It’s Westport resident’s choice: Scaremongering or a brighter, healthier, more sustainable future with more mobility options

— Veteran journalist accidentally captures absurdity of another Westport bypass anytime soon.

Comment & Analysis: Nobody is talking about or in any way suggesting that people’s cars are going to be rounded up. Veteran journalists such as Liamy MacNally need to stop acting like it is happening.

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MacNally is not the first journalist to be at this nationally or internationally — his Mayo News column last week falls into the cliches that so many have delved into before him have.

His gripe? The Westport Local Transport Plan and Local Area Plan. Both of which close tomorrow and which he wants like-minded people to respond to. Here, I’ll focus on the transport plan.

As someone from and living in Ballina, on the far side of Co Mayo, I used to think Westport was the kind of place where the old saying “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” applies.

Now there’s some pretentiousness in quoting President Kennedy, but I honestly thought Westport was different to other towns. It was a town that could see there were other ways of doing things and there was a collective drive for better than the status quo.

If MacNally’s article captures the current spirit of Westport, that’s definitely not the case now.

But the worst part of evoking Kennedy is not the pretentiousness but rather the transport plan being fairly mild and actions in it set out as being dependent on another new road which is unlikely to be delivered for decades at best.

This is sadly something which is repeated over and over again — opponents claim that the mildest of plans will destroy a town or other area, and people who want better are left fighting for mediocrity. We need to fight for better regardless of the opposition looking for us to play on their terms.

MacNally portrays the plan as some kind of radical manifesto where Westport will be “sacrificed on the altar of” what he calls “desktop studies” (code for a plan by outsiders and experts).

He uses a mix of cheap shots and reductive arguments that are used the world over against changing the status quo and pretending there’s no issue with it.

If we’re to take him at face value nobody in Westport can switch from their car to walking, cycling or public transport when they are going to work, school, sports, or out for dinner. And picking up one or two things from a shop would be impossible despite generations before him doing much more.

Again nobody is saying it’s for everyone and nobody is talking about banishing cars.

First, he quotes from the plan: “Co-ordinate transport and land use planning, reduce the demand for travel and the reliance on the private car in favour of public transport, walking and cycling.” And then MacNally said: “The car is out and the bicycle is back!”

This can be seen as nothing short of a cheap shot there when walking and public transport were also mentioned.

He continues: “Yet, the Local Area Plan states that in Westport people rely on the car to get around: 61 percent drive to work, 1 percent use a bus, 0 percent use a train; 49 percent reach schools by car….” …There’s a lot of stats there missing for some reason? Maybe MacNally want to highlight the madness of more people driving themselves to education than cycling to school?

IMAGE: Data showing the main commuting habits of residents of Westport.

There’s loads of scope for local trips to be switched from car to walking and bicycles and some longer ones to electric bicycles and public transport.

On the finishing of the bypass, MacNally writes: “Westport transport and development is dependent on a southern relief road connected to the West Road, a topical council chamber issue for over 60 years. The new N5 is on the north of the town.”

He says the road has been “talked about for 60 years” and that “Without a proper southern relief road plan Westport transport and development will be big on aspirations but low on reality”.

But this position — one which he actually shares with the draft plan — is just not dealing with reality.

The N5 upgrade which included part of a bypass of Westport — which jumped in cost from €250 to €300 million — should have included a full bypass of Westport. But the reality is that Westport is now unlikely to be anywhere near the first in line for another major new road investment when so many other towns need bypasses. It might be hard to hear but a bit of Realpolitik is needed.

MacNally says there are “some good proposals” but that “Westport is a business town” and for the plan to “to continually state that we need to reduce cars and car-parking spaces ignores a major factor of everyday life in Westport – that of supporting businesses.”

This begs a lot of questions.

Is Westport a mini case of a society which has morphed into just an economy? Should we look at anything but business? What about health, safety, attractiveness, mobility choices, and — dare I say it — the environment and climate action too?

Why does MacNally avoid discussing the very reasons for the plan and opt instead for rhetoric and simplification?

Regardless, there is no evidence that making a town more walking, cycling and public transport friendly is bad for business. The opposite is true.

