The Covid crisis has, for good or ill, led to a significant re-evaluation of what our communities can offer, what kind of public realm we have access to, and the primary role our immediate neighbourhoods play in keeping us healthy and safe during this crisis. Local authorities have a vital role in this regard. They now shoulder the great responsibility of making space available for people to prioritise public health in the public realm and to do so in a way that is universally accessible for every single person. A considerable disparity is beginning to emerge between local authorities in their response to the crisis. While towns, villages and cities throughout the country have risen to the challenges, some are falling very far short.
I see protected bike lanes and newly pedestrianised streets springing into existence. I see traffic speeds limited to 30 km/h in the area of Dublin City Council. I see families sitting out and enjoying meals on the streets of Cork and shoppers wandering and enjoying the space for people in Ennis. However, I also see local authorities such as Limerick City and County Council taking decisions that are, quite frankly, worrying in the context of the pandemic and the best interests of the public in the future. This local authority is offering free parking to encourage car use in the centre of the city at weekends and is hanging novelty forks and spoons off lampposts while putting even small decisions on pedestrian space and infrastructure for active travel on the longest of fingers.
We know that businesses are worried about their futures and that these kinds of changes can seem like yet another thing they have to contend with and worry about. We also know, however, that research indicates that pedestrianised areas actually see increased footfall and turnover.
We know that local authorities do not always have the expertise to implement the changes that we now need. Perhaps this is the problem. It seems the upper echelons of local government is bursting with road engineers but crying out for talented urban designers.
Ireland recently supported the Stockholm declaration on speed to make 30 km/h the default unless the relevant authority, in this case our local authorities, could prove it should be increased above that on any road. We know that making places where people gather, whether it is the local village square or a big city main street, more pedestrian friendly and safe for active travel is the responsible thing to do right now.
We are aware from in-depth reports from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2019 that air pollution is already at worrying levels in Ireland due to our high rates of car usage and our continued failure to ban smoky coal nationwide. Given that, and in light of the recent spike in pedestrian deaths, prioritising people, not cars, on some streets and in some public places is not in reality a lot to ask for. It would protect walkers, cyclists, people with disabilities, people with asthma, those with underlying conditions, and small children. It would protect all of us.
Covid has delivered us into a new world. It is not necessarily a world that we would have looked for but there are some challenges facing us that we may be able to transform into opportunities if we are brave, steadfast and if we plan well now and put people first. What plans has the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government put in place or can it put in place to develop and issue guidelines to local authorities as a matter of urgency on the best practice implementation of pedestrian and active travel measures in the Covid-19 pandemic? Regarding future transport strategies and planning decisions, what are the plans to address public health requirements in villages, towns and urban areas for increased space in the public realm in a post-Covid world?