16 March, 2021

Road Safety: what's happening in Europe?

Road safety was back on the agenda today in the European parliament’s Transportation Committee. Here’s what I had to say to Matthew Baldwin who has responsibility for Road safety within the European Commission: Mr. Baldwin, many thanks for coming to speak to us today about this very important issue. 

Behind the road safety statistics lie human tragedies. Last Saturday, a young schoolboy David McHale died in a crash in the West of Ireland. Every week, 500 people die on EU roads. We are not meeting our targets, our Sustainable Development 2030 Goals. We need to progressively ramp up our ambition over time and get to Vision Zero sooner. I therefore have a number of questions: 

 Firstly, will the Commission commit to publishing a strategy on safe active mobility that puts the safety of vulnerable road users first? The revision (Directive (EU) 2019/1936) of the Directive on Road Infrastructure Safety management Directive 2008/96/EC was welcome, but it covers rural roads, not urban roads. 
If our urban roads were a factory floor, it would be shut down on health and safety grounds. We must up our game. Can we ensure urban roads are assessed for their safety, particularly for the most vulnerable? Can we make them safe and attractive for pedestrians, and indeed microbility? Covid-19 saw a drop in car journeys, and a boom in active mobility, and a drop in road accidents. We need to capitalise on these changes, because not only do we help protect road users, we reduce emissions and pollution, reduce congestion and its negative economic effects, and we promote the health of citizens. All such policy areas should feed into such a strategy. 

 Secondly, we urgently need to address speeding. Here in Brussels for example we are seeing the rollout of a 30km/h city-wide speed limit, average speeds are down which is good news, and countless studies have shown the effectiveness of such a strategy in reducing road deaths and injuries. The WHO states that for car occupants in a crash with an impact speed of 80 km/h, the likelihood of death is 20 times what it would have been at an impact speed of 30 km. Will the Commission therefore come forward with a recommendation on speed that in line with a Safe System approach? This could promote 40 km/h, not 50 km/h on radial routes, 30km/h speed limit on other urban roads. We should also consider lower speed limits lower on local roads where children play. For rural roads, 70km/h could similarly help reduce the number of accidents. On this point, the Commission should explore tying EU funding to the development and implementation of Sustainable Urban Mobility plans, and rural mobility plans. In both instances, road safety and the protection of vulnerable road users should be central to the plans.

 Finally, when it comes to enforcement, there is a need to recognise driving disqualifications, penalty points systems across different Member States, and I would urge the Commission to include this in its revision of the cross-border enforcement directive. Penalty Points for speeding or drunk driving penalty points should not magically disappear when the driver crosses an international border.

In reply Matthew Baldwin said the following:

"Mr Cuffe you ask important questions. I'm not sure I can answer them all. Will we produce a strategy on safe and active mobility? I hear you loud and clear. We will be addressing that issue again in the urban mobility package, which is coming out later this year. 

"You are right to say there is only a rule that requires Member States to look at rural roads; they may take urban issues into account, and for the first time, thanks to the pressure from a number of groups, vulnerable users’ needs must be taken into account.

"You’re right also to draw attention to the overall impact of active mobility in terms of the health of our citizens and the calls for sustainability. On 30 km per hour speed limits, I hear you loud and clear. You are right, speed levels are down in Brussels by 9% over the first couple of months. And the idea you have of tying European funding to sustainable and rural mobility plans is an interesting one. We need to protect the most vulnerable people on our roads. And this is something again we could look at in our urban mobility package later this year."

I was pleased with his replies, but we must do more. I intend working with the World Health Organisation and European Transport Safety Council and others to push for progress on making our roads and streets not just safer, but much more inviting to all, particularly the most vulnerable.



04 March, 2021

Some thoughts on a Biden Presidency

 

On January 20th, a new dawn broke over America, taking it out of 4 long years of darkness brought about by the frenzied and belligerent Trump Administration. Many across the US and indeed quite a few people here in Europe breathed a sigh of relief when President Joe Biden was sworn into office. The grownups were finally back in the room, and they brought the scientists back with them.
Many of the policies and actions of the Trump White House were met with dismay. The suggestions of drinking bleach as a cure-all to COVID_19. The images of tiny unaccompanied children sitting before judges in immigration courts. The violence and use of force deployed against BLM supporters for peacefully protesting. The depravity of the Capital riot seemingly encouraged and applauded by the then President Trump. The lowering of environmental standards such as revoking limits on dangerous methane emissions during oil and gas drilling operations that were ushered into legislation alongside almost gleeful declarations that climate change was a hoax. President Biden now has an opportunity to not only roll back on the damage wrought by Trump but to deliver on his own campaign slogan - Build Back Better.

