Walking and the pedestrian environment
September 26, 2002
Trains and Intersections (Dublin)

A look around Dublin from an American perspective.

This was my first time in northern Europe in a decade, my first ever visit to an English speaking country outside of North America. It's likely that readers who have visited England or other nearby countries will recognize some of the themes I touch on below, but it was all new to me.

Overall, I guess my judgement of the pedestrian experience in Dublin can't get more specific than "different" (from Seattle). I wasn't there long enough to personally comment on how safe or dangerous it might be. There were many occasions when I was completely baffled about what action I was supposed to take. Other times things were just subtly different enough from America to leave me off guard.

I'll try to go through my thoughts chronologically.

My hotel's website was kind enough to provide driving directions from the airport, but that was useless to me. Digging around the internet quite a bit finally revealed a few options for getting there by bus or train. I chose AerDart, a service which costs 5 euros. You take a 20 minute bus from Dublin airport to Howth Junction rail station, and then get a free transfer to the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) station of your choice. Next time I'll be sure to get smaller change in the airport; the bus driver seemed surprised that he actually had change for my 50.

The AerDart bus was nice, and I was feeling optomistic about my stay in Ireland. As you hopefully can see from this photo, there was plenty of luggage storage in the front right of the bus, and lots of standing room. We only had seven or eight passengers, so no one needed to stand.

One of the first things I noticed was the extensive low-tech traffic control measures. This smaller residential road has a speed bump (ramp) to dissuade cars from leaving the comfort of the major road AerDart traveled. Another interesting item is the 2-3 foot high mound at the edge of the play field (sports groud), which is a bit difficult to see in the picture. I'm not positive of the inspiration for them, but they would certainly deter errant vehicles from breaking up a rugby match.

Howth Junction, my first experience with DART, was a scary, desolate train station. The bus left me in a worrisome spot at the end of a small empty road. There were no signs to hint at the fact that I was at a train station. A haphazard asphalt path led up a short slope topped by a foreboding steel slat fence. Five or six small boulders marked the sides of the path, perhaps an attempt at softening the environment. Entering the station, there were no system maps, no timetables, no ticket vending machines. A weathered sign told me that if I didn't want to go north (I knew I didn't), I should go up the stairs. The pedestrian walkway over the tracks looked like something recycled from a more industrial use, like an aluminum factory or coal mine. A slight bend in the walkway didn't allow me to see the other side. Solid walls meant that I couldn't tell if anyone was up there until I topped the stairs, or if anyone was in the stairs until I entered them. It was the sort of scene from a crime thriller or a horror movie.

All of the signs were very aged and almost unreadable. The only signs of use were the electronic ones at the platforms indicating how long it would be until the next train, and where the train terminated. Unfortunately I didn't have a train map, so I wasn't sure which one I should catch. The center platform was massive but it provided few safe spots where I felt comfortable standing with my meager luggage as the kids getting out of school massed at the station (I had no idea what Irish ruffians look or act like). After going back to the station entrance and looking around, I finally found a human ticket vendor tucked in a corner, and he gave me vague instructions on which of the other 3 tracks I should wait at. I absolutely didn't want to pull out a map here, and I took my photos quickly and discretely. I always follow the advice to look like I know where I'm going. Move purposefully, even if you're confused. I was surprised a couple of times walking around the city when people (once a truck driver, once a lost businessman) asked me for directions.

My message is this: know everything about your DART route before arriving at Howth Junction. Or, take the AirBus to Connolly station from the airport instead. Connolly station is spatious, well used, and modern.

I had been warned that Ireland was until recently a third world country. Low wages and operating costs led many American high-tech companies to put their European headquarters in Dublin, and their economy has taken off in the last decade or so. The warning was that I couldn't expect a well developed transportation system in Dublin like those I'm used to in Asia, and I should just stick to taxis. I don't think that's a true statement. I saw buses everywhere and the DART was punctual and useful the few times I took advantage of it. Taxis were ever-present downtown and fairly cheap. Outside of the downtown core, though, even at my hotel I had to wait twenty to thirty minutes to get a taxi.

