We've built a cruel public realm on little lies

This is a post about how I see the world around me in Ireland. I do my best not to complain on this blog (I’ve enough complaints in my head), to be constructive. But sometimes it’s the darkness of reality where you then see the dawn of alternative possibility.

This morning, I drove my son and his friend to the naíonra. The naíonra is toward the outskirts of Limerick, relative to where we live. It’s 1.8km from our house. Time pressure is relative, and is only there to “get more stuff done” that morning.

We don’t walk to the naíonra, we drive it, for very good reason. The public realm we’ve designed for ourselves (and continue to design for ourselves!) in Ireland is a cruel one. As I drove there and back, I saw kids walking to their school alone. I saw smaller kids walking with their parents. I saw a girl trying to walk across the road to get to the bus stop, standing there. There were about fifteen people leaned against a hedge, waiting for the city bus.

The kid walking alone was probably a young secondary school pupil. He was walking toward the junction of this regional road and a side-road. The entrance to the side-road is vast and sweeping. It’s a design of dominance and right-of-way, and specifically for those adults who are driving along in their cars. This boy was powerless and vulnerable, put in danger by the very society in which he is being raised.

I drove past LIT, our local third-level college. There’s a zebra crossing to it, yet the paths wind in different directions not flowing to there. There are students and staff driving into the college, into the road surface that continues into the college, with sweeping angles chopping off the footpath of kids walking to the school next door.

Meanwhile, myself and all the other pressed adults drove around the area, or sitting in a queue of drivers. We accelerate and push. We dominate and assert ourselves. We shine a little light of kindness against the darkness, by letting another unfortunate driver join the main trickling traffic stream. This morning, a driver indeed stopped in slow-moving traffic to let a college student cross the wide unwelcoming regional road.

We’ve built ourselves a public space the encodes the dominance of the adult machine-driver. What we’ve designed is handy if you’re looking to zip around the corner to drive your kid to school, and drive yourself to work (yet, you’ll be sitting in the traffic queue all the same). This enforced dominance by design is contrary to our own rules of the road. This designed dominance is at the cost of any other person who wants to venture out and use our public space to get somewhere. It’s crippling any chance to unlock ourselves from sitting in queues of traffic in our cars, free our kids from the backseat.

This designed dominance that we accept as reality and necessity is at the cost of our family not even considering a 1.8km walk to the local naíonra. Those little legs would be so much better off if their morning was built around a 1.8km walk to there. It would set their little perspectives to “I want to get somewhere, I’ll put on my shoes”. However, the cruel reality of this is I’ve a four year old who sees the reality of his parents: “I want to get somewhere, I’ll get my car keys”.

We’ve not only inherited this reality, but we perpetuate it telling ourselves little lies. The entire mobility system of Limerick city is based on these little lies. “We can’t slow down people driving.” “Kids don’t want to cycle to school.” “Kids don’t want to walk to school.” “If we let people walk in our streets, it will mean more traffic.” “It rains here so we can’t go outside.” “2km is too far for myself to walk to work.” “That kid has no right to be walking, that’s reckless.” “The footpaths can’t be flat, because a little ramp would damage my car.” “I can’t store my vehicle on the road, I had to store it up on the footpath because my vehicle my get damaged, so the buggies will have to squeeze by.”

Each of these little lies add up to bigger lies that are implemented through legislation, design guidelines that are ignored by the professionals, a police/peace force that tells itself these lies, media that evoke specific biases of events, and national “safety” agencies that use psychological strategies to promote this worldview of dominance and blame.

As Fionán Coughlan (@FionanCoughlan) has said, Limerick is not a collection of problems but rather a blank canvas for opportunities. The opportunities are right there, waiting to be trialed and implemented. The opportunities are specifically to design our streets for the most vulnerable first. We can build an accessible safe pedestrian-first network where you won’t mind walking your kids to school, because you won’t fear for their death at each junction. We can build this reality where half of the current car commuters would no longer feel the need to drive, and would see the opportunities open to them right outside their doorstep (thus freeing up everyone else who really does need to drive). We would have a healthier, happier, quieter, more efficient city that based its decisions on considering its whole population rather than its dominant sub-population.

We can decide that this current enforcement of dominance is cruel, unnecessary, unsustainable, and has lead us to a maxed-out roads-dominated system that only leads to hassle and inconvenience to those in dominance. That decision will come with a change in worldview. The current world view is based on that set of little lies we tell ourselves each day, and those bigger systematic regional and national lies that play out in policies and implementation.

Challenge those little lies that you tell yourself, that we tell each other. Challenge those little lies that manifest themselves in the designing of our roads, footpaths and cycle lanes that our own council and their contractors implement. Look around you. How is dominance being sustained and engineered around you? What lies are they based on? Tell your truth. The subtly of these lies is that our worldviews can be based on those assumptions that we genuinely believe. We’ve embraced these little lies in our society, which have moved from being lies to beliefs. If you believe something that’s not true, it’s probably too far to say that you’re lying to yourself. But if you see these little lies around you, it’s up to you to call them out, otherwise you’re complicit in this reality which you may not believe is the best one we can make for ourselves.

P.S. The photo at the top of this post is at the entrance to Mayorstone estate in Limerick city. Below is an indication of my alternative reality, where you may start to consider walking your kid to school rather than driving them around your neighbourhood. There would be many other differences too, like dropping the double-yellows, having a different surface on this side street, and the footpath all being raised. But this is the basis of it:

Green = pedestrian first footpath, not roadway. Do you feel immediately that this is not possible? It’s entirely possible! It’s a continuous footpath.

P.P.S. Even this post is based on little lies I told myself. “Just 10 mins to write this post, and I’ll get it out there, then get to the project I’m working on.” An hour later, and I’m finishing up this post.