Transport isn’t just transport. It’s much more than that. How we design and manage our transport systems fundamentally determines the kind of city and county that we live in. How we design for the future has a real, measurable impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.
The easy approach is to build roads, but we know this has significant adverse economic, social and environmental impacts. The evidence based approach and best practice as learned from cities across the world is Avoid-Shift-Improve, in that order of priority.
“Avoid” is the top priority because it reduces the need for transport to begin with. It’s about planning our cities better so that we don’t need to be hopping into a car to meet our basic needs – to go to the shops, to enjoy leisure amenities or to access services. The assumption must be that people do not own cars and new developments are located and designed with this in mind.
“Shift” – the second priority – relates to changing from private car dependency to other modes. Right now in Ireland, even in our cities, we are quite car dependent, but other European cities have transitioned such that the primary modes of transport are walking, cycling, bus and rail. We can too.
The last priority is to “Improve” which focuses on vehicle and fuel efficiency. This is where electric vehicles fit in. They certainly have a place but the focus of efforts must first be on ‘avoid’ and secondly ‘shift’.
For many decades in Limerick we have taken the easy option and bedded in car dependency, by building on greenfield sites, assuming car ownership, and glossing over the impacts of urban sprawl.
Instead of the Avoid-Shift-Improve approach and despite the fact that we have to reduce transport emissions by at least 50% by 2030 the ever-outward sprawl of Limerick continues. This is causing severe and lasting damage to our city, it is stunting its growth and it is adversely impacting the lives of its people.
In January, the Southern Environs plan was presented to the Council. It proposes to develop agricultural lands in Mungret, and to do so in a way that is not consistent with that most important priority (“Avoid”).
In the last few weeks, we’ve had the furore over the Coonagh-Knockalisheen Road. Yes, arguably it was late in the day to make changes, but we do have misgivings about the overall plan and we would have been failing those who elected us last year if we had not at least tried to improve it in line with new ambition.
Before Christmas the Council had put out a call for expressions of interest on developing a 14 hectare publically-owned site adjacent the new Coonagh to Knockalisheen Road, suggesting that 400-600 units could be built there. On Thursday last it announced a proposal to build a private hospital and 108 apartments. It wasn’t only us who raised eyebrows at this announcement. Is it right to develop a private hospital on publicly owned lands? Is it right to develop lands at the edge of the city, when much of the city centre is vacant or under-developed? Two additional site developments at Thomondgate and Hyde Road Park were proposed, both within the existing footprint of Limerick city, adhering to the principles of compact growth and the benefits that will bring to people living there. The third site furthers urban sprawl and the adverse impacts this brings.
We have a choice to make at this point. Do we want to continue planning our city the way we have been, around the implicit assumption of car ownership, or do we want to do things differently and better and give Limerick it’s best chance at growing into a vibrant and competitive European city?
We must lean on the principles of transit oriented development, building new stations at Annacotty, Ballysimon, Raheen, Adare, Parkway and Moyross. We need more large employers like Regeneron, Johnson & Johnson and Northern Trust, but we must locate them, together with housing, services and amenities near these new rail stations. We want to build a rail link to Shannon Airport, locking in the airport and the industrial zone as a permanent strategic national asset, double track Limerick to Limerick Junction, and re-open the freight line to Foynes port, boosting this vital shipping hub and facilitating our vision of the Mid-West as a significant centre for off-shore renewable energy. This will provide thousands of high-skilled jobs for people in the region. It is in this new context and ambition that we should look at how we plan our city.
Our view, which was drowned out in the debate on the Limerick Northern Distributor Road, is that Moyross can have an important role in Limerick’s future. It can be a critical node on a modern transport network, driving economic development, employment, social inclusion and improved quality of life.
A suburban rail network around Limerick was not on the agenda before now – not until I and my colleagues in the Green Party fought for its inclusion in the Programme for Government in the final hours of negotiations late on a Saturday evening last June. The previous day Richard Bruton, Jack Chambers and I had agreed the climate agenda, particularly the 7% annual reduction in emissions through to 2030. I stuck around and in the room on that final Saturday I made the case for why this government should invest in regional and suburban rail. The point was not to meet an existing transport demand but to influence the long term development of our cities. We fought hard for this because our vision is that Limerick will become a counterbalance to Dublin in the decades to come. We believe regional rail coupled with transit oriented development is fundamental to this.
Good land-use and planning, transport and mobility are vital for Limerick to become an economic driver for the West coast. We need local and national agencies to work to international best practice, with urgency and ambition, to achieve this vision, because at its heart are people, communities and their quality of life. We will work to position this part of Ireland as a viable counter-balance to the capital. How we do so will determine the Limerick City of the future.
Update Feb 17th 2021: The announcement from Irish Rail yesterday is a welcome step forward in our Programme for Government – reopening the Foynes-Limerick line, options for double tracking Limerick-Limerick Junction, and advancing plans for a number of new stations on the Limerick-Ennis line to serve more areas of the city, Limerick Institute of Technology and University of Limerick.