Wednesday, 2 June 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Last week I ran a consultation with primary schools from across Cork South-West on the draft county development plan. Of the 35 schools participating, two thirds identified the need for safe crossings near their school and nine out of ten wanted cycle paths.
When young people live close enough, they want to be able to walk or cycle to school, to go in with their friends and have a sense of independence. This also brings many health and environmental benefits. However, to make this possible, we need proper infrastructure that can ensure the safety of children. This is severely lacking in so many places across west Cork and rural Ireland. Belgooly needs investment to safely connect the school and village, and Ballyheda and Dunderrow national schools are just two examples of many that need traffic calming measures.
While this is a matter for many communities, my question today relates to Kealkill near Bantry. Getting to school there involves crossing the main street in the village which is also the primary route between Beara, Bantry and Sheep’s Head to Cork city. There are many lorries coming through from Castletownbere and last week community members showed me and my colleague, Councillor Ross O’Connell, where the children have to cross. There are literally no traffic calming measures, no footpaths or pedestrian crossings and no legible road markings. There is absolutely nothing. Furthermore, as with many towns and villages, traffic goes through dangerously fast which increases the risk for the 190 pupils in the school in Kealkill. This is incredibly dangerous.
While all schools need and should have proper infrastructure, Kealkill is an outlier that requires immediate intervention to have a safe crossing and footpaths in place for September. We will be pursuing this matter at council level but given the immediacy of the need, I ask the Minister to ensure a safe route to school is provided to the children of Kealkill. It is a small but vibrant community that is trying to retain its population and ensure economic viability. Local groups have done incredible work in developing facilities and a parkland and they have highlighted the pressing need for a safe crossing to school as a priority.
The Minister will no doubt outline the safe routes to school initiative which specifically funds footpath upgrades and new cycle lanes to encourage more active travel to school. I can assure him that Kealkill is in desperate need of this type of investment and would greatly benefit from the programme. Last year, Belgooly primary school, which also needs support in safely connecting the village and school, showed me the significant difference that simple interventions such as bollards can make to empower children to walk and cycle to school, while in Skibbereen there is a successful cycle bus which can act as an example for other towns. We all want this type of activity and infrastructure for as many primary and secondary schools as possible.
In talking with primary school classes, over one third felt that although they were close enough to walk or cycle to schools, they did not do so because it was not safe. We need to work to bring that number down. Kealkill is one school where we can make a substantial difference. I know there are lots of areas that need these kinds of works but Kealkill is in a league of its own in terms of the risk to people’s safety. I urge the Minister to act to help put proper infrastructure in place and have it ready for students in September.
I thank Deputy Cairns for raising this matter. As it happens, I know Kealkill well. I used to bring a lot of people up to the stone circles in Kealkill which are stunning and the school is just below that site. I know it well. That route to Cork is the one that everyone uses. It is a kind of rat run because it does not go through any town and is a relatively straight run all the way. It is similar to Belgooly, which I also happen to know through friends. They are both small villages off the main road but with a lot of passing traffic. They are on the back roads but they are very busy. I am absolutely aware of the issues in places like Kealkill.
Primarily, this is a matter for the council but it must be said that Cork County Council, in terms of its planning, has done well in comparison with other parts of the country. If one looks at places like Skibbereen, Bantry, Clonakilty, Dunmanway and Macroom, with the bypass, one can see that Cork County Council has understood the idea of the urban realm, creating villages and towns that have centres, pedestrian spaces and so on. Cork County Council is better than most which may be due to the simple fact that it has a good county architect which has led to a different design approach.
There is no shortage of funding to develop safe routes to schools but I will not list off all of the different initiatives now. What this really comes down to is political will at a local level to rethink the purpose of the roads. When I was involved in transport campaigning I met a brilliant Dutch engineer who taught me about how to create safe spaces. To simplify it, first, one has to look at the function of the road. Then one looks at the shape or the way the road is divided up and finally, one looks at behaviour. If we are going to bring about change, which we need to do for places like Kealkill, as well as for our 4,000 primary schools, and create safe routes to school, then we must devise mechanisms to achieve a transformation, to bring back walking and cycling as a safe way of getting around our communities.
