On Dublin’s traffic plan, Michael McDowell is an alarmist and car-focused populist

Comment & Analysis: Former justice minister and Irish Times columnist Michael McDowell has a history of complaining about what he sees as populism. So, it’s no surprise he also complained when his side of the debate on the Dublin City Centre Traffic Plan was accused of populism.

The headline in McDowell’s article is “Let’s not make the ill-conceived Dublin traffic plan the subject of a culture war.” However, McDowell and some in the media who are on his side of the debate are the only ones trying to make the traffic plan a culture war issue.

An army of bots and trolls has also been trying to do so, and a few independent councillors have hinted at it. But nobody near McDowell’s profile has.

As I’ve said before, I don’t read many of Michael McDowell’s non-transport-related columns, but his transport-related columns do not live up to his reputation for being knowledgeable about the subjects he writes about.

Back in December, McDowell asked whether we should consider the alternatives for the first time before the “MetroLink juggernaut” becomes “an irreversible money pit.” Given — as IrishCycle.com covered last year — comprehensive work on alternatives was undertaken and published, I’m still left pondering my question from December: “Was McDowell outright lying, or is he that ill-informed about a project he has campaigned against and written so many articles about?”

Then, in May, this website covered how McDowell was changing gears: From getting it wrong on sustainable transport to pushing a conspiracy theory of congestion by design. He said: “Much of the current congestion is deliberately created by our transport engineers with their traffic-light sequencing, lane segregation and road closures.”

Some traffic lights have been set, and public space has been reallocated for the safety and priority of people outside of cars (including the people who park up and use public spaces). That idea it was done to frustrate car drivers is the stuff of conspiracy theories.

This is exactly what happens when people try to make transport into a culture war issue: The spreading of mis/disinformation and conspiracy theories.

Yesterday, McDowell wrote that the plan “should have been the subject of a much wider consultation process”, but the main public consultation process was one of the most widely covered consultations and had one of the highest response rates. As covered by IrishCycle.com: Let’s be honest: People can disagree with Dublin’s traffic plan, but anybody who didn’t hear about it was living under a rock.

Repeating something repeatedly is a propaganda tactic. But that’s the joy of calling for more consultation — if you’re against something, you can always hold the view that the consultation has not been wide or good enough.

He outlines in two parts of his article how the plan should be introduced gradually when the measures are planned to be implemented across a number of years, not in one big bang.

“There is now a strong, almost ideological, objection voiced to restricting some of the proposed vehicle bans to the 7am to 7pm period”, McDowell wrote in The Irish Times today, and then adds: “Why? Dublin Bus claims that car users ignore those time limits unless they are 24-hour bans .”

Why? Well, first of all, he told us it was “almost ideological” in an attempt to dismiss why, and then he goes on to simplify or misunderstand why: It’s not just an issue of enforcement. There are increasingly more 24-hour bus routes, and across the city, bus lanes are being made 24 hours to reflect that. It makes little sense for the area with the highest number of buses not to support those buses in the evenings.

Restrictions that end at 7pm would undermine the city’s public transport network when, for example, large events are held at the Point or other locations.

It would also limit the opportunity to provide better public space and space for safe and attractive cycling.

“I was struck by some of the pro-ban rhetoric,” he said before asking what “populist” means and if it means alarmist and unjustified. It sure does when people against the plan — and the media — start talking about city centre car bans when there is no car ban planned.

Access to city centre car parks will still be possible after the plan is in place. Talking about bans without being clear that the ban is on limited sections of streets is the definition of alarmist, and with so much of that flying around, it’s no wonder that some people think the concerns are genuine.

Even with the full knowledge that Dublin Bus and a wide range of groups support the transport plan, McDowell tries to paint the picture of “the cyclist lobby” as the main supporters.

And why has nobody thought of the city centre car owners who need to do their shopping by car, McDowell asks?

Good news! The proliferation of supermarkets inside the M50 (as has happened around the country) means that people living both in and around the city centre are not as dependent as they used to be to go into the core city centre to access a supermarket.

This includes SuperValu Military Road, Dunnes Stores Point Square Shopping Centre, Tesco Superstore on the Navan Road and Lidl outlets on Cork Street, Grandgorman Lower, Cabra East, Drumcondra etc. — 15 years ago, people in many areas only had the choice to go into the core or go out to the suburban shopping centres.

There’s also a growing number of offerings such as Tesco Express (in too many places to mention), Fresh (now two in the south Docklands alone), and more central Lidl and Aldi stores, which also offer people supermarkets more local to where they live.

But even with all of those options, which means nobody will be deprived of doing weekly shopping by car, people will still be able to drive into Jervis to shop at M&S or Tesco, or on the southside drive into St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre for Dunnes.

And car-based central Southsiders also do not need to worry! We haven’t forgotten about you — you’ll still be able to access the car parks near M&S on Grafton Street, Fallon & Byrne, or wherever else you go (note to self: I might need to read some more Ross O’Carroll-Kelly to get some better references in here).

