Saša Novak Uí Chonchúir

Green Party Councillor for Limerick City North

Candidate in Local Elections on 7th June

Call for increased space for safe movement of people during Covid-19

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It’s 10:55 am on a Saturday and I’m drinking my third coffee. That may be normal for some, but not for me. I can’t tolerate more than two and if I do have more I suffer for it. Today is a different day. I’m not counting the days of isolation or the lockdown. It could be anything from 15 to 45 to 99, it still feels like years. The kids’ voices are high pitched noises in my ear and their simple questions are interpreted as inconsiderate demands in my brain. They’re not, I am aware of that, but it’s still difficult to overcome. So I resort to the safe environment of the kitchen to execute a relaxing and predictable ritual of making a coffee. Pick up the 3 parts that make up a mocha, fill the bottom part with water to the line, insert into it the middle part and fill it with two spoons of coffee, screw on the top bit. Place it on the cooker and turn on the heat. Wait a few minutes for the well known and adored hiss. Pour the coffee in the favourite mug and add a more than generous amount of milk. Because, you know, it’s that kind of a day.

We have all felt like that in the last few years. Sorry, weeks, of course. What are we missing that makes us feel offtrack? We miss our routines, social contact, fresh air, activity, exercise, freedom. We’ve all given up our freedoms for the good of our communities and especially of our most vulnerable members. We’ve been doing an excellent job in Limerick and we have to remember that every time we struggle.

How do we cope? Engaging in a routine activity at home is one way of coping. Going outside is another. People need open skies, activity, exercise, movement, fresh air, seeing other people around (at a safe distance). It gives us a sense of normality in these unfamiliar times.

We have been semi-voluntarily half-imprisoned to a 2 kilometre radii of our homes. That means we can move around an area of 12.56 square kilometres, which is around 3100 acres. That is a big area! I drew a couple of circles with a radius of 2 km around Limerick for illustration.

While some of these circles contain an abundance of green areas, some don’t. And while some have beautiful walks and safe walkways, some don’t. Yet we still need to move, we still need the feeling of open spaces. The space in the cities seems limited, but currently there is plenty of unused space due to the reduced traffic volumes – the roads. On the one hand we have people stressing over (too) close passes between walkers, joggers and cyclists, on the other we have practically empty roads. Let’s use them.

Cities in, among others, Australia, Germany, USA, Canada, Hungary, Colombia are turning their streets over to walkers and cyclists. Along the obvious benefit of easier compliance with social distancing guidelines there come two more benefits. Firstly, there is the health benefit as evidence suggests that air pollution negatively affects the survival chances of those with Covid-19. By minimising motor traffic on our main city arteries the levels of pollution go down. Secondly, there is what we could call a health and safety benefit. With roads becoming quieter since the lockdown began we have all observed the speeds go up. With roads either closing or narrowing we are separating walkers, joggers and cyclists from the motor vehicles, while at the same time creating conditions that encourage drivers to drive at a safer speed.

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough space given over to people in Limerick to move around safely and observe the two-metre social distancing guidelines. The area along the river between the Shannon Bridge and Arthur’s Quay Park (Bishop’s, Harvey’s, Honan’s and Arthur’s Quays) is mostly designated as a ‘shared space’, however it has been mostly dominated by motor traffic. Taking into consideration the substantially reduced numbers of motor traffic and the increased need for social distancing we should use the space we already have and give it to people.

Brian Leddin TD, my Limerick City and County Council colleague Seán Hartigan and I have been discussing this over the last few weeks. As the isolation and social distancing measures extend into summer the need for action is growing. We’ve come up with a temporary solution that we think can provide a bit more space for people.

“The concept is to take one lane of traffic from O’Callaghan Strand, the Shannon Bridge, and the south quays, and give them over to people. Access by car would not be affected – everyone could still drive to places on the quays. But critically it would give an unbroken wide path from Sarsfield Bridge, over the Shannon Bridge, along the quays and back under Sarsfield Bridge to Arthurs Quay park. An unbroken path for families to enjoy a bit of open space. There is no reason why we would not allow cyclists to enjoy this space too, as long as priority was given to pedestrians. This should just be the start: there are many areas of the city where we could take away traffic lanes and give them to people to enable them to practice social distancing. Sarsfield Bridge and Clancy Strand are the obvious choices – but this might need a bit more planning because a bus route would have to be diverted.” Brian wrote in his blog post.

We don’t need much more than a few cones and road barriers to create a safer and healthier space for people to avail of during the times when our world seems turned upside down. In the company of grounded planes, closed pubs, shops and beaches, postponed Leaving Cert, and cancelled weddings a few closed roads seems like a small sacrifice (and a huge gift!).