 
Given the ticking clock on climate change - environmental policy is as good as any place to start. On day one, President Biden signed the executive order to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement, which will come into effect at the end of January. The internationally binding treaty, which Trump left the day before the 2020 US election commits countries to keep global warming well below 2°C. Re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement is a welcome move, and it brings the United States commitments in line with 190 other countries. It also marks the first steps on the road to delivering the Biden Administration’s $2 trillion climate and environment package.
 
The Biden climate plan, like the EU Green Deal, is undoubtedly ambitious but urgently necessary. It matches the EU goals of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 by creating a series of overarching climate change tackling polices. It aims to end fossil fuel emissions from US power plants by 2035. Much like our own EU renovation wave- an initiative I led on in the European Parliament, the Biden climate plan will upgrade and retrofit 4 million buildings and homes over the next four years to increase energy efficiency. The Biden climate plan can create millions of new jobs in energy, transport and construction through the upgrading of infrastructure and moving toward public transportation in larger more urban areas- something we are also trying to do in the EU.
 
It certainly seems that President Biden and Vice President Harris get the need for urgent climate action and understand how it affects people’s daily lives. Appointing an internationally recognised and experienced climate team - including former Obama Secretary of State John Kerry inspires confidence. The idea of a just transition for poorer communities is also at the heart of this new policy approach. Something alien to the previous administration. Disadvantaged communities are expected to receive some 40% of the overall benefits of the Biden climate plan through more affordable and sustainable housing, training and retraining the workforce, and tackling air and water pollution. As is the case in Europe, to tackle the climate emergency successfully, we must leave no one behind and ensure, as a priority, that the resources are there to help the most vulnerable.
 
The comparisons between both the EU’s and the US’s new scientific approach to climate change are there for a reason. Ireland and the EU have always had strong ties with the US. Being able to work in tandem on tackling the climate emergency will only strengthen the transatlantic partnership. It will allow us to support and enable progressive and sustainable targets while also being able to call each other out if our policy areas and legislation are not hitting agreed climate goals.
 
We won’t see change overnight. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Even the process of re-joining the Paris Agreement takes some time. And while the Biden climate plan doesn’t go quite as far as the Green New Deal proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and backed by Bernie Sanders in 2019 which called for zero carbon emissions by 2030-it is a radical improvement on the last lot! It’s a plan the EU can work with.

24 November, 2020

Reshaping our cities

 

I took part in the RIAI’s annual conference today, virtually of course. After Ciaran O’Connor’s opening remarks Professor Ricky Burdett from the LSE gave a masterclass in how cities matter. I graduated last year from the LSE Masters Programme in Cities, so it was great to be reacquainted with Ricky. Roisin Murphy was the MC, and we had campaigned together in my Students Against the Destruction of Dublin (SADD) days, so it was a real reunion, particularly as Grainne Shaffrey who studied with me in UCD was also part of the discussion. 

 

Ricky’s keynote was on Shaping Cities in an Urban Age and he spoke with ease on the growing importance of cities, and the meteoric expansion of cities in Asia, and Africa. Not surprisingly he emphasised the issue of governance, a topic close to my heart! Grainne responded, and spoke about how the Covid_19 pandemic has applied an ‘X Ray’ to our cities and allowed us to reconsider their strengths and weaknesses. It was Brendan Behan of course who stated that a city is a place where you are least likely to get a bite from a wild sheep, but thankfully our thinking on urban issues has evolved since then. Our discussion was followed by a tour-de-force about the Living City from the great Danish urbanist Jan Gehl, but I digress: let me tell you what I said.

 

I said that cities need to be affordable, cleaner, greener, and easier to get around. Urban areas are at the forefront in tackling climate change and bringing about a just transition. I said we need to make better use of the buildings and infrastructure we already have, whether that is in Dublin’s inner city or in towns and villages around the country. Simple proposals such as 'Living Over the Shop' need to be promoted. The 'Living City' initiative helps, but we need dedicated staff at the end of a phone within each Council to pick up the phone and ask 'How can I help'? This would help sort out the red tape of fire regulations, access for those with disabilities and conflicting planning codes. We also need densification and to focus on the quality of design. The ongoing review of the National Development Plan is an opportunity to focus on the ‘Town Centre First’ wording in the Programme for Government. There's huge potential for new housing in existing urban areas, whether that is in Dublin’s inner city or in towns and villages around the country. Affordability has to be at the heart of this, and the 'Vienna Model' shows us what can be achieved.

