Michael Moynihan: Cork city centre congestion charge would enhance urban enjoyment

Michael Moynihan: Cork city centre congestion charge would enhance urban enjoyment

Charges imposed to cross St Patrick’s Bridge in 1786 ranged from one shilling one pence to half a penny.

HOW keen are you on coming into the centre of Cork city? Keen enough to pay for the privilege?

Accessing the centre of the city is a fraught subject, or at least it should be. Whatever about foot traffic, the number of cars, trucks, and other vehicles lumbering through and around Cork is too high, plain and simple. Too high, given the impact on the climate and the built environment alike; too high for smooth transport through the city; too high, full stop.

There’s one easy option which would have an immediate effect on the traffic going through the middle of the city, one that would reduce emissions significantly, and one that would generate revenue which could be recycled back into improving the infrastructure for all.

Charge people.

This is not so outlandish as first appears. Only last November, Pádraig Hoare of this parish reported that: “In its ‘Five Cities Demand Management’ report into sustainable and healthier forms of travel in Cork, Dublin, Waterford, Limerick, and Galway, consultants Systra outlined possible outcomes of congestion charges.

“Modelling suggested a charge of €10 in peak times and €5 in off-peak times ‘would have a significantly positive effect on congestion in Dublin with reductions in car travel time within the city core of nearly a third’.

“However, Systra found in its modelling for Cork that while a charge would see reductions in congestion in the city centre core area of up to a quarter, it would have little impact in the wider city area.”

This is an interesting layer to the idea of a congestion charge, in that it immediately raises an obvious question: How much of the city would be eligible for the charge?

For this observer, a clear and obvious geographical cut-off would be the island on which the centre of the city stands. As soon as a vehicle crossed any of the bridges of either the south or north channels then the driver could expect an incoming charge.

The notion of a toll for entry to the city in the first place is one with a considerable history in Cork

Councillor Kieran McCarthy — to whom the city owes a huge debt for his unflagging work on Cork’s heritage — has outlined in various publications how those tolls operated. He’s traced tolling in Cork back as far as the 14th century, though the 17th century tolls were imposed specifically for “keeping the North, and South Main streets in good repair”.

(Don’t all shout at once about how badly such a toll is needed at the present time for the same areas, please.) However, later in the century the toll areas were described in more detail — it was a time when the city fathers had a wider-ranging idea of the city’s borders, hundreds of years before the recent annexation of outlying areas from Glanmire to Grange.

McCarthy has quoted the relevant description: “The gateage tolls and other customs be set in the following lots, to wit: The Dublin road and Mallow road, together; Fair Hill, Cattle Market, and Blarney Lane, together; Youghal Road, Spring Lane, and Leitrim Street, together; the Lough and Gallows Green Roads, together; the Upper and Lower Glasheen roads together; the Upper and Lower Douglas Roads together”.

Parking (temporarily) the opportunities for analysing what such toll locations say about whether people were urban or rural (with accompanying slagging taken as read), this shows how old certain approaches to the city are and continue to be. It highlights the various hinterlands and their preferred routes to the central market and business districts.

It also shows that even in the 1700s, there was a recognised centre to the city which cost money to enter, while there were also outlying areas which were freely accessible. This was the accepted reality of the day

By the way, if you want an idea of the charges involved back then, the charges imposed by Parliament for collection on St Patrick’s Bridge in 1786 ranged — according to Of Timber and Stone by Antoin O’Callaghan — from one shilling one pence “for every coach, chariot, chaise, berlin, chair or calash drawn by 6 or more horses” at the top end to half a penny.

“For every passenger passing over the bridge, each — except such person or persons as shall be driven in any coach, chariot, chaise, berlin, chair or calash, and the driver or drivers thereof, servant or servants thereof standing behind the same”.

(For the record “every score of lambs” crossing the bridge were charged two and a half pence: I’m sure there’s a pun or two here if I had the interest.)

Global movement 

The idea of an exemption for the driver or servant on the coach, chariot, etc, is interesting when you consider how tolling works in the modern world.

Cities around the world have cottoned on to the advantages of charging cars for admission to the central zone, and most people will be well aware of London’s famous congestion charge, which was first imposed almost 20 years ago.

The benefits of that charge are obvious enough to London at first glance.

The number of vehicles in total entering the city’s congestion charge zone — Central London, in other words — is one quarter lower than it was before the charge; the number of cars being used for personal use fell by a whopping 39% between 2002 and 2014 as a result of the charge.

Cyclists also benefited hugely from the charge, with a growth of over 200% in cycling journeys since it was introduced.

There’s clearly a knock-on effect in terms of environment protection with the reduction in emissions, not to mention a healthier population if more people are cycling. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.

An exemption from the charge for private-hire vehicles means that Uber’s growing popularity has offset some of the progress in getting cars off the streets (and echoes the exemptions granted crossing St Patrick’s Bridge in the 18th century, as noted above).

THERE’S also the sheer size of the area subject to the congestion charge — Central London, the congestion zone proper, is approximately 1.5% of the London metropolitan area.

As a handy contrast, the congestion charge zone in Stockholm makes up over two thirds of the city’s total area.

Based on the experience of the past — and of London — a stiff congestion charge imposed on private cars rolling across the bridges into Cork would generate revenue and cut traffic in the city centre, creating a healthier space for visitors and natives, and improving the environment.

Even allowing for necessary traffic — goods deliveries, public transport — if London is anything to by then there could be a 40% drop in trips to Cork via private car, and an explosion in the number of families cycling into the city.

What are we waiting for?

Correct change required. And don’t forget five pence for the two score of lambs in the back seat.

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