The journey to transform how we travel in Cork City will not be a smooth one

It was a rocky road to introduce the ‘Pana car ban’ in Cork City. However, even tougher choices are needed over the next 10 years if the city is to avoid being crippled by congestion, writes Eoin English.

The journey to transform how we travel in Cork City will not be a smooth one

It was a rocky road to introduce the ‘Pana car ban’ in Cork City. However, even tougher choices are needed over the next 10 years if the city is to avoid being crippled by congestion, writes Eoin English.

If 2018 was the year Cork was nudged towards public transport through the so-called Pana car ban, this year will be about setting out on the long journey towards delivering a reliable bus-based public transport system for Metropolitan Cork for the next 20 years.

And if the potholes along the road to introducing time-regulated afternoon bus lanes on St Patrick’s St are anything to go by, it’s clear that the journey won’t be easy, with tougher decisions and choices ahead for policymakers, planners and commuters.

But the choice is stark — do nothing and risk the city grinding to a halt, or invest heavily in public transport, and do it fast.

Cork is on the cusp of one of the most significant periods of expansion in a generation. The first city boundary extension since 1965 takes effect in May and population growth in the metropolitan region is expected to grow by between 50%-60% — that’s an extra 105,000 to 125,000 people.

Several new office blocks are being built in the city centre, and more are planned, which will increase the number of office workers flowing into and out of the city centre every day by at least 5,000 within two years.

The city’s road network is at capacity — its fragility highlighted in October by the gridlock caused when roadworks on the Lower Glanmire Rd coincided with the closure of the Jack Lynch tunnel.

A crash on the N40 South Link Rd can have ramifications for traffic city-wide. The absence of a North Ring Road heaps even more pressure on the N40. It’s going to get worse next year when work starts on the massive Dunkettle interchange overhaul and upgrade.

The National Transport Authority (NTA) has been working with the Southern Regional Assembly for some time on the draft Cork Metropolitan Area Transport Study (CMATS), which will guide future transport plans for the region.

Ironically, the CMATS plan is, like some of the buses on busy city routes, running late. First due in October, it’s not now expected until February.

It will focus on developing bus infrastructure to make the entire service more efficient and more reliable. It is also hoped that it will include plans to develop cycle lanes, and that an extension of the city’s popular bike share scheme will be included.

Sustainable-transport planners would like to see bike-share stations co-located close to bus corridors to promote mixed-modal travel.

The Government has widely flagged its plans to invest some €200m in a BusConnects-style plan in Cork up to 2027.

A rapid bus transit corridor linking Ballincollig to Mahon, via Bishopstown, Wilton, UCC, Kent train station, and the docklands, is expected to be one of its key features — a route that could form the backbone of any future light-rail system which most experts believe it at least 15 years away.

However, the NTA has also hinted at what else is in its Cork plan.

In its planning submission on the massive redevelopment of Wilton Shopping Centre in the western suburbs, lodged last year, the NTA said the draft CMATS includes the “provision of both core radial and orbital bus routes”.

One of the key radial routes is the Wilton Rd, which will accommodate a Mayfield to Bishopstown service as well as a Ballincollig to Cork city service, it said. These radial routes will serve CIT, CUH and Wilton Shopping Centre, the NTA submission says.

The Southern Outer Orbital Service will connect with these radial routes at Wilton Roundabout and will provide connections to Frankfield and Rochestown, the documents show.

The NTA went so far as to express concerns about the design of the Wilton Shopping Centre project, as initially proposed, affecting its ability to deliver continuous bus lanes in this area, and could undermine its investment strategy in the public transport system.

But criticism of the Sarsfield Rd upgrades, the first key part of the Wilton Rd transport corridor in advance of CMATS, do not inspire confidence that the steps required to promote transport by bus and bike will be taken. Cycling campaigners have criticised the lack of adequate bus and bike infrastructure along the revamped Sarsfield Rd, describing the project as nothing more than a “glorified resurfacing gig”

And as the CMATS plan rolls out, it is clear that controversy will be inevitable when more road space is devoted to buses, and maybe even in some cases —as is expected to happen under Dublin’s BusConnects scheme — private property is required to build bus lanes to facilitate a faster journey time for buses.

Frank Crowley, a lecturer in the Cork University Business School at UCC who has a specialist research interest in urban and regional development, said that while there has been some debate about whether the investment should be in buses or a Luas-style system, rapid bus transit is probably the best option in the short to medium term.

