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Roads reimagined with people and planet in mind

Roads reimagined with people and planet in mind

The Irish government is investing €1.8 billion in cleaner, greener transport in 2022, part of its drive to halve transport carbon emissions by 2030. But so far, the debate on resource allocation and planning has pitted investment in public transport against investment in roads, which is unhelpful. Optimising roads so that they support a greener transport system is not only a viable alternative but also a golden opportunity to secure a brighter future for a valuable resource, say transport experts Martin Boran and Derval Cummins.

The recent transport debate – cast as roads versus public transport – needs a clearer perspective if we want to create a sustainable and efficient travel system which improves quality of life as the population grows and behaviours shift.

To reach the Irish government’s goal of halving transport carbon emissions by 2030 we need to make the most of the roads we have, organising space on them differently. After all, they have been constructed at significant environmental and economic cost. Renewed investment gives us the opportunity to maximise their value to society by repurposing them for a new, more sustainable, era.

The process of greening Irish transport is already underway. National Transport Authority (NTA) and Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII)-led initiatives include €360 million annual investment in safe walking, cycling and affordable active travel programmes as set out in the government’s upcoming Sustainable Mobility Policy. They also include multi-billion schemes like BusConnects across cities which, with new infrastructure, design and vehicles, underpin a clean network.

“Transport has a critical role to play in our daily lives, and how we travel has a direct bearing on our carbon emissions,” said Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan TD in response to the overall allocation of €3.4 billion to the department in the Budget 2022. “By reorienting our investment towards walking and cycling, sustainable public transport in both urban and rural areas, and electric vehicles, we can make it easier for people to make changes that benefit us all.”

However, success depends on finding new ways to create a clean and smooth-running transport system. This article looks at three ways that this can be done: implementing permanently some of the temporary road use principles adopted during the coronavirus pandemic; by reimagining older, underused roads; and considering how essential goods can best be moved around a road network that has been optimised for active travel and public transport, as part of a wider review on freight within Ireland.

Coronavirus as a sustainability catalyst

Public acceptance of a different, greener use of road space in our towns requires a mindset shift. Historically, this was a thorny task because the public associated permanent changes with lengthy roadworks and disruption. During the pandemic however, temporary measures were installed at pace to allow more room for people and cyclists. Footpath areas were widened for shoppers, while side roads were closed to private motorists to improve pedestrian priority. These short-term, low-cost, but high-impact remedies allowed social distancing and al fresco dining around local shops and cafés, keeping businesses open once lockdowns lifted. They also gave the public a chance to experience an urban environment where cyclists and pedestrians are given priority, but minus the roadworks and disruption.

Figures show that the response was positive. Despite many people working from home, bicycle sales in Ireland grew 30 per cent between January 2019 and September 2020,  and bicycle usage rose more than 40 per cent year-on-year in 2020. Furthermore, figures from the Canal Corden Report by the NTA show that walking and cycling in Dublin have been rising steadily over the last decade.

By enhancing local street furniture and greenery, as well as installing better lighting and signage, we have a chance to bake in these positive behaviours, and lay the foundations for more permanent design changes that are needed to create a more sustainable transport network.  

Anne Graham, NTA’s chief executive, shares this vision. She says, “Quick-fix solutions such as the coronavirus mobility measures have created space on our streets and kept us safe. They are a golden opportunity to show first-hand how wonderful our town centres can be when we make different, sustainable transport choices which allow them to be more open.”

The Bray Seafront Plaza scheme in Dublin, designed by AECOM and funded by the NTA, encompasses the principles of making permanent short-term coronavirus mobility measures. The plaza is a focal point on the seafront, and has been transformed with redesigned on-street parking, widened footpaths, and the addition of landscaping, public lighting, and cycle parking. According to Wicklow County Council, Public feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

New ideas for old roads

A before and after video of the Bray Seafront Plaza scheme of improvements

There has long been an understanding that achieving a reduction in carbon emissions would be dependent on an imaginative overhaul of the way we use the national road network. For example, arterial roads are important routes for goods and people, and we can capitalise more fully on the investment already made in them. 

One particularly successful, low-cost strategy involves converting hard shoulders to bus lanes. This has been done on the M1 and M2 busways around Belfast and is now being considered by TII for the N11/M11, amongst other national roads. Such adjustments provide clean alternatives for people looking to travel longer distances without a car.

Another option is to include these roads in sustainable corridors. The N2 Rath Roundabout to Kilmoon Cross scheme in County Meath is a good example: the existing road network will be repurposed into a high-quality active travel scheme to enhance sustainable connectivity between local communities and the regional centres in Ashbourne.

We have taken a similar design approach to the Lucan to City Centre BusConnects scheme, which breathes new life into the Old Lucan Road adjacent to the N4 national road. The proposals for a new two-way cycle route along the old road should encourage end-to-end sustainable journeys for local (and longer distance) trips in the Palmerstown area. New bike rack facilities at future bus stops for sustainable transport integration are a feature of this proposal.

The National Cycle Network plan, which we are currently developing with TII, will take this approach one step further by linking retrofitted national roads to cycling infrastructure in towns and cities and to the Greenways network of urban and rural cycle paths.  Due to be published this year, the plan aims to encourage greener, safer personal transport choices.

Peter Walsh, TII CEO, comments: “Transport Infrastructure Ireland’s delivery of sustainable mobility solutions will continue in 2022 and beyond, specifically with the development of Greenways and the National Cycle Network plan, in addition to expanding light railway infrastructure and services.” 

Managing heavy goods transport

Any clean transport reset needs to factor in freight, not only in terms of how to reduce vehicle emissions, but also how to best segregate heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) from cyclists and pedestrians on urban roads that have been optimised for public transport and active travel use.

Our analysis for TII indicates that an HGV creates six times more emissions than a small car in urban conditions. There are still significant barriers to fleet mass electrification, however initiatives such as last mile delivery – where goods are taken to distribution hubs on city outskirts and then taken into the centre using e-bikes, cargo bikes and smaller hybrid vans – is providing a solution, not only to lowering emissions levels but also reducing the number of HGVs on inner city roads. Nevertheless, restrictions on HGV operating hours in urban areas may be necessary to create safer, more pleasant conditions for pedestrians, cyclists and bus passengers.

In addition, there is an opportunity for rail freight to provide some alternative support and we have helped Irish Rail formulate plans to introduce a new scheme to boost rail transport. Still, given that HGVs are likely to remain a key part of intermodal freight transport in the future, their role will be best considered in the context of the Department of Transport’s forthcoming haulage strategy.

Roads have a key role to play in the transition to cleaner and greener transport alternatives. By organising space differently and reimagining how we use them, we have an opportunity to maximise a highly valuable resource.

This article originally appeared on Without Limits, AECOM’s thought leadership platform.


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