Limerick Mayoral candidate Coughlan should be wondering why he dug such a big hole for himself when there’s no plan to cut off all car access

Comment & Analysis / Long Read: Back on May 24 I wrote a news article titled “Historic streets and human rights cited by Limerick Mayoral candidate against walking and cycling project” — it was a solid article and I can safely say that I can stand over it. So, the question is: How supportive of walking and cycling is would-be Limerick Mayoral candidate Fionán Coughlan?

The mayoral elections in Limerick are due to take place with the local and European Parliament elections next summer — it will be one of the largest ever shakeups for local Government in Ireland and, so, it will be keenly watched by observers across the country.

Coughlan, who is a young business owner, intends to register as an independent candidate. It has been radio silence since May, but yesterday he finally got around to replying with a rebuttal titled “My reply to Irish Cycle’s Accusatory Article by Mr. Ginty” (live/archived).

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My article was based on Coughlan’s submission to the Wickham Street to Clare Street Active Travel Scheme where he used misinformation and encouraged others to object to the preferred route for the project.

Yesterday, Coughlan snarkily wrote: “To begin I would like to congratulate Cian Ginty on a well written article that served it’s purpose in framing me as being totally against the roll-out of active travel infrastructure in Limerick.”

My article however never suggested that he is “totally against the roll-out of active travel”. The article quoted Coughlan extensively and included fact checks where Coughlan made statements which do not fit with the facts.

“I would point out, that my submission was actually in favour the proposed Active Travel Scheme but on Route Pink rather than Yellow,” Coughlan said. But the route selection phase of the project is over, and Coughlan has made a submission opposed to the preferred route and all of its sub-options.

“The accusations against me in the very first paragraph of this article claim that I believe car access should not be changed in central Limerick” he claimed, but this is not the case. The opening paragraph of the article said:

“A Limerick Mayoral candidate has used the historical setting of central Limerick streets to argue that car access should not be changed, and he also spread misinformation about rural housing being the primary type of housing in Ireland to argue against a new active travel project.”

Saying that somebody is using a reason to “argue that car access should not be changed” does not mean that they think it should never be changed. Articles should also be judged in the route and the article explains his position further.

Yesterday, Coughlan said: “If Route Yellow is implemented it will prevent car access to Wickham Street by the pedestrian plaza it proposes at the Parnell Street junction and it will prevent car access to High Street with bollards on the junction with William Street.”

This isn’t strictly true, various sub-options (which are shown at the end of the article) include access via some Wickham Street and High Street. Really what Coughlan wants is through access to be maintained on other streets so that motorists don’t have to divert around them to get to his business.

He then said: “As a business owner, whose family have worked in this part of the City for thirty years, I can see clearly how blocking Wickham and High Street would negatively affect our trade. Any infrastructural development that threatens to close down long established businesses cannot be accepted or tolerated.”

If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, it’s the same thing claimed by business groups and owners across Ireland and in other countries when they want to object to something that inconveniences motorists even slightly.

And we are given phrases like “It is important for readers of the Irish Cycle to consider both sides of an argument” as if he wasn’t heavily quoted in the article. The reality is Coughlan isn’t really addressing the substantive issues, including how he is factually incorrect on points.

He then said “If car access was removed to any other shopping centre in Limerick” and threatened legal action yet again, when the reality is nobody is removing access to the Milk Market. If his issue is with problems with the other access routes for motorists, he should be saying that.

He continued: “I do consider myself an Active Travel and Public Transport devotee and have campaigned for infrastructural improvements for Limerick City for many years. But the reality is that the Milk Market Quarter is presently not served by Public Transport nor is there enough of a resident population living in Limerick City that can support local businesses alone.”

There is a bus stop 210 metres from the Milk Market. And, according to CSO Census data, the urban area of Limerick has 102,287 people in it and it has far fewer car-free streets compared to places like Waterford which is a small bit more than half of the size of Limerick.

I have no clue where Coughlan lives, but the way he talks about where customers come from and how they travel “by motor vehicle” as if none travel by other means is common among retailers and other business people. Irish and international research shows that business people are known for overestimating their customers — this kind of groupthink can be worse in a city like Limerick where maybe a higher percentage of more affluent people have abandoned living in the city to build large houses in the distance suburbs or rural areas. The image of them and their friends becomes the average man. Again, for clarity: I’m not talking about where Coughlan lives, but this effect will drip down to him via other business owners.