“But it should not be a case of one versus the other. It’s a case of ‘we need rapid transit and we need it quickly’,” he said.

“We can spend lots of money on a light rail route but we could probably deliver a more effective and larger rapid bus transit system for the same money. The key issue here is having dedicated lanes.

“And I hope the NTA looks at the feasibility of extending the rapid bus transport corridors to ensure rapid links between our six key employment hotspots — Blackpool, the Airport Business Park, city-Mahon, Little Island, and Ringaskiddy.”

The modal shift to buses in this region is already underway, with 12.6m passenger journeys across the city’s network in 2017 — up 23% on the previous year.

Despite complaints about its unreliability, Bus Éireann figures show an 8% increase in passenger journeys in Cork in October 2018 compared to the same month last year, up 18% in November year-on-year, and with “significant improvements in trip times and average speeds for bus services operating through St Patrick St”, since the time-regulated bus lanes were introduced.

More bus lanes have been built, there has been some integration between the bus and rail service thanks to infrastructural improvements at Kent train station, and there has been investment in fleet and drivers, with an additional 89 drivers hired in Cork since last January alone to service the growing demand.

The Black Ash park-and-ride route and operating hours were extended this year, but it’s still the city’s only one park-and-ride — not the necklace of such facilities promised a decade ago.

Late-night services to Ballincollig, Blarney, Carrigaline, and Midleton were introduced over the Jazz Festival bank holiday weekend and again in the run-up to Christmas.

In the meantime, city planners are sanctioning high-density office blocks and apartment schemes at strategic points, both in the city’s docklands and in Mahon, to provide the population density required in the long-term to sustain a rapid transit system.

Will Brady of UCC’s Centre for Planning and Sustainable Development said transport planners should be looking at future-proofing Cork’s public transport system beyond 2050.

“Instead of asking what’s possible, viable, affordable, deliverable, feasible within today’s economic or political climate, we should be asking what kind of transport network does Cork need in 2050 and beyond,” he said.

“Cork has a reasonably good track record of long-term planning going back to the Land Use and Transportation Study in 1978 which laid out a 20-year infrastructure programme for the Cork Metropolitan Area.

“Whilst that study can be credited for anticipating and delivering the city’s road infrastructure, its public transport proposals were largely neglected.

“In transportation planning, there is a tendency to rely on forecasting — where we use existing trends to predict future requirements.

“Instead, when it comes to defining our transport requirements, we should also use backcasting — where you develop a vision of what kind of place you want at some date in the future — and work backwards to decide what steps you need to get there.

“In order to answer that, we need to know what kind of a city Cork would like to be. If it is to aspire to be an attractive, successful and vibrant metropolitan centre of national and European significance, with quality of life at the heart of this vision, as it is suggested in the government’s National Planning Framework and in the two local authorities shared vision ‘Cork 2050’, then it will need a transport system commensurate with this.

“This will need to involve radical, progressive and even disruptive changes to the city. One thing is clear — that the existing transportation system in Metropolitan Cork will not serve this purpose. It is many years behind where it needs to be.

“If Cork is to respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by the National Planning Framework — in terms of promoting substantial population and employment growth within a compact city region — it will need to develop a transformative urban agenda. This means a radical departure from existing trends.

“This will also require a transformation of how the city’s transport system works. In simple terms, this means controlling car-based suburban expansion on greenfield sites and growing the existing built-up areas (the city centre, city docks, Blackpool, Tivoli) as well as the satellite towns, especially along the rail corridor.

“Future development proposals in Cork really need to be public transport proofed — which means that large-scale proposals for developments that have limited or no public transport provision should not be considered.

“In a sense, Cork has a choice — it can have a proper public transport system or endless suburban sprawl at the city edge — but it can’t have both.”

In the meantime, the City Council is ploughing ahead with the other elements of its City Centre Movement Strategy, to further facilitate improved bus services.

The next phases include introducing two-way traffic on MacCurtain St, Coburg St and Brian Boru St, along with public realm improvements and improved pedestrian connectivity to schools in the area, the prioritisation of eastbound traffic in the Merchant’s Quay/Anderson’s Quay area, and improvements to the public realm, and facilities for coach passengers on St Patrick’s Quay and Camden Quay.

The later phases include plans to build cycle lane and bus priority lanes on South Mall, to switch traffic flows on Parnell Bridge, to improve the public realm and enhance bus connectivity to the docklands and the South City Link from Terence MacSwiney Quay and Anglesea St, and to deliver public realm and cycling facility improvements on North Main St.

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