Thursday, 18 November 2021
Road Traffic and Roads Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
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.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important Bill. There are a lot of great provisions within the Bill that will have positive implications for road users.
I want to focus on scramblers first because this is an issue that affects many of my constituents. I note that the Bill commits to introducing measures to address the antisocial use of scramblers and that is a positive development. The use of scramblers, and their links to antisocial behaviour and sometimes to organised crime, presents a threat to law and order in urban communities. In my area of Dublin Mid-West, the use of scramblers is of particular concern. An awful lot of anxiety is associated with the revs and roars of these vehicles being used in areas where they simply should not be used. It translates into intimidation and fear in communities where scramblers and quad bikes are used irresponsibly. They are sometimes used as part of antisocial behaviour campaigns, to fuel illegal behaviour or sometimes to help in organised crime. This is simply unacceptable. I am pleased, therefore, that the Minister has drafted this legislation which will allow for the seizure of these vehicles when they are used in public places. My colleague in Clondalkin, Councillor Kenneth Egan, has done considerable work to shape policies on this and I thank him for his work.
The public do not want to live in places that feel unsafe. They want communities, parks, streets and canal paths that are safe. Communities have had enough of the revs, roars, intimidation and antisocial behaviour associated with scrambler misuse. The legislation the Government is finalising will change that. It will make a real difference to our communities across Dublin and in urban areas throughout the country.
I welcome the commitment to tackling this problem where it counts - on our streets, in our parks and along our canals.
I also welcome the provisions in this Bill that will regulate the use of powered personal transporters, such as e-scooters. Whether we welcome them or not, e-scooters are already on our roads. That is a fact. They are being used by people every day but up until now, the lack of legislation has put those road users and those scooters in a dubious legal space. Their personal use has led to a plethora of unsafe habits from some, but not all, users. It is right that we regulate the use of e-scooters. However, I share concerns around safety and accessibility.
A recent study commissioned by Transport for London indicated that riding an e-scooter could be 100 times more dangerous than riding a bicycle. The study also found that a person who uses an e-scooter regularly will on average require medical treatment for injury sustained by use of an e-scooter every three years of use. Anecdotally, an accident and emergency nurse I know told me that over the past couple of years e-scooter injuries are becoming so common that she sees at least one e-scooter related injury every shift. They range from cuts and sprains to more traumatic injuries, such as head injuries, and the risks are real. It is vitally important that the rules around e-scooters are strongly enforced and that the public knows the responsibilities are there should they choose to use an e-scooter, which, as many colleagues have pointed out, are a quick and eco-friendly way of getting around congested places such as our city centre.
The rules and the responsibilities need to be looked at too. They should not be used to transport more than one person or to carry goods. Mobile phones should certainly not be used while driving an e-scooter and they should not be allowed on pathways or pedestrian areas. Those laws must be enforced by the Garda.
In terms of accessibility, I support the proposal for the introduction of a scheme similar to the Dublinbikes scheme. This would be the best possible way of making e-scooters accessible in public and a similar approach to that taken by other European countries. It is also the best way we can encourage their use, ensure scooters meet all the safety standards and make them a viable alternative to cars. When used safely, e-scooters and e-bikes offer an excellent alternative to car travel. Reducing the number of cars on our roads and our emissions is a focus and a commitment of this Government going forward.
However, more needs to be done to encourage their safe use among the public. For example, I would support allowing e-scooters to be brought on board public transport where space allows. It would make it easier for members of the public to incorporate e-scooters into a hybrid commute where they may choose to use a scooter for part of a journey and opt for public transport for the rest. If you are living further outside Dublin you might hop on a bus to get to halfway in and as traffic congestion starts to build up, hop off the bus and onto your e-scooter. That needs to be a real option and an alternative for people. They are small enough vehicles. Many of them can be folded and picked up easily. They should be allowed on public transport where possible but, of course, their transportation should not in any way affect the availability of space for wheelchairs, which must be prioritised at all times.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward this important legislation. It is a flagship for the Department and I welcome it. This Bill has the power to revolutionise how we get around Irish towns and cities while also reducing emissions and tackling congestion. I very much look forward to Ireland having one of the safest and most accessible e-scooter regimes in Europe.
