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fixer upper

Five big ideas to improve public transport in Ireland

We asked five experts for their solutions to fix public transport problems, including sustainability and accessibility.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT JOURNEYS are slowly increasing again after a sharp dip last year during the onset of Covid-19 restrictions.

At their lowest, rail journeys fell by 97.2% in April 2020 compared to the first week of March that year.

They haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels yet, but rail and bus journeys are back up to 51.8% of those taken in early March 2020 as of the end of June 2021, and this week, the capacity permitted on services increased to 75%.

As more people get back on board, it’s a good time to think about the quality of public transport in Ireland and how it can be improved or problems that need to be solved.

This month, we’re taking a deep dive into public transport as part of The Good Information Project.

We spoke to academics and campaigners to ask for their solutions to fix five public transport problems – here’s what they told us.

Make it sustainable

“If this was a general election, public transport would win.”

Dr Brian Caulfield, former chair of the Irish Transport Research Network and an associate professor at Trinity College Dublin, says that Ireland needs to prioritise facilitating people taking public transport, walking and cycling, as well as decarbonising vehicle transport.

Where public transport isn’t as available as it needs to be to “beat the car” – especially in rural areas – electric cars should be encouraged as an alternative.

Dr Caulfield said that “when you look at transport, you look at an avoid-and-shift principle” – an idea for planning that focuses on reducing travel or trip length, moving people towards more environmentally-friendly modes of transport when they are travelling, and improving vehicle and fuel efficiency, as well as public transport.

“You start to think about why and when you’re travelling, and if you can get more people, for example, working from home. If more people are working from home, then those transport trips don’t happen,” Dr Caulfield said.

“When you start to shift it then, you move them on to hopefully walking and cycling – they’re the gold standard, that’s what we want everyone to do because there’s zero emissions and it’s very low cost in terms of investment,” he said.

“If that’s not viable – and for many people it’s not – then we push them onto public transport.

In particular, Dr Caulfield said, Ireland needs to pay more attention to sustainable transport in rural areas – “that’s where the emissions are”.

“Outside of Dublin, people take longer trips and there isn’t an alternative [to cars],” he said.

If I was sitting in Claremorris and I want to travel to a town or Tesco or drop kids at school, in my head, what I want in terms of getting there is the same as the person sat in Dublin, but the person in Dublin has public transport and walking and cycling options.”

Rural areas need more flexible public transport services, he said, and electric cars need to be made easy to use where transport links are poorly served.

“We may never get to point that public transport services in rural Ireland will be flexible enough to beat the car, and we [also] need to make sure that the car that they’re in isn’t a diesel banger. It needs to be an electric car and that’s the key part to reducing emissions.

electriccarchargingonparkinglotwithelectriccarcharging An electric car at a charging station Shutterstock Shutterstock

“We need to consider from a carbon perspective that if we provide fleets of buses in rural Ireland and they’re driving around with two or three people in them, that means that the carbon they’re producing per passenger is higher than perhaps it would have been by driving in their car.

“It kills me to say that the car is the solution for anything, but in some cases it will have to be, and that’s why it should be electric.”

In cities, we need to consider giving space to public transport, cyclists and pedestrians rather than cars; bringing projects like MetroLink, Dart+ and the Luas extension to fruition; and making electric bikes more widely available, he said. 

“55% of people [travelling into Dublin] are using public transport. If this was a general election, public transport would win and it would be able to do whatever it liked, and that’s the key – that it gets the space, gets the priority, and gets the advancement.”

Ireland has set a target to reduce 51% of carbon emissions by 2030.

“It’s going to be really difficult and really painful to do this in eight and a half years.

“We need to be really ambitious because the problem is really severe.

“There’s a lot of good leadership around this and I think the plans that are in place are right, but we need to throw the kitchen sink at this – everything needs to be considered.”

Make it accessible

“Being more aware, being more conscious is something that could be easily done.”

Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird, a writer and disability rights activist, believes that better staff training and transport design would be significant steps towards accessible public transport.

On buses, a major problem for wheelchair users is a lack of space, with Dublin Bus services only having capacity for one wheelchair at a time.

“I’ve had a few experiences of it lashing raining, the bus finally pulls up, but there’s already another wheelchair on it, so I have to sit there and wait for the next bus,” Ní Hoireabhaird said.

She said that trains are “slightly better” and that the Luas is the best option from her perspective as a wheelchair user when travelling in Dublin city centre, but that other issues – like needing to call ahead to notify a train or bus that a passenger uses a wheelchair – create challenges, especially outside of Dublin.

“Giving notice is something I’ve a lot of trouble with. There’s no sense of spontaneity. I can’t just hop on a bus or a train,” Ní Hoireabhaird said.

“Where I live in Kildare, we have a very small train station and it’s not manned,” she said.

“If I want to get the train up to Dublin, I have to call ahead to make the driver aware that he’ll have to stop, get off the train and physically do the ramp himself.”

