Every Easter Monday in recent years, O’Connell Street in Dublin has been closed off to traffic. And it’s been splendid. For once, we can enjoy the great girth of that fine street and all the music and open-air historical events available from the river up to Parnell Square without the tyranny of traffic.
The street becomes a plaza. A great meeting place. Rather than being divided by a noisy highway, pumping carbon monoxide. Oh, if only it could be like this all the time. And the city centre could be almost like this most of the time. If private cars were banned from the areas between Dublin’s two canals. And not encouraged elsewhere.
Private cars destroy a city. Not only are they noisy and dirty but there are always more and more of them demanding that parts of the city is destroyed to make more room for cars.
Anyone who’s been to Amsterdam will have noticed how pleasant it is to be somewhere where public transport and bikes are encouraged rather than cars. And the resulting space allows the city to be enjoyed and allows people to move around easily and not get stuck in traffic jams.
So, yes. Dublin City Manager, Owen Keegan, is right to declare war on private cars. And to develop good public transport alternatives and bike lanes. There’s no other way to make city living work. But you know, there is one thing that private cars, for all their faults, usually do not do. They do not drive down the middle of the footpath, scattering pedestrians to left and right.
Cyclists, on the other hand, do this all the time. And no, I don’t mean little children on stabilisers. Or even their parents cycling with them. I mean great big wusses in business suits and briefcases, thundering along the footpath on their Dublin Bikes. Try walking along the pavement in Nassau Street any day and they’ll send you climbing up the nearest railings or jumping into the street.
Have I challenged them? Of course, I’ve challenged them. Hey, you great big wuss in a business suit! Why not be a big boy and use the road? Or the bike lane? But by that stage, they’ve ploughed through you to scatter other old ladies and men. Or startled parents pushing baby buggies. Oh yes, this is Panzer tank stuff.
I have nothing against cyclists. Some of my best friends are cyclists. I’ve been a cyclist myself. And I welcome a future where more and more road space is taken up with environmentally-friendly cyclists and less with noisy, dirty cars.
But pedestrians have rights too. And with a move away from cars in the city, there are going to be more and more of us choosing to walk to work or to walk to and from our public transport link. Footpaths are going to be even busier. So, they should be used for the purpose that their name suggests. For those of us on foot.
And the problem here is not that the rules of the road need to be changed. The rules state in black and white that cyclists must not ride on or across a footpath. The problem is that there’s nobody to implement the rules. There’s no registration number to identify the cyclist and short of wrestling a great big wuss to the ground and getting the serial number of the bike hidden underneath the bottom bracket, there’s not much identifying that you can do.
If you’ve time, you can take a photograph. But bikes move faster than you can recover your balance. You might feel like sticking your umbrella in his wheels and overturning him. Yeah, it’s usually a ‘him’. But you should not. No, effective and all as it might be, you should not.
Footpaths will be busier as roads get emptier. So, the Garda Traffic Corps will have to reassign Gardaí to this new traffic threat. And that threat does not come from your regular dedicated cyclist who would scorn riding on the pavement. It comes from these new bicycle brigands who rent a bike for a few hours and take off on it like they would a jet ski in Gran Canaria.
It’s time we called in the law and fought for our footpaths. As Dustin Hoffman put it memorably in Midnight Cowboy, I’m walking here. I’m walking here.
As originally broadcast on Drivetime with Mary Wilson, Tuesday, June 19th.
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