Picture this: a sunny winter’s morning in late 2017. Minister for Transport Shane Ross cuts the red ribbon (or perhaps blue) at Stephen’s Green and steps onto a tram for the inaugural Luas cross city tram. It travels down Dawson Street, through College Green, and up O’Connell Street, on to Grangegorman and Phibsborough, terminating at Broombridge in Cabra. Here a platform change will allow travel to and from Maynooth, Longford and Sligo. Eventually, once the celebrations are over Minister Ross will find his way back to his top floor office on Kildare Street and have to decide: what next for transport? Should he spend €12 billion on the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC) plan to roll out more motorways all over the island or should he plan a Luas for Galway City? Doubtless Anne Graham head of the National Transport Authority will be advising on strategic transport planning in the Greater Dublin Area. Looking beyond the Pale Michael Nolan of Transport Infrastructure Ireland will advise on roads and light rail investment. CIE will also ensure that its voice is heard.
Three issues should inform the Minister’s thinking: the future of cities; the carbon challenge; and doing more with less. Preliminary results from the 2016 census show Fingal’s population has grown by 8% over the last five years, and the population has increased in all Dublin local authority areas as well as in the adjoining counties. Cork’s population also increased. Meanwhile rural counties continued to decline. Investment in our cities is required. Dublin’s Metro North project was shovel-ready five years ago. Now could be the time to bite the bullet and start digging. However buses are the workhorses of our cities, and networks need to be expanded. Buses need to be given greater on-street priority, and decade old vehicles need to be replaced with vehicles that meet modern emission standards. As the population of our urban areas increase the importance of meeting the needs of residents becomes pressing. Good urban neighbourhoods are walkable, bikeable and this means investing in bike paths and pedestrian infrastructure. Simple measures such as zebra crossings, greenways, bike parking and safer30 km/hr speed limits such can make a real difference, as will the pedestrian plaza at College Green.
Tackling climate change should be a top priority. Electrifying commuter rail lines isn’t the sexiest of subjects but can reduce our carbon footprint and improve air quality. 23% of Ireland’s electricity comes from renewable energy and as this rises towards 40% by 2020 we should use electricity to fuel our journeys. Electric and hybrid vehicle sales are growing, and we should follow the lead of London and invest in a stock of hybrid buses to provide cleaner quieter travel in our cities. The Wright Bus Company of Ballymena supplied London with their electric buses, and perhaps Minister Ross should extend the hand of economic friendship across the border in post-Brexit Ireland. As electric cars gain traction they should be exempted from road tolls for a pilot period to boost sales.
Doing more with less has become a mantra in post-recession Ireland. We need to sweat the assets of existing rail lines and bus vehicles. The proposed re-opening of the Phoenix Park rail tunnel is welcome, but shouldn’t we be open up new stations at Cabra and Phibsborough to use the line to its full capacity? In rural Ireland we separately fund school bus services; the Rural Transport Programme; as well as €25 million a year on Heath Services Executive taxis. Meanwhile in Switzerland Post Bus vehicles deliver the mail; bring children to school; and carry patients to their hospital appointments. Clearly we should learn from Swiss efficiency. Joined-up thinking is also required on bus networks in larger cities. The Network Direct review carried out by Dublin Bus reduced the amount of bus services that terminated in the City Centre as well as the amount of ‘snail trail’ bus routes that wriggled around the city with no clear purpose. A similar exercise needs to be carried out again, but this time the focus should be on ease of transfer between different bus routes and transport providers and reducing congestion on city centre streets. It should also include an orbital bus rapid transit service utilising one lane of the M50 to relieve congestion. Car sharing services also deserve support. GoCar and Toyota’s Yuko are available in Dublin, but every rural rail station should have cars available that can be rented by the hour so you can transfer from train to car.
High speed rail and motorways may grab the headlines, but it makes more financial sense to invest in walking, cycling and quality bus services – sustainable transport – which benefits everyone.
Cllr. Ciarán Cuffe chairs Dublin City Council’s Transportation Committee, and lectures in the School of Transport Engineering, Environment and Planning at Dublin Institute of Technology. You’ll find him on @CiaranCuffe