Analysis: With Dublin's Capel Street going car-free this month, urban pedestrian zones are increasingly getting the go-ahead in Ireland

Pedestrianisation in Ireland is taking on speed. It was spurred on by the pandemic, which saw a need for greater mobility and social distancing, with a focus on bringing business back to local areas. It’s one part of a much bigger puzzle, where we increasingly talk about living streets, 15-minute cities or 20-minute neighbourhoods. The idea is that you can access everything you need — education, healthcare, green spaces, amenities - by foot. It’s a more sustainable, compact and local way of living that decreases the need for a car in the everyday.

The benefits of pedestrianisation are well-known by now. Swapping out the car for cycling or walking, where ability allows, brings social and health benefits. Removing cars from streets reduces noise and air pollution, helping to tackle the climate crisis. It also increases road safety and improves mobility. It changes how we engage with our cities and towns, and yes, it’s good for business.

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report on Cork becoming the first pedestrians-only street in Ireland in 1971

When it comes to the impact of pedestrianisation, it's a leap of faith supported by evidence from all over the world, says Prof Ulf Strohmayer from NUI Galway's Department of Geography. But the car still reigns supreme on Irish streets and we've been slow to adapt compared to other European cities like Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen and Paris. "The fears that are being articulated in Ireland are well worn", he says. "They happened elsewhere and you just have to take a leap of faith there at the end of the day.

"Every piece of research that you can look into will stress the economic upturns of businesses that are situated in areas that have been pedestrianised: there's only one way, and that's up". Pedestrianisation also has the potential to put people "on equal footing" adds Strohmayer, making our public spaces for everyone, a place to meet "eye to eye, as the same".

There was dancing in the streets and music from the Garda Band when Dublin's Grafton Street was officially pedestrianised almost 40 years ago and became the third part of the capital to become car-free. Cork’s Princes Street was the very first pedestrian-only zone in Ireland, closing off to cars in 1971. However, proposals and plans to pedestrianise are not always met with such fanfare, particularly from business owners who worry how it will impact their trade.

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News reports on Dublin's Grafton Street becoming a pedestrian zone in 1982

A number of pilot pedestrianisations were introduced by councils in Dublin, Malahide, Dun Laoghaire, Cork and Ennis during the pandemic and some of these, such as Dublin's Capel Street, are set to become permanent. Council consultations have shown that pedestrians generally hugely welcome the idea, while businesses have had more mixed reactions in some areas. Issues around traffic management, signage, bins, outdoor seating, car parks, public benches, and road/footpath surfaces have been highlighted.

"People fear change and that's one of the biggest barriers to pedestrianisation," believes Dr Lorraine D’Arcy, from the School of Environment & Planning at TU Dublin. This is especially true of businesses who have been operating on a "status quo" for so long.

Communicating plans effectively is key to success because changes like these are a learning curve for all involved, including local authorities. When Malahide’s New Street was temporarily pedestrianised last year, D'Arcy points out there was "quite a push back" in relation to parking, but an information campaign helped to address the situation. She highlights a study done by TU Dublin of the Covid mobility measures taken by Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, which found the "forward-facing" way the measures had been communicated had been important.

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report on Dublin's Henry Street going pedestrian only for a trial period of four weeks in 1971

When the pedestrianisation of Dublin’s Capel Street goes live, it will be the longest traffic-free stretch in the city at 400m. All car parking spaces will be removed (turned into loading bays for morning deliveries) and the street will still be open to cyclists as well. Urban geographer Dr Jackie Bourke was the lead research co-ordinator on a recently published report on the pandemic recovery of the street, commissioned by Green Party MEP Ciaran Cuffe.

The researchers on the report reported a significant change in the pace of the street during the trial pedestrianisation last summer. Bourke says the northside street went from "a hectic, car-trafficked space, where people are moving quickly themselves to get from A to B, to a much more relaxed space once it became car-free. People’s behaviour changed, they were more inclined to linger, to socialise, and to chat with each other.

"We also noticed a change in the soundscape. It was quieter, the heavy hum of car traffic, of cars idling at lights, of beeping, all of that dissipated and suddenly you could hear a much more human presence." It also became a more child-friendly space, attracting families and children of all ages.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, Brendan O'Brien, Head of the Traffic Department with Dublin City Council on why they're realigning roads to allow more space for pedestrians

Despite success with some projects to date, Strohmayer says pedestrianisation in Ireland "pales by comparison" to some other European cities. "When you go to Dutch cities, you realise that there are shades of grey. There are areas that cars can still access, but there's every tell-tale sign from speed to road design, that indicates to them that they are not at the top of the pecking order, but literally at the bottom."

In Germany, they have what’s called a fahrradstrasse, a cycle street with a speed limit of 10km/h where you can still drive through with your car. The fact that most car speedometers don’t start until 20km/h and the speed limit is set below that is by design, he says. It recognises that travel by car can be needed, but that cars "have to move in a way that acknowledges that everybody else is more vulnerable than you. The fact that we don't have that here means that there's a steep learning curve for us.

Strohmayer says Ireland is still at a stage "where people see cars as an extension of their identity, and not just as a facilitator for particular uses", such as a trip to IKEA or a weekend away. Nobody wants to preclude the car from being in the mix, but subjecting urban life to the needs of the motorised part of the community is "folly."

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From RTÉ One's Nine News, business groups back plans for revised pedestrian plaza in Dublin's College Green

The problem in Ireland is that our urban landscape is more about carchitecture than walkability. "When it comes to our towns, people think that when we are telling them to walk and cycle instead, we are telling them to replace their whole journey. But really what we're asking them to do is akin to what you do in a shopping centre. Park your car at the edge and walk that five to 10 minutes in, which you would do in a shopping centre without thinking about it."

But if the idea of a walkable city is to mean anything, the pedestrian can’t be accorded "a kind of secondary status citizen," Strohmayer says. The pedestrian has to be given the right to cross where it is convenient, where a "desire line" - the route or path to a destination that is the most direct or easiest for a pedestrian - would push them towards, rather than across intersections or in intervals. "You know, we go to a traffic island, which is so telling. You're not even given the right to cross in one go. No no, you have to stand in the middle."

Proper planning is key to success. You have to have public transport and you have to avoid causing congestion with the displacement of cars onto other streets. What you also need is a permanent change in people’s habits.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, are car-free cities the way to cut through the gridlock?

D'Arcy believes that urban design is not something we do very well in Ireland "We actually don’t have that many urban designers and they are, for me, the key for walkability. They actually think about the surfaces, spaces, buildings and how they all work together. We have a real disconnect in Ireland between the road surface and the buildings. We have our traffic engineers who are trained with standards and numbers and with a very strong sense of health and safety so there's a culture of over-caution in some of that design,

"That's for me why zebra crossings are a great balancer. Because when a pedestrian has to press a button and wait, the car driver still is like, 'this is still my road, they have to wait.' But at a zebra crossing, the onus is on the car driver to stop.

"Even when we do sustainable transport, the pedestrian generally didn’t even come into the conversation. Now, thankfully, the pedestrian is getting a greater emphasis."

We return to the leap of faith. Strohmayer contends that there simply isn’t a downside to pedestrianisation. "The historical record on pedestrianisation is rather rich by now. I've yet to read in the literature of a single pedestrianisation process, in any city of any size that has not yielded positive, in the round, effects for the town, for the citizens, for the shop owners, for just about anybody."


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