that vote against safer streets are held to account?
What is most concerning is that each time people are falsely accused of online harassment and bullying because they challenge decision-makers to consider all members of society, the very real lived experience of those that are bullied online and are victims of harassment is diminished and reduced.
Anne Cronin is the vice chairperson of the Limerick Cycling Campaign