That’s an issue that’s particularly acute in rural areas, she said – “It would be a lot easier in Heuston or Connolly where there are people whose job is to take care of customer service.”

However, Ní Hoireabhaird said that she has experienced difficulties with staff members who aren’t aware of how to engage with a wheelchair user as a passenger on public transport.

Additionally, uneven paths at bus stops, coupled with occasional lack of awareness from drivers, make public transport more difficult to exit.

On Nassau Street in Dublin, for instance, which is served by a large number of bus routes, Ní Hoireabhaird said that the path can be uneven and that sometimes a driver will open the ramp in front of an obstacle like a lamppost.

Cycle lane118 Nassau Street, Dublin Sam Boal / Sam Boal / /

Making public transport more accessible will be a combination of better transport planning and design, improving infrastructure, and staff training.

“Issues like expanding space, it definitely can’t be done overnight, it’s more of a long term issue, but things like awareness training and educating staff members, that can be done very quickly and easily,” Ní Hoireabhaird said.

“Being more aware, being more conscious is something that could be easily done,” she said.

I definitely would be a big advocate for training – in most areas of life I think everyone would benefit from that.”

“I think if the people designing these buses or the government were to put themselves in the shoes of disabled people and have the mindset of ‘is this accessible for a wheelchair user or someone with mobility aids’ that would be very helpful.”

Make it permeable

“We need to flip things so that it’s a little less convenient to drive and more convenient to cycle.”

Neasa Bheilbigh is a cyclist and teacher in Co Galway. She is the vice-chair of and a member of the Galway Cycling Campaign and the Galway Cycle Bus, a guided group cycle for children going to school.

For Bheilbigh, a major way to improve links and make walking and cycling easier is through permeable planning.

Permeability is a measure of how easy it is for people to move from one place to another, particularly in terms of whether urban or suburban areas, like estates, are connected to each other in a way that allows simple access between them on foot.

“That means you can walk from one estate into another. A little boy can go and visit his friend’s house in the next estate without having to go out on the main road. There might be an alleyway or an opening between two greens that he can walk through to get to his buddy’s house,” Bheilbigh said.

But where there’s poor planning, “what you have is that all the estates are closed off in cul-de-sacs”.

“You have to drive out of one, go all the way around, and drive into the other. The only entrance or exit into those estates is shared with cars,” Bheilbigh said.

The same thing can be applied to getting the bus. If I want to get out on the main road, I have to walk all the way around. Those things are all nudges. If I have to walk half a kilometre to get the bus over walking 50m or 100m, those things affect the choices that I make.”

She said that creating links between areas like estates can be done in a “socially secure way”.

“I understand that in the past they built these alleyways and they were narrow and they weren’t done through a gender lens, they weren’t thinking about how a woman would feel walking down this alleyway at night or people letting their children down it, and they probably attracted some anti-social behaviour”.

Instead, wide, well-lit spaces with paths and cycle lanes linking two estates, or an estate to public transport links, can make active travel viable.

“The whole idea of cycling is it needs to be more convenient than using a car, because you can drive outside and park on a footpath – it shouldn’t be that easy to drive. Whereas you’ll cycle to the shop and there’ll be nowhere to lock your bike,” she said.

“We need to flip things so that it’s a little less convenient to drive and more convenient to cycle so it makes it a more attractive option.”

aran-islands-co-galway-ireland-bicycle A bike on the Aran Islands, Co Galway Zuma Press / PA Images Zuma Press / PA Images / PA Images

Additionally, Ireland needs to put in covered, secure bike parking near homes and well-designed bike shelters beside bus stops, as well as making walking and cycling safer for children, she explained.

“We probably need to get a bit of a big stick out now and say it’s not acceptable for parents to park on footpaths, it’s not acceptable for them to park anywhere near zebra markings or on double yellow lines. We need protected zones around schools where children can approach schools without having extra traffic there,” Bheilbigh said – and those measures need to be enforced by local councils, rather than it being left to school principals.

“We find with the cycle bus, the little bit of activity in the morning has a huge effect. I worked in learning support for a couple of years and a lot of children started cycling to school on the cycle bus. The impact was amazing. Their focus, their stamina throughout the day was much better on days that they cycled and their behaviour was much better,” she said.

“We can’t just approach this from a Department of Transport point of view or a Council point of view. The Department of Education needs to be involved, the Department of Health needs to be involved.

“It can’t just be that ‘this is about transport’, because it’s a public health issue, it’s an environmental issue, it’s an education issue. I think it needs to come from all departments to really push it across the line.”

Make it light

“Ideally, in the future, transport in Cork would look like any other major, modern European city where there’s lots of different modes of transport and no one is locked into reliance on cars.”

Ciarán Meers of the Cork Commuter Coalition says that encouraging people to take public transport in Cork means looking at new ways of getting places – including light rail.

Plans are in place to develop a Luas in Cork by 2040, which Meers said is an important step for transit, but that the city still needs to think bigger.

