No Lego at Christmas for your children if you take the bus! Why is anybody listening to the Dublin City Centre Traders Alliance?

— Lobby group Dublin City Centre Traders Alliance offers few signs that it should be trusted on transport plans.

Comment & Analysis / long read: Dublin City Centre Traders Alliance is at the centre of opposition to the Dublin City Centre Transport Plan and is getting a lot of attention from the media and Dublin City Council’s chief executive.

It was set up to oppose the College Green Plaza, whose only apparent activity is lobbying against car-free streets, cycle routes, and bus priority measures.

The group comprises Brown Thomas Arnotts, Jervis Shopping Centre, Retail Excellence Ireland, Restaurants Association of Ireland, Louis Copeland & Sons, Irish Parking Association, Best Car Parks, and Fitzwilliam Real Estate Capital.

Five of those have interests in car parks, and that was an even more dominant part of the group before Retail Excellence Ireland and the Restaurants Association of Ireland joined the group.

The legal entity behind the trader’s alliance was set up by property developer and solicitor Noel Smyth who heads up Fitzwilliam Real Estate Capital. Smyth has a link to Brown Thomas Arnotts as he is developing the Arnotts car park.

Strangely, Smyth’s plan is reported to include removing 145 car spaces to build a hotel over the car park.

Brown Thomas Arnotts, the trading company behind both famous department stores, represent retail voices that sound like they have authority, but the department is one of the strongest voices in the past to predict doom and, for that, never to have materialised.

In a letter to councillors on “behalf of all DCCTA Members”, Smyth wrote: “We believe the proposed traffic restrictions set for August will harm our operations, leading to job losses and business closures. These restrictions, which DCC has positioned as an effective way to curb motorists travelling through the City Centre, will, in fact, serve as a deterrent to all shoppers and visitors who choose to use their cars or indeed taxis as part of their experience.”

This black-and-white approach — which Smyth has shown before relating to outright objections to other projects — was not shared by the head of Retail Excellence Ireland when she appeared on RTE Radio One. So, questions need to be asked about what level of scaremongering is happening in business circles.

I mean scaremongering in a more focused way beyond the scaremongering headlines about a car ban for the whole city centre, which we know is totally untrue. However, there are references throughout the interview that play to the idea that there will be a car ban.

Smyth cannot help getting things wrong from the more clear cut to mentioning age-old arguments which really don’t apply anymore or at least not to any significant level, such as mentioning that “Statistics show city centre retail is already vulnerable compared to out-of-town shopping destinations” — what statistics? And is this including Blanch, where the owners are building apartments on one of the car parks? Or Liffey Valley, where there are now car parking charges? Or Dundrum, where traffic changes have been implemented, and more are on the way?

This isn’t the 1990s or 2000s. The suburbs have filled up more, and the M50 is at breaking point to a greater degree than ever before, and the city centre’s population is growing and has been for decades.

One of the rather dafter parts of Smyth’s letter is where he mentions tourism: “Dublin City, as a leading tourist destination, needs a strong retail offering. The restrictions could deter tourists, impacting the €2.6 billion they spend annually.”

Yes, because Amsterdam has just solved its “over-tourism” problem with new traffic restrictions — it had far more traffic central traffic restrictions to start with and has, in the last few years, made those even stricter. Now there are no tourists. And Venice has solved its over-tourism issue by paving over its canals to allow cars into its core…. Sorry about the sarcasm here, but it’s very hard to take this seriously, and I’m finding it staggering that so many people are taking the from the arguments alliance group seriously.

The vast bulk of tourists in the city centre are not using cars and those who are just need access (and access to car parks will be maintained). For those who do drive, their trips are generally less time-sensitive than others, and, the fact is, tourist hotspots in cities around Europe usually go hand-in-hand with larger car-free or very low car areas.

Other than the letter, one of the few detailed glimpses into the thinking of its members came last week when Jean McCabe, CEO of Retail Excellence Ireland, appeared on the Today with Claire Byrne show on RTE. She said that “a majority of retailers are for the idea of transitioning to a low-traffic city centre;” it’s just the details that need to be looked at.

McCabe said there’s still a “huge number of question marks around deliveries for a number of companies” — this plays to the idea that the city centre is being cut off when it’s not being. It’s not. All locations will still be accessible and the bus gates are in locations where stopping wasn’t allowed anyway. Some adjustments to delivery routes, etc, will be needed, but no businesses will be cut off.

If there are localised issues, McCabe should name them or at least the businesses or the streets.

She said that she defended a much-derided intervention by Emer Higgins, Minister of State with responsibility for business, employment, and retail on behalf of the car-focused lobby group Dublin City Centre Traders Alliance.

She also confirmed that this intervention by the junior minister gave them direct access to Dublin City Council’s chief executive, Richard Shakespeare.

She claimed the plan was “devised in 2019” and that “the World has changed a lot since”, Dublin has changed a lot since, but the plan was formed from the 2022-2028 City Development Plan approved in December 2022 and was only published in draft form last year.