 

Covid_19 showed us the problem of mono-functional zoning. The Central Business Districts of many cities are currently in an ‘induced coma’, particularly those that lack a residential population. In response we should adopt the 15-minute city idea of Sorbonne Professor Carlos Moreno to underpin the next wave of Irish Development Plans. This idea proposes that every city should have almost all that you need located within a 15-minute cycle or walk, so that we are not over-dependent on motorised travel. It has been adopted by Anne Hidalgo, Mayor Paris, which I guess is somewhat ironic given that in many respects it epitomises the 15-minute city, and it may be more appropriate to Houston, Texas.  We need affordable homes in the city, rather than high rents for the few. We need minimum density to be imposed anywhere near a transit stop, and that should be around six stories. 

 

The Covid_19 Pandemic has underpinned the importance of good design and a more equitable city. Whether it is housing standards such as the provision of outside space. As we plan our cities. We need more workplaces in the suburbs, and more homes in the city. This will reduce our dependence on long-distance car commuting and reinvigorate our city centres as well as the dormitory towns. 

 

In urban areas we are finally seeing a more equitable allocation of road space, with wider footpaths and segregated cycle lanes, and this needs to continue. Tele-conferencing has reduced the need to travel, so perhaps we need to rethink some of our transport plans such as ‘BusConnects’. We don’t need to drop the plans, and the latest iteration is good, but it still follows the premise of giving us the options of taking the bus OR driving, and in doing so it risks failing as a ‘predict and provide’ approach to car-use is doomed to fail. We need to ensure that taking the car is not the easiest option and phase out the Internal Combustion Engine in our town and city centres. This will improve air quality, and even more desirable aim as we witness the links between high rates of Coronavirus infection in regions with poor air quality. 

 

Looking at the buildings that we design, we need to up our minimum design standards. Apartments need decent sized generous balconies, that are good enough to live in during a prolonged pandemic. Ventilation (as architects such as Orla Hegarty and others have said) is crucial. However, we also need adequate floor areas, and room heights greater than 2. 4m. On the issue of building typologies should we continue to allow large building footprints that fill in an entire block of should we regulate for decent-sized courtyards with fresh air and sunlight?

 

Technology should not dominate our architecture, but in a sense Le Corbusier was right. The building is a machine for living in, and we need to ensure the machine is well designed. We need to electrify everything, and link together photovoltaic panels on our roofs to storage batteries, and the electric vehicle outside, as well as an easy-to-use App on our phone. 

 

Ricky mentioned governance. We need to get urban governance right. Years ago, Henry Kissinger, asked who do you talk to when you want to talk to Europe? These days it might be European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. (The pedants among you might argue that it would be the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell). In Dublin we are still not ready to answer the question about who you talk to, when you want to talk to Dublin.


The big urban decisions around transport, housing, and infrastructure are metropolitan issues, and we need a metro mayor. The current Dublin Mayors: Councillor Hazel Chu in Dublin City; Councillor David Healy in Fingal; Councillor Una Power in Dún Laoghaire Rathdown; and Councillor Vicki Casserly are great but come next June they will be replaced. Having twenty mayors over 5 years in 4 local authority regions does not quite answer Henry Kissinger’s question, so it is now time for a metro Mayor. London has had one for the last twenty years, and it seems to have worked well. You might not like what Ken Livingstone, or Boris Johnson or Sadiq Khan has done, but at least you can vote to kick them out after five years, which is not possible for Chief Executives such as Owen Keegan who are often running the show behind the facade of democracy in our Councils. 

 

Finally, we need to learn from other cities. Imagine if Dublin had the air quality of Stockholm; the integrated transport of Copenhagen; the social housing of Vienna, the parks of Berlin, or the craic of Galway! We should aim high and use the Covid_19 Pandemic as an opportunity to rethink of our policies for both the space inside and outside of our buildings. Cities have a bright future, but we need to plan for this now. 

 

18 June, 2020

Fail Better

"All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs."
 