“If you look at other cities that match the national role that Cork would play as the second city of a nation, as well as being similar in terms of population and geographic area, you see places like LeHarve in France,” Meers said.

The population of LeHarve is relatively close to Cork city – 170,000 as of 2018 compared to 125,000 in Cork city in 2016, according to the Census.

“It has roughly the same population as Cork, but it has things like multiple light rail lines, a commuter network that goes beyond anything that is in the scope for Cork city over the next while,” Meers said.

shutterstock_262979891 A Luas tram in Dublin Shutterstock / Chris Jenner Shutterstock / Chris Jenner / Chris Jenner

Outside of the city, transport links in rural Cork are not a viable option for many living in the county.

“There are lots of towns in a position where people are forced into relying on cars because there’s no connections to either the city or to other nearby towns or villages,” Meer said.

To solve that, “what some places around Europe do is have a regional bus network”.

“It’s something that’s quite common in US cities and regions that have more developed public transport.”

Some towns, like Kilkenny, have a town bus network. One solution would be that but larger, where you would have, say, a west Cork bus network that would connect towns and villages in west Cork on a more reliable schedule.”

“Because then you’re not waiting on that one bus route going to the city once or twice a day if you’re lucky – instead, there are connections that go to other towns and villages. It’s a better position for people to use public transport for its own viability.”

Additionally, counties like Cork along the coast should look at utilising waterborne modes of transport.

“One thing that would be good for Ireland to experiment with in terms of getting different ways that people might use public transport is a water taxi,” Meers said.

“A lot of other cities, especially in America and some of the more seafaring European cities would have a water bus that brings people from coastal communities to the city and back and to other coastal communities,” he said.

Meers said Cork towns like Cobh, Ringaskiddy, Passage West could benefit from a boat connecting them to the city and each other.

From the perspective of businesses, “one of the knock-on effects of Brexit has been the massive amount of freight that has been dealt with at places like the port of Cork”.

“But there’s no direct rail link from the port of Cork at Ringaskiddy to places like Rosslare, which dramatically affects Cork and Ireland’s ability to create a better freight network and better deal with those kinds of imports and exports post-Brexit,” he said.

“While passenger rail is vital, there’s also the issue of business and freight and reducing our emissions in that respect.”

Make it ambitious

“2050 seems like a long time away, but if we don’t start now, we won’t be able to get to that next stage.”

Morton O’Kelly is a professor at Ohio State University and a former director of its Centre for Urban and Regional Analysis. He studied for his Bachelor’s degree in University College Dublin and has researched transport in Ireland.

His key advice is for Ireland to approach transport planning with an ambitious vision and “recognising that transport ties things together and having a good transport system can really be a huge boost to an economy and to its development”.

Ireland should “think of mobility as a thing that gets people to where they go, whether that be by bus, bike, pedestrian walking, taxi, Uber, the whole spectrum, and thinking seamlessly between those different modes would be a real breakthrough”.

Ireland needs to think big and think long-term, O’Kelly said.

“Ireland has made some tremendous progress and if you take the long-view, 2050 seems like a long time away, but if we don’t start now, we won’t be able to get to that next stage with new levels of mobility,” he said.

“We have to do this in a way that is energy efficient and is not a negative impact on our environment.”

Two of the primary challenges with transport in Ireland right now, he said, are gaps in public transport networks and access for people who live further away from cities, especially who are commuting and moved away from the city for more affordable housing.

When I was young, I did not have a car, I took the bike and bus everywhere. When I came back to Ireland later in my life it was an eyeopener to realise ‘that’s not very far away, it’s a 10-minute drive but a 20-minute bus’.”

“You almost have to play the hand you’re dealt. Ireland has a particular geographical layout, a particular set of towns and cities and communities, and back in the Celtic Tiger people began to commute into the city from quite far, perhaps for affordability reasons,” O’Kelly said.

He said it would “be great if we could get a handle on that and make sure people don’t have to spend two hours commuting”.

“In Germany, rail and air and auto are almost thought of as part of the same thing. In the airport in Frankfurt, it’s possible to get on a connecting train and travel to Heidelberg or travel to other parts of Germany relatively without even thinking about it, it’s almost part of the same system,” he said.

shutterstock_366574253 A high-speed intercity train at Frankfurt Airport's train station Shutterstock / Hadrian Shutterstock / Hadrian / Hadrian

“Ireland doesn’t have quite the same view, but integrating the airports, integrating regional airports, tying together – to take advantage of some of the tremendous tourist assets the country has – and provide access.

“If you can, be more ambitious and say, ‘let’s not wait until the next Celtic Tiger to provide us with the wealth to do all these things’,” he said.

“We almost need to do them upfront and by doing them upfront, you preload the precondition for future tremendous growth.

“Transport can lead economic development and urban and spatial land use planning- the whole thing is connected, and putting a priority on that would behove people.

“It would be a game-changer for the next fifty years.”

 This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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