Galway Ring Road decision marks a turning point in road construction in Ireland

[This article appeard in the Voices section of The Journal on the 17th of October 2022 as]

LAST FRIDAY, THE news broke that An Bord Pleanála was not going to oppose an order of the High Court quashing the controversial N6 Galway Ring Road.

This came on the back of a High Court action taken by the Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) against An Bord Pleanála, the Attorney General and Galway County Council over a 2021 decision to approve the project.

Citing legal advice, the Board on Friday conceded that it had not considered the 2021 Climate Action Plan when it made its decision to approve the road.

The local authorities in Galway were quick to state that this was a mere procedural glitch and that work would resume, ensuring the road got built. Along with Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII), they said that the ‘issues arising’ would be resolved and that the road would proceed as planned.

Climate Action Plan

The acknowledgement by the planning appeals board that it had not considered the Climate Action Plan is a testament to the stringency of the new Climate Act, adopted in 2021.

The law, very publicly debated over many months in 2020 and 2021 has placed new obligations on public bodies to perform their functions in a manner consistent with the national climate objective (of getting to net zero emissions by 2050), and the most recent Climate Action Plan. These binding obligations also apply to Galway County (and City) Council and TII who are also relevant bodies for these purposes.

The 2021 Climate Action Plan signals a ‘strong shift to sustainable modes’ and more compact, connected developments to transform our built environment from being ‘vehicle-centred’ to being ‘people-centred’.

While the precise consequence of FIE’s successful challenge to the project remains unclear (we don’t know yet whether the Board will have to reconsider the decision or hold a new oral hearing for example), it is hard to imagine a road that is designed to cause an increase of 49% in carbon emissions (as per the details of the FIE challenge) could get the go-ahead.

Is the Ring Road finished?

The climate impact of the N6 Galway Ring Road is not an ‘issue’ that can be ‘resolved’ unless Galway City and County Councils know something about the laws of physics that the rest of us don’t.

There is now an international consensus, as evidenced by the recent OECD report on transport policy in Ireland, that there is no new road that has not resulted in increased traffic, and thus increased emissions. This is because the more people choose to drive, the more that congestion and travel time increases, increasing the pressure for more investment in roads which in turn results in less funding and fewer users of shared and active modes, and more cars.

It’s a self-defeating cycle, also known as ‘lock-in’ or ‘induced demand’. Once you’ve reshaped the urban environment to accommodate cars, it’s almost impossible to reverse the behavioural patterns that it encourages. We get lazy! We start driving even short distances as noise, pollution and traffic create a hostile and unpleasant environment for walking and cycling.

Unlike a by-pass, which is designed to take traffic out of an urban area, the N6 ring road essentially aims to facilitate private car journeys within the city, as well as open up new development land. At present, most of the traffic in Galway is in-out, ie, from the suburbs into the centre and back out again, with just 3% of all vehicular traffic going in an East-West direction.

Old thinking

For the past hundred years, local authority engineers saw roads as the solution to all traffic and transport problems and were generally skilled and resourced in the project management aspects of road building in contrast to sustainable transport provision and demand management.

Traffic modelling assumed that rising car ownership is inevitable and that the only realistic option for addressing emissions is improved vehicle efficiency and fuel substitution. The road-based paradigm also assumes that people are better off when they can travel as fast, as far and as flexibly as possible, regardless of the environmental and social impacts.

Needless to say, investment in public transport in Ireland has been pitiful and entirely inadequate to compete with the rising dominance of the car. Even in Dublin, which is better provided for than anywhere else in Ireland, the public transport network covers less than 23% of the commuting zone.

Today, the legacy of Ireland’s car-dependent paradigm is so all-pervasive that it is only when you travel abroad and experience high-quality public transportation and safe cycling in European cities like Utrecht, Copenhagen and Vienna that you get a sense of what Ireland has missed out on by prioritising mobility (the ability to get around fast) over everything else, including equity or fairness in transport provision.

Forced car ownership and car dependency are forms of environmental and social injustice that political leaders have ignored. Despite the huge cost of owning and running a car, estimated at €10,000 per car per annum or nearly 25% of the average annual wage, commuters and transport users have been locked into a vicious cycle of car dependency, sprawl, forced car ownership and environmental degradation.

Congestion results in unsafe conditions for children to walk or cycle to school and takes up road space that could be prioritised for public transport. Campaign groups have highlighted the fact that Galway’s traffic vanishes when the schools are closed. They point to a scandalous absence of public transport and public services on the West of the city, and the failure of the local authorities to provide even a few kilometres of a cycle route in Salthill.

But what’s next for Galway? Assuming the N6 will not now be built, the focus of all efforts now should be on delivering fast, frequent, and high-quality public transport as quickly as possible.

The €600m earmarked for the road would go a long way – it could be used to procure new electric buses to double the frequency of all existing bus routes in the city and a new electric bus for each school to serve its most car-dependent catchment areas, for example.

A new vision

Public opinion is shifting now away from the N6 and fewer people believe that a new road or switching to electric vehicles are solutions. If we are serious about climate action, all new road construction should be paused, as Wales has done, and each project subjected to a complete review for its climate impact.

In reality, the public is much more supportive of reallocating road space for active travel than politicians expect. According to a recent poll conducted by Ireland Thinks for Friends of the Earth, over 86% of respondents supported free school buses and 80% supported giving more road space for cyclists.

I’m hoping the city authorities, forced by public opinion, mounting costs and legal barriers, will finally invest in sustainable transport solutions and that road space will be reallocated for public transport, shared mobility solutions and active travel.

Galway now has an opportunity to reimagine itself and become a model of a vibrant, people-centred historic city that is accessible to all.

Sadhbh O’Neill is a researcher and lecturer in climate policy. FIE was represented by Fred Logue & Co. solicitors and barristers Stephen Dodd, John Kenny and Donnchadh Woulfe.

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