St Enda’s Primary School on Whitefriar Street, just behind Aungier Street in the south inner city, was promised a school zone in June, says Killian Boland, the school’s deputy principal on Tuesday.
He wants the pencil-shaped bollards and colourful circles on the ground because they let passing drivers know that they’re near a school, he says.
Drivers may not be prepared as they should be for children crossing the road, because it’s not clear that the school is there, says Boland. “This school is invisible.”
A Dublin City Council official already prepared a draft plan of what the school zone would look like. Circles would colour up to Peter Street and down to Golden Lane, he says.
But over the summer, the plan fizzled out. Boland says he is not sure why.
“We thought, when term started up again, we’d come back and say, here we have our school zone,” he says.
That didn’t happen because over the summer engineers working on school zones were moved on to two other council units – the Traffic Advisory Group, which handles traffic requests, and the neighbourhood traffic schemes, which work on local calming projects – to restart work on those, says a November council update on Covid mobility measures.
The move meant shutting down the roll-out of new school zones, says the report. But “additional engineering staff are now currently being sought in order to restart the school zone projects and safe routes to school projects”, it says.
How fast school zones get up and running again depends on how fast the council can recruit new engineering staff and how well it can keep them, and so far, say councillors, progress has been slow and faltering.
Whither Covid Mobility Projects?
School zones were part of the council’s Covid mobility measures, which were launched in May 2020 as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, aiming to improve walking and cycling in the city centre.
Changing who is responsible for them is all part of a wider reshuffle that, if the current proposal goes ahead, will see the Covid Mobility Team disbanded from 1 January next year, and the projects that have fallen within its remit parceled out to other council teams.
The email address used to contact the Covid Mobility Team will be closed, the report says, and any requests sent before then will be used to form part of a Walking and Cycling Action Plan, and given to a new Active Travel Team, when it is formed.
The City Centre Transport Team will take care of projects like the pedestrianisation of Capel Street and Parliament Street, says the November report.
The Traffic Advisory Group will look after ongoing traffic-calming measures as on Belmont Avenue in Donnybrook, and Pigeon House Road in Ringsend, it says, which stop rat-running and open streets up for more walking and cycling.
Area engineers, meanwhile, will look after pedestrian crossings projects.
School zones, and the national Safe Routes to School project, will continue to work within the traffic department, says the report. But there won’t be any engineers on the team, it says.
So far, the council has installed 66 school zones, said a council spokesperson. Fifty-two schools are on the waiting list, and it’s now closed to new applications.
Boland says there is a definite need at St Enda’s. “What if there’s going to be a child who runs or whatever, and nobody knows to expect the child there?”
Whitefriar Road is S-shaped, which might make it hard for drivers to be aware as they manoeuvre their vehicle, he says. “They don’t necessarily see the small people. And it’s the small people who are the ones who are going to get hurt.”
A school zone would make it safer, he says. “If we have bollards and signs and lights on this side and the other, that people might just be a little bit more aware.”
“Additional engineering staff are now currently being sought,” said a council spokesperson on Tuesday.
In the meantime, schools outreach officers will respond to any parking and congestion issues at completed school zones, they said, and do visits to see if school zones would work in new areas.
A New Team?
Janet Horner, a Green Party councillor, says she thinks that school zones, and other permanent walking and cycling projects, will in future fall within the remit of a new Active Travel Unit that the council is planning.
It’s a total restructure of the whole traffic department, she says. “More engineers will be put into active travel, rather than wider issues of traffic.”
In February 2021, Owen Keegan, the council’s chief executive, said in an email to Michael Pidgeon, a Green Party councillor, that the council would be increasing its active travel team to 55 people. It currently has 17 people.
The funding is from a Department of Transport pot of money for walking and cycling, announced in January, which was set to pay for up to 218 active-travel staff in councils around the country.
Dublin City Council’s new recruits would include 39 engineers, six technicians and three communications staff, among others, Keegan told councillors in response to queries.
Applications for the position of director of the active travel programme, a temporary five-year post, closed on Sunday.
Councillors say it’s taking too long to fill the posts.
Dermot Lacey, a Labour Party councillor, says the recruitment process takes forever. “We’re trying to do a huge catch-up in one go, whereas if we’d been allowed to recruit people as necessary on an ongoing basis, you know, we wouldn’t be in this problem.”
Horner, the Green Party councillor, says she finds the delay frustrating. “Let’s get some staff to accelerate delivery, not have staff in ten years time to finally do something.”
“Some of it is down to a little bit of inertia in the council, and some of it is down to just laborious public-sector recruitment processes,” she says.
In an email to Horner in September, Keegan said that the council had to get agreement for the positions to be permanent, which it wants.
It had to get go ahead from the National Transport Authority, and then the Department of Housing and Local Government, he said. “While the sanctions have been forthcoming there are always delays.”
“I would expect substantial progress to be made in recruiting additional staff by end December 2021,” he said.
“We have to be conscious however that the market for engineers, planners etc. is exceptionally buoyant and the local authority service is not especially competitive,” he wrote.
“There is a risk that existing City Council staff will pursue promotion opportunities in the Active Travel Unit and leave core service areas short of staff,” wrote Keegan.
Once the council has the new hires, it also has to keep them.
This time last year, councillors were raising concerns that too many traffic engineers had been quitting the council.
Green Party Councillor Horner said that at a meeting with councillors on Monday, Brendan O’Brien, the council’s executive engineer for traffic, said the council has fewer engineers now than it had at the beginning of the year.
“People have moved on and they haven’t been replaced,” Horner said. “This is really frustrating.”
Cycling and walking infrastructure projects such as those on Queen Street and Gardiner Street might be postponed until the Active Travel Team exists, she says.
Keith Connolly, a Fianna Fáil councillor, says that school zones should be prioritised. “Especially after getting money for extra employees.”
Boland, the deputy principal at St Enda’s, says he understands that the council has other priorities. “There are other projects which are out at the moment that do need addressing and I suppose it’s not up to me to prioritise for them.”
He’s been told his school is not forgotten, he says. “We’re just somewhere on a list at the moment.”