Coughlan said: “Therefore Limerick needs to maintain car access while it develops it’s Active Travel and Public Transport alternatives.” This is the usual shadowboxing pretending to be a reasonable argument that happens when these sorts of projects are suggested. As far as I can tell, nobody — not the council and not anybody else — is suggesting not having car access to the city.

“Cian Ginty wrongly claims that Route Pink is a more indirect route for cycling” Coughlan said yesterday. But in his submission, he said: “Limerick’s Active Travel Team have highlighted the Yellow Route as the most direct route.”

But, yesterday, he continued: “This is not true, although Route Yellow is a more direct route from Colbert Station to the Canal Bank, it is not the most direct route to Castletroy. Route Pink provides a more direct route from Colbert Station to Castletroy, giving cyclists safe passage through the City toward the Dublin Road to Castletroy.”

These are the routes which were consulted on in a previous consultation — the yellow and pink routes end up in the same locations and the pink route is clearly less direct in getting there.

Maybe Coughlan has a different pink route in mind? This map was in my article if he looked at it. Maybe there’s an issue with the map that he’d like to highlight? The project was outlined with the goal of linking Colbert Station Quarter to Park Canal and the University of Limerick.

His line that “Obstructing people on their way to earn a living is intolerable” seems to be a great example of a Freudian slip — it reminds me of a retailer who highlighted how other retailers on the street are nearly always using the parking spaces outside of their shops. Business people often express concern about their customers when what they at least partly mean is that they will be somewhat inconvenienced.

I’m not sure what Coughlan intended to achieve with his rebuttal which is full of flaws, but if he has a campaign manager, they should be telling him to stay away from his blog.

Yesterday, he said:

“Ginty claims that I am spreading misinformation by suggesting that most people in Ireland are locked into car dependency because of where they live. Ginty quotes CSO data claiming that 70% of people in Ireland live in Urban Areas. Although this is true, Urban areas also include people living in proximity to satellite urban towns, independent urban towns, rural areas with high urban influence and Cities. There are many ways to massage statistics to fit an argument, but the fact is that Ireland is unlike it’s European neighbours when considering the extent to which we are dependent on our cars to go shopping.”

This is more shadowboxing but it’s also more than just slightly twisting things. The fact check was clearly on his incorrect claim about most people living in detached houses in rural areas.

What is and isn’t an urban area is well defined by the CSO. It includes “independent urban towns” (aka a town), it includes satellite towns, and it includes cities. It does not include “proximity” to these places and it does not include “rural areas with high urban influence”.

I can understand how a random person off the street might think an area with a name like “rural areas with high urban influence” can be classified as both rural and urban… But can a candidate for any high office position be forgiven? Especially in an attempt to fact-check a fact check?

The only person looking to massage statistics to fit an argument is Coughlan. Unwilling to concede the smallest of points even after data is presented is not a great look for a Mayoral candidate. The fact that he’s doubling down when he has been factually wrong is a worrying sign if anybody wants to support him on his promise of being a supporter of sustainable transport.

He tries to wrap it up by saying that he believes that it’s important to encourage discussion but then states that “democracy should not be steered astray by those who shout the loudest and most often” — Coughlan is the one attempting to shout the loudest with hyperbolic statements which echo business owners across the world who were proven wrong about Grafton Street and many streets like it across the world.

After writing up a snarky blog post where he doesn’t have the decency to admit he was wrong on any point when facts were shown to be against him, and also misrepresents what I reported, Coughlan calls for “respectful discourse”.

Limerick City Centre is suffering at the moment, and that’s not just down to transport. But it is under a situation of its streets having a very high level of car access and clear car dominance even compared to other Irish cities, both smaller and larger. That car dominance also has wider than transport impacts, it’s why out-of-town shopping centres and “villages” mimic the experience of car-street streets.

Again: Nobody is talking about no car access, but the status quo isn’t working and some retainers will be upset regardless of what streets the council wants to make a start on.

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