Lowering Dublin speed limits isn't a great help

Lowering Dublin speed limits isn't a great help

Dublin City Council have passed a proposal to expand 30km/h zones across the city.

If you read this as "Dublin City Council are going to ask cars to slow down", then it's really good news. People should not be driving fast past pedestrians, cyclists or anything that can reduce your visibility like parked cars or tall buildings. Yet most people do.

There's absolutely no need for it. Even if you adopt the most aggressively anti-cyclist, anti-pedestrian stance, you must surely agree that running them over is an inconvenience and - given that some of them are unpredictable - you should allow for the fact that they may need some exta room.

Part of the problem - and I know this will sound crazy to anyone who has endured the chaos around College Green - is that the roads are too wide.

There aren't many European city centres who would designate big portions of the street for cars while pedestrians are told to stick to a narrow, crowded path. Yet that does describe most of Dublin City Centre.

Allocating cars a wide expanse of tarmac makes it too easy to drive like you're the only one around, and become totally oblivious of whatever chaos might be happening on the footpaths and in the cycle lanes. That's bad driving, but it's common behaviour.

We can thank our forefathers on the Wide Streets Committee that it's now so much easier to drive close to historic Dublin than historic Barcelona, but is this now doing more harm than good?

The other problem - and you're more likely to believe this part - is that traffic on the Quays moves so slowly that the moment you see a gap, it's difficult to resist the temptation to get some movement going. Even if there's a group of Americans crossing at Ha'penny Bridge.

Hopefully you understand my position. I think cars should slow down, and if drivers won't do it by choice, you should make it difficult for them to ever speed up.

What I am very uncomfortable with - and this is a way of doing things you'll see all over Ireland and the UK - is Dublin City Council announcing even more 30km/h zones.

My question is: why?

"Because it's safer", you'll be told. There's a key point here: driving at 30km/h is safer. Simply putting some signs up asking people to go a bit slower doesn't automatically mean that people will listen.

Wide road; parked cars

In a city where people seem to be struggling with the concept of a red light, assuming that people will automatically follow a sign is a bit of a stretch.

I also don't like the message which implies that 30km/h is automatically safe. It isn't; it's safer. 30km/h when the clubs have kicked out at Ha'penny Bridge is a death wish. 30km/h at 5am on O'Connell Street when there's absolutely no-one around and visibility is rather good would normally be unnecessarily slow.

What's key - and I hate saying this but it is true - is that the best way to make the streets safer would be to have drivers spending less time looking at their dashboard - whether that's their phone, their sat nav or their speedo - and more time looking at what's going on around them. There are so many hazards you encounter when driving in a city that you can't make them all safe with a single speed limit. "Children = danger" is a much better message than "30km/h = safe".

Thing is, it is a limit and not a target, and driving at 30km/h - even if you're on a street where you think it's too slow, is not that hard. So how do you force people to stick to this speed?

You could carry out spot speed checks, but people will just get in the habit of slowing down at those points, and sometimes speed checks can become a distraction from other hazards in the same spot.

You could carry out an average speed check, but this would be expensive and disappointing. Average speeds in a city centre are always much lower than you'd expect. It's the parts where speeds are above-average that are the problem.

We could have unmarked garda cars following people who are driving badly in the city. This would be a good idea full stop, but employing them just to make the 30km/h project effective seems a bit inefficient and excessive to me, when we could just go back to the drawing board.

If it was a simple choice between taking the 30km/h speed limit project, or redesigning the entire urban area so that cars can no longer run rampant around the place, I'd take the latter every time.

I realie that it's not that simple. The cost of rebuilding everything would be billions - more. But there's another issue.

Designing things properly is hard work. It requires hiring the right people who will make a conscious and considered effort to deploy the right principles.

Designing things properly requires somebody to allocate a suitable budget and somebody else to be prepared to stand up for it even if the masses are afraid of the change.

It's not that Dublin City Council refuse to make that effort. Some junctions (not most) on O'Connell Street and the new Chatham Street are evidence that making the place pleasant to walk around can be a priority in street design. The new cycle racks do a great job of encouraging cycling and acting as a spot of traffic calming. We can do it.

But why isn't this true of everywhere? Cost is a factor but could the other reason be that it is simply too much effort? That's it's too easy to stick with out current way of doing things, however flawed they may be?

Then let's look again at Dublin City Council's long-favoured policy of introducing city-wide 30km/h zones. Are they doing it because it's the best way of making the streets safer? Or is it simply the easiest, the most familiar, the only thing they can find in the toolbox?

When the roll-out is finally completed you will see Dublin City Council and our councillors congratulating themselves on making the city safer. And they "only" spent €400,000 doing it. But what have they actually achieved with that sum?

If you want to tell me I'm wrong or just leave anonymous abuse like half the internet seems to do these days, please use the comments box below.

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Travel historian, presenter, producer. I love the places people pass through along their journey.

I research and write about how our need to get around continues to shape our world through roads, railways, airports and whole new towns.

My thoughts and/or research have been published by the likes of Truck & Driver, BBC local radio, Daily Express, The Guardian, Mail Online and The Independent (detail).

I can't tell you how many toll booths I've been through. But it's a lot of toll booths.

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