It is reasonable to expect the road network to operate efficiently. People must get to work and school, trade must be facilitated and business costs kept to a minimum, shops have to be able to stock their shelves, the city must be open to tourists and our world renowned festivals have to be catered for.
To understand the traffic challenge facing the city, it must be appreciated that the city’s car ownership has increased threefold – and is still growing – since the 1980s on a road network that has remained substantially the same. In that time, the network has come under severe strain, yet we expect to be able to drive to school, shops, work or wherever without any delay and park at the door of our destination. Is this a reasonable expectation? Can you continue to allow more and more traffic onto the network without consequences? It is after all a medieval city with four river crossings and only one of those catering for major traffic volumes.
So what’s the solution? The solution is a combination of infrastructural improvements and a ‘modal shift’ away from cars to walking, cycling and public transport.
Infrastructural improvement is the easy part, yet the removal of the N6 roundabouts generated one of the most interesting and animated public debates of recent years. All the engineering and technical analysis and data pointed to traffic lights being safer and more efficient. But there was an understandable fear of change.
In the aftermath of the removal of the Moneenageisha roundabout, it was hard to persuade the business and retail sector that city traffic would continue to flow during construction. It was also difficult to surmount public perception, which held that traffic kept moving at a roundabout whereas you had to stop at a red light. The public debate centred around perception rather than the technical and engineering analysis. It was ‘driven’ by single occupant car owners frustrated at congestion but unaware that they could be part of the problem. There was little traction for the merits of making junctions safer for pedestrians and cyclists and even less for providing priority for public transport or easing the ‘rat-running’ issues in local neighbourhoods.
Against that background, Council Members deserve great credit for approving the proposals that to-date has seen the removal of three roundabouts – with a fourth currently underway – and their replacement with signalised junctions and all connected to a central traffic control room in City Hall. All sectors of the city have benefited from those decisions.
With the lights and Traffic Control Room, the council is no longer dealing in perception. We now have the data to demonstrate improved efficiency, even beyond our original expectation. At Brierhill, there has been a 30 per cent increase in throughput through the junction during peak morning and evening traffic and journey times have dramatically reduced. Motorist too have voted with their wheels and have diverted from their established ‘rat-runs’ and use of minor roads to the N6, which can cater for far greater volumes.
The council now has a state-of-the-art tool available for the benefit of the city as demonstrated by the most efficient traffic management plan ever implemented for the Galway Racing Festival in August. Working with the Gardaí, we used information from CCTV, Gardaí on the ground and the Traffic Control Room to intervene and regulate traffic flows around the venue. It was an overwhelming success and will be built on in future years.
So if the debate on roundabouts was easy, what then are the difficult decisions coming our way?
The public debate on infrastructural improvements will continue where scarce road space is being given over to other uses, such as Bus or Cycle Lanes, pedestrianisation and shared surfaces. Some will look to the construction of the Galway City Outer Bypass as the panacea. It’s not! It’s only part of the solution. Others will look to a Park & Ride. Again, it’s only a part. Using parking charges as a tool to control the amount of cars coming into the city will also generate heated debate, as will a Freight Management Plan to regulate times for the goods vehicles to access the city, thus freeing up space for other road users.
But the most difficult part will be winning the hearts and minds – both at a corporate and individual level – and changing the culture. If I come into the city in my car when there are alternatives, then I’m part of the problem. Walking, cycling and public transport are options that I should be exploring for myself and not expecting them to apply to everyone but me. By choosing an alternative, I’m then part of the solution.
When we change the culture, then we can truly say we have created a Sustainable Transport City. Let the debate begin.