The Covid-19 virus arrived in Ireland in February 2020. Within weeks, the Government had taken extensive action to try and control the spread and prevent the health system from being overwhelmed. This culminated in an almost complete shut down of society on the 24th March with the imposition of stay home orders.
Since then, there has been varying degrees of lockdown and re-opening, however there has been constant restriction of some sort since then. The pandemic has had a huge effect in Ireland, in more ways than would have been expected.
One unintended consequence of restriction has been the impact on how people move around. With public transport capacity severely curtailed and travel outside of local areas banned for extended periods of time, the numbers of people travelling on foot and bicycle has exploded, particularly in Dublin city.1 This presented issues in terms of safe infrastructure as people move to different ways of travelling.
Some local authorities and State bodies have been very proactive in addressing these issues. One notable example is Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council who took the opportunity presented by Covid-19 to make their villages and towns more amenable to pedestrian and cycle traffic, as well as the implementation of a 3.5km section of the long mooted Sutton to Sandycove (S2S) protected cycle route.
Such infrastructure has been rolled out in response to challenge raised by Covid and there has been widespread debate in the areas affected by these developments. Indeed, the emergency nature of the challenge posed by Covid is arguably the reason most of these things were able to be achieved. It can be argued that where public consultation is engaged on a large scale, this can frustrate and stop projects from going ahead such as the Sandmount route, where extensive objection has been mounted including a court challenge.
The circumstances on which schemes have raised the argument about the role of government in terms of their obligations to provide for the many. Some feel that the importance of these schemes cannot be underestimated and are very steadfast in their opinion that they must go ahead, if only on a trial basis to get initial measures in place. However, other groups are making the point that people must have their say and the planning process needs to be followed, particularly those who are directly affected by the schemes.
In any case, government policy has seen a remarkable shift in recent times towards the concept that we need to change how people move around, and on a broader sense how we shape the communities around us. A relatively recent phenomenon in Ireland, the idea of a 15 minute city is the doctrine that people should be able to avail of most of their wants and needs within 15 or 20 minutes of their front door. It has been implemented on some level in many urban areas around the world.
This means improving the mobility options for people, encouraging in town living as well as business to be carried out in local towns and villages as opposed to large urban or out of town shopping centres. This idea has been explored extensively and a conversation has begun in Ireland. Again, villages in the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown area have been made more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians in pursuit of this idea.
In the future, society will have a decision to make and many of the above questions will have to be answered one way or another. The debate of balance between public consultation vs speed of procurement of infrastructure will need to be resolved.
The State will need to find a place for itself in the face of that debate. It remains to be seen if the shift towards a more localised society along the lines of the doctrine of the 15 minute city will be permanent or will it evaporate as the pandemic comes to an end. Regardless of the outcome of any debates, policy makers will play an important role in the direction that local authorities in particular take as the pandemic recovery takes hold.