Quietway Shouted Down

By Alexander Kearney

Over two years in the planning, the South Dublin cycle Quietway now looks to be going nowhere after a proposed public consultation was voted down by the South East Area Dublin councillors in May. We ask: Where did it all go wrong?

If one word could define the South East Area Committee meeting last May, it would be divisive. That was the word several councillors used to describe the first item on the agenda: A vote for a public consultation-audit of neighbourhoods along the proposed cycle route; a nominated Quietway from Herbert Park to Terenure.

This research, the same councillors stressed, was a pre-requisite local residents wanted and it was clearly expressed by local residents to them. Those residents feared the loss of car parking spaces, the closure of roads to through-traffic and the knock-on effect of rat-runs and congestion on surrounding streets. Indeed, the committee chairman, Paddy McCartan (Fine Gael) acknowledged and welcomed the presence of the residents’ associations representatives at the meeting.

Confusion was another word that cropped up, as councillors appeared to struggle with precisely what it was they were being asked to vote on, and whether they should even listen to a presentation that had been prepared on the public audit.

The Council engineers waiting to give that presentation looked faintly bemused. One, Alec Dundon, briefly explained what the presentation would cover and exactly what the vote would be about. When the chairman observed, “I think that is reasonable,” the sharpness of Cllr Mary Freehill’s (Labour), “No, it’s not,” rang through the chamber.

Though the presentation was duly given, it soon became evident that opposition even to consultation was now entrenched. The scheme’s original proponent, Paddy Smyth (Fine Gael) appealed to fellow councillors to back a process they themselves had said was previously lacking.

The debate was not helped by a packed agenda, which forced a vote just forty-five minutes after the session had begun, with questions on the €15,000 audit still hanging in the air. To no one’s great surprise, the votes fell eight to five against, with just one abstention. The breakdown of the vote went as follows:

Against: Cllrs Chris Andrews (Sinn Féin), Mannix Flynn (Independent), Mary Freehill (Labour), Frank Kennedy (Fianna Fáil), Dermot Lacey (Labour), Ruairi McGinley (Independent), Claire O’Connor (Fianna Fáil), and Sonya Stapleton (Independent).

For: Cllrs Claire Byrne (Green Party), Patrick Costello (Green Party), Anne Feeney (Fine Gael), Paddy McCartan (Fine Gael), and Paddy Smyth (Fine Gael).

Abstained: Cllr Kieran Binchy (Fine Gael).

If close observers of the debate were hardly surprised, the explanations offered by councillors opposing the audit seemed at times puzzling, even contradictory. Some argued that there hadn’t been sufficient prior consultation with local communities (though the audit was designed to remedy this); that the proposal was still too vague (Cllr Smyth and council officials said that this was to keep options open in response to residents’ concerns); that the issue was already too divisive and therefore it was best not to proceed with consultation. This could be translated as: the status quo would prevail by default, that any scheme would now be rendered irrelevant by Metrolink, despite the fact that, most, if not all, South East Area councillors are believed to favour significant local amendments to that scheme. And finally, that the committee was entirely unfamiliar with the concept of street audits (Cllr Freehill, perhaps unintentionally, recalled the refrain of the old tracker mortgage ad, as she protested “I don’t know what street audits are.”)

The reaction of cycling advocates including Dublin Cycling Campaign, IrishCycle.com, and I Bike Dublin, was immediate and fierce. Across social media they denounced the result and engaged directly with several of the ‘no’ councillors via Twitter.

Dermot Lacey attracted particular criticism since, as a regular cyclist, he was viewed as a potential supporter of the proposal. He argued that he was consistently pro-cycling, but felt that the process behind the Quietway was flawed and that the impact on streets surrounding Marlborough road had simply not been addressed. Responding in a tweet, he stated, “The absence of detail killed the plan not the funding.”

On the face of it, the Quietway had seemed a simple, low-cost, and ingenious means of providing a safe route for cyclists, particularly children, to travel from Herbert road in Ballsbridge to Corrib road in Kimmage. They would proceed via predominantly residential streets such as Marlborough road, Cowper road, and Garville avenue, in a two-way East / West direction.

A second leg was envisaged to continue from Kimmage to Drimnagh, where it would link up with the Grand Canal Greenway but the focus, for now, was on that first stretch.

According to the presentation given to the South East Area Committee (SEAC) last May, this could involve: Two wall openings, six traffic restrictions, including bollards to close off through-motor traffic on certain streets with filtered permeability to pedestrians and cyclists, and seven junction upgrades.

While various alternative roads and routes had been proposed, the signal advantage of the preferred one was its proximity to a dozen or so primary and secondary schools along the way.

An overview of cycling rates amongst Irish school children helps to underline why its supporters feel so strongly about the project.

The CSO figures for the last thirty years describe a grim trajectory. In 1986, roughly 50% of primary school children cycled to school. In 2016, that figure was just over 25%. This sharp decline has been more than matched by the rise in primary school children being driven to school: A figure of under 25% in 1986, rising to nearly 60% in 2016.

While the percentage in South Dublin is somewhat lower, at 50%, the school run has become a major seasonal contributor to traffic in the area. The most frequently cited reason for not cycling is safety, and it was this factor, above all, that the Quietway sought to address. As far as possible, cyclists would not have to share streets with commuter motor traffic.

