THE MINISTER FOR Public and Commuter Transport Alan Kelly took to castigating the small minded plebeians of the nation this week, telling us in an Irish Times interview that ‘middle- class snobbishness’ is curtailing public transport use in the country.
“Some people believe public transport is something that other social classes use and do not see it as the ‘middle class’ thing to do. This is especially true for bus transport,” said the TD for the Middle Class Guilt Party.
“People’s negative impressions can be very strong and deeply ingrained, but they have to be tackled and ultimately changed,” we were told, a wet day after this publication carried a story about a man dropping his trousers to inject heroin into his testicles on a Luas. On a related note, Gardaí on Monday announced that they will have a presence on public transport over the holiday period.
There are many things reducing the market for public transport in Ireland. The now very regular fare increases that, at several times the rate of inflation, narrow the cost gap for many people between driving and taking public transport is a major feature. People place a non-monetary value on convenience and comfort, and if the monetary difference between driving themselves and taking public transport narrows too much then they’ll take their cars.
Generally poor service and a lack of faith in management to address shortcomings also runs through the feedback seen on this publication and elsewhere from regular and occasional commuters alike. For example, one interesting thread running through comments is the very simple matter of speedy Dublin Bus drivers having great difficulty with the concept of gradual braking in their ten ton standing room only machines that are, in any event, sans seatbelts.
Complaints about punctuality, reliability, cleanliness and other areas of operation are widespread. I don’t think it’s particularly snobbish to not want to put up with crap service at a high price compared to just a few years ago, when most of the rest of the economy has been reducing its cost base and prices.
Cost and service aside, another major problem with particular modes of public transport is the abundance of antisocial behaviour that generally goes unmolested by any authorities. I believe that revulsion at witnessing something like a junkie dropping his trousers to inject himself with heroin is a classless indulgence.
There exists a very narrow slice of society that regularly succeeds in making life, at best, disagreeable for the duration of their forays into the midsts of the rest of us. Sometimes this slice expands itself from the archetypical junkie or delinquent youths that probably spring to mind, to include the likes of drunken office Christmas party hooligans that the Gardaí likely have in mind to police over the coming weeks. The slice of unpleasantness can be quite classless, and depend a lot on the time of day and day of the week.
But that it exists is no secret to anyone who uses public transport even irregularly. My own observation of public transport in Dublin, which I used daily for years and only irregularly in the past year; is that outside of the early morning commute it’s an open ended gamble as to where and when you’ll meet antisocial elements and what they’ll get up to.
In my time, I’ve seen fights. I’ve seen windows broken. I’ve seen quiet commuters threatened and attacked unprovoked. On one memorable trip a torrent of urine came gushing through a bus, much to the delight of all. It’s a very regular occurrence to see drugs being prepared and get a whiff that brings you right back to the cultured canals of Amsterdam; but I have to admit to being quite amazed the day a couple decided to make up and smoke a joint of heroin. Myself and about a dozen others weighed up the advice on passive smoking of normal cigarettes, and decided to get off.
That most users of public transport have some sort of similar story tells its own tale. If there is an attitude problem in relation to using public transport, it ties very firmly back onto the class of the experience than the class of the user.
Attempts are made to police antisocial behaviour by the likes of Irish Rail and the operators of the Luas, by hiring private security guards to roam the network. Some bus drivers take initiative and pull up at Garda stations on their routes, but this is a risky tactic given that they are likely to be rostered on the same route and meet the same scumbags when they are inevitably re-circulated into society.
These efforts are ad hoc and not entirely successful. Private security guards have very limited powers compared to police officers, and their use is patchy.
There are none for Dublin Bus, for example.
What we could do with in Ireland is a dedicated transport police, an innovation in common use around the world. Not a division of An Garda Síochána, though that is a possibility; but its own standing force tasked with the maintenance of public order and upholding the law on all forms of public transport.
The Gardaí clearly recognise the need of their services on public transport over the busy period of Christmas, but this high-profile time of year just sees an increase in antisocial activity from an already elevated baseline. As is, your typical Dublin Bus or Luas is a law-free zone most of the time; with their thresholds rarely darkened by uniformed officers.
It is unacceptable that mass public transport should be a place where a majority of honest, decent people are cooped up alongside regularly antisocial elements with very little chance of reprieve before their journey ends. Much as Gardaí patrol the streets, we should have police patrolling on public transport; or patrolling by car and dedicated to respond to calls from drivers in a prompt fashion.
Until we see antisocial behaviour curbed in a major way on public transport, Alan Kelly and his like cannot simply cry ‘classism!’ at anyone who would rather take the car.