It might not feel like it yet, but there’s an election in the offing. The first of many shiny newsletters arrived in my letterbox recently. It was an impressive list of small jobs that, taken together, show that my local representative at least has an eye for litter control and that he appreciates the role of local government in maintaining the physical environment around us.
A bit of digging revealed the same councillor had in fact voted against a €200,000 investment in a school street for Tramore that would have included traffic-calming and pedestrian measures including footpath widening and junction tightening works to enable the children attending the local national school to get there safely by foot or bicycle. The proposal also included tactile paving to make it safer for visually impaired people to cross the road safely.
This is where the rubber meets the road (excuse the pun). What is the point of having local representatives who want to ensure no one trips over broken footpaths but who are opposed to widening them, to allow children to cycle or walk to school safely, or for people with disabilities to cross the road independently?
I have written before about how our local elected representatives are frequently unwilling to defend measures that are demonstrably in the public interest, and how sorely unrepresented the majority of Irish voters are by local councillors who oppose renewable energy proposals. But when it comes to local active travel measures, the story is even more fractious.
A 2021 survey by the National Transport Authority found that a very high majority of Dublin residents support cycle tracks, 20-minute and low traffic neighbourhoods. But getting the most modest improvement takes years, if it ever gets built at all. It will not be possible to get the affordable and equitable transport system that we urgently need for the sake of our health and environment unless we reallocate road space away from cars, car parking and car-based mobility generally, in favour of public transport and active travel.
The only argument against sustainable transport systems that I can think of is that it requires change, and some people find change inconvenient. As a result, every proposal seems to have to fight an interminable culture war to get approval. You don’t need a conspiracy to derail good climate policy; complacency, self-interest and a failure of leadership by public representatives and local authority management serves the fossil economy well.
The Cork Bus Connects plan, for instance, has been gutted of active travel measures to appease objectors and as a result, the public transport plan now prioritises the storage of cars (parking) over pedestrian safety and reliable, frequent bus services. Galway has been starved of public transport, pedestrian and cycling facilities while the local authorities and most of their public representatives invested all their political capital in a road building project that has failed time and time again to get planning approval.
The inconvenienced get more airtime, more attention from councillors and more representation. Local media swarm like bees to honey towards these local conflicts and their reporting frequently fans the flames of disagreement under the guise of “local news”. Meanwhile, children cannot walk or cycle safely to school. How is that not news?
We will never get sustainable communities, towns or cities if we have to fight inch by inch for safe streets. Piecemeal approaches will not deliver the required changes, and they exhaust everyone by setting up zero-sum battles where communities are pitted against each other (why this street or route and not somewhere else?). The real problem is that local authorities have been operating within an out-of-date paradigm that sidelines environmental and social justice principles in favour of infrastructure and engineering solutions for decades.
This year will be a critical year for local climate action because aside from the local elections due in 2024, local authorities are now legally required to prepare local climate action plans that are consistent with government policies on climate change. This will require a step change in thinking for local authorities and the professions within them that have for too long relied on engineering solutions as silver bullets to traffic congestion.
However, the Department of the Environment’s guidelines for local authorities are vague and uninspiring, and duck the core functions of local government in shaping the built environment through their planning, housing and traffic-management functions. Most of the potential for climate action will be targeted in “decarbonising zones” that are intended to be a “demonstration and test bed” of what is possible.
But what about everywhere else? It is hard to see how local government can act in a manner consistent with the climate law unless the sector adopts a much more transformative approach to its operational activities and functions. This requires leadership and, to start with, we need our political leaders (including local authority chief executives) to lead the conversation with the public about how we get to a safer, cleaner future.
Sadhbh O’Neill is a researcher in climate policy and co-ordinator of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition. She is writing in a personal capacity