Reflections from the Dublin City Transport Plan Protest

Jason Cullen from Dublin Commuters Coalition leads the protest outside City Hall for the full implementation of the Dublin Transport Plan, July 8th 2024.

Yesterday after work, hundreds of Dubliners interrupted their commute to gather outside City Hall. It is always easier to organise a protest on a sunny day and it was hard not to be jubilant as we basked together in the evening’s bright light.

The reason we gathered was to demand the full implementation of the Dublin Transport Plan, that has been developed over years by expert engineers and city officials. It has been subject to extensive public consultation. It has been voted on twice by the elected representatives of the city. And it is being held up because the CEO of the Council has capitulated to a small group of business leaders, who have the backing of a junior minister who, new to the job, is quickly exploring just how far she can reach.


The Economic Arguments

The opposition to the plan is led by car park owners but also department stores like Brown Thomas and Arnotts (who are also car park owners). They warn of dire economic consequences if the plan – which largely at this stage consists of a couple of hundred metres of a bus lane along the quays, some closed left turns, and a commitment to finally develop a plaza in front of Trinity College – is enacted.

The only interpretation that can make sense of this claim is that it would have dire economic consequences for them. But even that is not clear. The plan, after all, is not about removing traffic to the city centre. It aims at removing traffic through the city centre (See especially page 14 of the Plan). Dublin is reported to be the second most congested city in the world and the Council has identified that this is largely down to people going through the centre to get from Point A to Point B. Incentivising different routes and different modes of transport for those journeys may well see only an incremental impact on car parking rates for people who actually want to visit the city and enjoy its facilities. If the plan is implemented, it will increase retail spend.

True capitalists welcome the shifting nature of the marketplace as an opportunity to adapt and innovate. In the myth of the entrepreneur that we are constantly fed, this is the disruption that they live for. If a bus gate is too disruptive to your business, maybe we have to step back and let market efficiencies take over!

It is hard not to read these arguments as special pleading from sectoral interests of a kind that prevailed in the bad old days of Irish business when we were Europe’s laggard. But the hard facts are that congestion costs the city almost €350 million already and that will grow to €1.4 billion by 2040 if we make no changes. The city’s economy is – thankfully! – much more than car parks and department stores. Politicians in putatively pro-market parties like Fine Gael have to decide if they actually want to sell their credibility down the line for these ham-fisted appeals to protectionism.

The Disability Access Arguments

Appeals to stop the implementation of the plan because of economic consequences should not be taken seriously. But it is clear over many years that Dublin City Council has a particular problem with engaging with and designing for those with disabilities. Anyone with eyes to see will notice that even the basics – like footpaths wide enough and in good enough repair for those in wheelchairs to use – are actually rare.

At the protest last night, we heard from Bernard Mulvaney from Access for All. He spoke about how disability access was being used as a rhetorical cover for the concerns of the business groups and that needed to be called out. The extent to which disability access remains an afterthought is shocking. Bernard talked about how he received an email last week from a Council official with a phone number to call because they wanted input. He was to make the call, they weren’t going to properly reach out to him! And then when they called, day after day, and emailed, there was no response.

So there is a problem with this plan but it isn’t that it might induce a new recession in the city. It is that it is another depressing example of how the city is not currently being maintained for the sake of those who live in it. The powerful get a seat at the table. And those with disabilities are literally ignored.

This plan is actually a very moderate intervention. It is certainly not a “car ban”. And as Karl Stanley from Dublin Cycling Campaign pointed out in his speech, it is a rolling plan. Modifications can be made. But how the plan is implemented and how the plan is modified needs to be determined much more by the voices of those with disabilities than those with shares in Diageo!

A Question of Democratic Justice

And this brings us to a real scandal that has been exposed by this controversy. Thousands of people expressed support for this plan. The elected representatives of the people voted for this plan. 9 out of 10 people are already happy to leave the car behind for short journeys… if an alternative is provided. Fully one third of the people who live in the city do not own a car. Only 2% of the people around O’Connell Street bridge are motorists! It could not be more obvious that the democratic will is behind changes that liberate us from our car-captivity. As one Councillor has put it this week, there was no public consultation before the city sleepwalked into the automobiled mess it is in now.

And yet because of the (self-defeating!) objections of a few business leaders, these plans will now be watered down, delayed, and rendered ineffective.

Through our engagement with primary school students in the Gardiner Street area of the north central city – one of the areas of most profound socio-economic challenge in our entire society – we have found that almost every child has already had a close call with a reckless driver and they are growing up in an environment they are afraid to explore because of the relentless ubiquity of private motor traffic. Choosing the policies that make this city friendlier to kids makes this city friendlier to everyone. Building a city that puts the young person, the older person, and the person with disabilities at the centre of our thinking is to build a city that can thrive.

As Janis Morrissey of the Irish Heart Foundation argued at the protest – echoing a point made earlier by Ola Løkken Nordrum from Irish Doctors for the Environment – the development of the plan does not just have economic benefits but it improves the health of the city, especially for those who are most vulnerable. This really is the business-end of where public policy meets social justice. Allowing the conversation to be dominated by the interests of people in SUVs and those who cater to them is perverse when what is on offer is cleaner air, quieter and safer streets, more exercise, less illness, and a city that sincerely seeks to include everyone. There are bottom-line economic gains of the plan, but the real treasure on offer with this direction of movement is priceless.

The Dublin Commuter Coalition deserve praise for hosting such a well-organised – honestly jubilant! – protest. But the question that lingers for us is not just whether the Transport Plan should be implemented in full and on schedule but at what point do we need to directly protest against the small number of business obstructing our city’s progress and at what point do we need to start seriously arguing for a directly elected mayor instead of a largely unaccountable CEO? The democratic will of the people is more important than the profit hunger of a few tycoons who have made fortunes by slowing this city down. It’s past time to build a city where people can flourish.

Keith Adams of the JCFJ calling for the full implementation, on schedule, of the Dublin Transport Plan