I welcome the provisions in this Bill for e-scooters and other personal powered transporters. However, I feel we are in danger of overhyping both the benefits and the dangers of e-scooters. No doubt e-scooters will be useful for some people, especially people who do not enjoy secure cycle parking, but we need to avoid what I might call techno-utopianism, but also techno-fatalism. I do not personally think that e-scooters will be a game changer for our villages, towns and cities. They will be of some utility but I do not see evidence that dissuades me that cycling, including e-bikes, will be the machines that revolutionise transport.
The bicycle is the paragon of efficiency. Humans are moderately efficient from an energy perspective when walking, but when cycling, they are more efficient than any other animal on earth. Electric bikes are wonderful because they augment human efficiency to make journeys of 10 km to 30 km possible, even for those of us who are not physically fit.
E-scooters may not be revolutionary, but neither are they a lethal scourge that must be regulated like a deadly weapon, as I have heard some Deputies suggest. The provisions in this Bill for personal powered transporters are sensible - a weight limit of 55 kg and a maximum speed of 25 km/h. These numbers are important because of the physics. The kinetic energy is proportional to the mass and the square of the speed.
We effectively have three categories on our roads: those on foot and in wheelchairs and buggies; those on bikes and scooters; and vehicles. Where possible, we should separate all three but where there is mixing, we need to regulate speed to make sure the most vulnerable are protected.
E-scooters fit neatly into the category already occupied by bikes. What is proposed is sensible and proportionate. What we need to do is reallocate road space for bikes for the intermediate modes of cycling and scooting and get cars out of our villages, towns and cities.
I will make a small point about the power rating for electric bikes. There has been some confusion between peak and continuous power ratings, especially for cargo bikes. To clarify, many e-bikes and e-cargo bikes are advertised with their peak power rating, which can be 600 W, 700 W or 800 W. That number is simply the maximum instantaneous power that the battery, electrical system and motor can output on its power curve. I want to highlight that the legislation refers to continuous power, not peak power. The continuous power is the maximum power that can be outputted consistently and safely without overheating. The majority of e-bikes sold in the EU are within this limit of 250 W continuous power even if they are advertised with a peak power that is higher than this. The confusion is unfortunate but I particularly want to reassure people who have already bought e-bikes that conform to EU regulations that this legislation merely restates those power regulations.
Scramblers are an issue in many estates in Limerick. They have been the cause of considerable stress for residents. It is not only the fact that they make the roads in estates incredibly dangerous; it is also the screaming noise that reverberates around, preventing people from sleeping and generally enjoying their homes and their neighbourhoods. It has been frustrating for residents to feel that gardaí were powerless to stop and seize vehicles. The increased powers that will be available to gardaí will allow them to stop and seize scramblers and quad bikes even if they are not in a public place. I very much welcome these provisions.
I welcome the provision to bring fines and penalties issued by traffic wardens in line with those issued by gardaí. We have significant challenges in the enforcement of road traffic legislation in this country. I pay tribute to traffic wardens. Their job is a thankless and difficult one, but it is a vital job to keep our roads and streets safe for all.
While I am addressing the issue of road traffic law enforcement, I want to address one issue that I believe to be a scourge on our streets, that is, the issue of footpath parking. I accept that people may not fully appreciate the consequences of parking on the footpath but it is one of the most antisocial things a person can do on the street to restrict the movement of buggies and people in wheelchairs - people who are most deserving of free movement - is despicable. Following representations from me and Deputy Matthews, the Road Safety Authority carried out a campaign this year to remind people not to park on footpaths. I hope it had some effect. I hope that traffic wardens working for the local authorities can help to address this issue and I hope that provisions in this Bill can help the efficiency of the administration of these penalties.
We face a significant cultural challenge in driving and parking and the enforcement of road traffic law. I believe we need to examine seriously how we can encourage and compel local authorities and the Garda to enforce safe streets for all. Public information campaigns, as I mentioned, are important, but we ultimately need to make sure the law is enforced. In many local authority areas, it is acceptable to park on footpaths, drive in cycle lanes and block bus stops. This behaviour affects the most vulnerable and we as a State need to ensure that local authorities and the Garda direct sufficient resources to this issue. I would welcome debate and discussion about how we can do this, through amendment of this Bill or other means.
