What happens now? (1994)

What happens now? (1994)

This is chapter 4.


  1. Chapter 1: First Effort
  2. Chapter 2: Motorways
  3. Chapter 3: City Centre
  4. Chapter 4: Outcome

The Central Dublin Traffic Plan believed that, if it was delivered as instructed, it would work for everybody. It's easy to read through it and be taken in by its upbeat nature and vision.

Then you get to the costs.

Some IR£122 million (1973, approximately €1.9 billion in 2020) would be spent on major roads in Co. Dublin before a decent commuter network would come together. That excluded public transport, excluded ongoing maintenance costs, and even excluded most of the Inner Tangent. It simply wasn't possible.

It was worse than it sounded. The two traffic plans worked because the roads relied on each other. If you only built half the roads, you'd get less than half of the predicted benefits.

The Western Tangent, for example, was designed to be built "immediately". It was going to replace streets that were narrow and dangerous and it would provide a major new crossing of the Liffey. Yet the study established it was "very possible" that there wouldn't be enough money to start building a single part of it until 1991.

The problem with the vision of the Central Dublin Traffic Plan wasn't just that 1991, which was still 18 years away, was a long time to wait for road improvements. The problem was - as the study itself pointed out - by 1991 it was very likely that society would have changed and that a whole new outlook would be needed.

In chapter 3 we condescendingly described the plan as being "forward-thinking" because it remembered to think about pedestrians. Well the most forward-thinking part came in the summary: it suggested that by time Dublin was ready to act on the report, the report would be outdated and, in its own words, "shelved". It predicted its own cancellation.

Phase It

The Central Dublin Traffic Plan stood by its conclusions, and was now looking for a practical way they could be implemented.

On the east side of the city, it noted that a much smaller bridge could be built to keep traffic moving until the expensive Liffey Crossing was available. This opened in 1978 as Talbot Memorial Bridge. Its low capacity meant it could plug into the existing road network, without the need for expensive link roads to pick up traffic from the Canal and Fairview.

In chapter 3 we listed the areas along the Northern and Southern tangents where land was available and ready to use; these lists were another attempt to prove that the study hadn't been a total waste of time. It just left the delicate matter of the Western Tangent.

As the Western Tangent was going to be a wholly new road, you couldn't just build a tiny section of it. It needed somewhere to end.

The Central Dublin Traffic Plan proposed a five-stage plan. Phase one would involve widening the existing Patrick Street and Nicholas Street (N81), and then creating a one way system utilising Church Street and Greek Street/Winetavern Street. This would allow some cheap and immediate capacity and safety improvements that would keep things going until, in a series of sections, the new roads could be built.

The recommendations of the Central Dublin Traffic Plan were adopted as official policy by Dublin Corporation, with their main priority as far as the city centre was concerned being the start of phase one of the Western Tangent.

For residents of The Liberties, this was now the third time somebody had tried to build a dual carriageway across the district in only 10 years. The way they saw it was that the Corporation was going to keep revising its plans until it got what it wanted. As a result, phase one of the Western Tangent was badly received, and now politicians wanted to get involved.

In 1989, the upgraded Patrick Street and Nicholas Street (N81) finally opened. The road was narrower than previously specified, to try to placate the objections. The one way system had been forgotten about.

The drawn out battle to build half of phase one of the Western Tangent did considerable damage to the Corporation's reputation, and sapped all their enthusiasm for road building. It would be very difficult to build a new road in Dublin from now on.

What happened to the motorway?

The motorways that had been proposed were each judged on their own merits.

The city centre sections would be expensive to build, unpopular, and dependent on each other - you couldn't have one motorway ending in the city centre without something else to connect it to. Therefore these were all postponed indefinitely.

The Liffey Crossing - the most important start - was urgently needed and expected to open in 1979. This was delayed, and a private company paid to build the East Link instead. That weakened the case for the Liffey Crossing.

The new M4 at Lucan and M11 at Mount Merrion couldn't open quickly enough, so the existing roads were upgraded as an interim measure. This allowed those motorways to be pushed back a little.

Funding from the European Regional Development Fund allowed some progress to be made elsewhere. A short section of the M1 around Santry was prioritised as one of the first motorways in Ireland, and opened in 1985, with the potential to extend it at each end. With thanks to private funding, the west side of the M50 opened with tolls in 1990, with its construction costs dubbed "the most expensive road in Irish history".

Progress was being made, albeit slowly. In 1991, the M11 opened around Shankill and Bray - bang on the line of the South East Motorway. Work was underway to build the M50 north and south of the city, too.

In 1992, as Dublin City Centre was still recovering from its reaction to the Western Tangent, the government announced that the Liffey Crossing and South Coast Motorway were cancelled. This was the road that would have run along the seafront and through Booterstown Nature Reserve.

The announcement meant the M1 would continue to end at Santry, while the M11 would be extended as far as a roundabout on the N11 at Mount Merrion. That junction is key, because it was the point where the contracts made clear that the South Coast Motorway would become South East Motorway. In summary: South East yes, South Coast no.

