While many progressive cities and towns across the globe now recognise the damage to the fabric of their communities, societies and the environment that car-centric thinking brings, in contrast Galway has embraced a ‘build a road at any cost’ approach to solving on-going mobility management problems. The dogma of ‘predict and provide’ – where road use demand is anticipated and we build to fulfil these frequently grand expectations – remains dominant in decision-making circles and pushes sustainable transport considerations to the peripheral. That towns and cities are designed for motor vehicles is so endemic and so engrained from decades of the automobile coming first, that people don’t actually see it anymore. But simply put; more roads and parking spaces means more cars! What is the natural end-game of continuous road building in a medieval city like Galway and what do such decisions tell us about the regard that people who chose to live and raise a family in the city are held in? Indeed, what evidence is there that people will use this particular bypass for the purpose its promoted (the number of trips made by people travelling from outside through the city to an external destination is less than five per cent of Galway’s traffic, it is argued), and what provisions are envisioned for people who choose healthier and more ecologically friendly mobility options like cycling and walking? Moreover, does anybody really believe that a new road will lessen or eliminate congestion around the heart of Galway?
When we talk of Galway’s traffic management problems it is just that; a task of ‘management’. The road network throughout the city is congested at some of the main arteries for at most 10% of the day and traffic flows freely and unhindered for the remainder. In this regards, even the most basic business mind would question the need for such exceptionally costly infrastructure given that the transport system is only busy for perhaps three or four hours out of every twenty four. We need to manage the road network we already have and only then should we consider turning over even more scarce public shared space and monies to the private car. With regards to cost, light rail for Galway was estimated at €600 million by Arup Consulting Engineers, who are leading the N6 Project, and they deemed a revival of the GLUAS project not to be cost-effective. While I recognise that GLUAS alone would not solve all traffic problems in the region, and there are genuine concerns about residential density, considering novel alternatives such as light rail and improved public transport will greatly benefit debates on regional mobility.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the car became an indispensable mobility tool that facilitates both traditional and novel forms of social and economic activity. In many developed countries people’s everyday mobility, such as their commute to work or for leisure activities, frequently depend on access to a private car, but in the case of Ireland we have become wholly car dependent. I drive a car myself and understand its need from time-to-time, particularly given the lack of alternatives. But ownership of a car does not afford the right of unhindered travel through a city or town at the expense of the people that choose to work, visit, live and raise a family there. Indeed, I should be forced to slow and sometime stop (smell the coffee and roses) and fully appreciate and respect that I’m travelling through people’s neighbourhoods and communities. My principal concern, therefore, is that car-centric thinking trumps everything and everyone. While it’s important that people travelling into and out of the city, whether they are workers or visitors, should be facilitated as efficiently as possible, this should not be done at the expense of people who have chosen Galway as their home, and the city’s urban design, social cohesion and genuine environment and sustainability considerations.
The limited available space of Galway and its surrounds has become a battleground with the car, once again, triumphing over family homes, communities, and environmental concerns. We need to rethink our urban space and environment and view it as a shared space for all to enjoy. Car-centric thinking and rhetoric has led to increased speeding on the new traffic system operating on Lough Atalia Road, Forster Street and College Road, leads to discourteous and illegal parking, and planning that promotes the use of the private car over the concerns of people living and bringing up families in the city and surrounds (just try this experiment; attempt to walk from Eyre Square to the hospital crossing the road only at designated pedestrian crossings and traffic lights and see how far you get). And therein rests the fundamental problem; we must reframe our conversations on mobility management not just with respect to private car use but what’s proper for every member of the community and society at large including people who live in these affected areas, people who choose to cycle and walk the city, and people who wish to use public transport. Many of these individuals and groups have been forgotten in our conversations on transport and mobility in Galway and abstracted discussions on ‘where should we build a road’. In this respect we are going in the opposite direction to recognised wisdom in developing a city (even our capital city Dublin is now discussing a radical plan to remove cars from the city centre). Any transport management system for Galway should focus on the city as a healthy place to live, where we enjoy living, where our children grow up in a safe healthy environment, we’re proud to welcome visitors, and not just a place that’s subservient to cars.