To compete and prosper, our cities need fewer cars

By Declan Jordan

It is difficult for some Cork people to accept that their city could be any better than it is.

The controversy about the removal of cars from Patrick Street prompted many to look afresh at the city and to question how we organise our lives.

Cork is not unique in dealing with the consequences of urban sprawl, but its situation has been worsened by the failure of spatial planning over decades.

Good urban design matters, because cities and large urban spaces are the engines for economic growth and wellbeing.

Also, concentrated and denser cities are more sustainable and better for the environment. Ireland remains in the throes of its car-dependency. Efforts to wean us off our addiction have been minimal.

If we cared about changing, why would the National Development Plan commit twice as much funding to road infrastructure as it does to public transport, cycling, and walking infrastructure combined?

The common response to the evident benefits gained by other cities from more cycling lanes, less on-street parking, and initiatives to reduce congestion is that these just won’t work in Ireland.

Irish people are just different and we don’t have a cycling culture. It rains too much. In the case of Cork, there are too many hills.

But none of these excuses stack up. Other cities have hills and bad weather.

Oslo, a very hilly city, is in the middle of delivering on a promise, made in 2015, to remove all private cars from the city centre by 2019.

There has been a dramatic rise in cycling and walking, and Oslo is not exactly known for its balmy sunshine.

There are fewer cars in cities like Oslo, because of the choices made by the city councils and citizens. 

The photographs of traffic jams in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, in the 1960s and 1970s, show they didn’t always have a cycling culture. This was created through policy.

In Ireland, two-thirds of people use cars to commute to work because that is what we have chosen.

Why does this matter? People-friendly, sustainable cities are not just better for our health, there are clear economic and commercial benefits, too. 

Ireland has punched above its weight in attracting highly mobile foreign direct investment.

It was never easy to secure these investments, but it is becoming increasingly difficult, as our corporation tax rates become relatively less attractive.

Instead, we rely on our skilled workforce and access to the EU. However, an increasingly important feature is quality of life for workers and managers.

A sustainable, active, and vibrant city life, similar to our rival cities in Europe, is important to attract the types of creative workers needed in the new economy.

In addition, a people-centred city centre makes commercial sense for businesses, particularly local firms. 

There is evidence that those who travel to the city by car spend less in the city compared to those who walk, cycle, or use public transport.

People stay longer in the centre of the city when there are places to meet, be entertained, and shop. A multi-purpose city design, as opposed to retail dominance, is critical for city success.

Cork city is well-placed to steal a march on other Irish cities, by implementing a bold plan for taking cars out of the centre and transforming it into a place where people meet, walk, cycle, congregate, and explore cultural and heritage amenities.

Cork has been ranked first for small cities in Europe for the quality of cultural amenities. That demonstrates its potential

There is an opportunity for Cork to lead on this important issue. It would provide Cork with a competitive advantage, relative to other Irish cities, in being a better place to live, work, and visit.

Declan Jordan is director of the Spatial and Regional Economics Research Centre at Cork University Business School.

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