A white Land Rover Discovery drives up Fishamble Street, and its wheels angle to the left – as if the driver is about to pull into Essex Street West in Temple Bar.
But it stops. The passenger window rolls down, and a man with shoulder length grey hair, looks at the two red signs, swaying gently in the breeze, blocking vehicles from the street.
He looks disgruntled as he takes a photo of the sign, before the jeep pulls slowly away and off up the hill.
Legally, Essex Street West is pedestrianised, yet the council has counted roughly 435 vehicles a day driving down it, says Shane Waring, lead at Dublin City Council Beta Projects.
That’s made the street a handy place for a trial under its Open Streets Beta Project, looking at how best to close off streets for pedestrians – whether for a few hours, or for particular days each week, month, or year.
“Is there a very simple and efficient way for doing that?” asks Waring.
How It’s Going
The two signs sit on the entrance to Temple Bar off Fishamble Street. They’ve been there since the first of August and the trial runs for 28 days.
One reads “No Drivers Just Now; This street is currently pedestrianised as per traffic signage at the entrance”. The other gives the lowdown on why this is happening.
Essex Street West has long been wholly pedestrianised, says Neil Barry, of Tamp & Stitch, a boutique on the street. It just hasn’t been enforced.
When he opened here seven years ago, there were two bollards to block cars from driving up and down, he says.
“They were only taken out between six o’clock and eleven and the rest of the time they were in,” says Barry. (Between the hours of 6am and 11am, commercial vehicles are legally allowed down the street.)
Then one bollard broke, says Barry. “Cars have been driving down here more increasingly as traffic has also increased in the city massively.”
Even Google Maps directs drivers down this street, says Barry, even though it’s pedestrianised.
At the moment, Waring and his team – whose remit is to test out solutions to city challenges – are gathering more data on how many vehicles, and how many pedestrians, come down the street.
According to the Open Streets Beta page, people walk about 12,000 times through this street each day. About 800 vehicles, bikes included, pass through each day – 80 percent during pedestrianised hours.
Eyes on the Street
It’s not down to the signage alone to guard Essex Street West for pedestrians.
Within 10 minutes on a rainy Friday afternoon, four vehicles come down the street.
The first is a rubbish truck. The driver hops out, moves the signs, drives through, puts them back, and continues on his way. He doesn’t stop to pick up any rubbish.
A couple of minutes later, a large courier van pulls in by the signs. The driver gets out, drags the signs from the middle of the road onto the footpaths, hops back in and drives up to a nearby cafe. He doesn’t put the signs back. A moment later, another car trails in.
The signs stay on the footpath. A taxi comes down the road.
“Usually one of the staff in the local businesses will put the sign back,” says Waring, as he watches it play out. “It might be because I’m here they expect me to do it.”
A couple of minutes later a woman walks by, reads the signs, and puts one of them back on the street, unprompted.
Waring runs over to her, eager to understand more about this spontaneous act of civil interest.
She works in a nearby solicitors’ office, says Waring, on return – satisfied that the local businesses in the area have taken ownership of the project.
So far, business owners on the street are in favour of enforcing its pedestrianisation. They put the signs out every morning and take them in at night.
“I find that people are far more content, the street has kind of slowed down, it’s less hectic if you will,” says Barry, at Tamp & Stitch. “But it’s very early days yet.”
Across the road at Scout, another boutique, Wendy Crawford says the only potential headache she could see for businesses is changing the point where deliveries are dropped off.
It’s not really a problem she has had however, she says. Her deliveries are small. The positives, for her, far outweigh any hassle.
Cars sometimes zoom up and down the street, she says. “My little boy is sometimes in the shop with me and I’m terrified he’ll run out the door,” says Crawford.
A Wider Purpose
Play streets, school zones, feast streets, market streets, says Waring, listing the many opportunities that arise when streets are pedestrianised.
Green Party Councillor Neasa Hourigan, founder of the Irish Pedestrian Network, and says there’s potential in the Open Streets project in showing how Dublin streets are unfriendly for walkers.
“It’s about raising awareness about the fact that there is so little pedestrianised space and the ones that we do have are often, in practise, actually not pedestrianised,” says Hourigan.
Across the city there are streets that are partially pedestrianised, like South King Street (off Grafton Street), Dame Court, and much of Temple Bar. But, says Hourigan, most people don’t realise that these streets are for feet.
Hourigan puts this down to a lack of public information, something she feels the Open Streets Beta is addressing.
Secondly, though, it’s down to a lack of enforcement, which Hourigan says is a result of Dublin Parking Services’ limited mandate.
Dublin Street Parking Services is a private company contracted by the council to operate “on street enforcement”. But “street” seems to mean “parking”, says Hourigan.
They “are not looking at public space,” says Hourigan. “Their mandate is not really about the street, the person, public space and the civic environment.”
Nor are the Gardaí sufficiently funded to ensure drivers stay off pedestrianised streets. “So that idea of safe space, of clear spaces for pedestrians falls down between those two groups,” says Hourigan.
Until that clicks with the council – and drivers fear being penalised for driving up roads meant for pedestrians – it will be harder to rethink the streets, says Hourigan.
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 11:22 on 14 August to correct the location of South King Street.