On a recent Friday, Brigid Keenan was pushing her shopping carrier along Bridgefoot Street up towards Thomas Street.
Kids trudge past with school bags on their backs. By the cycle path bollards, cars idle in wait to turn left and right onto Thomas Street.
Past the centre verge, cars slip down the wide road headed towards Usher Quay.
“It’s very hard to cross the road, when I’d be going to work in the morning time,” says Keenan. So many cars turn on and off Bridgefoot Street all the time, she says.
There’s new bike lanes and parking spots too along the road, she says. And there’s been more congested traffic, she says, and more agitated drivers taking shortcuts.
But there’s no pedestrian crossing, she says, which is needed.
If Bridgefoot Street doesn’t seem designed for pedestrians, history tells us, partly, why.
A pedestrian crossing on Bridgefoot Street was never thought of because engineers had bigger ideas, says Joseph Brady, an urban geographer and professor at University College Dublin.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Bridgefoot Street was to be part of a system of motorways through Dublin city, he says.
The road was widened to prepare for it, he says. Then the money ran out, and the city moved on.
“So it’s an awful lot wider than it is currently used for, and that is a reflection of how things were going to be at one stage,” he says.
“It was the solution to heavy traffic in the city centre, to put cars on a larger road that would keep them out of smaller ones,” says Brady, one of the editors and authors of a series of books called The Making of Dublin City.
Bridgefoot Street isn’t the only street that was widened to make room for a motorway. North King Street and Clanbrassil Street were too, he says.
They were to be fast, high-capacity motorways, he says, with flyovers, cloverleaf and multi-grade junctions and pedestrian footbridges.
The canals were key to the plans, he says. The Royal Canal was to be transformed into another motorway, bringing traffic around to Dorset Street and all the way along to Smithfield, and then up Bridgefoot Street, with the aim of reaching the Grand Canal, which was also to be covered with road.
“The Grand Canal was saved because of the public campaign which was fought during the late 1960s to save it,” says Brady.
“Nobody loved the Royal Canal,” he says,“It was described as a rat-infested sewer, so there was no public opposition at the time to filling in the Royal Canal.”
From the North, the M1 from Belfast would have been linked across the Liffey to Sandymount, before cutting around Belfield and Dundrum to eventually meet the N11, towards the M50, he says.
“And there would be a big junction in Drumcondra, which would feed into this tangent route, which would bring traffic around the city centre, and so only traffic that needed to go into the city centre would actually go into the city centre,” he says.
Widening these roads had been easy because of the level of dereliction around them, he says. “So there wasn’t a big public outcry about this because this part of the city had been in decline for a long long time.”
Like Clanbrassil Street, he says. “The western side is all new, because the rest of that was demolished in order to accommodate it.”
City-centre motorways were seen as a solution across Europe at the time, says Brady, to filter heavy traffic out of clogged cities.
“The idea from the 1960s on to the 1980s was that you could manage the increasing car usage in the city, by developing a sophisticated system of roads which were used for different volumes of traffic,” he says.
This approach to managing traffic stemmed from the influential manual Traffic in Towns, published in 1963 by British civil engineer and planner Colin Buchanan.
“It was all about creating what you call ‘traffic cells’ so that you manage traffic so that it doesn’t go through areas that it doesn’t need to be in,” he says.
The M8, which connects Glasgow with Edinburgh in Scotland, is a good example. It’s a flyover cutting through the centre of Glasgow.
The Dublin motorway would have looked similar, he says. “The only thing that stopped it in Dublin was the fact that we never had the money.”
One part of the M8 flyover infamously stops in mid-air, halted as the approach to motorways in cities was shifting. “Again, the view stopped at about the same time,” he says.
Bridgefoot Street, though, had already changed by then.
On Friday, Patricia Murtagh says she can already envisage kids racing across Bridgefoot Street to play in the new Bridgefoot Street Park whenever it opens, she says.
She lives next to the new public park and the former Marshalsea Barracks on Robert Emmet Walk, perpendicular to Bridgefoot Street.
The park will be great for the nearby kids across the road in the Oliver Bond flat complex, she says.
But she’s worried that without a pedestrian crossing to safely make it across the four lanes of car and bike traffic on Bridgefoot Street, there will be an accident.
“You’re gonna have all the kids running over. And kids don’t look up the road, you know?” she says.
Brady says that the wide roads of Bridgefoot Street and North King Street are relics of a time gone by. “An era in which you tried to manage the increasing volumes of cars, by building bigger and bigger roads.”
By the time the city had the money to connect them up, the approach had totally shifted. They had thought traffic wasn’t going to grow, only move somewhere else.
“By the end of the 1970s, the view had come that you can’t do this. The numbers of cars will simply continue to grow, and you would be chasing your tail forever,” he says. “You just can’t build roads wide enough to meet the demands put by cars.”
But it was too late for the roads in Dublin that had undergone widening. “So you have these lonely stretches of wide roads, leading to nowhere.”
On Friday, standing on the corner of Bonham Street, perpendicular to Bridgefoot Street, Tracey O’Reilly is chatting with her neighbours.
Traffic has been heavier lately, she says, because of the new cycle lanes on Usher’s Quay and Bridgefoot Street, which reduced the space for cars on both roads down to one lane going each way.
“That’s now pushed this traffic up this way. You wouldn’t normally have it. You’d have it busy probably around in the morning and probably around five in the evening. Now it’s all the time,” she says.
There’s only one set of traffic lights on Bridgefoot Street, at the junction with Thomas Street, and that isn’t enough, says O’Reilly. “Having one set of traffic lights on a big long road like that is ridiculous.”
A pedestrian crossing, linking the entrance to the Oliver Bond flats and the new park, would make the road much safer, she says.
“Kids round here, they don’t look, they’ll just go out,” she says, shaking her head. “You wouldn’t see kids running out between the parked cars either. It’d be too late.”
Keenan says the four lanes of car traffic should come back. “If they had have left two lanes for the traffic, the traffic wouldn’t be congested as much,” she says.
“They definitely need traffic lights here, cause we can’t get out. It’s impossible, like I drive, trying to get out of here, it’s impossible, no one will let you out, you know, cause everyone is rushing,” says O’Reilly.
“Because of these quays now with the one-lane traffic, it’s all being pushed up this way now,” she says.
Dublin City Council did not respond to a query sent Tuesday asking whether an assessment of Bridgefoot Street had been done and whether a pedestrian crossing would be installed.
[Editor’s Note: Dublin Inquirer Deputy Editor Sam Tranum is also an editor at Four Courts Press, which publishes The Making of Dublin City series.]