Time to walk the walk on pedestrianisation

On the Edge

FEET ON THE STREET The case for pedestrianisation in Westport ticks tourism, business and environmental boxes.

On The Edge
Áine Ryan

FOR decades heritage haven and tourism honeypot Westport has been the poster girl and boy for progressive thinking. Being judged The Best Place to Live in Ireland in an inaugural Irish Times competition back in 2012 was just the icing on the cake as it won one gong after another in Tidy Towns and Entente Florale competitions.
One wonders how it would fare now, as gridlocked streets for much of the summer dominated the town’s natural colour and cosmopolitan ambience.
So why is Westport on the back foot where pedestrianisation is concerned? Even though this picturesque town has embraced outdoor living this summer – and with good support from Mayo County Council initiatives – it hasn’t walked the walk like two other Co Mayo towns about trialling pedestrianisation.
Both the north Mayo capital, Ballina, and the county town, Castlebar, have successfully trialled pedestrianising some of their streets.
Apparently, the official county council line is that the N59 runs right through through Westport and thus precludes such an experiment.
But surely, that wouldn’t have stopped part of the Octagon being used for the trial? Was it not the obvious place? Leave the traffic to flow past Supervalu and up the Quay Hill, as well as down James Street but cancel all the paring spots on the inside along by the Wyatt Hotel and around to An File pub? The parking there is limited anyway and wouldn’t the extra footfall by those sitting at picnic tables or outside the pubs and restaurants add to the town-centre’s business and busyness?
Some people are suggesting that Westport has become a victim of its own success. Well, if that is the case, now is the time for reassessment; a root-and-branch analysis of where Westport goes from now.
The caption to the photograph of gridlock used in a news piece this columnist wrote last week, says it all: “Ed Moynihan, a visitor to Westport this summer, made the following comment on Twitter when sharing this picture: ‘Westport is a great town, a nice, vibrant atmosphere around the place, but it’s ruined by the sheer traffic carnage on every street. Surely some should be pedestrianised?’”
Undoubtedly, it was a question asked by more than Mr Moynihan. Who wants to be suffused in clouds of carbon dioxide when they have escaped their metropolitan and urban lives for the fresh air of the Wild Atlantic Way?
Fine Gael councillor and sustainable travel advocate Peter Flynn repeatedly cites the success of widening the pathways at the Quay – an area truly exposed to the elemental energy that often blows in across the bay – upgrading it to a burgeoning outdoor area where most of the businesses have been able to embrace an al fresco vibe.
Speaking to The Mayo News last week also, Independent Cllr Christy Hyland observed that the completion of the northern bypass of the town would offer Westport new opportunities and now was the time to examine these.
Back in those days when Westport had a Town Architect all to itself, Simon Wall held fenestration clinics with shopkeepers. They ensured the integrity of the town’s heritage was largely preserved and that the tackiness that spoiled so many streetscapes in other towns did not become a problem.
Indeed, it is worth recalling that back in 2012 Westport was the recipient of a €5.3 million grant after it won a Smarter Travel competition.
The Cathaoirleach of Westport Town Council at the time, Christy Hyland, observed that the programme of works – which has truly improved the public realm in the town and its environs – would ensure that it was ‘the best small town in Europe’. The irony is that many other towns have learned from Westport and, moreover, adopted its pioneering policies.
Isn’t it past time for this lovely town to stop resting on its laurels and get ahead of the posse once again? Surely the county council executive’s official stance that the current street layout of Westport ‘does not lend itself to successful pedestrianisation’, because the N59 passes right through the town, is quite simply fudging the issue?