Michael McDowell changes gears: From getting it wrong on sustainable transport to pushing a conspiracy theory of congestion by design

Comment & Analysis / Long read: There’s a good reason I avoid reading articles by former tánaiste, justice minister, and attorney general Michael McDowell. It’s not because of his political views but because of how often he’s wrong on transport issues (see past articles). My area of knowledge is transport. If I’m reading an article of his on another subject, how do I know what else he’s getting wrong?

McDowell is the respectable face of the political spectrum right of the mainstream political parties, but one of his latest tricks is getting away with a pub-talk or taxi-driver-like conspiracy theory about transport in our capital.

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His Irish Times article last week is readable on his website without any paywall — there it runs with the bland headline: “New Dublin taskforce needs to devise robust solutions for the city”. In The Irish Times, the article ran with a bit more pointed headline: “Simon Harris’s Duracell bunny, frantic honeymoon approach to being Taoiseach”.

There are a lot of questions in McDowell’s article that I agree should be asked, including why a taskforce on Dublin City Centre seems to be operating outside of local government. The timeline for the task force’s report back is unlikely to allow newly elected councillors to formally debate or comment on the issues collectively before the taskforce publishes its report.

Theresa Reidy, a political scientist at University College Cork, writes today in the Irish Examiner about how we have the weakest local government in Europe and how national Governments keep messing with the structure, which usually leads to further erosion of power.

One of Simon Harris’s first actions as Taoiseach has been to set up the city centre taskforce which looks like it is to repeat history. Of course, we also didn’t need McDowell to tell us this — councillors have been saying it. But national newspapers don’t like to focus too much on giving councillors a platform.

It’s part of the national media’s strange relationship with Dublin City. Until the Dublin Inquirer came along, no local newspaper covered normal local media things like council meetings, etc. National newspapers cover some major issues but often in a dysfunctional way — mostly as if Dublin were some kind of war zone that is sometimes reported on when things flare up or only when the story is deemed worthy enough in other ways.

Other times, a cycle lane in D4 (or one of the northside colonies) will make the front page of The Irish Times. Meanwhile a bunch of cycle lanes around Tallaght have caused uproar but it hasn’t even made the news-in-brief column.

But while newspapers shy away from focusing too much on councillors, they seem to be very focused on giving a platform to conservative voices with a national outlook. And I can say this just about conservative voices on transport — there are some very liberal people who switch to conservatism when it comes to transport.

‘Conservatism’, in the last line, should be read in this case as nothing more than preserving or promoting the status quo in terms of transport. Or sometimes wanting to go back to a past that never really existed when there was mass use of cars and free-flowing traffic. Just for clarity here, too: Conservatism generally and in terms of protecting the status quo of cars — these two do not have to go hand-in-hand. There are, for example, socially and financially conservative councillors who support the move away from car dominance.

In broader terms of McDowell’s conservatism, a Phoenix article from March outlines: “McDowell knows there is a space somewhere between FG and the loud, unsavoury crew that definitely are to the right of centre but whose members have little to offer the electorate on economic ‘bread-and-butter issues’ and who are unlikely to win a single seat in the next Dáil. Michael, however, could lead half a dozen or so TDs into government and influence it way beyond its real political weight – as before.”

Now, maybe McDowell bases his views on his life experience, his preference, or whatever. That’s fair enough. But he’s smart enough to know that his position on transport is totally in line with that broader edgy conservatism and populism, which uses transport as a wedge issue.

Much like how newspapers and radio stations use the issue as a culture war issue. Their comfortable but concerned middle-class readers get annoyed. Stirring the pot will get clicks and then reader letters. And then more clicks, and then more letters with different views. And on goes the circle.

Anyway, when we add everything together, it’s not a great mix for making progress on sustainable transport and the wide-ranging benefits from health to environment to mobility to safety. In the mix, we have newspapers and broadcasters that not only promote conservatism but also fail to substantially cover council meeting and issues which leaves a population ill-informed and primed for misinformation and even  conspiracy theories.

That’s where we get to a former tánaiste writing in a newspaper once viewed as the “newspaper of record” claiming that: “Finally, there seems to be a suggestion that traffic congestion is Dublin’s problem. It is not. Much of the current congestion is deliberately created by our transport engineers with their traffic-light sequencing, lane segregation and road closures.”

This comes from the same playbook as Conor Faughnan, who once asked on national radio if on-street bike lockers for people who don’t have secure storage for their bicycles are “an excuse to sabotage car use”.

The idea that traffic-light sequencing is being changed not for pedestrian priority but just to cause congestion for the fun of it or some weird ideological gole is bonkers. And the idea that segregation of bus or cycle lanes isn’t being done to give those modes priority and more safety for cycling but rather another part of the systematic sabotage of traffic is off-the-wall. And that “road closures” (aka opening streets to any use but cars) are being done by transport engineers to just mess up the city for car users is just not tenable.

You should give people making these kinds of claims in a pub strange looks. If they are doing it in a national newspaper, there’s something seriously wrong.

