MobilityWalkingKeeping Distance With Footpath Existence! How Dublin Used The Covid Pandemic to...

Keeping Distance With Footpath Existence! How Dublin Used The Covid Pandemic to Boost Walkability

Tanja Polonyi
Tanja Polonyi
I can't imagine my daily life without my bike (and coffee)! But cycling often means fighting over space on the road with car drivers.  That's why I want cyclists and pedestrians to get the space they deserve. Give me green spaces, walkable streets, and fresh air!

The Covid-19 pandemic has drastically changed the way we move. It has highlighted the need to reallocate space and take a new perspective on city planning. Early in 2020, Dublin set a plan in motion to boost active mobility and make the Irish capital a more pedestrian-friendly city. 

Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, taking public transportation turned into an undesirable option for getting around. Whenever we entered public spaces or were standing closely side by side in crowded buses, an unnerving, rather scary feeling took hold.

Consequently, the demand for alternative means of transport grew. The number of cyclists and pedestrians skyrocketed in urban areas during national lockdowns, which led many cities to implement new emergency infrastructure measurements to enable safer cycling and walking trips. 

Among those cities, Dublin in the Republic of Ireland implemented an ambitious Covid mobility programme. One year later, it has proven successful. In April 2021, we talked with Patricia Reidy, Senior Engineer of Dublin City Council, and head of the programme, about Dublin’s journey towards pedestrianisation amidst the pandemic.

Before Covid Hit…

Existing data proved to be a big advantage for Dublin. If you take a look at the city on a map, the core is surrounded by two canals. As Patricia explains, the city council has used several counters within the city, specifically on canal routes, to quantify the exact number of people walking, cycling, and using public transport and private vehicles.

The numbers of the Canal Cordon Counts indicate that in November 2019, a few months before the Covid-19 outbreak, during the period of 7.00 am to 10.00 am, more than half (53%) of the total number of people (217,223) accessing the city were taking public transportation. Roughly 30% would use their private vehicle, while the remaining residents would walk or cycle. According to Patricia, about 10% of people were pedestrians. 

Image credit: Dublin City Council

Then 2020 arrived. When the pandemic hit, public transport capacity in Dublin was reduced by 80%. Hence, the city council and Patricia’s team put together a series of measures to create and enhance safe cycling and walking, and to encourage Dublin’s residents to participate in active travel and free up the public transport for essential workers.

Normally, it takes most cities years to implement these kinds of measures. But we all know time during Covid passed by differently. Measures that normally take a long time to carry out were put into action at an impressively fast pace. As Patricia asserts: “it really did allow everybody to think anew.” So, what measures improved Dublin’s walkability within this year?

Small Measures – Big Impact

Do you remember those early days in the pandemic when no one wanted to touch any surface at all? Well, Patricia’s team rolled out a series of contactless sensors on traffic lights for pedestrians. It may seem like a blatant move, but this measure was the first step to giving back pedestrians a feeling of safety in public spaces.

The next measure, again small but significant, was for the traffic lights to favour pedestrians. “We minimised the green time for the motorist and maximised the green time for pedestrians,” Patricia explains, “therefore, there was no big build-up of pedestrians and any waiting to cross.” Which again is even more important in pandemic times, when we’re trying to maintain 2-metre social distancing. 

Additionally, Dublin City Council has built over 10 kilometres of protected cycleways, giving space back to cyclists, with extruded curbs and plastic bollards.

As the pandemic has led to a new localisation, the Covid mobility programme specifically targets Dublin’s urban villages. With many people working from home, residents started to re-discover their own neighbourhoods. This aspect is important to include in further mobility measures.

Social Distance Rules Call for More Pedestrianisation

Image credit: Dublin City Council

Did you ever find yourself waiting at a bus stop that doubles as a footpath? Hard to keep a 2-metre distance there, right? Hence, many major measurements the city implemented are all about reallocating space.

Patricia and her team identified areas, mainly in the city core, with busy bus stops. They figured out how to create space so that the people waiting for the bus and pedestrians or cyclists wouldn’t have to run into each other: “we’ve got footpath builders, and bus stop build-outs in over 20-plus locations at this stage.”

Image credit: Dublin City Council

City centres were badly hit by the pandemic – small businesses, restaurants, pubs, and cafés all had to close down. In summer, however, everyone affected was eager to ensure re-opening could happen safely. 

Thus, outdoor space is becoming more and more important.  Patricia explains the implemented measurements as following: “we’ve created footpath build-outs so that the restaurants can put out their tables and chairs, but the pedestrians are still able to pass by.”

You might already know, but children always play an important role when talking about active mobility in cities. Encouraging the younger generation to walk can also help to get parents moving. 

