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Cork on the Rise: Pana ban a bump in the road in Cork's journey toward modernity

The Pana ban debate showed Cork can expect to hit further potholes as it bids to modernise the city centre, writes Eoin English

It rose from the ashes after the burning of Cork in 1920, it’s endured recessions, disastrous floods, and years of disruption during the main drainage project and the Beth Gali revamp to retain its status as the beating heart of the region’s commercial engine.

But the raging controversy over the car ban on St Patrick’s Street as part of a wider traffic management strategy has left the jewel in the city’s crown somewhat tarnished.

With the city on the cusp of a period of phenomenal growth, the PR disaster over efforts to divert private cars away from its main street in favour of public transport has thrown into sharp focus not just the deep connection between Corkonians and their main street, known affectionately as Pana, but also the changing nature of cities, consumer and retail trends and how cities and retailers must adapt to survive.

More and more cities around the world are banning private cars, some for environmental reasons, others in favour of public transport.

Ljubljana in Slovenia, Pontevedra in Spain, and Copenhagen are all reaping the population, environmental, tourism and business benefits of car free streets.

Berlin is building 13ft wide bike superhighways, Oslo is replacing 55km of road with bike lanes, and the City of London is planning a car ban too. But they all have vast public transport options.

The Pana ban debate over just over 500m of bus lane has revealed just how far behind the city is in terms of a modern, reliable and efficient public transport system, and just how far it has to go.

The authorities had been talking for years about banning private cars from St Patrick’s Street as part of one of the most radical city-wide overhauls of its transport system in decades.

Figures from Cork City Council show city traffic volumes peaked during the boom at over 110,000 movements from 2004 to 2006. As the recession began to bite, the volumes declined steadily, falling to a low of just over 90,000 in 2011. But the following year, the figures began rising, year-on-year, to just over 110,000 again by 2017.

As the volumes were surging, the City Centre Movement Strategy (CCMS) was prepared to better route traffic through the city centre and support public transport.

  • A road network that can’t cope with additional traffic demand, with key junctions at overload;
  • Shifting commuters to public transport blighted by poor reliability;
  • Diverting two thirds of the 110,000 vehicles entering the city daily who are using it as a “through route”.

The multi-phase CCMS was agreed by council in 2013, but it would be some time before phase 1, changes to St Patrick’s Street to include a daily ban on private cars from 12.30pm to 6.30pm, and phase 2, changes to traffic flows along Grenville Place, Bachelor’s Quay and the Middle Parish, were ready for discussion.

St Patrick’s Street is one of the city’s busiest public transport corridors with almost 1,000 bus movements daily. The creation of bus lanes here, it was claimed, would help improve the reliance of these services and reduce journey times.

It would also be a small but important first time towards the creation of a rapid bus service linking the western suburbs to the city centre and docklands.

The proposals were published for public consultation in early 2015, concerns emerged and revised proposals, including a shorter 3pm to 6.30pm car ban, were brought back before city councillors in 2016, who voted to proceed.

The scene last August after the Pana car ban was re-introduced. A reduced price of parking, good weather, and street performers, along with the car ban, were credited with increasing the numbers of people on the city’s main shopping thoroughfare.

Road works and changes to traffic signals and road signs were implemented incrementally in both areas over the following year or so before the St Patrick’s Street car ban finally kicked in on March 27, 2018.

No entry signs were erected at either end of the street, gardaí were on duty to advise of the diversion, and anxious transport engineers watched from the pavement.

There was a mixed reaction in the early days before concerns began to mount.

The council said it needed time to bed in and it introduced parking incentives in a bid to ease trader concerns. Bus Éireann said the measure was working with bus journey times on two key suburban routes reducing — in one case by almost 30%.

But the chorus of opposition mounted, with business owners claiming the car ban had created a “ghost town” and decimated afternoon trade.

As pressure grew, almost 200 angry traders attended an open meeting, organised by Cork Business Association (CBA) in the Imperial Hotel on April 18, demanding the car ban be abandoned. Some threatened a rates strike.

The council chief executive, Ann Doherty, cancelled plans to travel to San Francisco to deal with the controversy and a special council meeting was called for the evening of Friday, April 20.

With several traders watching from the public gallery, councillors voted unanimously to suspend the car ban until August pending further consultation. Crucially, they reaffirmed their support for the CCMS.

The restrictions on private cars were lifted with immediate effect.

Months of detailed talks followed between City Hall, the CBA, Cork Chamber, trader representatives, Bus Éireann and the National Transport Authority, during which a package of measures designed to support the reintroduction of the car ban was agreed, including half-price parking in council car parks, a vastly extended Black Ash park and ride service with additional stops on Merchants Quay, St Patrick’s Street, Grand Parade and South Mall, a network of free 15-minute set-down areas at various locations around the city, and reduced bus fares.

The council met some traders individually to explain the CCMS and reassure them, and it launched a PR blitz and a city centre marketing campaign ahead of the August 9 reintroduction date.

The CBA was on board as officials promised a “softer approach” to implementation.

There was a sense of resignation amongst traders who had vocally opposed the measure the first time round. Many who spoke out in March said they were reluctant to do so again — at least publicly. But by October, the rumblings had started again prompting the CBA to urge caution in how those concerns were voiced.