Indeed, under MacNally’s charter for the status quo, Westport has to ask itself how fast it wants to stagnate — holding up progress by waiting out for what will be seen by outsiders as ‘another bypass’ is a surefire way towards the stagnation of the town.

When the “narrowness of the streets” was mentioned in the article, my eyebrows were definitely raised — Westport has some of the widest streets in the centre of its town but has chosen to use them poorly. It has three parallel streets in the town all used to maximize car flow and capacity, except for pedestrian crossings at a few points.

As other Irish towns and cities (and international ones too) become more mobile-friendly by becoming less car-dominated, it will become all the more apparent how much space and priority cars have in places like Westport.

If people in Westport don’t think there’s a long-term business impact of that in both tourism and the attractiveness of the towns, I have some snake oil to sell you.

We’re also treated to a quote from the Westport Business Association that “The impulse to introduce cycleways is misguided: what deters people from cycling into/through town is not the absence of cycleways on the streets but the absence of those on the approach roads.”

It’s a false choice. Cycleways or cycle paths aren’t the only way to make it safe and attractive for cycling but with current levels of traffic, cycle paths are needed in both areas.

Not having such connections — be it cycle paths or low-traffic streets — in the central area of a town means that cycling will not be both safe and attractive. Westport has a bit of a head start with rural greenway connections, now the town has the opportunity to look at improving the transport usage of the greenways.

He also quotes a businessman as saying: ‘Also, it assumes that ten cyclists would replace every 1.2 car users – but where are these extra cyclists coming from?”

I have to ask: Is it that unimaginable that more people will cycle when conditions are improved? I mean in a town where a greenway started as a foreign concept and was proven a success? And — again — why is there such a focus on cycling alone?

A suggestion regarding how car parking spaces are used which can be applied to most towns is looking at how many business owners talk the talk about how important it is for customers to park as close to their businesses as possible yet the owners take up those valuable spaces themselves. Often parking there day-long rather than parking a little further away or — god forbid — using an alternative to driving if such an option is practical for them.

As a newspaper columnist writing against the provision of cycle paths and a more pedestrian-friendly town, MacNally cannot help himself talk about what he thinks is real safety — bicycle helmets for bike share.

Adding the bicycle helmet debate here is clearly a distraction: For starters, he’s arguing for helmets for bike share which a simple Google would tell him is a killer of bicycle share systems. Helmets and bike share just don’t match. Did he do any research before knocking out so many words on the transport plan?

Second — and maybe more importantly — he’s arguing against the strongest and most proven safety measure for both walking and cycling: Redesigning our streets to make them both more safe and attractive.

MacNally tops off the article with tired old populism about “those in power” and quangos etc that has infected the West of Ireland and much of rural Ireland. The kind of thing you hear from a politician who’s known for “telling it like it is” — when in truth it’s simplistic and sounds somewhat righty but is really against the interest of people to be flippantly deploying such rhetoric. It seems we haven’t learned anything from Brexit or the rise of Trump in the US. Irish exceptionalism at its finest.

Last time I checked “those in power” are our TDs — and admittedly far lesser so — councillors (whose powers have been eroded by successive even if elected national Governments). This kind of thing is destructive generally, and massively over the top to engage in to combat such a mild plan for Westport.

It is of course the people of Westport who should have their say on the transport plan. Hopefully, the conversation will be a little less simplistic than is standard for newspaper columnists. And let’s hope the people of the town can consider the issues in the round and not just fall for the misinformation and scaremongering about changes being destructive.


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2 comments

  1. Anyone familiar with Liamy’s articles on various topics over the years will know that he approaches things from a very conservative viewpoint. Nothing wrong with that in general, but I think it can result in a certain resistance to change and inability to see future benefits. It’s unfortunate that his article will probably succeed in influencing some of Westport’s residents in resisting some of the proposals.

    I have cycled through the town myself on a number of occasions and it’s not a comfortable experience, expecially along the streets with 2 lanes of traffic, on a one-way system, immediately to your right. Attempting to switch lanes is quite dangerous.

    Reply
    • And Im just after seeing a letter in todays Mayo News from a reader agreeing with Liamys piece and parroting his words. Frustrating to see.

      Reply

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