A Sunday evening last month. Caught between the tiny eternity that divides an amber man from a red one, I scrambled across the pedestrian crossing where College Green slides into Dame Street. Concurrently sensing the same window of opportunity, a silver Volvo roared into life towards me, then stuttered to an abortive stop, conking out. Its driver windmilled down his window, and spat fire at me.
“Do you expect me to STOP for you?!?”
Feeling observationalist, I replied. “Well you did, didn’t you?”
The door slammed. The hulking driver (a dead ringer for Cormac from Tallafornia) emerged, and I bolted, abandoning my girlfriend for dead in a cannonball run in front of – yes – more moving traffic.
No luck – a tug at my jacket turned me towards his rottweiler growl, as more silver Volvos jerked to a halt around us. “An Garda Síochána!” His hands whipped a badge from his Superdry pockets. “What do you have to say for yourself now, EH?”
Aside from the immediate problem (i.e. that the bobby in question had watched one maverick cop movie too many), this beef fleshes over a bone of contention that every Dubliner has had a chew of: the frightening asymmetry of the pedestrian/motorist equilibrium that skews both side’s expectations of how a city should behave.
Dublin is by no means unique in having Jagerbombed the poisons of the car age; we just happen to be taking way longer to overcome the planning hangover. Modern cities, from the 40s onwards, emphasised accessibility for motorists over the importance of pedestrian-friendly planning in maintaining a sense of place.
Despite moves towards widened footpaths, cycling circuits and a more Europeanised plaza-building approach, we still lag behind those cities we should be able to class as our counterparts: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Malmo. Dublin City Centre is a wet-dream for protestors: a band of twenty hardy sit-downers can paralyze the entire public transport system, evident by last month’s anti-internment strike.
The LUAS Cross-City will integrate transport in a less haphazard manner, in as much as Dublin Bikes has made an impact, but the NTA’s new, all-encompassing traffic solution for the city is the Gospel for any disciple of liberal, forward-thinking urbanism. Under the plan, half of College Green will become a public plaza, Suffolk Street and Westmoreland Street will be rid of traffic, the lion’s den that is Christchurch Place will be tamed, Westland Row will be accessible only to public transport, in addition to a host of other adroit changes. Best of all? You’ll no longer have to wait more than 45 seconds, anywhere, anytime, for the red man to morph into the green one. No more angry undercover cop problems, no more need to resort to that well-worn “you know jaywalking’s legal in Dublin?” factoid.
But wait – why is the National Transport Authority in the position of being the saviour of Dublin’s civilians? Dublin City Council, where one would imagine the buck ought to stop on matters like these, has drawn up similar plans in the past, to find them jettisoned. The Green Party’s Ciarán Cuffe, a vehement advocate of the NTA’s vision, says that our city council “could never agree on priorities. It suffers from a silo mentality. In county Fingal, we see good team-work, focusing on whole areas, with architects, planners and engineers working together.”
Let’s not just blame bureaucracy and politics on the mess though. The car-park lobby group has represented as sturdy a roadblock to progress as the vintners erected on Temple Bar’s attempted cultural progressivism (and still chain themselves to). It can hardly be utopianism to assume, though, that a city centre benign to pedestrians, commuters and cyclists will do anything but increase its attractiveness to shoppers both local and visiting. And that’s not to even mention the environmental gauntlet that is being laid down to gratuitous drivers. As Cuffe points out to me: “city centres have to compete with suburban shopping centres and now online shopping. If we allow it to be dominated by the needs of cars, everybody misses out – residents, tourists and commerce. If we widen footpaths, calm traffic and re-open the city, everybody benefits.”
The downside? Even more poxy rickshaws.