Saša Novak Uí Chonchúir

Green Party Councillor for Limerick City North

Candidate in Local Elections on 7th June

The challenges of long-term social distancing

It’s been just over 5 weeks since schools have closed and some social distancing measures have been put in place. It’s been 3 weeks since our movements have been limited to 2 km distances from our homes and the over 70s were asked to cocoon. It’s been a difficult period for everyone but the people of Limerick, with very few exceptions, have managed it with patience and grace. We are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we must be cautious in how fast we reach it.

The trouble is, when people start meeting together again, the virus will start spreading and cases are likely to rise. Which is why we may see a stop-start approach to social distancing, where measures might be eased a little, allowing the number of cases to rise before stricter measures are put back in place to keep infection levels within the bounds of what health services can cope with. This has been likened to turning on and off the tap of the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure hosptials and medical staff are not overwhelmed.

From a very informative article with historical examples of social distancing: Why social distancing might last for some time BBC Future
O’Callaghan Strand
We need to start thinking outside the box to find the space to make social distancing easier.

In the weeks of social distancing restrictions we have all noticed the hum of engines almost disappear from our streets and the chatter of walkers and families on bikes reappear. Open spaces and physical activity are essential for coping with a new and unfamiliar reality.

It is becoming more and more clear that social distancing will be a necessary component of our lives for some time to come to ease the pressure on the health care system.

In the last few days I tried to get cross party, cross city support from councillors to forward some ideas to the council executive to implement simple, straightforward measures to make social distancing easier. As there are currently no council or SPC meetings being held this seemed like the most transparent way of communicating the issues we have noticed or been notified about by the citizens. In the end 10 out of 20 metropolitan councillors co-signed the request.

Being a new councillor I spoke to some for the first time and I really appreciate their time and the great suggestions I received. Below is the letter that I have sent by email to the Chief Executive on April 17th.

Dear Chief Executive,

We are writing as a cross partygroup of LCCC councillors to request that Limerick City and County Council reallocate road space to walking and cycling during the pandemic and consider other measures to make social distancing possible and safe.

The response of the LCCC to the COVID-19 challenge has been excellent, with resources rightly directed to preserving essential services and ensuring the safety of the council’s staff and Limerick’s citizens.

As movement restrictions continue and car traffic numbers dwindle (to an estimated 25% of pre-pandemic levels on major roads), the council has an opportunity to improve things further and reallocate road space to:

a) make social distancing easier for those who are walking or cycling to shops or essential work,

b) make local cycling and walking safer for those who are exercising within their 2km zone, especially those with prams or wheelchairs, and the elderly,

c) practically trial road measures which may be useful after the pandemic, including for public health reasons.

Such measures have been already rolled out elsewhere, such as:

●        Germany: Berlin has added temporary marked bike lanes, directly replacing car lanes (source)

●        Hungary: Budapest is rolling out a network of temporary bike lanes in the city centre (source)

●        Canada: Vancouver have turned well-trafficked roads into one way streets, setting aside a temporary extra lane for walking and cycling (source). Calgary has taken a similar approach (video). Winnipeg has fully closed several central and suburban streets to through traffic with cones, signs and bollards (all temporary), creating spaces for exercise (source). 

●        Mexico: Mexico City has started an “emergency bike lane” network (source)

●        USA: Washington DC has seen unofficial “pandemic pavement” widenings (source), with cities such as Brookline MA using cones to make lanes for walking (source)

●        UK: Hackney Council has rolled out filtering measures to slow/reduce traffic in residential areas (source)

Over sixty cities worldwide have taken such measures, with an ad-hoc database available here.

Measures such as the above could be taken in Limerick city, including the following examples:

●        Cones to widen footpaths (for example: incorporate on-street parking – O’Connell St, O’Callaghan Strand, Clancy Strand, Sexton Street North, Ennis Road, Dock Road, Clare Street and more; use motor traffic lanes where multiple lanes available)

●        Removing or disabling pedestrian touch call units and replacing them with an automated lights cycle and signs indicating improved pedestrian priority at junctions, reducing risk of transmission via crossing buttons.

●        Temporary signs (and/or measures) asking drivers to slow down, especially in housing estates (e.g. Irish Estates, Mayorstone/Coolraine), but also on main city routes (Ballinacurra Road, O’Connell Street and Avenue, Henry Street, Clare Street, Dublin Road, Corbally Road…).

●        Temporary road pedestrianisations:

o    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. Critically it would give an unbroken wide path from Sarsfield Bridge, over the Shannon Bridge, along the quays and back under Sarsfield Bridge to Arthur’s Quay park.

●        Repurposing of full lanes to cycle lanes (from Rutland St, through Patrick St and O’Connell St; Condell Road)

Our understanding is that such measures would be allowable on a temporary basis in response to the pandemic, or on longer-term footing under section 38 of the Road Traffic Act, 1994.

These suggestions have come from constituents, who have flagged difficulties and extra needs they have during the pandemic. As social distancing seems likely to continue for several months, such measures could ease these difficulties and frustrations greatly.

We fully understand that the council faces huge pressures and financial uncertainty. The first priority must be safety of staff and residents of Limerick, followed by financial stability. 

However, this may be only chance to trial low or zero-cost methods and would dramatically improve the public realm for those who live in the city.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr. Sharon Benson

Cllr. James Collins

Cllr. Seán Hartigan

Cllr. Joe Leddin

Cllr. Saša Novak

Cllr. Jerry O’Dea

Cllr. Elena Secas

Cllr. Conor Sheehan

Cllr. Catherine Slattery

Cllr. Abul Kalam Azad Talukder