Our cities are full of cars when they should be full of people

Travel and mobility must be a fundamental consideration in the promotion of sustainable development, production and consumption in Ireland. Governmental policy over the past number of decades has focussed almost exclusively on road building and the infrastructure required to accommodate the automobile and other road-based travel (see Transport 21), often neglecting the social and spatial consequences of these decisions. This has exacerbated issues of congestion, pollution, and social exclusion in our towns and cities, and indeed rural areas. Furthermore, private cars currently use vast amounts of fossil fuel for propulsion and recent green initiatives simply seek to change this to a viable alternative such as electricity or biofuel options. I would argue that without some essential reconsideration of car usage itself what we’re effectively doing is changing one source of energy consumption (one that is causing serious environmental damage such as greenhouse gas emissions and pollution) to a possibly cleaner alternative but we’re still consuming energy at an unacceptable and unsustainable level and turning over our cities and town to traffic. Rather than merely changing the energy source what we should be doing is encouraging people to use the car less and adopt healthier and sustainable modes of transportation such as walking or cycling, where this is possible, and utilising public transport more often. This will help strengthen our communities and bring life and vigour back to our streets rather than traffic, congestion, pollution and danger.

There is no doubt that this view will meet some hostility and such a transformation will not happen overnight. Much of our current urban design philosophy is car-centric and this is reinforced by political decision-making that favour automobile transport. What do I mean by this? Well, try taking Public Transport to any out-of-town shopping centre or Retail Park. Try cycling to any of these facilities and if you do make it there see if you can find a sheltered safe bike shed. In my experience, you are not encouraged to take Public Transport, cycle, or indeed walk to these centres and the additional rationale of free car parking appears to strengthen this observation. While car travel can be very rewarding in terms of mobility freedom, car dependency is often the opposite of such independence. It can be temporally and economically negative in terms of the personal time and money wasted. It can also be damaging in terms of personal health, in addition to its environmental impacts and consequences. So before you drive your car through the computer screen in rage, let me make this final point. I’m not anti-car. I own and drive one myself and would be lost at times without such mobility freedom. What does worry me, however, is how the automobile shapes so much of our lives, both seen and unseen. We build roads through Historic sites to facilitate cars (the M3 through the ancient Hall of Tara), we demonise Public Transport for the money it receives but seldom question how much we spend on road construction and maintenance, and we exclude people from activities who don’t have access to a private car. I’m simply trying to broaden the debate, a debate that should not be exclusively determined by the (over)use of the private automobile.