Cities are for people, not cars

Two Mondays ago, as I rummaged in the kitchen for something that could be passed off as dinner, a man lost his life 100 yards from my front door. He was crossing the road on foot when a vehicle struck him. I do not know the precise details of how his life came to end. The fact that man and vehicle collided at a pedestrian crossing suggests that one of them broke a light but I don’t know which.

Three months earlier, my walk through the Phoenix Park was diverted by Garda tape. A cyclist had been knocked down and killed. Again, I don’t know the finer details, other than a young man had gone out for a Sunday cycle and ended up in the morgue.

These grim stories are becoming all too common. At the half-way point in the year, 2017 has already matched 2016’s total for cycling fatalities. This year is on course to be the worst year for cycling deaths this century. Pedestrian deaths – 16 so far this year – look set to match last year’s total.

At current rates, fatalities involving car users will fall by somewhere in the region of 25 per cent, while cyclist deaths will rise by 100 per cent. Cyclists and pedestrians will account for more than one-in-three deaths on Irish roads in 2017, as opposed to one-in-four in 2016. While overall 2017 is shaping-up to be a safer year for people travelling by four wheels, the opposite is the case for those on two wheels or none.

Debate around road behaviour is becoming increasingly polarised. There is a tendency for cyclists to portray motorists as uncaring psychopaths, while those in cars speak about bike users as though they are nihilistic maniacs. It is identity politics transposed onto commuting preferences.

Motorists and cyclists are the same people. And I don’t mean that in the anthropological sense of saying that the Hutus and the Tutsis were really the same people – I mean: they are literally the same people. Most cyclists also drive and an increasingly high percentage of motorists enjoy a pedal. I identify as both cyclist and motorist. Commuter-fluid, you could say.

The problem isn’t with motorists or cyclists, it’s with people. I firmly believe that most people are very nice, but practical experience shows that a small percentage are not. Every bunch of roses has a few pricks, as the saying goes. I estimate the percentage of pricks to roses as being around 10:90 in any large group. It’s probably more than ten per cent in some groups – ISIS or a Premiership football team, for example – but by and large that’s the figure life has led me to believe.

As a cyclist, I reckon around 10 per cent of motorists turn without checking their side mirror, drive too fast and continue to regard bike lanes as convenient places to park. As a motorist, I estimate that 10 per cent of cyclists swerve without looking, ignore red lights and think that imitating Johnny Cash’s famous black wardrobe is an appropriate way to prepare for night excursions. Inexplicably, the percentage of cyclists who refuse to wear helmets remains even higher.

Regardless of the mode of transport, people have behavioural problems that put other people’s lives – and their own – at risk. The complete power imbalance between motorist and cyclist, however, means that the onus has to be on protecting the latter. Sadly, that is not the way our cities – or, indeed, our towns, villages or rural roads – have developed. Instead, we have built infrastructure to accommodate those least at risk, while forcing the most vulnerable to simply attempt to survive. It’s probably a parable for our fascination with centre-right government, but that’s for another column.

Anybody who doubts the sheer terror experienced by cyclists in our capital city should attempt to cycle down the quays at rush hour. Evel Knievel wouldn’t have tried it. Likewise, trying to cross lanes on Westmoreland Street. You’d face fewer risks crossing the Sinai desert.

Two summers ago, some friends from Belgium hired Dublin Bikes to explore the city. When I met them an hour later, they were pale. The rest of the evening was spent trading war stories involving large yellow buses.

With more people taking to two wheels, we need to redesign our urban environments to prioritise their needs over and above people in cars. The recent decision to experiment with protected cycle lanes in Dublin – placing car parking spaces in between the cyclist and the road – is very welcome. Cork has already rolled this initiative out in some areas.

Ultimately, the redesign will have to go much further, however. The goal must be to significantly reduce vehicular traffic in our cities. There is a carrot and stick approach needed: the carrot being significantly improved public transport, the stick being simply closing roads to private cars.

Declogging our cities’ arteries of private cars would enormously benefit everybody. Aside from the environmental and aesthetic gains, there would also be an improvement in the only measurement people seem to put any value on: money. Shops will benefit from cities that prioritise human beings over large metal boxes for the simple reason that human beings are more impulsive shoppers than large metal boxes are. That’s an economic rule that even Leo Varadkar and Paul Murphy could agree on.

Despite the ludicrous claims – mostly from car park owners – that pedestrianizing streets would return us to the economic Stone Age, people will buy more when we give them access to the entire street as opposed to a four-foot sliver on its margins. Open plazas will lure more shoppers than crowded footpaths will. There are two words for anybody who thinks otherwise: Grafton Street. Back in the 1970s, retailers objected to plans to ban cars from Dublin’s main shopping street, claiming it would harm trade. Today, Grafton Street is the beating heart which drives consumerism in the capital.

Pedestrianisation should now continue in the immediate environs of Grafton Street: from Drury Street to Dawson Street, including College Green, the city should be handed back to people.

Whether car park owners like it or not, this is how our cities are moving. Cork, Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Galway and Kilkenny all have schemes aimed at increasing the number of people living within the city boundaries. People living in cities will want space. They will want a cleaner environment. They will commute to work using their legs. We’re going to have to build cities to suit their needs, rather than those of people simply passing through.

Our infrastructure, behaviour and culture will all have to shift to adopt to this new reality. There are bunches of flowers tied to lampposts all over the country telling us what will happen if we don’t.

Originally published in The Times on July 12, 2017.

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