A COLLAPSED building on North Main Street has handed Cork an experiment in what a car-free city centre might look like.
With North Main Street closed to car traffic, a good chunk of the city centre is now ideal terrain for cyclists and pedestrians. North Main Street links on to the pedestrianised plaza of Cornmarket Street, which then shoots up to foot-friendly laneways around Paul Street.
And for most of the afternoon, walkers and cyclists have the run of Patrick Street, with another network of lanes linking it to pedestrianised Oliver Plunkett Street.
With the current heatwave added to it, this might be Cork at its absolute best — a city centre where people come before everything else.
This is a city centre where you can saunter all the way from North Gate Bridge, sampling the wares of the old traders and new bars and cafes of North Main street, right through the high street shops around Patrick’s Street and all the way to Parnell Place without having to worry too much about traffic lights or breathing exhaust fumes.
A few short years ago, that whole route would have been clogged with bumper to bumper car traffic.
A rising population and a climate emergency means that Ireland, and Cork in particular, has to re-think its approach to cars and public transport, and the evidence suggests that the little pedestrian utopia we have right now is the right approach.
In October 2017, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, temporarily banned motor traffic in one of its neighbourhoods to host the EcoMobility World Festival — a regular event that aims to demonstrate how much better a car-free world could be. The testimonials from residents were decidedly positive, especially from one student who noted the clean air and the new activity.
“This area felt like a dead town, but right now, streets have come alive with events and new shops,” he said.
Kaohsiung is like Cork on steroids. It’s a regional city, far smaller than the capital, but still one of the biggest and most important ports in the country and has a thriving local economy with a big service industry — though it’s population is 10 times as big as Cork’s.
While we have cars, the problem there was motorcycles, but the streets were clogged up in the same way.
Over the course of the month, residents and visitors experienced a far friendlier city that was actually easier to get around.
People could no longer freely use the neighbourhood as a throughway to other areas, and real effort was put into making it a destination in itself.
From smaller cars to electric bikes and segways, people were able to try out alternative forms of transportation too, along with a series of events and activities to educate people about more sustainable transport and take part in real-time transport experiments.
While we might not have the energy, atmosphere, and opportunity of the EcoMobility World Festival, we can definitely take some lessons away from it and our current traffic situation.
The organisers of the festival points out a few things about cars that we might not realise.
For every one commuting car, two parking spaces are required - one at home and one at work.
Given the nature of commuting, though we might think we’re getting good use out of our cars, we have them parked up 95% of the day.
It’s even more frightening when you think about the cumulative amount of time we spend in them too.
An average motorist will spend 15 weeks of their life just searching for car park spaces.
In areas with less cars and more sustainable forms of transport, there are far fewer road deaths, land can be used far more effectively than being paved over for parking, and cyclists, pedestrians, and the environment as whole get a serious health boost.
The organisation recommends that cities shift their strategies to prioritise moving people over moving cars.
That approach changes the questions asked, and with that the solutions.
We would no longer ask how best can we move tens of thousands of cars to and from commuter towns and suburbs to the city centre and big retail parks every morning and evening, and start asking how we would move tens of thousands of people.
That means investing in cycle lanes, pedestrian walkways, and public transport, and investing in the built environment so that people living in densely populated areas can live comfortably without having to travel for amenities.
Imagine what Cork might look like if we took that approach.
The grey of carparks could be replaced with green. The open-fronted bars and cafes of Cornmarket Street could become the norm across the city, with outdoor seating everywhere.
A wander around traders and all the nooks and crannies of our oldest streets could become far more desirable and convenient than a trip to a shopping centre.
And even if you did want to go to a shopping centre, imagine a city where you could wander or cycle safely out to the green route to Mahon without having to worry about a car knocking you down.
It would make Cork a dream for tourists. How many of us go to Venice or Amsterdam and bemoan the lack of cars?
Cork has a long way to go and a lot to do before it can reach the level of cities like those, but there are plans in place.
Between the City Council’s City Centre Movement Strategy and the government’s recent Cork Metropolitan Area Transport Strategy, there are overarching strategies in place to transform how people move in Cork.
Whether those plans are ambitious enough is another question, however, and it’s clear from the Ireland 2040 plan and the Climate Action Plan that cars — albeit electric ones — are still a part of our future. But as the sun shines this weekend, take a walk around the city centre if you can, and imagine what could be.
A car free city centre that’s easy to get to by public transport and easy to get around as a pedestrian is the type of future we really should be aiming for.