— 20% jump in support for cycle routes when CGIs are included.
— Coastal Mobility Route would not have survived public consultation.
— Public-facing council staff become “villains” for some.
Irish councils are being expected to build 100s of km of cycle routes in a short time as part of climate action, but the current consultation and planning processes do not support the required urgency, a senior official has said.
Conor Geraghty, the senior engineer on the active travel team at Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, made the comments at the Cycling & Society symposium at Trinity College Dublin earlier this month.
Presenting on the issue of public engagement at the symposium, Geraghty said: “There has been no scheme that I have worked on that there has been no change following engagement — now, there may not be the level of change that people want, but it comes to issues like ‘don’t do this’, ‘it’s a waste of money’ and you say it’s not a waste of money because the principle has been settled, we have to do this.”
After public consultation, the project team sits down and reads all of the submissions which, he said, “can be very onerous in some situations and they aren’t always pleasant to read.”
He described that some people basically wanted to use individual projects to fight against local and national policy. He said: “There’s a certain percentage of people who object to every single project because they don’t like what we are doing.”
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Some common complaints aired via the public consultation on individual cycle route projects include that “cyclists don’t pay road tax” [nobody does], that cyclists “shouldn’t be on the roads”, grievances about scofflaw cyclists, that there will be “traffic chaos” and “that it will reduce property values” to which he says “it doesn’t, but people think it will”.
Geraghty said that they get duplicate submissions both for and against, although more generally a bit more against. Both sides are aiming to increase the number of submissions on their sides.
Anonymous submissions: “Conor Geraghty should be monitored.”
He said: “We get anonymous submissions and they are generally are the most interesting ones.” One he said suggested if he was “gotten rid of everything will go back to the way it was”.
He said he particularly liked a submission ahead of a public meeting which said “We’re not going to allow Mr Geraghty to engage in rampant and unnecessary contextualisation and waste 90% of the meeting regurgitating as much consultation-supplied propaganda and buzzwords picked up at conferences and seminars.”
Another more ominous submission said: “I do not want to see any more roads made one way or down to one lane. Do not do it or else.” And another said that “Conor Geraghty should be monitored.”
Geraghty said: “For every one or two I get of these, I get more positive, it’s not all negative, but it’s quite funny that I should be ‘monitored’ whatever that means.”
He said because of the active travel team is very public-facing people “think we’re The Council, with a capital T and a capital C” and regarding the personalisation he said: “People like to have a villain, before me, Robert Burns was the villain. It’s just part of it.”
Robert Burns, who was recently appointed the chief executive of Monaghan County Council, previously was the public-facing head of the active travel in DLRCC.
Coastal Mobility Route would not have survived public consultation
“The Coastal Mobility Route (CMR) had no public consultation at all” and was delivered mainly within 8 weeks. He said it has since been “proven to be one of the best things that has happened to Dun Laoghaire.” But Geraghty said: “If we had to do public engagement it would not have happened, no question. It shows at the extreme of things how quickly change can happen.”
He said after Covid the first full project, DLR Central, a 3km route, has taken two years of a planning and consulting process. Construction work still hasn’t started on it.
Typically he said that around 20% of the time is design work, around 40% is the procurement process and about 40% is engagement
The council also has an ambitious Safe Route to Schools project to link residential areas this was a would-be post-Covid quick-build project. It included Deansgrange Road where it “absolutely hit the wall” in terms of negative feedback at around the same time that Strand Road (in the city council area) ran into similar problems.
Geraghty said the Deansgrange project included 8,000 submissions and more than 100 hours of meetings with businesses and residents, often in the evening time.
Deansgrange Road which started off with 8 options originally had a preferred option of making the road one-way with a two-way cycle path filling the space of the traffic lane, and, after opposition, a part of the route was to go via Deansgrange Cemetry which was at first accepted by councillors who objected to the one-way plan before a possibly even stronger level of opposition developed to the graveyard route.
Construction on a new option which reduces car parking but keeps out of the graveyard and keeps Deansgrange Road two-way for motorists has just got underway. However he highlighted how attempts to stop projects continue even after councillors support projects and works start. “The decision has been made [by the council and councillors], so how can you have meaningful engagement about the decision?” he asked.
“Anything up to 4 years for 2km, so, if you think we have 100s and 100s of km to build before 2030 — can we spend that level of time doing all of these different processes,” he said. “So, if we’re trying to react to a climate emergency and we’re expected to build 100s of km, is time something we have any real luxury with?”
Adding: “Obviously, if you had an unlimited amount of time, you’d spend the time engaging with as many people as you can to reduce the risk of a project but time isn’t a luxury we have unfortunately.”
“You cannot keep everybody happy”
“You cannot keep everybody happy — it’s not possible. Even in this room we’d fallout over minor details. There’s no way to ensure that everybody is happy. That’s not possible and even when the decision is made, there’s a certain percentage of people who won’t be happy because change by its very nature is different and some people don’t like it,” he said.
Geraghty added: “We’re trying to dance that line all the time that projects are acceptable to the vast majority so that they can be built as quickly as possible, and I suppose that’s the crux of the issue and I don’t think anybody anywhere in the world has cracked public engagement because it’s not possible to keep people in a democracy society happy.”
There were no special powers to change streets during Covid
He said that there was some confusion during Covid and “people thought we had been gifted special powers by [national] Government”. But, he said that street changes using Section 38 of the Road Traffic Acts was available for councils to use long before the pandemic.
As IrishCycle.com reported as far back as 2014 that Section 38 powers had overridden the previously used ‘Part 8’ powers which have more stringent requirements around timelines and consultation.
Geraghty said that there’s no requirement under Section 38 to consult with elected councillors or the public but that obviously the council does not take that approach.
The lack of guidelines from the Department of Transport to outline when or at what threshold of works should councils undertake public consulting or seek approval from councillors was criticised in court by Court of Appeal Justices
He said for some smaller projects including a modal filter, DLRCC had used a more collaboratively approach — he said that it is “a very useful process” but also warned it’s “not practice for a huge area or large groups”.
Geraghty said: “Throughout that process, the neighbours come together collaboratively, we’re taking out of the equation, that not us imposing something it’s us facilitating.”
“What do you like? What do you not like? What’s positive or negative about it? And you sort of bring them through the journey, it’s almost like stepping them through the policy as you go and ultimately they arrive back at where all of the policy objectives are saying, that you need better space for people, less traffic, and more space for the community
He said it was a case where it would not have been accepted if the council had pushed it alone, but “the community actually championed it then and went out to their neighbours and championed it saying they had arrived at that solution.”
“There’s no such thing as the right amount of engagement”
“Unfortunately, we have never engaged to the extent where people have said that that was the right amount of engagement — there’s no such thing as the right amount of engagement,” Geraghty said, pointing to a project which had 6,400 submissions but some people still said that wasn’t enough.
Drawings alone he said were inaccessible as many people cannot understand the drawings. He said: “Photomontages are getting much more affordable and much better quality — we do CGI flythroughs of schemes and generally, we see a bump of 20% in supportive submissions when we provide CGIs because people can understand what you’re talking about.”
He said that the vast majority of people who respond to public consultation are 35-65 years old. Attempts have been made to get a wider age group but these have failed so-far.
“We can spend a huge amount of time and money providing information — we cannot force people to engage, we can’t get them to make submissions, there’s only so much we can do — our role is to make it available and hope that people engage,” Geraghty said.
“There is definitely a deficit in younger people engaging — they generally are not that interested,” he said. He said that officials went to a school to tell them about a consultation but it did not result in submissions from students.
He added: “We cannot force that engagement. If people are not interested, they are not interested.”