OBSTACLES Bernie Hoban, a wheelchair user, is pictured here at the Tubber Hill junction in Westport, highlighting the mobility and access issues as she tries to make her way to the Primary Health Centre. Pic: Conor McKeown
BACK on a sun-soaked day in April 2010 this Mayo News hack had a good laugh when she decided to ask Minister Noel Dempsey if there was any danger of the little insect hotel – Ostán Fheithidí an Bhealaigh Ghlais – on Westport’s Greenway to the Quay, going in to NAMA. Well, it was shortly after the crash and the National Assets Management Agency had been established to help address the crisis in Irish banking after excessive lending to property developers.
The then Fianna Fáil Minister for Transport was accompanied on his cycle by a beaming Beverley Flynn, TD, as he officially opened the upgraded old railway line walk from the town to the Quay.
He responded with good humour saying: “I am reliably informed this is one five star hotel that is not going to end up in NAMA.”
Of course, the drive to preserve this wonderful walk has its origins in one of the many campaigns led by Westport Civic Trust to ensure the heritage town did not capitulate to the mindless developments so characteristic of the Celtic Tiger era.
Indeed, the town’s strong ethos of volunteerism has more than once helped to sway and influence our local authority executives to implement creative and progressive decisions. To be fair, until its disbandment in 2014, Westport Town Council always responded well to its elected representatives who usually put party politics aside for the good of the town. The evidence speaks for itself.
During the preceding years the building boom had seen a total regeneration of the Quay area. Indeed, Westport had the first Town Architect in the country at the time. These were golden years of positive and quality infrastructural developments bolstered by a €5.3 million grant after the heritage town won a Smarter Travel competition, which facilitated many of the important pedestrian facilities that now exist. Indeed, this was further enhanced by The Irish Times inaugural award of Best Place to Live in Ireland.
To be fair, on many levels that progressive ethos of these years continues, albeit dissipated somewhat by the fact that as Westport is now part of a sprawling municipal district which reaches over to Achill and up to Belmullet.
So, why then during this time when the pandemic has forced the public realm to be reimagined is Westport on the back foot over pedestrianisation? When questioned by The Mayo News, the council response, side-stepped the issue by stating that the current layout of the town ‘does not lend itself to successful pedestrianisation’ as the N59 passes right through the town. But, as argued in last week’s edition, certain sections of the Octagon could have easily been pedestrianised as part of a trial this summer. There is no doubt that the county council will respond to the voices of our local representatives and campaigners when the northern bypass of the N5 is completed next year, but should that have stopped them experimenting this summer when the town was in gridlock day after day from the staycation boom?
Moreover, further analysis exposes other pressing issues that need to be addressed to ensure the town becomes more pedestrian and cyclist friendly. The upgrading and widening of pathways is necessary to facilitate not only walkers, but those who are in wheelchairs or simply pushing buggies. The entrances to the greenway paths should be made safer for the above-mentioned and, moreover, for older people who are not quite as agile as younger walkers.
Here are the views of some advocates for ‘a healthy, sustainable and vibrant’ town in which to live.
FAMILY CYCLIST – Conor Brennan
“I have been a keen cyclist all my life. Well, when I say ‘cyclist’ I don’t mean one of those guys that you see fully lycra-clad, with coloured shades, funny little fingerless gloves and who always seem to be in a hurry somewhere. No, I am definitely not one of those.
I am a cyclist who is not afraid to go out in public with a basket bolted to his carrier, full length mudguards and possibly a set of old fashioned bicycle clips. Not a cool person at all really.
Everywhere I have lived I have always had a bicycle and I have always found cycling a great way to get around quickly and easily and also to beat traffic.
I have tried, and I think partially succeeded, to instill this love of cycling as a practical and healthy transport method into my own children as it was instilled into me in my own childhood.
Cycling together has given us some of the most enjoyable times we have spent together as a family; the kids are now in their early teens, are regularly using their bikes to get from our house to town, go to music lessons, visit their friends.
However, I have noticed a real reluctance on their part to actually cycle through town and they are also not keen to cycle to school. This seems to me to be a real pity and I have discussed this at some length with them. It appears that the traffic in town is very off-putting to young cyclists and, greenway-spoiled as they thankfully are, they just don’t want to cycle through the busy centre of town, avoiding cars, switching lanes under traffic-pressure.
The main reason cited for them not wanting to cycle to school seems to be the excessive weight of their schoolbags. I can agree with them on this but I also suspect that, on some level not understood by me, it is not ‘cool’ to cycle to school.
This seems to me a terrible shame on so many different levels: not least for our children’s own health and sense of independence. Surely,. as a community, we can do better than creating an environment where our children have to be ferried everywhere in their parents’ cars ? I would suggest that we urgently need to make changes to our traffic system to make it more cycle-friendly. This has been done in other countries and communities so why can’t we do the same in Westport?”
PEDESTRIANISATION ADVOCATE – Niamh Carr
“The benefits of pedestrianising streets in towns and cities can be seen very obviously in places like Dublin and Galway. Such streets draw people into their centres to enjoy safe mobility, street entertainment, cultural events, appreciate the architecture, the history, the ambience, access to the shops, galleries, fairs and, lately, the need for outdoor dining. Pedestrianised streets allow for people to feel relaxed and safe especially when one is with children, elderly, disabled or ill people. Westport is a very charming town attracting thousands of tourists every year. All of these people come with the intention of enjoying the town and the surrounding areas. It is promoted as the Best Place to Live in Ireland but in reality, access roads, access to the greenway are a death trap for pedestrians and cyclists.
As a resident of Westport town-centre, and a mother of two children who like to get out and about either on foot, scooters or on bicycles, I find the town difficult to navigate. Motor vehicles hold priority. The pedestrian lights are few and far between and seem to take ages to turn green for pedestrians; the footpaths are narrow and not suitable for cycling on, but the streets are too dangerous to cycle on so there is no choice.
There has been a point made that Westport town centre is the main route for the N59 and therefore cannot be altered. I put the argument forward that Westport town-centre should not be the main route to any national road nor should any town centre. When roadworks are being carried out detours to Distillery Road/Mill Street are made. Why is this not an option when having discussions for making the town-centre more people-friendly?
It is time to open the streets to the people and restore the public amenities to promote safe use of our town. Time to make Westport the Best Place to Live in Ireland again.”
WHEELCHAIR USER – Bernie Hoban
“The entrances and exits to the town’s greenway paths are very steep and dangerous. Whilst I do it, I don’t recommend the challenge to other wheelchair users which means there are a lot of people cut off, or put off, from using these resources. It is not only challenging for the disabled, even some cyclists find the angle of these entrances too steep. On another note, there are many paths around the town that are unfinished. There are many examples of paths that have a little incline suitable for wheelchair-users but you then find there is not one on the other end of the path. Try coming in along by the fire station on the Leenane Road and crossing to the Primary Care Centre at the top of Peter Street. I end up just going along the road. The point is: a lot of these issues could be solved easily. The county council just needs to finish the paths.
I recently met a county council technician and went around the Mall with him as there is a plan to upgrade the pathways. On another note, the upgrade of pathways needs to take into account set-down spaces for buses which now have ramps and facilities for wheelchair users. I’m told this is not the job of the county council but for the roads authority. The irony is if the bus for Castlebar or Galway or Achill left on the other side of the road on Mill Street, the pathway is wide enough to facilitate my needs.”