McCabe said she wants the plan delayed until March 2025. She said as well as concerns around delivery access, the main concern from retailers was a feared fall in footfall. Despite claims of doom in the past, no project like the one proposed has resulted in the predicted doom; rather, it usually significantly improves footfall.

She said that key performance indicators (KPIs) haven’t been set up, but this makes no sense whatsoever and definitely shouldn’t be a factor in a delay, as she claimed it should be. The main KPI she wants to look at is footfall and that it does not drop, which is already measured regularly.

Traffic counts are also something measured as part of these projects, and it’s unclear what measurements would require a wait until March 2025.

On spending, has already covered how car users account for only 24% of Dublin City Centre spending but that the alliance lobby group used a misleading claim seeking to try to halt the traffic plan.

As reported already, in the letter to councillors, Smyth wrote: “Statistics show city centre retail is already vulnerable compared to out-of-town shopping destinations. The NTA’s Dublin City Centre Shopper Survey 2022 indicates that car users spend significantly more than those using public transport. Thus, these restrictions will harm our businesses.”

However, while the NTA’s Shopper Survey 2022 report showed that car users had a higher average spend per person, car users as a group were not recorded as spending more. The report found that “Sustainable modes of transport account for 75% of daily spend in the city centre with car drivers accounting for 24% of spend.”

McCabe has another stab at this in a different way.

She said: “Here’s some interesting stats from the NTA — these are their own numbers on car usage, and public transport spend: So, car usage within the city is about 28%, and when you look at spend by the consumer who travels by car and the consumer who travels by bus, car spend is about €131, bus spend is about €75. If we lived in an ideal world and all of those car users became bus users, you’re still looking at a decline, a drop of 10% in sales.

I overuse the phrase “there’s a lot of unpack here”, but it really applies here.

Using the phrase “Car usage in the city is around 28%” when referring to the NTA’s Shopper Survey 2022 is totally misleading. The representative sampled survey found that car use was 16% of those visiting the city for shopping, going out, etc.

Even the NTA and council Canal Cordon Count for 2023 found that cars entering the cities at peak times accounted for 25% of the number of people travelling in, but the Canal Cordon includes most of the area inside the canals, so, much wider than the core city centre.

So, McCabe is getting it horribly wrong or using misleading figures on purpose, but the result is the same.

As per the bit about Smyth’s selective use of the NTA shopper survey, it’s misleading not to mention that bus users overall spend more. Never mind that the city also has people walking, cycling, and using trains and trams.

But another thing that is wrong is the idea that people will reduce their spending because they are using another mode of transport — there’s not much to base this on, and there’s also no likely event here where nobody drives any more. It’s more likely there’s a greater social mix of people who use buses.

The car parks and lots of on-street parking will still be accessible even if motorists will be restricted on some routes. The idea being put forward is again based on a reaction to the plan, as if everybody will be forced to stop driving into the city centre to shop or socialise, etc. In other words, a car ban. In other words, it is fiction.

However, McCabe doesn’t just imply that spending will be reduced if people switch from a car to a bus; she uses a mind-numbing example of why she thinks it will happen.

“Because you all know if you’re going to town at Christmas and you’re going to buy that big Lego box set from Banba Toys there near Henry Street, you cannot bring that home on your bus,” she said on air.

When presenter Claire Byrne tried to reason that you’d have more people travelling by public transport, and that would even out the spending, McCabe then said public transport “isn’t where it needs to be to replace that footfall count.”

This, of course, brings us to the chicken and egg situation best described as a need to “Hold off on making improvements to public transport until public transport improves” — as told by Waterford Whispers in its satirical article titled “Emer Higgins’ Vision For Traffic Problems In Dublin City“.

Byrne then zeroed in on the point that McCabe said that public transport wasn’t good enough and asked what would change by the end of March, at the end of the proposed delay.

McCabe then said, “There aren’t going to be changes.”

But by any measure, this seems to be untrue.

BusConnects’ E Spine improvements, even if delayed beyond the now expected date of September, will, in all likelihood, be in place in September, and the F Spine improvements, which are due for Q1 2025, might be in place by March.

Irish Rail is also continuing to roll out extra carriages, adding extra capacity to intercity and long-distance commuter services, and will make significant progress within the next few months.

So, those are pluses that McCabe doesn’t even seem to know about.

Between Smyth and McCabe, there’s too much of a gap between the black and white approach and calls for a need for checks and balances. So, it seems one of the less car-park-focused groups on the list is being led by scaremongering nonsense and is generally ill-informed and just uninformed about some aspects of transport in Dublin.

But both of them are saying things that are easily found to be wrong. There’s little here to inspire trust. There’s nothing to suggest that the plan should be paused for even a month, never mind the months of delays suggested. There’s even less to suggest that the group would be happy for the plan to go head in March without it being watered down some more. It seems more like those involved are trying to buy time to mount a legal challenge or until the general election.

Dublin City Council’s chief executive, Richard Shakespeare, is said to be concerned about kick-starting effective climate action in the city and getting the city moving. Will he falter at the first baby step in that direction?

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