The council released statistics which showed footfall was up, the usage of the council’s two multi-storey car parks was up, and a 10% increase in passenger numbers in the weeks after the car ban.

But critics argued the footfall statistics were meaningless given that they were a comparison to the first week of August 2018 only when the city centre is quiet anyway.

The supports continued, with free-late night parking introduced followed by the regular Christmas parking incentives. Bus Éireann launched a 24-hour bus service on route 220, linking Ballincollig via the city to Carrigaline — enhancements which have been embraced by commuters, and it appeared as if the car ban was in for good.

A view of St Patrick’s Street from the newly renovated bridge St Patrick’s Bridge

The city’s cycling lobby backed the initiative and in November, developers Brian O’Callaghan, managing director of O’Callaghan Properties (OCP), and John Cleary, managing director of JCD Group, issued a joint statement to say the development of an efficient and reliable public transport system is key to the city’s future economic prosperity, and that prioritising buses is necessary if Cork is to attract inward investment.

Renewed calls in January for the Pana ban to be scrapped were met head-on by the head of transport in Cork city, Gerry O’Beirne.

He said officials have a responsibility to modernise, drive and develop the growing city, which needs a better and more modern transport system, insisting that they will not “stand down” in their duty to do so. He also said there are ways of addressing concerns about the impact of the bus lanes that will not have a negative impact on the perception of the city.

A few weeks later, the IDA came out in support of the CCMS, pointing out that a reliable and efficient public transport system is vital if Cork is to compete for foreign direct investment.

However, concerns about the measure have continued, as has criticism of an apparent relaxed approach to enforcement of the measure.

In recent weeks, a new retailers’ representative group has been set up, led by many of those business owners who led opposition to the Pana ban last March.

Privately, they feel their voice wasn’t represented by the CBA over the last year. Publicly, they say they want to focus now on positivity and progress. The CBA says it has to represent a broad church — not just the 9am-6pm retailers.

Cork’s population is expected to reach 500,000 over the coming years, making it one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

Picture: Tom Coakley

With unprecedented levels of construction activity underway and planned in the city centre and docklands, set to bring an estimated 10,000 new jobs into the city centre within four years, the CCMS is designed to ensure the city can manage this growth.

Bus passenger numbers in Cork have surged from 10m in 2013 to 14m last year, proving that if the bus service improves, people will use it. But the service is still dogged by delays and unreliability because of the lack of bus lanes.

The Government has set aside some €200m to support a Cork BusConnects programme over the next decade.

The CCMS has several more phases — the introduction of two-way traffic on MacCurtain St, giving priority to eastbound traffic on Merchant’s Quay and Anderson’s Quay, upgrading St Patrick’s Quay and Camden Quay, a contra-flow bike lane and bus priority on South Mall, the switching of traffic flow over Parnell Bridge, and public realm improvements on Terence McSwiney Quay, Anglesea St and North Main St all due in subsequent stages.

In the absence of a Dart or Luas-style service to shift vast numbers of commuters, Cork needs more buses and bus lanes. More park and ride stations are needed too, but these are dependent on the delivery of bus lanes on key routes.

A major transport plan for Metropolitan Cork, which was due for publication before Christmas, has, like many of the city’s buses, been delayed.

Eagerly anticipated, it will chart the road ahead for the next two decades. There’s a long way to go, with more potholes and speed-bumps on the way.

    Timeline

    2013

    Cork City Council adopts the City Centre Movement Strategy (CCMS) — an ambitious multi-phase programme to overhaul traffic flow in and around the city centre. Phase 1 includes a ban on private cars from St Patrick’s Street from 12.30pm to 6.30pm every day to facilitate public transport.

    2015

    April: CCMS Phases 1 and 2, the St Patrick’s St proposals and changes around Prospect Row, Grenville Place, Bachelor’s Quay, Grattan St, and Sheares St, are published for public consultation. Over the following months, concerns emerge over the duration of the St Patrick’s Street car ban.

    2016

    September: Revised proposals, including a shorter car ban, from 3pm to 6.30pm, return to the city councillors, who approve the plans.

    2017

    Traffic flow reverses on Castle St, road layouts change around Mercy University Hospital and quays, one-way flow is introduced on Grattan St, public realm improvements in Middle Parish, and bus lanes are introduced on Washington St and Merchant’s Quay.

    2018

    March 27: The 3pm to 6.30pm daily car ban is introduced on St Patrick’s Street.

    April 12: The Irish Examiner highlights traders’ ‘ghost town’ fears on page one.

    April 18: 200 traders attend a meeting calling for the car ban scrapped.

    April 20: After three weeks of controversy, the city council votes unanimously to suspend the measure until August 9.

    August 9: The car ban is reintroduced with a range of supporting measures.

    September: Some traders begin to voice concerns again. But this time, the opposition is less vocal and supporters begin speaking out.

    November: Free late-night parking in council car parks is introduced to support traders. Developers Brian O’Callaghan and John Cleary back the CCMS.

    2019

    February 25: The IDA endorses the CCMS. That night, city councillors reject motions calling for CCMS to be suspended, or for the car ban to be lifted at weekends.

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