O'Connell & Henry Street
Three years ago I spent a day in Waterford City and the good work that has been done there to make the city centre an attractive and appealing place was plain to see. It reminded me of the smaller French cities I have visited, many of which have made brave decisions around restricting car access. By contrast, on a recent trip to Galway, a city I have had many great times in, I could see that they’ve struggled to progress beyond pedestrianising Shop Street at the turn of the millenium. Unlike Waterford there seems to be little appetite to tackle endemic car dependance there. It’s worse there now than it ever was. I returned to Limerick feeling that we are significantly ahead of our Western cousins at this point, and with progress beginning to accelerate at last.
It’s a decade since the publication of the Limerick 2030 report and the call for the development of “great streets” in the city. The O’Connell Street works are nearing completion and there is no doubt that this is a step forward. While some will argue that traffic should have been removed altogether (a view I agree with), the wider footpaths and landscaping have delivered a positive outcome. It is already evident that the streets lend themselves to higher footfall, to casual conversations, to a more pleasant experience of our city centre. Notwithstanding the misgivings I have on retaining vehicular traffic on it, there will be a positive ongoing impact of the project in the years ahead.
At this stage we must ask ourselves where we go from here. What next for our city centre? We certainly should be addressing the ‘other half’ of O’Connell Street. That there is no firm plan as yet to finish out the work should be an embarrassment to any of us who have some influence or decision making power in Limerick. At the moment two carriageways send parallel lines of vehicles in the same direction. This configuration, coupled with there being only one set of traffic lights, has had the effect of encouraging traffic to accelerate from the Roches Street junction, the cars often over-taking and weaving as they attempt to get through the lights at the Mallow Street junction up ahead. And when these blocks are not functioning as the starting grid at Mondello, they are otherwise a traffic-clogged, hostile mess, not befitting a city of Limerick’s status and almost fatally undermining the fine Georgian architecture of Newtown Pery, which could and should be the envy of cities all over Europe.
The recently completed Limerick Shannon Metropolitan Area Transport Strategy (LSMATS) tells us the official plan for the city. It says that O’Connell Street will be a two-way bus-only corridor. I would prefer full pedestrianisation. In my view, there is no reason why Henry Street can’t be the bus corridor. But whether it is Henry Street or O’Connell Street, it is imperative that buses have priority over private cars in our city. If we don’t give buses priority then they will continue to be stuck in traffic, the service will be unreliable and people will choose the car to get around, thus creating more traffic, and a continuing vicious cycle of poor public transport reliability and car dependence.
If O’Connell Street does become a bus corridor, then we should take a look at Henry Street and consider its potential, how it can serve Limerick and make our city better. Its taller buildings, most of them 21st Century constructions that replaced a plethora of 19th Century stone warehouses, give it a formidable feel. The old thinking, that we must enable as many cars as possible to enter and get around the city, has led to Henry Street becoming a canyon for cars, four lanes of one-way traffic, with its unnecessary left and right turning lanes, in place of wide footpaths and landscaping and ultimately in place of a more appealing and less hostile environment.
It was sad to see La Cucina close its doors in 2022. I can't help but wonder if Henry Street had functioned as a place, a destination in its own right, something akin to what we are trying to create on O’Connell Street, complete with trees and benches and spots to stop and relax, that footfall would be so much greater and any retail outlet situated along it would do well, not just survive. But instead of being a destination the street is a barrier between O’Connell Street and the beautiful Shannon River. It can serve Limerick better.