Pictured are students from Scoil Fhursa in Artane, Dublin. Image credit: Chris Bellew /Fennell Photography Copyright 2021

Especially during this pandemic, getting your children to school safely became a more pressing issue. To make it happen, the city council created school zones, an area in front of school gates without vehicular drop-off congestion. “There’s no dropping off your children with the car. It delineates space of at least 20 metres cordoned off,” Patricia tells us, and adds, “we’ve basically installed pencil-like bollards. It creates a really friendly environment for the children.”

Additionally, road markings have been set up: “gorgeous, circular, colourful circles, almost like a gateway. That automatically creates a message in the brain of the driver to slow down.”

It’s quite an accomplishment as 120 schools applied for these zones to be set up, and 40 have already been installed.

Image credit: Dublin City Council

Moreover, Dublin City Council is trying to roll out a 30 km/h default speed limit throughout the city. Unless signposted otherwise, this replaces the former 50 km/h limit! Take a look at the Love 30 Campaign that was launched for further details.

Complete Pedestrianisation

From summer 2020 through the next year, several pedestrianisation trials have been included as part of the Covid mobility programme as well. In summer 2020, Patricia and her team took on a heavy workload in order to close down about six streets each weekend after 11 o’clock in the morning.

The feedback was so positive that some of those streets are to be made permanently pedestrianised after 11 am. 

Even better, the pedestrianisation trials will extend to roads around Grafton Street, one of the city’s main shopping districts, second only to the already-pedestrianised Henry Street. They will both be closed off every single day.

Other suitable areas were identified as well, where permeability was filtered so that motorists can no longer drive through. One of these places is near a big university – a huge win for Patricia’s team, as about 20,000 students will go back to campus after the pandemic. Instead of cluttered streets, they will return to a “precious space where you can walk and cycle with no vehicular traffic”.

Image credit: Unsplash / Jordan Harrison

Another pedestrianisation project worth mentioning that is, however, not part of the Covid mobility programme, is College Green – a plaza famously visited by many US presidents. Alongside other squares in the city, College Green will be pedestrianised, “creating plazas similar to other European capitals”.

Challenges and Their Solutions

Every change comes with its challenges, especially while in a global pandemic. Everything is new, unnerving, and moving at an incredibly fast pace. According to Patricia, she and her team continuously “changed and adapted. We were learning as we went along”.

Many challenges were technicalities – wondering which bollards to use and how broad or steep the footpath buildouts should be. To see what measures prove best, many different trials were tried out and, most importantly, feedback was frequently gathered. Patricia tells us that, from the very beginning, they worked especially close with disability groups. “We’ve met them and constantly took their feedback, because there are lots of issues for mobility, be it drains, the slope of the build outs, and the height of the curbs.”

Additionally, and this cannot be overstated, communication should never be neglected! During the pandemic, Patricia and her team noticed the importance of, first, keeping citizens informed and, second, gathering feedback and data. 

At the very beginning of the pandemic, many measures were emergency ones, but as Dublin City Council, together with the rest of the world, realised that this disease is going to be part of our lives for a while, they set up consultation hubs where Dublin’s residents could see the measurements put in place and give feedback. Additionally, a Covid mobility request forum was set up where people could propose changes they would like to see.

Vision and Long-Term Changes

Ireland has just allocated 10% of its transportation budget to walking, which is astonishing as walking is mostly only taken into account in combination with cycling. For Dublin specifically this means, “in our mobility ranking orders, we put walking first. It is really important to recognise that pedestrians and cyclists have different needs”. 

Patricia is passionately and ambitiously aiming to double the walking numbers in Dublin. You can find the city’s official policies and objectives regarding walking here.

“What I’m hoping is that the new habits that have been created because of the pandemic stay, that people won’t go back to their old ways!”

The measures put in place within the Covid mobility programme are, as Patricia describes it, “interimbut the intention is, subject to review, to make them permanent. And this is exactly where all the data from the counts, meetings with business owners and citizens, and every ounce of feedback will come in handy. 

The results from public request forms, for instance, are going to be used long after the pandemic is over, as Patricia and her team will draw from them to develop a five-year walking and cycling plan. Moreover, the data gathered from the Covid mobility measures every single week was passed on to council members with the result that some permanent measures, such as the filtered permeability, have already been approved. 

“It’s one ginormous trial or a live lab experiment of the city, where we’ve done these sorts of quickfire deployed interventions, but they actually worked. And now we review the zones, the live experiment.” As the summer is going to be pretty busy again – restrictions are hopefully lifted in June or July – Patricia and her team will review the measures later this year, hoping to create permanent walkability after the pandemic. 

Dublin’s Success In a Nutshell…

Dublin has managed to use the momentum gathered in addressing the challenges of a global pandemic to improve the situation, not only for cyclists, but significantly for its pedestrians. With interim measures that reallocate space for walking and the constant gathering of data and feedback, the needs of Dublin’s residents have been heard. 

We’re already excited to see how the city will change in the future! 

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