Existing roads did tend to be upgraded according to plan. The M50 was widened as expected, and the N7 was upgraded to a high standard, albeit taking longer than the original plan. The Saggart branch of the Southern Cross Route was one of the few items to totally disappear without a trace. It wasn't considered important, and the M50 now totally ignores it with a sharp bend near Firhouse.

Killininny Road is built broadly on the line that the Southern Cross Route. The grassy area around it suggests the line was being kept clear.

A Fresh Start

In 1994, a new traffic plan was published.

Off the back of the protests at Patrick Street and the government's announcement, the new Dublin Transportation Initiative proposed that, with a handful of exceptions, no new roads would be built in Dublin City Centre again.

Instead it contained a few themes you may be familiar with: it talked about the possibility of running trains or trams to Tallaght, Finglas and Leopardstown. It talked about investing in the DART and asked whether we could extend it to the Airport. It proposed building a tolled tunnel to connect Dublin Port to the Airport Motorway to make up for the previous failed plan.

Many of these ideas are interesting in their own right, but they didn't leave many scars on the surface of the city, so we won't analyse them here. What is interesting was the study's concern for planning blight, where streets in Dublin had been deprived of investment because of ongoing plans to demolish them.

It's Not Over Yet

This explains how we got the motorways that we have today - except there's still one missing. The M11 still gives up just north of Shankill.

As the M50 was extended around the south side of Dublin, the plan was clear: it would temporarily end at a roundabout at Sandyford, and one day this would be replaced by the "South East Motorway", that being the Sunday name for the M11. You'd be able to head north on the M11 to Mount Merrion, or south on the M11 to Bray.

In 2005, "South East Motorway - Southern Section" opened. This joined up the little roundabout on the M50, with the temporary end of the M11 at Shankill, following the line that was first identified in 1971. The layout of the M11 at Shankill was even designed with the new road getting priority. Except something was different: they decided not to open this road as the M11, but as an extension of the M50.

By naming the project "Southern Section", it is pretty obvious that they were expecting a corresponding "Northern Section" to be built. Planning maps from the 1990s make it clear that "South East Motorway - Northern Section" would have taken the M11 from the old end of the M50 at Sandyford to Mount Merrion. But the finished layout of the M50 left no clues that this would be happening. At a very late stage in the process, it was decided not to leave room for it.

The mystery deepens, because the road hadn't been cancelled. In 2000, the Irish government announced that not only was the 'Northern Section' still planned, but that the entire South Coast Motorway was back on the cards. The M11 would follow its intended route to Mount Merrion, over Booterstown, though this time it would tunnel under the seafront and link up to the new tunnel at Dublin Port. This was expected to open in 2009.

Inevitably, the project was postponed beyond 2009, but as recently as 2016 the local authority confirmed that they were continuing to hold its alignment in reserve.

That alignment, going up the Drummartin Link Road, around Goatstown and north of Foster Avenue is the South East Motorway that has been planned since 1971. The part around Booterstown, Sandymount and Dublin Port is not the original South Coast Motorway, but it's pretty close.

In the current climate it's hard to see this ever being built, but it's impressive that it has clung on this long.


There is something very sad about a book of bold civil engineering ideas which was destined to left on the shelf until it became irrelevant.

By the time the M50 made it to Sandyford in 2001, Dublin was a totally different beast to the place that had first created the idea of having a big ring going around the city. The suburbs had grown immensely and new shopping centres were littering it. Not to mention, the M50 never got the Liffey Crossing or Western Tangent that were supposed to help it out.

When you put it like that, it's no surprise that the M50 had already descended into chaos before it was even finished. As has been the common theme throughout this story, society moved on quicker than the city planning could.

We don't have the original drawings for the interchanges along what's now the M50, but we do know that when it was eventually built it was designed according to a strict budget. It's likely that those tiny roundabouts that originally held the M50 together were an effort to keep costs down.

Compromise can be seen elsewhere too. St Patrick's Cathedral was spared the indignity of having a flyover at the end of its road, but instead it got the dual carriageway Patrick Street right outside its front door. This road was wide enough to require demolition, but too narrow to carry all the traffic.

Personally, as much as I do have a soft spot for funky flyovers and optimistic ambition, I think it's good that these things weren't allowed to fully let rip in Dublin. Badly-planned infrastructure divides cities, it changes the culture of how people behave and get around - it can change the feel of a whole place.

What I think is a shame is that they were allowed to do so much damage. All over the city we have examples of depressing areas which were starved of investment because for 30 years there was a rumour they might be turned into a road. We have many examples of random sections of fast and wide streets which were built on the footprint of something more ambitious. And we have uninspiring architecture that replaced magestic old buildings which apparently had to go.

These are all the scars of urban ambition. They aren't pretty, but their story certainly makes places interesting.

The title of this feature was taken without shame from Jay Foreman's fantastic Unfinished London series, which would be of interest to anybody who is interested in urban planning or strange local authority decisions.

If you enjoyed this feature, you may want to read about the London Ringways.

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© 2020 Johnathan Randall.