The point is: There’s no “car ban” — it’s not useful to talk about very localised car restrictions in that way.

McDowell then wrote: “Given current ambitions and Government targets for use of electric vehicles, the emissions and pollution argument for measures that may seriously and permanently hollow out the life of the capital needs to be scrutinised very carefully; one might have thought that gradual change rather than major experiment is wiser.”

This is quite a stunning paragraph to write just after saying that people objecting to the plan were not being alarmist and unjustified in their arguments — the phrase “permanently hollow out the life of the capital” is another example of alarmism.

The majority of city centre residents don’t own cars, and an even lower percentage commute by car (in other words, a large number leave their cars at home). The majority who visit the city centre for work, shopping, or leisure also do not drive in.

So, even if there were some kind of a wide-scale car ban (and there still isn’t), the city would not be “permanently hollowed out.” Cities that have far more car restrictions than Dublin’s are not hollowed out and, unlike some people think, Dublin City Centre’s population has been on the rise for decades.

Even if electric cars emit zero air pollution — and that’s not the case because of tyre and brake emissions, which have significant impacts on human health and the environment — cars are still highly inefficient at transporting people in heavily populated and busy city centre locations.

After this, the article ping-pongs from McDowell’s dislike of BusConnects to his dislike of MetroLink to questioning the usefulness of cycling because wetter weather is predicted due to climate change (ie arguing against climate action now because of the effects of climate change with no awareness),

As McDowell suggests, a surface Luas network is desirable. However, a metro line is a different kettle of fish—it serves a different function of faster, high-capacity transport over a longer distance, while bus priority is needed in the short term.

Again, as covered in December, McDowell is saying to build Luas routes everywhere instead of a metro line, but back when Luas was being debated in the Dail, he called for an underground system instead of Luas routes.

His article makes different references to “car-accessible suburban shopping centres” — are these shopping centres like Blanch, where the owners are building a load of apartments on a large chunk of car parking? Or Liffey Valley, where parking is now being charged for (free parking was always talked about as a draw for the out-of-town centres)? Or Dundrum, where the road network is being rearranged to favour sustainable transport and to support more housing in the area?

True to form, after a few ad-hoc attacks on cycling, McDowell devotes the last few paragraphs of his article to saying it’s strange that compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) have not been used to connect, for example, Leeson Lane with Ely Place and Hume Street “for cyclists’ use, avoiding the bottleneck at St Stephen’s Green.”

Except Leeson Lane ends in the bottleneck on Leeson Street, and Ely Place’s access toward Ballsbridge ends in the bottleneck at the Doheny & Nesbitt section of Baggot Street. There are some opportunities for cycling on smaller streets, but London quickly found the limitations of using this as a main method of providing a cycle network.

Cycling has boomed in London since they built cycle paths on main roads as park of a network which also includes side streets.

McDowell’s suggestion of using the backstreet for cycling sounds all too much like fellow Irish Times columnist John FitzGerald’s suggestion that there’s a magical network of back streets waiting to be untapped when there generally isn’t.

Former Dublin City Council manager Owen Keegan hit the nail on the head when he said Senator McDowell favours cycling only when cars are not affected.

If the capital wants improved public space and a more attractive street network for pedestrians, cycling, buses or trams, CPOs won’t help with most of the city centre. The Street Widening Commission (set up in 1849 and dissolved in 1851) isn’t going to be revived, nor is the 1970s road widening programme.


  1. “Some traffic lights have been set, and public space has been reallocated for the safety and priority of people outside of cars (including the people who park up and use public spaces). That idea it was done to frustrate car drivers is the stuff of conspiracy theories.

    This is exactly what happens when people try to make transport into a culture war issue: The spreading of mis/disinformation and conspiracy theories.”

    This is not mis/disinformation. during Covid the green time for pedestrians crossings was understandibly increased. post covid when traffic levels returned to normal the conscious decision was taken to leave the increased green times resulting in a significant reduction in traffic througput at junctions. Cllr Manix Flynn DCC has repeatidly raised this matter in the council chamber.

    Cordon counts in/out of the city are readily available and show that private car use has drecreased each year.

    “The majority who visit the city centre for work, shopping, or leisure also do not drive in.” I would also like to see the evidence to this statement as it is not the vast experience of the majority of my collegues that work in the city centre.

    • Hi Chris, the article says traffic lights etc were changed to give priority to people outside of cars. And, yes, in some cases it was changed during COVID and never changed back. That’s a decision to give priority to pedestrians.

      That’s not creating congestion deliberately for the sake of it.

      The facts about the majority traveling into the city centre for work and shopping etc includes links to the supporting information.

      The experience of you or your colleagues may vary for a wide range of reasons including availability of car parking free or otherwise, workplace culture, industry culture, average employee age, or whatever reason the office or industrial might have more people commuting longer distances or needing their cars.


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