STEVE BRADLEY explains why we need to reduce the impact vehicle use is having on our urban fabric
Last week, the World Health Organisation revealed that Derry ranks amongst the ten worst cities in the UK for air pollution.
A few days later, a public exhibition was held on the £60m. proposal to turn the 2.6 mile Buncrana Road into a dual-carriageway.
Although separate events, they both shine a light on the increasing dominance of motor vehicles within Derry.
To understand the truth about any city, just take a look at its suburbs - the ordinary parts that lie beyond its showpiece urban centre.
The last two decades have seen Derry’s suburbs expand in all directions. These new neighbourhoods are often created with detached/semi-detached houses huddled close to each other along meandering streets or cul-de-sacs on the edge of town.
Instead of locating the necessary facilities for these new suburbs (shops, doctors’ surgeries etc.,) centrally, with homes radiating outwards to create genuine urban ‘villages’, the facilities are, instead, usually concentrated on the very edge of these new communities - often next to a main road and with substantial parking provided.
With its schools, shop and pub all in isolated, peripheral locations away from its thousands of residents, Culmore is a classic example of this - as is Whitehouse on the Buncrana Road. Such edge of town developments leave the residents there feeling distant from local facilities and our city centre and makes driving feel like a necessity.
Whilst cities around the world strive to reduce the impact vehicles are having on their urban fabric, in Derry we continue to embed car dependency into the very DNA of our city.
And, with 3,500 more homes soon to be built in similarly isolated pockets near Buncrana Road, things are unlikely to improve any time soon.
This explains why car dependency is increasing here despite our council’s stated aim of encouraging greener and healthier alternatives. A council which, by the way, has a riverfront car park exclusively for the use of its own staff - despite having policies against riverside car parks and also its offices being on a key public transport and cycling thoroughfare. Our local authority believes we can somehow create a modern 21 st century city through 1980s planning policies,whilst itself refusing to lead by example.
Derry has, so far, avoided the serious congestion that blights many other cities, but traffic is undoubtedly increasing here - with wide ranging consequences. In health terms, air pollution was so bad locally that, in January, the Department for the Environment issued a monitoring alert. With the very design of our city encouraging people to make short journeys by car rather than walk or cycle, it is no surprise that Derry residents have the worst health in Northern Ireland.
Car dominance also impacts negatively on the use of public land here as vehicles demand increasing road and parking space. Yet, history has shown that, the more roads you plant, the more traffic you harvest, leading to a vicious circle. Derry city centre contains numerous council-owned car parks in prime locations (e.g. Quayside, Victoria Market, Foyle Road), all occupying space that could make a greater alternative contribution to our city’s prosperity.
But with our suburbs increasingly built around cars, it will likewise become harder politically for the council to reduce its parking provision. So, instead of offices, shops or hotels paying rates, generating jobs and supporting local businesses on those sites, we get the wasted opportunity of car parks that generate only minimal income for the council.
Car dominance also carries a social justice cost, too. More than one in every three households in Derry (36%) do not have access to a car or a van.
By designing our city entirely around the needs of those with private vehicles, we are failing over a third of our own citizens. And we are also creating a time-bomb: because, as our economy and employment improves, more people here will be able to (and feel the need) to buy a car. An increase in car ownership in Derry to the Northern Ireland average would put 4,200 more vehicles on our streets.
We are storing up a serious congestion and parking problem for ourselves if we don’t reduce our dependency on vehicles. The solutions to address this are well known but require funding and courage from those in power.
The first step should be to ensure that suitable alternatives are made available locally to reduce people’s dependence on cars.
Our local bus network is inadequate, our train service is designed solely for inter-city journeys, and we have almost no proper cycling infrastructure. Belfast has a higher percentage of households without cars than Derry (41% - the highest in NI), but they also have good public transport, fast improving cycling infrastructure and are spending £90m to create a new rapid transit network.
Meanwhile, almost all transport investment in Derry gets spent on road developments. Only 5% of people here use the bus to get to work every day (versus 14% in Belfast), and more people catch the train to work every day in Armagh than in Derry, despite that town not even having a train station.
It is time our council and politicians took rail seriously as an alternative to car use here and pushed for the creation of new rail stations on the existing line to the east of Derry (e.g. at Strathfoyle and Eglinton) and also for new line extensions to Strabane and Letterkenny. And, if we are serious about encouraging greener and healthier transport here, the project to widen the Buncrana Road must also include segregated cycle lanes.
Reasonably priced, reliable and accessible alternatives to car usage are essential in Derry - but we also require a cultural shift here. We have grown accustomed to driving wherever and whenever we want, regardless of the impact, and it will require political and moral courage to alter that. In particular, driving will need to be made less appealing, particularly at peak times, with public transport and cycling instead prioritised to become the quickest and most reliable way to get from A to B locally.
Our city will need to be retro-fitted to be less dependent on and encouraging of cars. Traffic-free zones will need to be increased, particularly in key locations like the Quayside and the Walled City. And the number of car parks should be slowly reduced and replaced with more economically productive uses of city centre land instead.
It is also vital that we stop repeating the mistakes of the past when we plan and approve new neighbourhoods - which brings us back to our addiction to creating car dominated suburbs here.
Control over planning now rests in the hands of our local council which places the spotlight firmly upon the council staff and elected councillors who live amongst us. Will they continue the failed approach of warehousing people in cul-de-sacs on the edge of our city, where a car is required even to buy a pint of milk?
Or will they, instead, recognise the opportunity to create thriving and healthy mini-villages across Derry - each with the basic facilities they require to prosper provided within easy reach without having to drive?
In short - are our council and politicians up to the task of making Derry fit for the 21 st century? Or will they continue with the same old outdated way of doing things through a lack of political and moral courage?
Generations to come will judge them harshly if they make the wrong choices for our city today.
Steve Bradley is a commentator and urban regeneration consultant. He can be followed on Twitter : @Bradley_Steve