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Rethinking car culture

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne Marie Flynn

An article penned by the Environment and Science Editor of The Irish Times appeared last week in the paper, entitled ‘If you live in a city how can you protect yourself against air pollution?’. The piece offered advice on how best to mitigate against nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, ozone and carbon monoxide, which, the piece stated, pose a health risk to those who with respiratory illness, and can lead to heart failure among those with cardiac conditions.
The article suggested that ‘the ideal remedy, of course, is to avoid most congested areas and stay indoors’. How did we reach this point?
While obviously, here in the West of Ireland, we are not subjected to the daily grind of city life and the pollutants generated by tens of thousands of cars sitting in jams every day, so are probably a little less at risk, the piece still struck me because it reflects a wider reality when it comes to urban living and development, even in small towns in Ireland. This is the almost universal prioritisation of the movement of cars in towns and cities at the expense of pedestrians, cyclists and other, environmentally friendly travel options.
The acceptance of this car-skewed philosophy in the development of our urban spaces has implications that go far beyond the environment, including compromising the enjoyment of urban spaces and experiences.
With cities like Dublin grinding to a halt during commuting hours, it stands to reason that action needs to be taken to end the ascendancy of the car, which paralyses its public transport system, endangers cyclists and make walking around the city unpleasant – logistically, aesthetically and environmentally.
And with that, must also come meaningful action to make cycling a safer and more enjoyable alternative. I lived in Dublin for eight years and for a period, commuted to work by bike. I can safely say it was the most terrifying half hour of my life, relived twice a day for a couple of years. I saw the worst of people, and in the end, I gave up. With no viable public transport alternative, I reverted to the car and became part of the problem, losing an extra hour every day in the process.
Cycling in this part of the world, however, is no less stressful, with little or no provision in our towns for safe cycling.
Aside, however from environmental and safety concerns there is also the conflict between cars and people in our civic spaces. Ideally, our towns should be places where citizens want to spend time, relax, linger and perhaps spend some money in local businesses through the day and into the evening. There is therefore an argument to be made for pedestrianising more of our town-centre spaces, creating room for people to socialise and relax without fear of crossing roads and listening to traffic. Even the slowing of traffic in an urban space can have a positive effect.
Ballina is a good example of this; the regeneration work carried out on Pearse Street was designed to deliberately give more space to pedestrians, slow traffic drastically, and introduce greenery and street furniture. Heritage buildings have been preserved and enhanced. While traffic still exists, parking has been limited, cars have to travel slowly and pedestrians can cross the street easily.
Outdoor coffee culture is encouraged and buskers are a common fixture. As a result, the atmosphere on the street has been transformed and people spend more time there.
Mayo County Council deserves credit for this, and it gives a tantalising glimpse of what greater pedestrianisation might look like. Far from reducing footfall to businesses, based on precedents elsewhere, it is more likely to increase it.
We know we cannot keep relying on traditional retail, and with this comes the opportunity for local businesses to be more imaginative and innovative in the type of shopping experience they offer their customers.
It takes vision, courage and conviction to make what can initially be unpopular decisions; but what we need more than ever now in our towns is planners, decision-makers and communities who are willing to be brave and innovative. We urgently need to make our towns more attractive places to live, work and socialise before it’s too late. And if that means downgrading the status of the car, so be it.