Councillors treating the National Transport Authority as boogeymen can backfire

Comment & Analysis: I started writing a straight-up news report on how the National Transport Authority was intervening in a planned road safety campaign planned by Dublin City Council. From what councillors were saying, it seemed undemocratic. The National Transport Authority had overstepped and impinged on the council’s remit. But it wasn’t that simple.

While listening to the last North Central Area Committee meeting ahead of the election, it seemed like there was a clear attack on local Government. One after another, nearly all councillors who spoke were disappointed, outraged, or on the verge of it.

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The debate got a bit carried away because of a mix of issues, including a report to councillors from the council’s active travel section which might have been clearer and the interpretation of that by the first few speakers.

An issue that really doesn’t help calmer debate is the recurring (and, it seems, growing) issue that has dogged too many debates that different councillors have had in Dublin and beyond — being unable to stay on topic.

Of course, with any debate or discussion, things stray off course, but with transport issues it seems discussions have to be all or nothing. For example, anytime cycling is mentioned, councillors start mentioning all the issues they have with cycling infrastructure, or anytime the NTA is mentioned, they start to list all the issues they have with the NTA or their projects.

The topic at hand was a safety campaign. But anybody listening was treated to opinions on BusConnects and bus stops — this, in particular, is a toxic issue to try to debate while you’re supposed to be focusing on something else.

Why? Bus stop rationalisation is continuously claimed to be a matter-of-fact anti-public transport measure when it’s the opposite (see here). Rationalisation can go too far, as this website argued about the Clontarf route project. Thankfully, it was corrected, but that doesn’t mean all attempts at bus stop rationalisation are a bad thing. That’s why soundbites and treating the issue in black-and-white terms can make things worse.

Cllr Damian O’Farrell (independent), who isn’t running again, also used the debate to have maybe one of his last shots as a councillor to attack cycle paths at bus stops, an arrangement which has unfortunately been given the name of “bus stop bypasses”.

Cllr O’Farrell wants cyclists to be told to use their bells. Bells are one of those things that cyclists are dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t — some pedestrians love them being used, and others see it as the worst sign of aggression.

Cllr O’Farrell will say that he’s all for cycling, and maybe he’ll say that this article is misrepresenting him. But his focus on bus stops is a tactic imported from the UK — saying cycling is great and objecting to a key element. For those interested in reading more, a Transport for London review of cycle paths at bus stops cuts through the scaremongering.

Last year, at a time when road deaths (the vast majority involving car drivers) have been increasing significantly over the last few years, Cllr O’Farrell launched a motion focused on cycling behaviour. Given the context of increasing road deaths, the motion was made a bit more reasonable by Cllr Alison Gilliland (Labour), who suggested an amendment to broaden the motion out, and that was agreed to by the area councillors.

If we take Cllr O’Farrell’s intentions at face value — and, I have to be honest, I’m finding that hard after how he has misrepresented things around the city centre transport plan — he should be glad that Cllr Gilliland helped allow the motion to be something other than just targeting cyclists. But he still sounded disgruntled about it at last week’s meeting.

After recent displays of verbal forcefulness towards council officials and the Lord Mayor related to the City Centre Transport Plan, Cllr O’Farrell also made an unreal claim that the NTA “doesn’t have any respect for pedestrians” as if it’s because they are so beholden to cyclists. In reality, it’s a bit more complicated, including the fact that the draft BusConnects designs were heavily influenced by the scaremongering about bus stops.

Some will say: If it followed scaremongering, why does it have so many compromised, including “bus stop boarders” where there’s no separate bus platform space like there is in bus stop bypass? It’s too long to go into detail here, but it’s part of the unintended consequences that make things worse.

The NTA is not flawless — this website has plenty of articles criticising it, especially on BusConencts, and straight-up reporting on shortcomings it is responsible for. But the transport authority has become a boogeyman for councillors. It’s a bit like how some politicians nationally all too often blame “Dublin” or “Europe” as scapegoats.

Cllr Deirdre Heney (Fianna Fáil) also mentioned a few issues unconnected to the discussion. Including talking about the NTA in one breath and then in the next, in a very roundabout way, mentioning an incident where a motorist crashed into a temporary traffic light outside a school during rush hour on the part of the Clontarf route, a Dublin City Council project. There were so many different issues Cllr Heney jammed into what she said it was impressive.

Cllr Heney then goes on to say that it is “not a national issue” for the NTA but “a Dublin issue”. It is as if everything that happens within Dublin City Council’s boundaries is different to South Dublin, DLR or the urban parts of DLR. This is key in terms of funding any awareness campaign, but I’ll explain more later.

At this stage, I must remind myself that this discussion was about a proposed behavioural change campaign.

Councillors should rightly express frustration that successive national Governments have undermined their authority. But trying to lump so many issues together is not helpful. Nor is acting like the NTA is a boogeyman.

But then Cllr Heney finally gave the game away. She said that the councillors had just wanted to “acknowledge vulnerable people using” our streets. From the way she was talking before this, it was clear she wasn’t including cyclists as vulnerable road users but rather cyclists as the target of Cllr O’Farrell’s original motion.

Some background here: Last November, IrishCycle.com reported how Cllr Heney wanted children to use substandard leaf-filled cycle tracks.

I mean, it’s one thing to expect school children to use the sub-standard cycle track over some of the widest footpaths in Dublin as Patricia Roe (Social Democrats) did in 2022. But it’s totally worse to put down a motion on the issue while the cycle track is filled with leaves.

Then, in December, Cllr Heney parroted misinformation from residents against the Griffith Avenue cycle track and claimed “nobody uses” it. This was countered by a number of fellow councillors and data.

The context of Cllr O’Farrell, Cllr Heney, and Cllr Roe’s stances is listening to whispers from anti-cycling residents and others who are disgruntled. They are not alone in their area in starting to listen to these voices, but they have parroted nonsense more than others.

At this point, I can imagine that Cllr O’Farrell is drafting a tweet to tell me that I don’t care about cyclists running over little old ladies. So, just to be clear: Cyclists are not perfect; everybody, from schoolchildren to adults, can make mistakes or be clueless or be dangerous. All road users can.

But once councillors start sounding like Facebook comments (in terms of no cyclists using a cycle track etc), it’s hard not to take what they are saying with a truckload of salt.

At the meeting last week, the debate was nearly rounded off by Cllr Daryl Barron (Fianna Fáil) who said there was a lack of respect towards councillors because the NTA were apparently taking over the council’s plan, and Cllr Micheál MacDonncha (Sinn Féin) said the NTA needed to “butt out” and that they had “exceeded their remit”.

Then, at the end of the discussion, we get a few key bits of context that the whole debate was missing.

John Gilligan, an official with the active travel office of Dublin City Council, actually confirms that the NTA had not vetoed anything.

He also said that the council wanted to give priority to an information campaign being developed for the Clontarf to City Centre route. This is key because some of that campaign concerns side road junctions that are already open and the “Dublin style” junctions that are soon to be opened more fully.

As a side note, it’s worth mentioning: Early in the debate, Cllr Donna Cooney (Green Party) raised the issue of a person who died recently when cycling in a collision involving a taxi driver, Gilligan was the only person to express condolences to the family,

After Gilligan spoke, Cllr Heney and Cllr Gilliland mentioned funding and said they’d be happy to accept NTA funding.

So, councillors talked like the NTA was a boogeyman — but the reality was quite different: The NTA had not vetoed anything, the council went ahead with planning an information campaign with no funding allocated for it (councillors and the council have their own budgets, not just NTA funding), and officials (rightly) viewed safety-critical issues on a new project as a high priority over than whether somebody uses a bell or not.

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