Galway is Ireland’s Carmageddon and capital of sprawl, author and journalist tells oral hearing

Frank McDonald - made lengthy submission to the GCRR oral hearing.

Frank McDonald - made lengthy submission to the GCRR oral hearing.

Former Irish Times Environment correspondent Frank McDonald said that Galway was Ireland’s answer to Carmageddon, and likened it to Atlanta, America’s capital of sprawl, when he made a lengthy submission to the Galway City Ring Road oral hearing, which is being held at the g Hotel in the city.

Mr McDonald said that he has been a regular visitor to Galway for decades and has witnessed all of the attempted remedies to the city’s travel woes being dealt with as car issue rather than looking at other modal methods.

He said that although Galway holds the title of European City of Culture for 2020, he feels it is not actually a very European city.

“If anything, it’s like a miniature version of Atlanta, the sprawl capital of North America, which is also being choked by its car-orientated growth. And the truth is that Galway has done nothing else for decades other than to build more roads, often with big roundabouts named after the city’s ancient ‘tribes.’

“The N6 proposal before this hearing would be Galway’s second ‘ring road’, further out from the earlier one built in the 1980s, including the Quincentennial Bridge. It didn’t solve the traffic problems either because all sorts of out-of-town ‘development’ was permitted along this route, with the result that it has become traffic-choked too. And now, they want to spend €600 million-plus on another ring road, in the vain hope that this will “solve” the traffic problems. Instead, it will act as a new spine for yet more ex-urban “development”.

“What has been done over the past 30 years to revolutionise public transport in Galway, or to radically improve facilities for walking and cycling? Almost nothing. Take the Salmon Weir Bridge, where the footpaths are barely more than a metre wide and congested with pedestrians on a daily basis. Typical of Galway, it is to be given over exclusively to traffic while a new pedestrian bridge is to be built alongside, to get them out of the way. Meanwhile, the Clifden Railway viaduct piers are crying out to be topped by a bridge to cater for pedestrians and cyclists, linking NUIG with the city centre.

“But the Galway local authorities are so obsessed with catering for cars that they haven’t pursued this win-win idea. It is, of course, a form of myopia, induced by seeing the city almost entirely from the perspective of sitting behind the steering wheels of their cars — and having guaranteed (free ) parking spaces at their places of work. And in pursuing the latest plan for the N6 “bypass”, they conclusively demonstrate that they are locked into outdated 1970s thinking about transport planning — particularly the utterly discredited idea that you can “solve” traffic congestion by throwing roads at it.

“Way back in 1955, when I was just five years old, the great American sociologist and urban planner, Lewis Mumford, warned that ‘adding car lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity’. Because the truth is that the more road space you provide in any city, the more it will fill up with traffic. Indeed, more than 30 years ago, in a paper called Jam Yesterday, Jam Today and Jam Tomorrow, the respected UCL transport researcher Martin Mogridge concluded that the only way to relieve congestion in an urban area is to improve public transport.’

‘Bypass will not function as a bypass’

“The National Transport Authority, which one might expect would be more enlightened as the regulatory body for public transport services, shares the Galway road engineers’ obsession with ‘road capacity’. It talks about how this would be ‘affected’ by “the subtraction of roadspace for cycle/bus lanes from the existing carriageways”, saying this “does reduce road capacity for those roads affected”. This, too, is outdated thinking that gives primacy to cars. The correct terminology for explicitly creating lanes for buses or cyclists on a public road is “re-allocating” roadspace.

“Still immersed in outdated thinking about transport, the NTA says: “If it is socially desired not to reduce speeds for motor traffic (which is often the case for the motoring general public and through their elected representatives ) then the road widths must be restored by some other means, such as road widening, or the provision of relief roads, or alternative roads for motorists to use so as to avoid the lower capacity roads with cycle/bus lanes”. In other words, even the NTA regards cycling and road-based public transport [buses] as impediments to the ‘freedom of the road’ for motorists.

“Every city needs to pay attention to its “modal split”, defined as the modes of transport used by commuters during peak periods, because a lot can be told about the quality of city life if large numbers people are walking, cycling or using public transport rather than cars to get to their place of work or study. Cities with a preponderance of car-commuting are much more congested and polluted by the fine particulate matter and Nitrogen Dioxide emitted by diesel-powered vehicles. In some urban areas in Ireland, pollution levels from NO2 and particulate matter is in breach of EU standards.