Finally, I want to address one element of this Bill that is not yet incorporated but that the Minister has indicated will be facilitated by means of an amendment.
I believe experimental traffic orders would be a useful initiative to tackle a real problem, that is, the delays in implementing road traffic infrastructure. We have got to a stage where making it safe for children to cycle to school or for people to cycle to work gets tied up in court appeals before a single bollard is screwed into the road. I have seen debates around the country get extremely heated and there has been irresponsible scaremongering about making our roads and streets safer for vulnerable road users. We have to reallocate our road space to make walking and cycling safe for all without endless, interminable culture wars that seek to lock in an inexorable rise in car dominance and that prevent even trial measures from being implemented.
We have not seen the detail of what the Minister will propose but it is useful to reflect on the system in the UK where experimental traffic orders avoid the pitched battles of a public consultation and endless debate about what road space reallocation might look like, and seek to make the trial and the consultation the same thing. Briefly, a reallocation of road space such as the introduction of segregated cycle lanes or other traffic control measures such as one-way restrictions are introduced and then the consultation starts about how well the measure is working. Members of the public and interested parties can object within six months of the introduction of the trial. The trial must be either retained or removed within 18 months. To me, this is a much better way of seeing the effect of measures to make streets more sustainable because it allows people to see how the streets work. We simply must move beyond divisive battles about how we use our streets. This type of trialling has been shown to be effective in the UK and I look forward to the Minister's proposals on this for this Bill.
I will have to say a word in defence of the older generation. I do not see myself on a scooter, bike or trike or anything like that in the near future, unless I have been overexposed to the sun or something, but I must announce myself as a motorbiker. It is an enjoyable mode of transport. I still have the bike and still indulge in using it.
My colleague just spoke of sharing space on roads. There are more people competing for that space than ever before, with more vehicles and more types of vehicle. It is important that we recognise that each and every one of us has a role to play in maintaining the highest safety standards. I have noticed a considerable difference between the manner traffic moved before Covid and how it moves now. I detect a lot of impatience. I can understand why people have become impatient, but, as a result, safety standards have dropped. It is in not unusual to find yourself in a queue of traffic, bumper to bumper, and have someone jam in between you and the car in front, and then the next thing the car behind you is in the back window. That has happened on countless occasions on the motorways and on roads and general. There is no need for it. We should all recognise each other's right to share the space and get to and from work or whatever the case may be, causing the minimum impact.
The Minister has a difficult job to do. We are trying to reduce emissions, which we have committed to, and rightly so. I hear the young generation saying that we can all cycle to work but we cannot. Some of us could have cycled to work once upon a time but I have no intention of going back to it any time soon if I can avoid it. For those who can and have a short distance to go, by all means, let us provide the space and the safety standards that will allow that so people can improve their health and have an efficient and emission-free mode of travel to and from work.
I know that he is doing so, but I ask that the Minister to pay special attention to the safety standards, especially on dark mornings and evenings of which we know a lot about now. All users of the roads must pay particular attention to each other. Failure to do so can only result in tragedy. The tragic thing is that we have all seen situations where a family has been bereaved where a child or young person went off in the morning, happy-go-lucky and carefree, and has not come home the same way. It is important that we set aside some time to think about the need to do so. I pay tribute to those on e-scooters and baby trikes and trolleys who pay attention and are careful in how they use their vehicles on the road. Not all do so but quite a number do and it is good to see. It will catch on and there will be more awareness. As a result travel will improve and make the place better.
I would like everybody to have access to electric cars. That has not been possible. I am not suggesting that it could have been done, but we might have started earlier. Like the Kerryman said when asked for directions to Cahirsiveen: "If I was going there, I wouldn't be starting from here". There are two options for vehicles, electric or hydrogen. I do not see any other way to do it unless we put cars off the road altogether and that is not going to happen. People in the cities will say that is the objective and that is what they want to do but that is not going to happen. There are some situations where putting cars off the road just cannot apply. We have to realise that. I know the Minister knows that because we have had this discussion in the past. There are parts of the country where it is not possible to get public transport without enormous cost, and not even then. We have to retain the rights and entitlements of people to go about their business in whatever way possible and do the best we can on emissions.