After initial lobbying by Cllr Smyth, who first outlined his thoughts in 2014, the SEAC passed a motion on the 8th February 2016 to allocate approx €20,000 for a Quietway feasibility study. The City Council duly tendered for the study in March 2016, and an initial tentative draft version was produced by Aecom consultants, dated August 2016.

From early on, its critics were not persuaded, despite being cited positive working examples of similar schemes in the Netherlands, London, and even the United States. The original proposed route came under determined opposition from residents on Frankfort Avenue and an alternative was incorporated into an updated version of the feasibility study.

A now-notorious public meeting was held on the 28th March 2017 in Rathgar, preceded by the circulation of an anonymous leaflet, which quoted selectively from the study to assert that half the parking spaces on Garville Avenue and Cowper Road would be removed. The study, in fact, went on to recommend filtered permeability for these roads and the retention of existing parking.

Legal threats were aired against Cllr Smyth, who remarked at the time that the idea was “well received by many, particularly those with young children,” but “badly received by others who were in the majority at the public meeting.” It hardly helped the councillor’s cause that the meeting was held on a school night at 7.30pm, when parents might be thinking about putting those young children to bed.

From there, the news got worse. An updated version of the feasibility study, dated April 2017, now placed the estimated cost at just over €1.2 million, special toucan crossings for cyclists and pedestrians greatly adding to the original figure. Aecom still recommended the project, but a four-page report compiled in May 2017 by Christopher Manzira, a senior engineer at the Council’s Environment and Transportation Department, came out against it. Manzira noted an extra cost in the region of €150,000 for further ‘necessary studies’ which would raise the total budget to around €1.4 million. His report drily concluded, “Given the nature of the scheme and the number of potential end users, it is recommended not to proceed with the scheme.”

Despite that finding, the project retained sufficient momentum for a meeting to be called by local residents in Cowper road this March, which was then cancelled at short notice. IrishCycle.com claimed to have received a message that organisers feared the meeting would be hijacked by the “Cyclist lobby group” (sic). It was further reported in May that Richview Residents Association had commissioned a fifty-three page report from Transport Insights consultants to challenge Aecom’s recommendations.

At the fateful SEAC meeting that same month, virtually every councillor referred to the volume of emails they had received on the subject, mostly against. The Quietway had attracted a committed, well-resourced, and voluble opposition.

When Paddy Smyth responded to my request to talk about the ill-starred project, he sounded as though he was still licking his wounds. He referred to his earlier naiveté in pursuing the idea and acknowledged that perhaps there should have been greater discussion with local residents earlier on. However, he was adamant about the health impacts. “I have an axe to grind. I’m a GP by profession.” At the May SEAC meeting, he described seeing increased numbers of obese children in his surgery and stated that “we have the lowest cycling to school rates in Europe… with linked health and environmental implications.”

In the Committee chamber, Cllr Mannix Flynn had bridled at what he took to be the implication that he and his fellow councillors were somehow responsible for childhood obesity. When I spoke to him over the phone, he remained unconvinced by Smyth’s arguments. “Cllr Smyth is part and parcel of his problem, he’s an ardent cyclist, a complete pro-lobbyist.”

On the failure of the Quietway to gain wider support, he proffered “You simply can’t do a solo run… a substantial amount of residents had concerns… and the present document wasn’t supported.” He warned that the “cycling lobby need to be very careful what kind of sensibility this is – it’s a very middle class sensibility… they should be building capital,” [instead] “they disempower themselves with their fury.”

I put Flynn’s point about class to Niall Toner, author of the Spokesman column in The Sunday Times. He conceded, “I think he’s right… it tends to be seen as middle class, those are the optics,” illustrating his point with an example, “Dublin Cycling Campaign had about 20 tweets about the lack of cycling places at a recent Nick Cave concert.” However, Toner feels that many of the local objectors, themselves from overwhelmingly middle class, even wealthy communities, have their own set of blinkers. “Asking people to concede privilege is always a difficult thing, [but you’re] asking people who have off-street car parking to give up on-street car parking which doesn’t seem that unfair to me… as one who lives on a rat-run, my sympathy is limited. I live on a street with a constant flow of motor traffic. Playing on the street is not possible.” “What Paddy was trying to do was inventive, courageous, it was a good idea… the seeming efficiency with which it was put down was extraordinary.”

Several weeks after the audit was rejected, Dermot Lacey sought a way round the impasse by issuing a joint circular with Paddy Smyth to approximately three hundred residents in and around Marlborough road. Outlining the history of the initiative, and their opposing votes, it states, “we would be grateful if you could contact either of us… if you have any recommendations or would prefer to see the status quo maintained.”

Lacey reports that the response to the proposal is still overwhelmingly negative. Smyth had recently argued that the introduction of quietways elsewhere – notably in the United States – had boosted local property prices by an average of 20%, and that any negative traffic effects were typically short-lived.

Residents along Marlborough road have yet to be persuaded, and councillors are now thinking about next year’s local elections in May. And some of those councillors will be especially wary of alienating an established and committed section of their electorate, one that cycling advocates have failed to convince or to out-lobby.

At any rate, a majority of councillors remain sceptical about the merits of Smyth’s plan. As Niall Toner rather incisively puts it “Maybe it [the Quietway] was presented as a fait accompli, but really the problem is that local politics is tight. You’re talking about very small numbers; four or five votes really matter [in the committee] – and they’re looking to next year.”