During my 33 years, Galway has changed from a large town to a small city. But we haven’t done a good job of managing that change. Housing estate after housing estate has sprung up with little additional services in the form of public transport, cycle lanes, community centres or local businesses. Jobs were located in business and industrial parks far away from where people lived.
Our city centre was never really developed and where it was we had mostly poor-quality apartments with few families being given the real choice to live in the city centre. Unsurprisingly then, more than half of Galway families have 2 or more cars and we spend more time stuck in traffic instead of being with our loved ones.
It is welcome that government seems willing to back major infrastructure investments for the city, with City Council saying there is c. €1 billion to spend on our transport strategy. At some point, an Irish government must also secure significant funding for a big home and office building programme for Galway City.
The decisions Galway makes about transport and housing in the next few years will define our city and how much time we spend in traffic for a generation. So far, unfortunately, I’m not hopeful.
On transport, much hope is placed on a bypass that I suspect will make some difference once opened but will cost a lot of money and will only delay the inevitable need to switch from cars to public transport and cycling. We have been slow to develop a decent bus network and we have a patchwork of unsafe cycle lanes.
On housing, we have incredible potential to reimagine our city centre with a large land bank around the docks and train station as well as canals and a river that could be residential centerpieces for the city. But we have been slow to develop ambitious plans that Galwegians have had a say in, and instead, we depend on a mish-mash of different private proposals that are likely to end up in lengthy planning disputes. In the meantime, we continue to build housing estates further and further outside the city that will mean traffic will get worse.
It doesn’t need to be this way. In most European cities, like Lisbon, where I lived for 2 years and where my first child was born, there is a decent public transport system. Couples are genuinely happy to raise families in well-designed apartments with good sized rooms and a homely feel. Cafes, shops and playgrounds are available within short walking distance.
Offices, factories and shops are spread across the city meaning people have the choice to live closer to work, shortening commute times. In some (rainy) European cities, particularly in the Netherlands and Denmark, cycling has become a very convenient, healthy and cheap way to get to and from work with bikes now outnumbering cars in cities like Copenhagen.
We can follow this example and build a Galway that will thrive as we grow but we need to make two hard choices – building upwards and having alternatives to driving.
Building upwards is crucial to having a sustainable city. If families have the choice – and it is a choice with suburbs still available to people – to raise children in high-quality apartments with access to public transport, playgrounds and community facilities.
If Cozenza why not Galway
We cannot separate the debate about building upwards from the debate about traffic. As more people live in a smaller area, it becomes attractive for local businesses like cafes, restaurants and shops to open up, meaning people need to travel into town less and reducing traffic. Catherine Connolly TD has recently cited the example of Cosenza – an Italian city with a similar population to Galway that is building a light rail system – to argue for the GLUAS project.
Surely if Cosenza is building light rail, we should too? Missing from the GLUAS narrative is that Cosenza is effectively a city of apartments and is about 5 times smaller for the same population (6 km2 for Cosenza vs 27 km2 for Galway), not to mention that they don’t have to cross the River Corrib, meaning they will need a much smaller and cheaper system to serve the same population.
While I would love a light rail system, Galway is at least a few decades and some very ambitious leadership away from having a population density similar to Cosenza so my expectation is that any independent report would suggest it is not a good use of our money.
Improving quality of life
The real question on big projects like GLUAS is not whether they will make things better. The answer to that is clearly yes. The question is what is the best way to spend hundreds of millions of euros of our money to improve traffic and improve our quality of life in the near future. Not just in the city but across Galway county.
For me, I believe that money is best spent on developing a public bus network in city and county that is frequent, reliable and affordable, along with a network of safe segregated cycle lanes in the city and greenways in the county.
Imagine if there was a proper school bus system that unclogged our city in the morning – just look at the difference in traffic between school term and holidays. Imagine if we could leave the car at home for the week and read a book while on the bus into work each day.
Imagine if we had a cycle and walkway that stretched from the Prom to Silver Strand to Barna, and a cycling greenway that went from Clifden to Dublin. Imagine if we felt safe with our 8 year olds cycling to school because of safe cycle lanes the way the Dutch do. If we invest our money wisely, we can grow as a city without choking in traffic and destroying the essence of what makes Galway great. It will take courage and hard decisions but is nothing we cannot do together.
Niall Ó Tuathail is the Social Democrats general election candidate for Galway West.
This article was originally published in the Galway Advertiser and can be read here.