For a space over 350 years old, the last few months have seen a lot of changes in the Phoenix Park.
As the number of people visiting the park itself increased, there was a clear need for extra social distancing space. This led to, among other things, closure of side gates, expansion of cycling and walking space, and restrictions on entry to side roads.
Combined with the natural traffic reduction during the lockdown, these changes gave a fresh perspective on just how precious the Phoenix Park is as a park.
It showed that with fewer cars, the park could be calmer, safer, and just plainly… more of a park!
This public pressure (and the evident benefits to the park) led to the OPW deciding to keep the side gates closed to motor traffic. Closing the side gates hadn’t been the specific aim of the petition, but it’s clear that wide public pressure played a big role in the OPW’s decision.
I think this was the right thing to do and would have been right to continue it. But there were problems.
Illegal parking took place on streets around the park, and there were some traffic problems in the park and in Castleknock village. That backlog lead to difficulties for those accessing the park and its facilities by car – especially those who relied on car access.
Some of these were partially caused by and could be dealt with by traffic light changes, but there were undeniably issues.
Local residents were – judging by my email inbox – divided. Some like the Navan Road Community Council wanted to keep the changes to enjoy the park, despite traffic issues. Others wanted full car access back. Others sought specific solutions to specific problems.
Disappointingly, instead of trying to address these problems, the new Minister at the OPW simply decided to reopen the park’s side gates with less than 24 hours notice. The OPW had been extolling the benefits of keeping the gates closed, so it’s clear that the Minister ordered the change personally.
Much as there are undeniably problems with the gates being closed, there are also problems with the gates being reopened.
Within hours, cars re-established dominance. Quiet paths where you could go for a walk or take kids for a wobbly first cycle became busy roads – with either congestion or an open road for unimpeded cars to speed through.
Illegal parking quickly became the order of the day in some parts of the park. For many with specific mobility needs or disabilities, it meant that the park returned to a hostile and unwelcoming place – a point well made by Neasa:
In short: the park lost its peace.
Whatever you think about #GateGate or the best approach to the park: I think most accept that it’s a better, calmer space with fewer cars in it. That’s been undone by the minister’s reversal.
So what now?
We’ve seen the downsides of having decisions made on ministerial or bureaucratic whim. Whichever approach you agree with, it doesn’t seem sustainable or in anyone’s interests to have an “on/off” approach to the park.
To be very boring, I think we need a process. Local TD Roderic O’Gorman has already constructively suggested exactly that.
This process should give us a decision which learns some of the lessons from the pandemic, but should follow a few key principles:
- The explicit aim of the process should be to reduce the volume of cars in the park sustainably.
- There should be an options paper, setting out the main choices we have.
- The process should be reasonably quick, fully concluding within 2-3 months. To do this, the process should just focus on traffic issues – we can do the rest later.
- Negative impacts on those who need to access the park or its facilities by car, or on neighbouring areas, should be minimised or avoided.
- The needs of disabled park users should be prioritised – both in terms of access and safety/comfort in the park.
- The process should involve relevant organisations the OPW, Dublin City and Fingal councils, the NTA/Department of Transport.
- It should consult with residents, park users, and the wider public.
There will be no solution that pleases everyone. There will necessarily be trade offs.
But what matters should be the direction of travel: finding a solution to reduce the number of cars, restore some peace, and do so in a way that has procedural legititimacy, public acceptance, and political permanence.
We can’t just continue with opposing petitions aiming to persuade the minister of the day. The park needs a better solution.
What outcome do we want?
There’s more than one way to do reduce car traffic through the park, and plenty of reasonable discussion to be had on how.
Even among those who broadly share a so-called “anti-car” analysis about the park, there was legitimate and fair disagreement about whether we should aim to end through traffic (as the petition did) or close the side gates – or both! I can certainly see both sides of that one.
There were some interesting ideas on partial gate closures with continued through traffic on Twitter from Rob Curley here. I’d personally go a bit further, but they’re certainly worth a look.
For my money, I still think that ending through traffic is worth a proper trial, keeping car access only to those going to the park or its facilities.
It hasn’t been tried in the pandemic, but it has the potential to slow down traffic generally, calm and quieten the park, and improve access to the whole park for everyone, even if by car.
No more waiting in a rush hour tailback if you’re just coming for the zoo, visiting the nursing home, or going for a walk. It would keep the park as a destination – not just a throrougfare.
The basic mechanism would be simple enough – some planters at a junction in the centre of the park and at a few choice locations would mean that you could drive to most parts of the park, but generally leave by the same way you entered – not drive through.
For emergency services, you could install moveable bollards, which feature in a lot of UK town centres.
Interestingly, a limited version of something similar was trialled in 2011. Chesterfield Avenue was closed to through traffic for roadworks, and engineering firm AECOM did a decent study of the impacts on park roads and surrounding routes. You can read the full study here. The basic question: where did the traffic go?
It found that a large amount of the through traffic simply evaporated – something counterintutive which has been shown to happen worldwide. Some was displaced.
But – and this is the interesting part – not nearly as much as you’d expect. Chapelizod, Inchicore, and south of the park saw no traffic increases at all.
The biggest impact was about a 15% increase in Blackhorse Avenue – the kind of increase which could likely be dealt with some earlier, smart diversions before the park, and with some additional traffic light priority.
You can see what I mean below. The map shows you which roads they monitored. The graph shows the changes in car traffic volumes (the letters match up the points on the map).
The exact impacts of this study wouldn’t be matched today – even pre-COVID, car traffic levels into Dublin city centre have fallen by 13% since this study was done in 2011. The way you’d set up road closures would be different too.
But it does suggest that changes – with a proper traffic management plan – might be easier than you’d think. I think it’s worth some greater analysis – at the very least some modelling and perhaps a trial.
In the longer term, I think we could also look at a limited number of Dublin Bus routes be allowed use the park, to open up accessibility to those without cars. And ensure that there are benches in various parts of the park, so people who need an occassional rest aren’t limited to Chesterfield Avenue, as Castleknock councillor Pamela Conroy pointed out.
Moving the debate on
For me, though, I’m less prescriptive about exactly what measures are applied. Side gates may provide more benefits – perhaps closing some and not others. Or perhaps different restrictions at different hours.
I’d be open and interested to see various options that the relevant agencies could produce.
What matters is that we don’t forget the lessons of the past months: that the park is a better place with fewer cars in it.
Permanent changes can’t be implemented haphazardly, but they should happen – even if not everyone agrees.
The core question: is the Phoenix Park a park, or just some roads with trees on the side?
I suspect everyone is on a spectrum between the two positions – but recently more and more people have moved closer to the former view.
We can’t and shouldn’t go back to the way we were before: let’s claw back the park from traffic.
Any thoughts on this rambling blog? Drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org or you can join the conversation on Twitter here.