If the investment is undertaken in time, we will achieve that but if we postpone everything until, say, we have more energy generation in the middle of the Atlantic, that means we will never do so. I have been through that in elections with the anti-wind turbine people. I know what is there. However, we must push on and work towards improving the quality and standard of travel for all our people and improving emission levels in line with the international targets - and there is no reason we cannot do that - while, at the same time, ensuring their safety. We must also ensure that we can close off the roads. During Covid, I thought there was a move by Dublin City Council to narrow the roads to nothing. I think it has done a good job on that so far. Where I used to travel up along the quays at night and it might have taken 15 or 20 minutes, but it often takes an hour now. I am not an expert on traffic movement, but I could do a better job on that. All this is part and parcel of what we need to do.
Times are changing, as are modes of transport. People are working from home. Some say the extra people working from home means that we will not go to work any more. That is not true. The truth is we can wistfully think about those things but it will not happen. The Dáil would be a peculiar House if we all started working from home. An Leas-Cheann Comhairle can imagine what it would be like calling the House to order in that kind of situation.
Let us be realistic about it. The way to deal with that is digital hubs at various locations throughout the country, which can be provided with fast broadband and whatever technology is required. That is on the one hand. At the same time we must provide for the social interaction that naturally takes place when people go to work. Life becomes very boring if people just go to work, shut the office door, stay there all day and walk out the door again in the evening. They like to chat and have a bit of social interaction. That is part and parcel of life. If we abolish that and make it that little bit more dull then obviously people will not want to go to work and will decide to take alternative options.
There are also indications, to me at least, that right now is a good time to provide the alternatives. Right now is a good time to be able to say to people of all ages there are ways and means of alleviating the burden of travel and commuting, and we will look at it and do so practically in a way that fits in with the standards and way of life we have now. Whatever we have to do, we have to do and we should do it. I hope the Minister will be mindful of these issues in the operation of all legislation, not just this particular Bill. I know he is concerned about this and for the right reasons. However, very often people typecast him in a different direction to suit the occasion. We live in a time of change. We must move on. It is possible to do one of two things. We can stick our two feet in the ground and say we are not moving anywhere and that we are going to remain as we were. We cannot do that. The international thinking has moved on as well, so we cannot do that. We can say we want to drive at whatever speed we have always driven at on the motorways because that is what motorways are for. However, what if that motorway is crowded, as many of our motorways now are, especially the M50? The Minister introduced regulation on special speed limits for it, which is quite correct. If the road is jammed with traffic, travelling at 120 km/h is grand provided nothing goes wrong. However, if something goes wrong and the car in front suddenly has to stop, or gets bumped from behind or whatever the case may be, then everything comes to a halt very quickly. Therefore, we need to do that as well.
The last point I wish to make relates to safety. I have not commented on this previously. There are risks with schoolchildren going to school or college or whatever it may be in the early hours of the morning and coming home in the wintertime darkness, and they are not all road traffic risks. I ask that they be borne in mind. The experience in other jurisdictions indicates to me that young kids on their way home from school, especially girls but boys too, have been accosted from time to time. It is something we need to bear in mind because if we are changing the rules, as we must, we need to bring along with us that there may be changes where health and safety is concerned as well. We need to put in a note somewhere to the effect that these are the new rules and this is what is safe. We know from the context of Covid we might have to say it a few times before the message will hopefully get through that this is a safe way to travel, or whatever it may be. I recall travelling up and down the country in a previous incarnation as a Minister of State in different times. There were young kids on the roadsides in rural areas in the darkness of the morning. They were waiting with the rain pouring down on them. It is a different scene from what applies in many other parts of the country. There are countless risks that need to be addressed. I emphasise that to try to ensure that health and safety issues are borne in mind and some provisions made to ensure we can at least protect users of the roads, the footpaths and of various modes of transport that are different to those in existence heretofore. We need to recognise we must put in place whatever provisions are necessary to protect all.