The lines came from Enoch Powell, and it wasn’t his rather chequered political career he was referring to, but that of Joseph Chamberlain, a British statesmen who wonderfully once campaigned on the slogan ‘three acres and a cow’ to capture the agriculture vote. His son Neville became Prime Minister and perhaps lived up to Enoch’s assessment of his father, given that he sought to appease Hitler in the 1930s.

Politics is an unusual calling. We outbid our opponents in promises to voters, and ultimately disappoint our electorate when we do not deliver all we stood for. If we do not make promises, we are ignored, and so we walk a path between rhetoric and reality. We campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Ultimately, we can never deliver on all we set out to achieve. In the parallel universe of academia, propositions must be evidence-based, and better still published in peer-reviewed journals before they are accepted. In politics, we rely on the electorate, and the fourth estate to capture the essence of our ideas, and achievements, or lack of them. Even though our ideas and policies are grounded in evidence, their implementation relies on the goodwill of the electorate. Implementation of our entire Manifesto can never be achieved.

Back when I was on Dublin City Council, Councillor Andrew Montague told me that all you ever get in politics is incremental change. Over time though, he went on to say, it adds up. You think you are achieving almost nothing and then, as the years pass you realise that the world has changed, and you played a part in making it happen.  Back in the 1980s a group of us campaigned for light rail as an alternative to road building in Dublin. Our button badges read ‘trams not jams’. Decision-makers laughed at us and accused us of being stuck in the past. In 1991, in my first term on Dublin City Council I worked with other councillors to promote public transport investment rather than roads. Over twenty years later I took my place on the first tram leaving Stephen’s Green. Subsequently, we launched a ‘Join the Dots’ postcard campaign to link the red and green lines, and that took a decade to happen, with opposition from vested interests who felt the car should still be king. When I entered local government the city centre population was declining, and we feared Dublin would become a ‘doughnut city’ with a hollowed-out centre. The ‘Living City’ movement led by the late Deirdre Kelly turned the tide and paved the way for policies that allowed the inner city to double in population. Ideas take time to take root and grow. In the 1980s the Green Party campaigned for a Basic Income, and an end to smoky coal. The draft Programme proposes a National Clean Air Strategy, and a Basic Income trial. The steps to implementation are agonisingly slow.

Thirteen years ago, I met a few pals in the Stag’s Head pub and discussed whether the Greens should enter Government. There was heated debate and no clear consensus. In these COVID days of back-to-back Zoom calls there hasn’t been the chance to catch up with my mates, and a pint in the pub is a distant memory. The question remains: should we enter Government or offer advice from the side-line. The draft Government Programme is in sections visionary, but in other parts downright irritating. It proposes a marriage of convenience between three parties that are far from aligned in history or ideology. It is a tough read, all too often opts for studies, reviews and reports rather than action. It fails to grasp the nettle of Seanad reform, and does not recognise the severity of the housing and homeless crisis, and yet…

The Programme seeks to end Direct Provision by 2025; it allocates extraordinary funding to active travel and public transport and proposes to retrofit 500,000 homes by 2030. On housing it offers 50,000 social homes, and a Housing First approach to homelessness. It intends to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% within a decade. None of these gains will happen overnight, and it will take time to ramp up our efforts.

And the planet continues to burn. Global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were 386 parts per million back in 2007. The number is 413 today. Since we met for a drink thirteen years ago almost 400 billion tonnes of CO2 have been added to global emissions. It is as clear that we need to act, with an urgency lacking in the major parties. We cannot state that we have a decade to save the earth and then suggest that we sit this one out until the time is right. Meanwhile in the European Parliament we’re adopting a European Green Deal and a Just Transition for regions moving to a low-carbon economy. We can do that here at home. With twelve TDs we cannot dictate policy in every aspect of the new Government's work, but we can sow seeds that will grow over time.

Being in Government from 2007 to 2011 was hard. It may be even tougher now. No-one knows how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last, or its long-term impact on our economy that is highly dependent on exports and tourism. If we do enter Government, it will be a tough and demanding job. A decade after we were spat out, I believe we should enter Government again, and play our part in tackling the immense challenges that lie ahead. The road ahead is a tough one, and there will be failures as well as gains. We will never realise all that we wish to achieve, and regardless of the outcome, there will always be naysayers suggesting that we have achieved nothing. The issues are urgent, we cannot wait. I believe we should enter Government.

 Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.