Monday, 7 July 2014

Lessons from Dublin - Chaotic Harmony

I landed in Dublin at 5am July 3rd after the 6-hour red-eye from Toronto. As my flight helped the earth spin a little faster beneath my feet my 11pm was Dublin's 5am. A long day awaits.

Dublin's airport is located to the north of the city and is a quick 20 or 30 minute double-deck bus ride into the heart of the city situated around St Charles Street and the River Liffy.

After some bleary-eyed wandering in the dead-quiet early morning I stumbled upon the hostel. As is common in old cities, hardly a road sign or length of road exists that doesn't change names, curve or dead-end within a block or two; creating the perfect hostel-hiding environment.

Once found it offered a nice view of a typical Dublin street, a few blocks north of the River:

For a Calgarian - or a citizen of much of the world - driving on the left in Dublin creates mental chaos as your brain comes to terms with a new reality. Even more problematic is the complete inconsistency with roads and intersections, a myriad of one-way alleys and streets intersecting at weird and random angles. Yet it works:

I am unsure if pedestrians are an afterthought or completely in charge of what happens. Many streets have pedestrian signals; while on no street does anyone (including police officers) obey them if there is even a slight gap in traffic. People are expected to cross as soon as possible, not based on the signalling. Throw in a surprisingly abundant cycling population and bike share program - Dublin has many bike lanes squeezed into everywhere of varying lengths, widths and consistencies - and driving, walking or cycling is a shockingly chaotic experience.

Dublin also has several modes of public transport. Most obviously is the public bus, consisting of obvious bright-yellow double decker vehicles. It's a great view from the second level, but good luck navigating the chaotic system and the Gaelic-language stops and instructions.

Several distinct advantages that are low cost and obvious improvements that Calgary Transit should emulate immediately: Off-vehicle ticket purchases at key stops preventing confusion and wasted time, automatic transfer/receipt printing on the bus vs. Calgary's archaic small-town paper transfer system, real-time bus stop screens at all stops and -most significantly - bus lanes. Essentially every street has them and they are obviously marked and not infringed on by other traffic. Even a city like Dublin with no reputation for transit service in Europe blows Calgary away with these steps. Buses and the people that ride them are treated as second class citizens in every way in Calgary by comparison. So far it appears Calgary Transit has little appetite, enthusiasm or mandate to mimic easy-win improvements which is mind-boggling considering how readily available examples are of them in a similar sized city like Dublin.

Dublin also has a new train that stands in stark contrast to the millenia-old city:

The tram runs through the heart of the city a block or two north of the River Liffy connecting the north side of the River to Heuston Station , the main intercity and commuter rail hub on the edge of the inner city. Several other lines exist but they don't connect; one stops a few blocks south of the River from this picture.

My favourite thing about it: simplicity. Minimal station infrastructure - essentially just a slightly sloped sidewalk and a few ticket machines - and a dedicated right-of-way through the most congested place in the city. No barriers impede pedestrians from walking along and across the track, the low-profile trains are quiet and efficient while never fast enough to pose a safety risk to pedestrians crossing all along the track everywhere. 

In all the chaos and all the energy of central Dublin there still seems to be a sense of calm. It works. Cars, buses, pedestrians, bicycles and trams crowd everywhere with almost no effort applied to containing or controlling any of them in any consistent way. 

It seems that this chaos is precisely why it works: no one mode of transport dominates the other; cars must watch for pedestrian constantly behaving erratically and even suicidally; pedestrians must watch for cars flying around blind corners; double-decker buses must whip randomly around curves far tighter that were designed without buses in mind.  Cyclists squeeze every possible space being passed within a few centimetres by cars, trucks and buses.

The River Liffy:

In all this, no anger and no horns in three days of Dublin life. The city learned many generations ago that space is shared and that this is the way it is. No one honks if someone behaves out of line or crosses the street when they shouldn't. Drivers, buses, cyclists and trams simply slow down to wait for the careless individual to pass. They are never going of a speed where this is a difficult task.

Perhaps all cities have an adolescent phase of whining and anxiety that is shown every day in downtown Calgary. For all our signage, rules, controls and limits in Calgary - many, many times over more prevalent in our city than Dublin - our streets are far more dangerous and far more aggressive than chaotic Dublin's.

Perhaps the adolescent should learn from the elder. It saves a few steps that Calgary would have to fumble through on its own to achieve a similar level of efficiency, safety and attractiveness of our streets as Dublin.

The reality is we will find these solutions eventually anyways  as we are forced to adapt and be more efficient as Calgary grows. 

It would just be nice to using solutions that are blindingly obvious and proven effective rather than having to wait our own 1,000 years to come to this chaotic harmony.

1 comment:

  1. Three favourite elements of this post:
    3) Usage of the phrase "chaotic harmony"
    2) Your description of finding a hostel reminds me of a zombie searching for the last survivor of humanity
    1) Uncommon choice of non-inertial reference frames to explain time changes