If one looks at the road in Kealkill, one must ask whether it is a through road for people getting to Cork city. If I recall the village correctly, the national school is slightly away from the main roads, the one to Gougane or the one to Cork city. What is the function of the roads through Kealkill? Are the roads to serve the village or are they back roads to Cork? It should be the former. First and foremost, the function of the roads around the village of Kealkill is to serve the people of the village. When one looks at the shape of the road, one must ask whether we need to install footpaths, bollards or other mechanisms like ramps, although we do not want to do the latter if we can avoid it. We need to find better ways of managing traffic. The third thing to look at is behaviour. What is the speed of the traffic going through the village? What types of vehicles are passing through? Are we talking about big fish trucks heading to Rosslare in order to get to Spain in 24 hours? They are very threatening.
Those people are doing their jobs; I am not blaming them directly.
On a village by village, primary school by primary school basis, we need to ask what the function of the road is. In my mind, it should be primarily to serve local needs, particularly safe routes to school for our children. Second, we must look at whether we need to change the shape to assist that, perhaps narrowing or maybe building out pavements.
I thank the Minister for his response and his commitment to ensuring that as many young people as possible have access to cycling to school. Like I said, we will be pursuing this issue with the council and I agree that it is a council issue. I would not normally bring an issue like this to this House. It is simply the urgency of this particular issue in this particular town. I know we need better infrastructure in many places but there are no traffic calming measures and not even a road marking in the village. Like the Minister said, it is seen as a main road so people are often overtaking through the village. This is going on where a person would go to cross the road where there is not a pavement. It is simply really urgent, which is why I raised it as a Topical Issue matter.
I hope Kealkill will be made a priority for the safe routes to school initiative. There is an immediate need for safe infrastructure, which can be installed at the most effective time for the community. It highlights the types of projects we need for all our schools, from footpaths and cycle lanes to crossing points and traffic calming.
Regrettably, despite warning signs and current speed restrictions, people still drive much too quickly past schools. We need, therefore, to look at additional measures, including more 30 km per hour speed limits, especially in rural areas where schools are often beside roads with speed limits of 80 km per hour or 100 km per hour.
Safe infrastructure for cycling and walking will benefit the whole community. Cycling campaigns in Bandon and Skibbereen are calling out for segregated lanes and pedestrian crossings, which are vital for everybody, especially for people with disabilities.
The situation for schoolchildren in Kealkill is exacerbated by the volume of traffic that is going through the village too fast. Although it is a regional road, like the Minister said, it is one of the main routes connecting west Cork and the city over the Cousane Gap. The Minister spoke about the nature and function of the road and the volume of traffic, specifically with regard to trucks coming from Castletownbere. There is a clear need, therefore, to which I believe the Minister alluded, for a traffic calming analysis study to guide the types of calming measures the village requires. It arguably should not be considered a regional road anymore given that it is so predominantly used. Given the volume of traffic, this really needs to be looked at.
A part of place-making is liveable streets, and that applies to villages as much as it does towns and cities. I hope the Minister will look at providing this type of project for Kealkill too. Ultimately, as the Minister knows, the barometer for safe active travel is whether one would allow a ten-year-old to use the road with his or her friends. In Kealkill, I can tell the Minister a person absolutely would not, at any age. This needs to be a target, and not just for the easy wins in cities but for the type of transformative infrastructure we need in rural areas and the type of infrastructure Kealkill needs now.
I will make this point because I absolutely agree with the Deputy. We need to reduce the speeds and try to define the village as such. The roads serve the village and people who are driving through should realise they are going through a village area.
There is also the issue of the wider road network in the area, however. In my mind, we want to be able to make it safe for our children to walk and cycle to school. Sometimes that will be a longer distance. It might be two or three miles. That is not every case and people may find that they have to drive. No one is shaming, pointing the finger or saying that anyone has to do anything.
If at all possible, however, we need to make it safe. There is a particular culture in west Cork. I have an interest because for years I used to bring people cycling around those very roads on holidays. The same question applies, however. Is it safe and does one feel safe? Most of the time, actually, on most of the back roads in west Cork, one does, because there is that old culture with local people where one would still say hello to someone when driving by raising one's finger. One is actually not speeding from one place to another.
There are other places where that is not the case. The example of Kealkill is very true because there is this idea that people are in a hurry to get to Cork. The speed limit is probably 80 km per hour and then, in some cases, it is 100 km per hour. By and large, therefore, people are in that mindset that they are going to get there as quickly as they can within the 100 km per hour.
The question we must ask, therefore, is how we create the safer wider environment where it is safe to walk on the country road or cycle to school. What is the culture and what are the characteristics of how we drive and how the roads are treated? We need to get this right because we have such a dense network of roads.
If Cork County Council wants to take Kealkill as an example, I would very much support and encourage that and use it as a test case. As I said, if we saw that working in Kealkill, we could apply the lessons in Belgooly or other places that are very similar.