If there is any silver lining for Dublin to the health and economic disaster of the coronavirus pandemic, it has to be the emergence of measures to improve life for pedestrians and cyclists.

Dublin City Council was first out of the traps in the repurposing of road space, annexing on-street parking spaces to widen footpaths and installing segregated cycle paths throughout the city, most notably on the Liffey quays, a scheme it had failed to get going for the previous eight years.

The Office of Public Works (OPW) closed all but two of the Phoenix Park gates and banned all parking in the park at the end of March. Initially this was not a cycling or walking-driven measure, but to deter people from breaking the 2km travel restriction. However, as Covid-19 restrictions eased it became more about creating a better atmosphere for people to enjoy the park’s amenities. This was made most explicit when it decided not to reopen the peripheral gates as planned on June 29th to “curb traffic volumes” and maintain “safe, quiet, open spaces for pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy”.

However, less than two weeks later, on a Thursday evening, the OPW announced the peripheral gates would reopen the following morning. This decision, made by the newly-appointed Minister of State for the OPW Patrick O’Donovan, was never about facilitating access to the park.

What the closure of the gates did make less attractive was the use of the park as a rat run or a commuter route. That this was the real focus of the reversal was made clear when O’Donovan said the park was a thoroughfare in to the city for motorists from as far away as Longford and Westmeath.

As the city and country reopens, perhaps it is understandable car users would rail against the very considerable changes to their pre-pandemic routine.

Anne Crawford owns one of the few businesses operating in the Phoenix Park, an afterschool childcare service located in the special school on the north side of the park, close to the Hole in the Wall pub. She agrees the gate closures had limited impact on those coming to the park for leisure trips, but says they represented a serious inconvenience for working people.

“We opened on the 29th of June, when the gates were meant to have been reopened, but with only one gate [open at] each end, parents trying to drop off and pick up children were sitting for up to 50 minutes on Chesterfield Avenue [the main road through the park].”

Many of these parents would come from the Navan Road direction, so would have no reason to venture into the centre of the park when they can use the Cabra and Ashtown gates, she said.

“All the parents were going ballistic. These people sitting in traffic jams are the people going to work and paying taxes for the upkeep of the park, not the people sitting in the park on the €350 pandemic payment saying it’s all so lovely without the cars.”

Crawford also runs afterschool facilities in nearby Castleknock and Ashtown and said traffic on the roads around both areas improved when the gates reopened.

It would be “fair enough” to close the gates if there were adequate public transport options, she said. “The 37 bus only comes every 20 minutes and even before Covid the trains were packed and now the capacity is reduced. Working people need to be able to drive from one side of the park to the other, not just from Castleknock to Parkgate Street.”

While the reopening of the gates has come as a great relief, she is concerned there may be attempts to reverse the decision. “I know the Green Party wants to close them again, but there will be uproar if they do, particularly when the schools – Mount Sackville and Castleknock College – reopen.”

Crawford says she doesn’t really understand the argument for banning cars from peripheral roads and gates. “There are 1,700 acres here and only very few roads. You don’t have to be anywhere near the cars if you don’t want to be.”

Fine Gael Senator Emer Currie said the singular focus on the gates as a solution to traffic management in the park has been misguided.

“The conversation has become quite polarised, you’re either for or against the gates being open, when it should be a conversation about how to retain the best of the park while making sure it is accessible.”

Sudden changes to park access without consultation and the continuing use of what had been billed as an emergency measure at the start of the pandemic travel restrictions, was what had annoyed residents, she said.

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