Fri, Nov 19, 2021
Read in 8 minutes
Neasa spoke of her support for e-scooters, but also about the need to ensure an inclusive and ambitious public realm that is accessible and walkable and supportive of every single vulnerable pedestrian out there.
What I want to talk about today is scooters. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I own a scooter. I love my e-scooter, which is really handy for somebody like me in Dublin 1 or Dublin 7, as my constituency of Dublin Central is very populous but fairly compact. For people who live somewhere like I do, a scooter is a game-changer. They can get around the city quickly and easily. Something we do not talk about enough is the affordability of scooters as a means of transport. For so many people around me - for students, for carers - it is something that is within their means and they can go much further distances without relying on bus schedules or the Luas. They can really take transport into their own hands, which is hugely important, in particular for people on low incomes.
Therefore, I am incredibly supportive of legislating for e-scooters, which is very important. I am also the parent of a child who uses a white cane and who is registered as blind, and who is also hard of hearing and has dyspraxia, which means the street is always difficult for her. It also means we are constantly in contact with the National Council for the Blind, NCBI, which does incredible work and which we certainly rely on for services. During the course of this Bill I have been in contact with the NCBI, which has talked me through some of its recommendations on this Bill, in conjunction with the Irish Wheelchair Association and the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind.
Before I go through some of the recommendations they made to me, I want to talk about some of the principles of what makes a good street for someone like my nine-year-old child, who finds it difficult, who cannot always see pavements or obstructions and who cannot hear cars coming. The first principle is the hierarchy of the street. To some degree this is referred to in our design manual on urban streets and roads and is as follows: the most important user of a street is a vulnerable pedestrian. That is not just a pedestrian but a vulnerable pedestrian; somebody who might have mobility issues; who might be older and who might find it difficult to walk long distances; who might find it difficult to cross a road in the time the pedestrian crossings give him or her; or who might not see a kerb. The second most important user of a street is the average pedestrian, the third is cyclists and self-propelled vehicles, the fourth is public transport, the fifth is private rented transport, the sixth is local business deliveries, the seventh is local motor traffic, the eighth is non-local motor traffic, and so on. The hierarchy of the street sets out who the street must service first and it is true that if a space is designed for the most vulnerable among us it will be a usable space for everybody.
All footpaths, streets, squares and developments and all decisions around transport should be designed with universality of access in mind. On that point, one of the most important things the NCBI, the Irish Wheelchair Association and the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind raised with me is the need to keep footpaths safe. I have been watching this debate closely and during it I have heard a lot about scooters whizzing past people and the idea that there might be collisions. We have never had a collision between my child and a bike or between my child and a child on a scooter. We have been pretty lucky. That does not necessarily solve the issue because a bike or a scooter on a footpath does not have to hit you to rob you of your confidence. If a cyclist or somebody on an e-scooter whizzes past you, you can feel the air change around you, you can hear the noise and you can feel something coming at you. It robs you of your access to that public space, it makes you feel like you are not safe and it makes you more likely to stay at home. We know that is what people with vision impairment do; they stay at home because they feel they are not safe. We need to ensure this Bill has robust and clear language around the safeguarding of footpaths and keeping footpaths safe and clear of motorised vehicles and e-scooters.
The second principle of what makes a good street for someone with vision impairment, which is one of the more important ones for me, is the alert for vehicle acoustic systems. This is a conversation we would have had around electric cars and it is incredibly important. People with vision impairment face this challenge across the world. Electric vehicles of all sorts are relatively quiet and in some ways that is fantastic because people like me who live in inner-city Dublin are used to the hum of the city but do not want to hear the roar of traffic. We want our communities to have a reasonable level of noise and not to have noise pollution. The idea that we would have less noise is appropriate and good. That is also a huge boon to anybody experiencing a sensory processing disorder or autism. However, we also need to be able to hear cars, vehicles and e-scooters coming. It is advisable that there be some provision in the Bill for vehicular acoustic systems; that is a good idea.
The speed limit should be under advisement. Other countries have a slightly different speed limit and they do not necessarily go with 20 km/h; sometimes it is 15 km/h. I accept that we should be advised on that by the experts but an e-scooter whizzing past you at 15 km/h and an e-scooter whizzing past you at 20 km/h are two hugely different things.
I will move to the third principle of what makes a good street for someone with vision impairment. We do not always get transport right but we did get one important thing right in recent years and my colleague, Ciarán Cuffe MEP, did a lot of work on this. When Bleeper bikes were introduced in Dublin, it was required that they would have somewhere to park. An issue that has come up with e-scooters globally over and over again is that where there are private providers of shared e-scooters, they get dumped on footpaths and left everywhere. I am hugely supportive of this and the shared schemes for these bikes are even better because people do not even have to spend €200 or €300 on a scooter; they can simply sign up to the scheme and that is fantastic. As has been done with the Bleeper bikes, we need to ensure that when those private providers move into an urban, suburban or rural area, suitable parking is provided so that they are not strewn across footpaths in an obstructive way. This is a city where we already have parking obstructions from people parking their cars on footpaths, bins strewn across footpaths and, in particular at this time of year, leaves. We should not add to that problem by allowing people to park their scooters anywhere and everywhere.
I will move to the fourth principle of what makes a good street for someone with vision impairment. I want to call out the issue of shared space. I am not sure how viable or possible it is to consider geofencing and reducing the access of e-scooters to shared spaces. It is still included in the design manual for urban roads, DMURS, document but shared space is incredibly difficult for people with vision impairment. It is almost impossible. People with vision impairment need kerbs and protected space. It is the exact same principle as cycling on a road; you need to be protected as you cannot necessarily see what is coming up against you. Shared space simply does not work and we should be looking to remove it from all our local authority design guidelines, DMURS and any other design guidelines that are in place or legislatively accounted for. There should be no more shared space and we should not see it coming into design models. I have seen bodies like the National Transport Authority, NTA, suggesting shared space around transport nodes in the last year and a half. That is worrying and it should not be something we continue to design for.
I am hugely supportive of e-scooters and I am an owner and user of one. They are a game-changer but we all have to share our public space and realm. Some of us are motorists, some of us are cyclists, some of us use skateboards and some of us will use e-scooters. Every single person in Ireland is a pedestrian at some stage. We need to work to represent an inclusive and ambitious way to deliver a public realm that is accessible and walkable and supportive of every single vulnerable pedestrian out there.