Let’s be honest here: There’s not a huge leap between what McDowell is saying and the unhinged 15-minute city conspiracy theories. 15-minute city conspiracy theories are logical conclusions for some people who think like him. Of course, he’s not going as far as the unhinged. McDowell’s key skill is making it look somewhat respectable.

The next question (which is usually asked as if it’s never been asked before) is: ‘Then how do you explain how there are fewer cars but the same or more congestion?’ But there’s an easy answer to this: While some people wrongly talk about reducing congestion as if it means free-flowing traffic, the policy goal is to move more people, not more cars. People are more efficiently moved by sustainable transport.

Both national and local policies also aim to have cleaner air, more greenery, more people’s activity, and more space on streets that isn’t all about movement. The road to those goals is bumpy, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon our journey.

If you want more people living in an already-built city centre (like McDowell claims he does), you need to switch away from a mass level of car use. You especially need it if having a degree of livability is also a goal, and it should be.

In a growing city, traffic tends to settle to a certain level. It’s more complicated than a few paragraphs in an already long enough article, but people who say you can have both fantastic sustainable transport and free-flowing cars in a city like Dublin are no better than snake oil salespeople.

“Planned traffic engineering will not, I think, improve our urban core,” McDowell said. Maybe he could explore this more and get loads of details wrong as he has a history of doing in articles on transport? Maybe he can tell us that it’s working in Paris because they have a metro system when people in Paris also

It’s all relatively away. You don’t need a metro system to stop through traffic in the central sections of the quays in Dublin. People are talking as if the misinformation spread by news reports and radio shows about traffic being “banned” from the city centre is true. It’s not true. The actions planned are radical compared to previous changes but also limited to a relatively small area, and car access will be maintained.

McDowell adds: “The new traffic plans may create an economically lifeless, deserted urban doughnut, and further damage the commercial and cultural vibrancy of Dublin’s city centre. We deserve much better.”

Yes, we deserve much better. That much is true.

Car-centric planning is more likely to cause a doughnut effect. And there is no substantial sign of a doughnut effect in Dublin City or the wider area. The trend is densification, a growing number of people living in the city centre, a growing number of jobs and a growing number of shops and businesses. Every city will have issues, and there’s a mix of them, including effects on working post-Covid, the knock-on effect that has had on some restaurants and cafes, especially in areas overly dominated by offices, inflation impacts, affordability, etc. It’s not all plain sailing, and nobody should be claiming it is.

Some people, especially people who have never lived in the centre, think Dublin is already shaped like a doughnut with a central hole. But this is a completely inaccurate image of Dublin as a pastry. If Dublin were a pastry, it’d be a bit messy, and while the outer ring would have some thick fluffy bits, the centre would have the highest density of dough.

The Dutch city of Utrecht (pictured above) has implemented far more radical restrictions on cars than Dublin City is planning. This is some news that people who know Utrecht will not be surprised by: I can safely report that it’s still not a commercial and cultural wasteland. McDowell wants the upper-middle-class readers of The Irish Times to think Dublin’s planned far milder car restrictions will lead to the downfall of the city centre.

Paris, Oslo, Amsterdam, Ghent and a long list of other cities have turned their backs on car dominance and reaped wide-ranging rewards, including boosting access to their commercial and cultural offerings. And this is where car-focused populism has been weakened: People under 50 are more likely to have travelled and seen these places. This internet thing has also helps.

We know that the story being sold by McDowell and people like him around the world depends on others buying into his idea that a better future will actually lead to a dystopian hellhole. We know it’s not true.


  1. Many good points in this article but a rather personal attack on McDowell. Debate the issues rather than the personalities!

    • This issue is his use of a conspiracy theory.

      The article is focused on how he treats the issue of transport, his history of being wrong on transport and how he’s using this as part of a platform to scare people to influence policy and ultimately possibly influence government formation again to influence policy further.

      There’s no personalisation in the article that’s not relevant to policy and manipulation of public discourse.

    • Why? McDowell is intelligent and a very skilled debater. He knows most of his arguements are pure bunk but makes them anyway to get an agenda across. Engaging in debate on it just validates it and gives it credibilty

  2. This is a brilliant website. But I fear we may be all in danger of wandering off towards general politics? All of us. Don’t know. Perhaps we should all just refocus on Cycling issues? Just a suggestion that’s all. Definitely no offence meant to anyone, especially Cian who I have enormous respect for..

    • Which part of the article for you is “in danger of wandering off towards general politics” without it being relevant to the main point of the article?

  3. Hi Cian, Thanks for asking for clarification.
    Its the line: “McDowell is the respectable face of the political spectrum right of the mainstream political parties.” A few months back you began a criticism of anti-cycle comments made by Mattie McGrath by criticizing his views on immigration. I think the consistently enormously high quality of your research and your incredible writing ability tells me that you will know that lets face it, cyclists will all have different views on everything else, but we generally agree on cycling issues. We don’t and shouldn’t be expected to all adhere to one particular political perspective. I guess I am suggesting that if we drift too far from the focus on cycling, we might come across to non-cyclists as using cycling issues to promote anther agenda. I hope this doesn’t sound harsh, it certainly isn’t meant to be.


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