Similar to many other urban centres around the world, Galway has experienced huge growth in recent decades. While there has been significant medium-density urban development in the city centre, most of the recent growth has been in lower-density suburban housing, and commercial and retail development on the periphery of the city.
As local architect Roddy Mannion’s book Galway: A Sense of Place illustrated, compared to the 1960s, we have approximately three times the population but about ten times the footprint in terms of land use. This low density urban sprawl results in greater dependence on private car transport, heavier traffic congestion, longer commuting times and greater loss of land to urban development.
Excessively car dependent cities are, for most people, unpleasant places to be. There is more air pollution and more noise. Excessive car use can reduce urban life quality, erode quality of life and degrade community life. Urban sprawl can also undermine the vitality of existing urban areas.
Car dependent cities mean that those without access to a car (people with mobility impairment, the visually impaired, as well as low income, younger or elderly people) have less equal access to opportunities for work, leisure, etc. Car dependency can also be a significant financial burden on car owners as the average cost of operating a car (insurance, motor tax, fuel, maintenance, depreciation) is usually thousands of euros per year. This burden is even greater if, as in the case of many families in Galway suburbs, there is a need for a second car.
Countless academic studies have shown a strong association between increased private car use (with resultant more sedentary lifestyles) and many negative health effects such as obesity and heart disease. This is true for all of us, including our children.
As our motor vehicles almost all run on oil-derived fuel, excessive car dependency means more greenhouse gases with transportation accounting for 21% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland.
Traffic-related air pollution is a substantial public health concern with 5,000 people dying prematurely from road-air pollution every year in the UK alone*. This compares with 1,850 who die from traffic accidents annually in the UK. Lung cancer and heart disease are the main causes of death in the study. This pollution has a worse effect on children as they are still growing.
Although there have been significant improvements, public transport and cycling facilities have historically been underfunded and neglected. It is still often difficult if you wish to be a cyclist or pedestrian in the city. There are many roads without quality bicycle lanes, and the remaining large roundabouts are dangerous to pass through for pedestrians and cyclists.
Public transport still suffers from a poor image for many people and is also lacking in many other ways including: infrequency of services, limited route options and lack of affordability.
Most of our infrastructure (transport systems, built environment, energy systems, etc.) is dependent on oil-derived fuel. Oil contributes to climate change and is a finite resource. Global demand for the remaining supplies is increasing. There are also fluctuations in global oil prices. All our oil-derived fuel is imported, often from volatile regions of the world, accounting for about €6 billion leaving the Irish economy. This leaves us extremely vulnerable to future disruptions in oil supply.
The waiting list for local authority housing is long and is getting longer. Home ownership is not affordable for many. There is a limited range of housing types available for different household types. There is very little quality housing available for young families within the city centre, which leaves many with no choice but to relocate to the suburbs or to the county. Quality housing for couples and single people is also limited.
In Galway, there are many badly designed, poorly constructed and energy-inefficient buildings, often with poor indoor air quality. This has serious consequences for our quality of life and wellbeing, especially since most of us now spend the vast majority of our time indoors.
Climate change is another issue we cannot ignore. For instance, average temperatures are rising, storms are getting stronger and more frequent, and sea levels are rising. These trends are set to continue, yet many of us are unaware or unprepared for what these changes in our climate might mean.
There are numerous challenges facing Galway’s infrastructure of which many, if not most, are interconnected. This chapter outlines some suggestions that can help transform Galway’s infrastructure to put it on a low carbon and sustainable footing.
*Research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (2012).