One piece of advice I received was right on the money, though. There is a huge difference between north and south Dublin. Some day soon I'll look up the historical reasons, which are sure to involve industrial uses and where the English chose to live. Riding the train south from Howth Junction, I was appalled by the sad state of every train station we stopped at. Looking down at the run down streets and buildings, I had serious doubts if I would enjoy my stay at all. Everything changed at Connolly station, though, the first station north of the river. Suddenly the stations were modern, and the buildings sowthward were at least nice and mostly beautiful. I never ventured north of the river during my stay, and I don't know what reason there would be to do so.

After I disembarked from the train, I hit another snag. I had found my hotel, and was right across the street from it. But there was only one crosswalk at the intersection, and it was at the opposite side from me. In America it's a bad idea to cross an intersection without a crosswalk, because no one is looking for you. I found that in Ireland crosswalks are seldom painted unless there is something tricky about the intersection, such as a round-about. Furthermore people cross wherever and whenever they want, especially downtown. Even though this is expected behavior, I wonder how Ireland compares to America for pedestrian accident rates.

Enough lecturing! Here's a run through some of the other photos I took.

The road narrows at this speedbump / crosswalk. It looks nice. I don't think wheelchair users would be too happy, though.

This intersection has been narrowed to make safer pedestrian crossings and disuade drivers from entering side roads.

City buses were mostly double-deckers. Same capacity, but half of the foot print of a long bus in Seattle. Obviously we'd have to raise a few bridges and all of the trolley wires to use them though. The reddish lane that the buses are in is actually a cycle track (bike lane). Bike lanes tended to be demarked by this color, and sometimes would be brought up onto half of the sidewalk when necessary. Crosswalks at intersections had a red area in front of them for bikes to cross, and keep cars a bit further back.

It's a bit tough to make out the details of this large intersection. What I'd like to point out is the pedestrian refuge in the middle of the nearby roadway. It was fenced on both sides to provide protection and to structure walkers' movement. Signals were located at either corner as well as inside the refuge, so pedestrians could move half way if there were a controlled left turn. This was the first example of a pedestrian refuge that I could honestly say I felt good about.

Look Right or Look Left reminds pedestrians to watch before jaywalking (I was the only person waiting for the light to turn green). Look carefully at the lettering. Notice how it's been touched up with a brush, and no template? Much of the infrastructure had this haphazard feel to it. Major roads at least felt like they had been carefully surveyed and planed to begin with, but future repairs or improvements left them a patchwork.

I believe this parking is totally legal. The other side has a double stripe indicating no parking. Again, wheelchair users are SOL, but only on this side of the street. As far as I could tell every intersection had wheelchair ramps.

Further down on the same road, these colorful houses use the sidewalk/parking as their porch.

Drivers entering this side road from the arterial are greeted with a number of reminders... No deliveries over 3 tons, speed bumps for the next quarter mile, and people are bigger than cars.

I liked this rusted old pedestrian sign. It hopefully reminds drivers that people were walkers long before they were drivers. Also notice a nice view of a bike lane.

This was a very nice steet. Historic three-storey townhouses lined both sides of the street. On this side, the front steps met the side walk. On the other, thirty or forty feet of parking or gardens sat between them and the tree-lined sidewalk. Bicyclists streamed up and down the street. A man walked alone with an accoustic guitar case. The air was chilled by autumn already in the middle of September.

From what I gather, Dublin feels strongly about its two canals. So why has this gas station's car wash stained the walls with soapy filth that has leaked into the canal?

There are at least two locations that a devout urban walker must visit in Dublin: Grafton Street (generally more upscale shopping) and Temple Bar (lotsa bars and funky shops and cafes).

Stay within the lines.

There was a whole lot of construction going on at the former gas works.

Here's Pearse station. I loved this train station. Actually, I loved the potential of this station, not the realization. Instead of administrative offices and I imagined boutiques and cafes lining the edges of the platforms. Instead of a thin facade at one end, I envisioned a department store or apartment building. Even as it was, I found it a memorable place to wait for a train. And what a stark contrast from Howth Junction!

Posted by Rob Ketcherside at September 26, 2002 10:15 PM
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