“The footpaths aren’t big enough” conundrum for Limerick Council

Directionality of public space isn’t a new thing. I assume the Romans had it, and civilisations before them, stretching back thousands of years.

Man driving horse with cart. 
Other man going other direction 
with horse and cart. 
Man not know what side. 
Horse hit other horse. 
Men angry.

The Newtonian forces at play meant that the two horses hitting each other, with whatever they were pulling, was a big enough deal that it should be avoided. And so we came up with the idea of driving your horse to one side of the road way, and if you’re walking you’re better off not being in the middle of that thoroughfare.

COVID-19 has shone light on a fact: people need more space to walk around. It’s no longer adequate to let people squeeze past each other on the edges of roadways.

So let’s go with this fact. People need more space to walk. That space must be free of motorised vehicles, most of us will agree.

Where do we find that space? We have plenty of public space all around us. We look around at the space that’s available to us. Can some of this space be used to provide for vehicle-free movement?

The traffic engineer has thought this far ahead. But they’re hitting a jarring moment where the universe is splitting: “But if I was to use this space, then I’d also have to change the behaviour of the people who are used to driving on this space. That’s not possible, we can’t affect ‘traffic’.”

And this is where the two worlds have clashed, producing a big explosion: walkers need more space to get around due to a virus passing between humans, yet Limerick Council’s values are so strongly in favour of maximising the wayfinding of a driver, that they cannot deal with this fact. They have said that they “cannot” affect motor vehicle traffic. This clash of ideas has gone through a filtering layer of psychosis which comes up with conclusions that don’t match the reality of the need for re-allocated space, so that they can continue sanely and seem to be logical.

What comes out of that explosion of ideas for the traffic engineer? “Directionality! We can apply social rules of directionality!” And so their value to “not affect traffic” is so strong, that despite a virus spreading among their fellow citizens and them needing more space to move, the engineers go to the public with the suggestion of directionality of movement in spaces where motorised vehicles are not licensed to be.

But here’s the killer flaw in that thinking, what shows that this is psychosis in action: a walking network does not exist to support such directionality. It’s simply not possible to move directionally by foot, because there is no such network.

What logical way can we give people more space? It’s to continue the valid idea of directionality for people driving motor vehicles. It’s to continue applying this principle on those who want or need to use motor vehicles, in a new reality. Their mass moving at speeds propelled by fuel is such that directionality is required to avoid us driving into each other. There are new constraints. There is simply not enough space for five or six vehicle-wide public spaces in our cities. And in many places, there is probably not enough space for 5-metre two-lane road space in our city, given our constraints.

What does this mean? Re-enforce directionality that’s established on roads for thousands of years. The traffic engineer may need to get out their pencil and figure out a circulation plan that accounts for the spread of respiratory viruses. Anything else is flawed and harmful to the people who have a right to safe being. Here is Ghent’s circulation plan for inspiration:


Update 22/05/2020: Oh look, now we have a circulation plan available for free: