Why are Dublin's streets so cluttered?
It's a subject that finally people in Dublin are talking about. But I think we have barely scratched the surface.
Decades of poor planning decisions (including Dublin's brief furore into being a motor city) and a refusal to invest in ideas that don't make money have left Dublin's public realm lacking far behind so many other European cities.
The message is getting through. Converting Capel Street into a public space will perhaps be Dublin's biggest public realm success from 2022. But there has also been some great tree planting projects and an investment in new parks.
Those are tasks that are clearly Dublin City Council's responsibility and that's why they know they can't shy away from the fact that they need to make improvements.
Where things get complicated is when you start examining subjects where the council are hamstrung by a higher power. Enter: traffic signs.
This isn't an interpretive art exhibition, but a real piece of driver information, on Mayor Street.
Unlike trees or benches, traffic signs in Ireland follow very strict policies and regulations. It is not as simple as taking away a few signs and seeing if nobody notices.
Or is it? It's time for a tour of some of my favourite examples of Dublin's street clutter, to try to work out what's actually going wrong here.
You can tap on each picture to see the full context. Or skip over the boring roads and just look at the silly signs.
1. There are policies that don't work
In February 2020 - so very recently - Dublin City Council began an overhaul of the city's 20-year-old orbital routes.
Yes, orbital routes - ring roads, but with a softer-sounding name. Dublin city centre has two of them. If you didn't know that, it's not your fault, because they are very difficult to identify.
The new signs would only ever contain the following information: the nearest parking bay, the direction to the M50, symbols for the airport and ferry port, and the names of a couple of radial routes.
At this point you should ask: how are you supposed to follow the orbital route if it won't tell you which way to go? I have no idea what the thinking was there. Dublin must be the only city with two ring roads that you have to imagine before you can follow them.
That's just an aside, though. Here's the good stuff.
A less offensive example to start with from Seville Place, which is on the Outer Orbital Route, so gets a special sign (in the middle). Obstructing that sign is another sign telling trucks to go straight, because in truth there is a weight limit on the road to the left.
Why can't those messages be combined? The Traffic Signs Manual does say that regulatory signs (ie, "no lorries on the left") are not allowed on ring road signs. But there is no reason why a ring road sign needs to be used here. Nobody knows it's a ring road, or cares.
On a more subtle note, it is very silly to use the ferry pictogram that shows a lorry to give directions to a route that doesn't allow lorries. There is a symbol that shows two cars on a ferry, and surely that would have fit better.
I'm not going to comment on the sign on the left. I will sincerely congratulate Dublin City Council on their rewilding project in the foreground, which looks great. Let's move on.
Bolton Street, which is on the Inner Orbital Route. This means it gets another special sign, which was installed in March 2020, showing the nearest car park, but it's not allowed to tell you what that car park is called. For that we needed a second sign, which was added a few months later, right next to it.
You would hope that somebody would have spotted that this looks silly, but in fact it's normal - as we will keep discovering.
There are absolutely loads of examples of this. Here's another from North King Street: again we have two signs, right next to each other, both showing you the way to the car park.
Note that at this junction you can't do anything but go straight ahead, so both of the signs are pointless anyway. Providing 'repeater' information to assure drivers can be useful, but it should be done where it's needed, and not just because "we always put a sign at a junction".
I will move on in just a moment, but first let's have another example, also from North King Street. Once again, if you need to have two signs right by each other to give you the exact same message, you're doing something wrong.
One more, from Parnell Street. Kudos for at least using a very small font in this crowded area, but there is still no need for two parking signs.
On another note, that airplane symbol has been placed far too late to be of any use. We'll move on to that later.
All of these examples so far seem to be the result of Dublin City Council creating and adhering to a system that they didn't need to create.
2. There's no joined-up thinking
No council is great at joined-up thinking. It's just not something they can do. But at least they should be able to tidy up after their mistakes.
Since 2021, motorists have only been able to turn left from St Andrew Street. That's all they need to know. The three direction signs here are therefore completely pointless - two of them are clearly directing you into the closed street!
And then there is the much-mocked "M50" sign. Controversial opinion coming here: it is not half as problematic as people believe.
The "M50" direction is being used as a euphemism for saying "everywhere". If you can get there, you can get anywhere. The usual message would be to say "out of city" or "all routes", but by the time you've written that and provided the mandatory Irish translation, you'd end up with a much larger sign. "M50" delivers the same message with less space.
That's by-the-by though, because the "M50" direction is being used in places where it clearly isn't needed. Like here.
The problem here is simple: the redundant signs should have been taken down.
3. There's no thought about who each sign is actually for
The Traffic Signs Manual now allows smaller fonts to be used in low-speed environments and, as of 2021, Dublin City Council are now making liberal use of this option. That's a good thing.
Or is it? How small can a sign be before it becomes a waste of time?
On the right, we have a direction sign. You can't read it, and I'm only standing 10 metres in front of it.
I am fairly sure that you wouldn't even notice it while driving past, let alone be able to read it. So what good is it doing?
What's worse, it's positioned after the turning lane starts. This wouldn't be so bad if you could see it from far away. But you can't. So it's encouraging people to wait until the last moment before moving across two lanes of traffic.
More of the same here. It's great that we are using smaller signs and attaching them to existing lampposts, but if we're putting them in places where they can't be seen, we really might as well not bother.
The text part of the sign (and of all of these tiny signs) says "car park", along with an Irish translation. If you were that bothered about saving space, you could get rid of all that, because the distinctive "P" symbol already tells you that it's talking about a car park.
The presence of a kerb between the cycle lane and the traffic lane means they aren't the same carriageway. This means there is absolutely no need to tell motorists about the cycle lane: it's clearly not part of their road, so it's none of their business.
With that in mind, who is this new cycle track sign there for? Cyclists and pedestrians know what it is. Even if we decide that the message is needed (the TSM merely says that reminder 'cycle track' signs, 150mm in height, may be placed at "suitable intervals"), why does it need to be so high?
I also realise that the "24 hour" plate is silly - there is pretty much no reason to have a cycle track that isn't open all day, so it should be obvious - and I'm not sure the plate is mandatory either. Again, who do they think needs this information?
At this junction you can only go straight or turn right, and we have two signs both telling you, whichever option you choose, you will find parking.
Maybe there is a benefit to assuring people that they will be OK either way. That's not my complaint. My complaint is what it says underneath: Four Courts and Ushers Quay. Are they also simultaneously straight ahead and to the right? What else could these signs mean?
So what we have two direction signs, that are making the directions more confusing. I suspect it originally said that everything was to the right, and then 10 years ago somebody was told to come and add another arrow, without ever stepping back and looking at what they were actually doing.
Dublin City Council made a huge noise about closing Capel Street to traffic. They deserve the praise. But within a few weeks of closing the street, their contractors came along with a few new signs, all depicting a car.
The sign itself is temporary and really not worth losing sleep over. But the optics of it are all wrong. The contractor will probably argue that the sign is necessary because, for a couple of hours in the morning, goods vehicles are allowed down the pedestrianised Capel Street. But the whole point of closing it - the reason all the noise was made - was because we are supposed to be stopping designing everything around what cars need.
Legal advice might be needed on the exact situation here. But you can see how there is zero chance of a sensibly-driven van coming down this pedestrianised zone fast enough to skid on the new surface, and the regulations should be written with that in mind.
4. The rules are the rules
Except when you have authority to make an exception, councils should be following the regulations, no matter how irritating they are. A legal requirement that looks pointless to one person could easily be an accessibility issue for somebody else.
These next few examples are caused by somebody trying to do the right thing and abide by the regulations.
It's difficult to get the perspective on these, but in this picture there are five tram lane signs, all within the space of a few hundred metres.
Sadly the rules do say that you need a new tram lane sign after every side road and if you look very carfully you will see that, technically, there is an access of some-sort between each one.
But realistically, it's overkill. If you are emerging from the right, you will have had to yield to any trams before pulling out, so hopefully you will already know that the tram lane is there. Using grass for the tram lane would have further reduced the risk of any genuine confusion.
Technically, the use of planters and bollards don't mark the end of the carriageway, so I can see why they decided they had to warn drivers that they are sharing the road with an oncoming cycle lane, even though in reality there is zero chance of any competent driver thinking the lane on the right is for their use.
Again, these pointless cycle lane signs are repeated all the way down the hill, even when the road emerges on the left.
The planters make a great temporary solution, but I hope this whole area will be redesigned soon.
Yes that's five signs saying "cycle track". I like to use the line of thought that if you really need to repeat the message that many times, then it must be a very bad cycle track.
Mercifully this example was fixed after I visited it (after being in place for years), as part of a blitz on street clutter that happened in 2020. But it gives you a good idea what that blitz is starting from.
The rules say that a 'start of bus lane' sign should be followed by a 'this is the bus lane' within 300 metres. In Dublin, that gap is normally about 10 metres, which looks ridiculous.
In this example on North Wall Quay - a historic area, in its own way - we have no less than four signs to tell you that a bus lane has appeared on this otherwise single-lane road. And of course, more reminder signs are provided at regular intervals, in case somebody emerges from a side road and doesn't know what the lane that says "bus" on it is for.
If you look carefully you'll also see the back of a circular "keep left" sign, even though it has impossible to pass to the right of it for at least 20 years.
Parking restrictions can be a nightmare and are worthy of their own essay. But this is clearly ridiculous.
All along Chancery Street is a mess of brand new signs, installed as a response to the loading bays being removed for the Capel Street work. It is horrendous. Clearways were created for major streets that have long lines of parking restrictions, not for highlighting the gap between every parking bay in a commercial area. The reason it looks so silly is because it's not supposed to be used like that.
In this case, the double yellow lines on their own should have been enough to get the message across. There is also a third sign, just visible there, which repeats the message that this is a loading bay with time limits.
Credit for attaching the two messages to the same mast arm though, avoiding a really silly mess of poles, and highlighting how ridiculous the two messages are.
Strewth! OK, so here we have an old-style sign saying car parking is straight ahead, and a new-style sign saying car parking is on the left. It's not wrong, but it's unhelpful. Just behind me is another blue sign saying car parking is straight ahead - that is excessive.
That's not my issue, though. My issue here is that there are four signs telling you that trams are ahead.
Some cyclists may not agree with me here, but I don't believe we need to have a sign saying "trams ahead" and another sign immediately after that says "tram tracks". The first should make the second obvious, no matter who you are. And the warning for cyclists surely doesn't need to be on both sides of the road.
Having said that, thinking logically, do we need to be warning drivers about trams here anyway? So long as you stop at the red light, you won't come into contact with them. There is no danger.
These 'ramp' signs clutter up so many main roads in the city. Often, they are pointing down a tiny laneway, or at a ramp that's a long way down.
You would have to be going an obscene speed to turn the corner and not have time to prepare for the ramp, and if you didn't have time to slow for the ramp, you wouldn't have time to stop for a child in the laneway either.
We don't warn people that the speed limit in the laneway drops from 50km/h to 30km/h, so we really shouldn't have to warn them that they will eventually encounter a ramp. I doubt any drivers even notice these signs anyway, they are just background noise. And if such a sign really is necessary, why is there not an authorised symbol for it like there is in Britain?
To top it all off, this particular ramp sign has another sign below it saying that the vast majority of people aren't allowed to turn down here anyway! So it's saying "be aware of the ramp, but not you".
This is excessive.
Grafton Street is clearly (and famously) not suitable for driving down at anything faster than walking pace. There is no need to give people advance warning that the laneway on the right is closed. They can just see it and move on.
In fact, you're not even allowed to drive in this direction anyway, so what we have really is a massive sign for pedestrians.
5. We don't trust drivers
There is a very difficult balance to be struck between mollycoddling the most ignorant and selfish of drivers, and just shrugging while they cause chaos. The correct answer is of course to simply ban bad drivers but that's not something a council can do.
This leaves us with a situation where councils feel that it's up to them to stop drivers behaving badly - and it usually is - but the only weapon in the council's armory is to install another sign. When in doubt, install another sign.
Here we have four, yes four, signs telling you not to turn right, in addition to the two traffic lights telling you to only go straight.
True fact: I once saw a confused motorist turn right here, sending them into the path of oncoming traffic. It turns out four signs wasn't enough. Maybe we need a fifth?
There are absolutely loads of examples of this, so I'll only give you a few. Here's three no right turn signs, including two literally next to each other, all trying to prevent you from accidentally joining the tram tracks.
I think there's at least something artistic in the random heights of them all.
One more from this genre. This time it's "don't turn left", three times over.
What is going on here?
We have a sign telling us not to turn left, into a street that's permanently closed. The street that's closed has a sign telling you to yield to the plant pots. Cyclists coming towards us are told to yield to the road, but traffic on the road is told to stop and yield to the cyclists.
As a result, nobody knows who's stopping for who, so pedestrians, cyclists and cars all tend to stop for a second, assume that everyone is waiting for them, and then pull out. That's why putting up more signs doesn't always make things clearer.
Capel Street is overdue for a public realm project, and hopefully this junction will be within its remit.
This photo was taken standing against the flow of traffic. If a driver ever sees this sign, they've already got it terribly wrong. Yet here we have four signs telling drivers not to take a shortcut along the tram tracks (and two more for the other direction).
The Parnell Monument deserves better than this.
Mayor Street is lined with miles of bollards, on both sides of the road. It's far from the only one, but it particularly sticks out here because these bollards make no effort to blend in at all.
All of this clutter, which in turn makes it harder to walk along the footway, is all because drivers can't be trusted not to drive on the footway.
You like bollards? There are 32 of them in this scene! I like the addition of the two signs telling you not to drive down here, in case the two layers of delineator posts didn't get the message across.
Hopefully this is only temporary - but who knows how long that means it will last?
Trams! And two signs begging drivers to be careful of this tram crossing near Smithfield.
There are, of course, more signs on the left. And we can also see two signs telling us not to turn onto the tramway.
These signs treat the trams like wild stags who could leap out on you at any moment. In reality the trams present no danger for anybody who stops at a red light.
More trams! Here we have a sign on the left saying 'no going ahead, except trams', backed up by three bollards each telling you to turn left and three more signs telling you 'no entry'. In the full view we also have two traffic lights telling you to only turn left, a sign telling you that you must turn left, and a sign telling you not to turn right.
But all that clearly wasn't enough, because the council then came back with another no entry sign, and in case drivers didn't know what that meant, they backed it up with a giant sign saying "Luas only" (slightly contradicting the 'no entry' message, but that's not the issue).
If the first 13 signs didn't do the job, the signage probably isn't the problem. Although I quite admire how desperate the latest addition looks, it's practically screaming at you.
Two signs telling us that CCTV is in operation (sure, when isn't it?). Presumably this was a response to illegal dumping, so it's not just bad drivers but bad people who are to blame for so much clutter being needed. The widespread illegal dumping - which is another thing the council needs to get a grip of - creates a mess both with bags of waste and with the hundreds of signs we have begging people not to dump illegally.
Also, if this is a cul-de-sac, it really doesn't need a restriction on heavy lorries - nobody's going to go down there unless they need to. I suspect this is because when the end of the road was closed, the restriction wasn't changed, and as a result we have to sign them both.
6. Things don't get removed
This is a challenge that every highway authority, indeed every corporation, faces.
It's very easy to put things up and to forget to take them down. In a large organisation, it's never as simple as an employee seeing something on their day off and deciding to put it right.
But if you've already got a cluttered streetscape, leaving things that don't need to be there just adds more mess to the mix.
On the left we have a parking meter, even though the whole length of this road has double yellow lines.
But don't focus on that when we have this beauty of a superstructure in the middle! The top part of the sign refers to Dun Laoghaire ferry terminal, which closed eight years ago. There is no overwhelming demand to get from Phibsboro to Dun Laoghaire.
The references to Dublin Port and the airport are already covered by the new Outer Orbital Route signs, which also exist along this street. Since the M50 was extended in 2006, there is no reason for anybody going to any of those places to be using North Circular Road.
The section at the bottom used to say "city centre". It would have had to be covered up after North Frederick Street was closed to cars - in 2002.
This huge sign, which seems to be about 50% white tape, has not been providing any useful information for a long time.
Contrary to popular belief, the N1 and N4 were removed from Dublin City Centre in 2012. The N7 was cut back in 1994. The N6, N8 and N9 are now M6, M8 and M9 as far as Galway / Cork / Waterford city centres respectively. This sign is quite out-of-date.
There are loads of these old national route signs in Dublin. They're not doing any harm, but they do reveal just how rarely these things get checked.
Having said that, look at the height of this sign and remember that all it's trying to say is "all other routes". It gives you some idea what a horror show those "M50" signs on South William Street could have looked like.
Everywhere you look you see out-of-date signs. This one even has the date written on it: it should have been removed two years ago. Somebody has come along and added a new sign below, with the same information, but they decided not to take the old one down.
To add to that, the sign is also on the far side of the road so probably never gets noticed, and it has now turned to face completely the wrong way in shame. Just get rid of it.
Yes, this is a sign for a car park, on the pedestrianised South King Street. The size and layout suggests that it's aimed at cars - if it was aimed at pedestrians, it could and should be a lot smaller. The unusual font suggests it's either very old, or it was put up by a private business - a silly scenario that should never be allowed.
From left-to-right, this road has a cycle lane (excuse the bus stop), a bus lane, and one traffic lane. It has been that way since April 2021. The diamond sign, which says you can take your pick from three lanes, has been out-of-date since then.
In fact the diamond sign had been facing the wrong way for a while, and they even came back and fixed it. It now faces the right way, but it's still all wrong! At least it shows us how much road space has been re-allocated recently.
What do you call this?
The sign at the top has been there for four years. The sign at the bottom was added one year ago. It contains exactly the same information, but with the current styling. Why was the old one left behind?
And yes, despite these two signs both saying that car parking is straight ahead, in the background there is a direction sign saying that parking is on the right. You and I might know they are pointing to different car parks, but a lost motorist doesn't need to know, especially if you're not going to explain what the difference is between them.
This sign was installed four years ago. It has been facing the wrong way for almost all of that time.
Ignoring the fact that the message itself is a mess (why the random white space? why did they design their own arrow? why state the street name? why not group each language together?), it clearly isn't contributing anything, so get rid of it.
I have no words.
To be charitable, I will assume the middle sign was supposed to be replaced by the distant sign, which is a better model and saves on poles. But the one on the ground? Did the car park owner want more exposure?
The sign on the left was installed with the Luas in 2014. The sign on the right was added in 2018. The two have stood together for five years.
As well as this looking ridiculous, it's also a waste of space, because anybody can ignore the restriction and claim they need "access". You'd need a complex monitoring system, which Ireland doesn't have, to prove otherwise.
7. It pays to be cautious
This is a combination of some of the previous categories.
There can be consequences if you don't put the right signs up, but there's very unlikely to be any consequences if you put too many signs up. As a result, for those in charge, it's all too tempting to err on the side of caution and install more signs than you need.
A sign telling you about a roundabout, obscured by a sign warning you about the roundabout. Or maybe it's trying to warn you about a sign telling you about a roundabout?
The Traffic Signs Manual says that traffic light warning signs are only required in urban areas where, "inadequate visibility create a potential hazard". In this case, you can clearly see the traffic light - better than you can see the warning, which is hidden behind a sign.
There are a lot of unnecessary traffic light warnings in this city. Thy must be using a very broad definition of "a potential hazard". Great cycle track though.
Excellent work protecting cyclists from careless left turns here, with the bollards and the junction narrowing. But why the yellow posts?
Drivers really shouldn't need big yellow posts to help them see what is actually a normal-shaped junction. And in this case, the posts on the right are already stopping any wide turning manoeuvres anyway.
Yes, technically the two yellow posts are protecting the pedestrians who will be standing between them, but what a world we live in where that's deemed necessary.
I don't know the best way to ensure that this temporary bus stop build-out is safe for the visually impaired, but clearly those who made it weren't sure either.
As well as all the yellow paint provided around it, we have two bollards for pedestrians, and in the background we have two bollards to stop, what exactly, somebody from reversing into it? There are two more bollards out-of-shot on the right, in case any buses weren't expecting the bus stop.
8. Aesthetics get forgotten
This is hideous. "What's wrong with it?", you ask. What's wrong with it?! It's very - and I mean this in the nastiest way possible - "council".
Traffic signs don't just serve a purpose, they are pieces of design; that's why their design standards had input from artists and it's why those standards can become part of a country's identity. Signs can only do their job if they are neat and tidy and make logical sense; balancing being visible with ruining the landscape. It's an art.
Then councils come along and decide that none of this matters, a sign is just text on a post and that's all you are getting.
Most people probably won't spot what's wrong with these signs, but you might see that they are not right: The random square box. The homemade arrows. The inconsistent use of capitals. It's a bodged job.
Direction signs in city centres can be difficult because you have to list all the places people are looking for without overloading people with long lists. It's possible that the Traffic Signs Manual isn't offering anything which allows you to tick both those boxes without creating something ugly. If so, let's go back to the drawing board.
What can we do?
So far we've managed to point the finger at everyone, from the rules being wrong, to the rules not being followed, to the drivers not listening. That's the point.
Instead of this being a character assassination of one particular authority, Dublin's street clutter seems to be the result of missguided efforts to stick within the bounds of the advice available: not just in terms of traffic signage but also the need to ensure that regulations are applied correctly, the need to ensure insurance issues are nipped in the bud, and the need to do this all while (eventually) answering to pressure to make the streets more accessible.
You may disagree with some of the examples I've highlighted. That's OK. Hopefully a few of the others have given you a laugh and/or pointed out something that's now going to frustrate you every time you walk past it. I don't claim to be right in my assessment of what is and isn't necessary, I just think that there are too many issues that are going unnoticed and wanted to bring some examples to the table.
My non-professional reading of the TSM won't be flawless (and many of the examples given will have been based on old versions of the TSM anyway).
At its heart, the Traffic Signs Manual was written for motor traffic. Cyclists and pedestrians barely get a look-in and when they do, it usually assumes that they will be sharing the road with motor traffic or causing an issue for motor traffic.
One particular bugbear of mine, for example, is that the only advice it offers for cycle direction signs are when you have a designated trail or long-distance route. In our city centres there are now loads of places where cyclists are allowed to take a shortcut that cars can't, but apparently we're not allowed to tell you where those shortcuts go.
Take O'Connell Street, for example. (Where there seems to be a phenomenal amount of space made available for future cyclist congestion!)
If you have driven or got the bus through this area in the last 30 years, then you will probably know that the only way to get to Phibsboro is to turn left. But unless you know all the streets, you won't know that for cyclists it is now much quicker and much safer if you head straight. The TSM offers no signage for this situation, so we get nothing, because there is no other suitable source to turn to.
I realise the irony of suddenly calling for more signs but, by not having any, we are robbing ourselves of the chance to tell both locals and visitors about how good this new cycle route is.
The Traffic Signs Manual ought to have a rethink on the basis that many places are now trying to take the focus of their streets away from motor vehicles. It can play a key role in that transition by making it clear that car-focused signage doesn't have much of a role in a street that is for people. It could broaden out to being a more general Street Signage Manual that helps us make the most out of our new cycling and walking infrastructure without burdening these new routes with excessive warnings and text designed for high speeds.
That, plus a kick up the backside for any councils that aren't paying attention, might help us clean up our streets.
Update! Within a few weeks of this blog being posted, some of the examples given here have been removed from the streets. Interesting. Many of them still remain, which is fair enough because Dublin City Council have to answer to many different forces and can't go around taking things down just because an anonymous guy on the internet has told them to. But I stand by all the points I have made, and will keep pushing for the system to listen.