“What should concern the NTA, but obviously doesn’t, is that Galway’s modal split is heavily biased in favour of cars, accounting for two-thirds (66.7% ) of all peak-period trips in the “base year” of 2012. Even after all of the measures recommended in the Galway Transport Strategy — starting with the proposed N6 bypass — are implemented, cars are projected to account for 67.3% of all trips in 2039, marginally more than they do at present. In plain terms, the strategy amounts to a transport cook’s recipe for condemning Galway to remain a motorised city.

“In October 2018, after the outgoing Government signed off on allocating €600 million in public funds for the N6 Galway bypass, Minister of State Seán Kyne, a Fine Gael TD for Galway West, hailed the news, saying it would ‘take traffic out of the city’, enable public transport improvements and reduce the time workers and visitors spend getting around Galway. This was echoed by he then Labour Party mayor, Niall McNelis, who said ‘it can take up to two hours to get across Galway city in heavy traffic’, but the proposed N6 bypass would ‘allow us to take massive amounts of traffic out of the city.’

“However, chartered engineer Peter Butler has shown that only 3% of all traffic on the proposed ‘bypass’ would actually be bypassing the city, either east-to-west or west-to-east — in other words, it would divert only 2,692 of 77,200 car journeys per day. The vast bulk of traffic on the route would be “dipping” into the city, its schools and inner suburban business parks along existing arterial roads. As a result, it would function much like the M50 in Dublin, which although conceived as a “national bypass” of the capital, actually works as a distributor road for traffic seeking to access parts of the city.

“This essential truth was captured by “The Insider” columnist in the Galway Advertiser (February 28th, 2019 ) who noted that, ‘unfortunately, the number of cars using a spider’s web of commuter routes into the city is ultimately proportional to the capacity of the network. Building yet more roads makes it possible for more cars to be poured into any chosen route, which of itself encourages more people to live in locations outside Galway city from where a daily commute is required. Eventually, when capacity is reached, people will start clamouring for yet more new roads.’

“Dublin-born Angela Brady, a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, noted on a high-profile visit to Galway in October 2018 that ‘traffic is a major problem here’ and she could see that from just walking around it. “You can make one or two bad decisions, and your city is finished,” she warned. “You don’t want to lose that chance of making Galway an absolutely vibrant and onward-moving city. The most successful cities are those that intensify and don’t have ribbon development spread out, which brings all of the problems of traffic coming back in [to the centre] again.”

Headed for courts

“Yet that is what’s being planned here, unfortunately. The Galway local authorities want to open up a vast ex-urban swathe of land for “development”, using the N6 bypass as both its spine and lever. Indeed, it has been estimated that they could rake in some €200 million in development levies on all the housing, retail parks, industrial estates and business parks that are likely to spring up along the route. Landowners from Barna in the west to Doughiska in the east must also be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of making a killing on the back of this road proposal.

“Under the National Planning Framework, Project Ireland 2040, Galway (in common with Cork, Limerick and Waterford ) is targeted for a 50%-60% increase in population over the next 20 years. The great danger is that the vast bulk of this growth will actually happen on the outer fringes of the city, along the N6 ‘bypass’ corridor, and on lands between it and the city’s existing built-up area. If that were to happen, it would be in conflict with the over-arching aim of the spatial strategy, which specifies that “at least half (50% ) of all new homes’ in the four second-tier cities ‘within their existing built-up footprints’.

“We cannot avoid addressing the climate. Transport Infrastructure Ireland told Independent Galway West TD Catherine Connolly in April 2019 that “approximately 26,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide [per annum] would be generated by the proposed road development in the opening year and 35,800 tonnes of CO2 [per annum] by 2039, with the main contributory factor being an increase in vehicle kilometres travelled”. It also said that these estimates were based on “worst case emissions, assuming free flowing traffic and that other transport measures that are proposed in the Galway Transport Strategy (GTS ) are not in place”.

“The recent ruling by Britain’s Court of Appeal in the case of Heathrow Airport’s third runway is relevant in this context. In a case brought by opponents of expanding London’s busiest international airport, the court declared that the British Government had acted unlawfully by failing to take account of its commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change when it endorsed continued expansion in a national policy statement on airports. Against that backdrop, it is not inconceivable that a legal challenge to the proposed Galway “Bypass” — if approved by An Bord Pleanála, which I hope it won’t — would succeed in the Irish courts.

He concluded “Galway is at a critical point. Depending on the outcome of the board’s deliberations, it can either travel down the route of having more traffic and more sprawl, or be pointed in a more sustainable direction, towards urban consolidation, compact growth and sustainable transport solutions. And while it is commonplace for the board to cite national policy as a reason for granting approval for infrastructural schemes, national policy can be wrong and, in this case, I firmly believe that it is. For all of the reasons outlined above, including the climate, I would strongly urge the board to reject this ill-conceived road proposal.”


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