Eoin English: The first steps on the road to reopen our cities

Cork's plan to pedestrianise streets post-Covid has been welcomed but some feel it could have shown greater ambition, writes Eoin English
Eoin English: The first steps on the road to reopen our cities

Cork's plan to pedestrianise streets post-Covid has been welcomed but some feel it could have shown greater ambition, writes Eoin English

Cork streets in line for pedestrianisation include Tuckey Street, pictured from its junction with the Grand Parade.
Cork streets in line for pedestrianisation include Tuckey Street, pictured from its junction with the Grand Parade.

For some, it’s a welcome first step on the road to recovery, post-lockdown. For others, it shows a depressing lack of ambition.

Whatever your view, the discussion document presented to Cork’s city councillors on Monday on some of the initial pedestrian-priority measures being considered to reopen the city safely underlines the scale and complexity of the challenges facing every Irish town and city as Covid-19 restrictions ease.

The 22-page document sets out how and where street space is being reorganised to ensure the two-metre physical distancing requirements can be implemented. It’s hoped the measures will help restore consumer confidence and encourage people back into the city.

But just three narrow and historic high-footfall streets are in line for pedestrianisation, and one is partially pedestrianised already.

It is proposed to close Paul Street, Tuckey Street and Pembroke Street to traffic 24-hours a day, seven days a week, to remove parking and bollards, to relocate disabled parking spaces, and enhance pedestrianisation measures.

The Marina, about 3km downriver of the city centre, will also be closed to all vehicular traffic for the summer.

The temporary de-pedestrianisation of Oliver Plunkett St to facilitate click and collect trade at the English Market will be reversed as soon as possible.

Locations for additional bike parking stands are being identified and repair or replacement of damaged bike parking facilities is being pursued, with manufacturers being contacted to see if they can supply or make bike stands at the moment.

Paul Street, already partially pedestrianised.
Paul Street, already partially pedestrianised.

Pedestrian crossing lights at the busiest crossings will be demand-led and people will be encouraged to ’’elbow-bump’’ the buttons.

A streamlined street furniture licensing process will be introduced to help those businesses who can, place tables and chairs on the streets and the licence fee will be waived.

And an intensive ’’deep-clean’’ of streets and pavements in the central business district is planned, with street cleaning work already underway in Douglas, Glanmire, Blarney and Ballincollig.

The document does warn, however, that some of the solutions will not always be straightforward and that some of the city’’s narrower streets will make social distancing difficult and pinch points will emerge.

There will be conflicting needs and demands between pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles and particular consideration needs to be given to the needs of people with special needs, it said.

And the document warns that an immediate response may require the use of "functional materials" at first and that some of the measures may have unintended consequences and may have to be reversed quickly.

While many city councillors and business leaders view the report as a welcome first step - the Green Party describes it as a "living document" which will evolve - others, including the city’s vocal cycling and pedestrian campaigners, say it just doesn’t go far enough or fast enough.

Pembroke St is closed to traffic daily from 11am to 5pm anyway. There are no suggestions yet around measures for other potential pedestrian zones including North Main Street, South Main St and Castle Street, and the ’’eat on the street’’ proposal from restaurateurs on Princes St has not been approved.

Talks between the businesses and City Hall on that proposal are ongoing but given that pedestrianisation of Princes St has been on the agenda several times over the last four decades, there are concerns it may flounder again.

The owner of Idaho cafe on Caroline St, Richard Jacob, said every business on their street, bar Brown Thomas menswear, contains a food business yet there are no measures proposed for this area, just off the pedestrianised Oliver Plunkett St.

The possibilities here are incredible, he said, given the highest concentration of food businesses on this short street.

Campaigners also point to cities around the world, including Milan, which is introducing temporary experimental cycle lanes on some of the main routes into the centre.

In France, the environment minister Elisabeth Borne has appointed an experienced transport ecologist, Pierre Serne, to develop a plan for tactical urbanism, or urban rearrangement, to prevent an increase in car usage once lockdown restrictions ease.

In Brussels, there are plans to declare the inner city centre, known as the Pentagon, a pedestrian and cyclist priority zone, with cars, trams and buses limited to 20 kph.

Berlin has created new cycle routes, in the US, Boston, Minneapolis and Oakland are banning cars from certain streets and in Colombia’’s capital, Bogota, an additional 76km of cycle lanes have been created to help social distancing.

Campaigners have also pointed to Curitiba in Brazil, which has been aggressively pursuing the sustainable transport agenda since the early 1970s and which has become the gold standard in sustainable urban planning, described as the ’’green capital’’ or ’’the greenest city on Earth’’.

Its mayor Jaime Lerner’s policy is "act now, adjust later".

Pembroke Street, a narrow and high-footfall area junctioning with Cork's South Mall district.
Pembroke Street, a narrow and high-footfall area junctioning with Cork's South Mall district.

City officials in Cork said they are monitoring the international experience but pointed out that just because something works in Brazil or Brussels, doesn’’t mean it will work on Barracks St.

And even on the micro level, just because something works on Pembroke St, doesn’t mean it will work on Princes St or on French Church St.

Senior officials, including chief executive, Ann Doherty, have spent several days over the last two weeks walking the streets to see what can be done where and how.

A street-by-street assessment will be required in each case, with extensive consultation and buy-in required from various stakeholders.

It has also been pointed out that while certain campaigners are vocal on various platforms, the council must take into consideration the views of a wide variety of groups who use, engage with and interact with the city on a daily basis.

They said the draft document unveiled this week is a starting point and will develop, with more measures in other areas expected to be considered over the coming weeks.

But given the collapse in the economic activity, and not withstanding the over-arching public health requirements, drastic measures are required, and fast.

Councillors have been told that physical distancing requirements have drastically reduced the capacity on the city’’s bus fleet to just 30% of its normal passenger-carrying capacity.

Cycling isn’t for everyone and City Hall expects more people to use the private car to access the city - at least over the coming months.

And all this is happening against the backdrop of a dramatic fall in the city council’s revenue. It’’s estimated that the pandemic will hit the council’’s various income streams by at least €9.4m, excluding commercial rates, which have been waived for three months.

FG Cllr Shane O’Callaghan quizzed officials about the issue on Monday and was told that the income has been lost from areas such as parking charges, landfill fees, planning application fees and concert hall fees.

The commercial rates waiver period ends on June 27 and Mr O’Callaghan said it’’s only "right and fair" that those businesses that are forced to remain closed at the end of the 3-month period should not have to pay rates for the extra period in which they are closed.

Clarification from government is awaited on whether the waiver period will be extended for those businesses forced to remain closed beyond this deadline.

Cities are nothing without people. Brave and bold decisions are required.

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