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Dublin: 15 °C Sunday 15 September, 2019
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'I got into terrible trouble': Shane Ross on that social media speed bump, and why he went electric in the first place

We talked to the transport minister about ministerial cars, BusConnects, and getting on a bike with Eamon Ryan.

STANDING NEXT TO his brand new electric car outside his constituency office in Dundrum, transport minister Shane Ross insisted all of his fellow Cabinet members should follow his lead and get rid of their petrol and diesel vehicles. 

The TD signed up for all available government grants to get the new car, but it still set him back a cool €38,0000. “An awful lot of money”, he acknowledged. 

There’s an intense focus on climate issues at the moment, and senior politicians are regularly faced with questions about changes they are making in their personal or home lives. 

The Taoiseach is cutting down on meat, Micheál Martin has said he’s walking a lot more, and Mary Lou McDonald is focusing on energy efficiency in her home. 

Ross reckons his investment is the best way to help reduce his carbon footprint.

“This is hopefully going to reduce emissions dramatically, so far it is a really good experience” he said, adding that his new Hyundai does a range of about 400 kilometres before having to be charged again. 

Ross’s Cabinet colleague, climate change minister Richard Bruton, also drives a hybrid vehicle. Other ministers have been tight-lipped on whether they intend to make a switch.

The Dublin Rathdown deputy said he would encourage anyone “including fellow Cabinet members, TDs and everybody else” to switch to electric.

“I had a gas guzzler before and it was disgraceful,” he said.

His new Hyundai, before applying the grants worth €10,000, cost €48,000, which is a substantial amount of money, said Ross, but the minister said he felt he had to make the switch. 

“We are going to be asking a million people by 2030 to buy a car like this with zero emissions so I think senators, TDs, ministers should take the lead first,” he said, referring to the government’s recently announced climate action targets

While Ross is new to driving an electric car, he landed himself in hot water earlier this week when he tweeted an image of himself charging his vehicle at a charge point in Marlay Park.

“Who said there is a shortage of chargers for electric vehicles?” Ross asked in his social media post.

Look at what I found in sunny Marlay Park this morning! 

Ross later deleted the tweet when it was pointed out to him that the charger in question had been installed in May, but had yet to be switched on.

He later issued a clarification saying he had “jumped the gun” and that the charger was due to be switched on in the coming weeks. 

His initial tweet was met with a substantial backlash. So what did he make of the criticism?

“I got into terrible trouble,” he said (while literally holding his hands up). 

I stopped at a charge point for a photo, to deliberately take a photograph, because I wanted to encourage people, and show, ‘look this is how you do it, they’re easy and accessible’. I didn’t say whether it was actually open or not, but it was one of the [charge] points Richard Bruton was talking about that are going to be operational very shortly. 
What I was saying was, look they are coming. There are problems with charge points at the moment, we acknowledge that but there is a real programme being set up by Richard, that is coming out over the next few years. It is being accelerated. 
The trouble I got into was that I stood beside a charge point and put a plug into it and people came, quite rightly, and said, ‘hey it’s not actually working’. I don’t think it actually matters that it wasn’t working, I was trying to make a point that they’re around the place, but Mea Culpa, hands up, I probably shouldn’t have done it.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

With Ross keen to leave that incident behind him, it was time for the minister to take us for a spin. 

Safely belted in, we asked how the minister was finding the switch, at a practical level.

“You have to plan it, you have to say I’ll stop for 40 minutes, charge it and have a cup of coffee,” he said.

There are times you might be unlucky, where you find the charger isn’t working, he said -  but faulty charging points are flagged on the app. 

He added: “This isn’t a faultless way of refueling by any matter or means but because of the rollout I think that will improve.”

The minister added that if someone is considering buying electric, now is the time to do it as the government is continuing to offer grants. 

Nobody knows what the grants will be like in the future, they are very expensive for the Exchequer.

When asked about the reduction of grants in the years ahead (which a government report recently recommended) Ross said he believes there will be an eventual equalisation of prices between regular cars and electric vehicles. 

He said he didn’t know if the grants would be reduced and what incentives might be available in the future, but added that the government will have to continue to persuade people to buy them.

As Ross drove us around the Dundrum-Ballinteer area, we took the opportunity to ask the minister about the ongoing controversy surrounding the Bus Connects project – the ambitious initiative that would see see the creation of 230km of dedicated bus lanes along the 16 busiest corridors in Dublin.

Concerns about the plan have been raised after it emerged that some homeowners will lose a portion of their gardens due to the plans. A number of areas of south Dublin have protested against the NTA plans, with locals claiming it will destroy communities.

“The bus is really the the main vanguard of the transport system,” said Ross, who believes that the BusConnects plan will work to transform the network and increase capacity.

Every government has faced similar problems when it came to large-scale transport plans, he insisted. While he said it is unfair to call opposition to Bus Connects ‘Nimbyism’, he said that people often backed the idea of an improved transport system as long as it didn’t disrupt their area.

“They approve of the BusConnects in principle, absolutely, emphatically. They think it’s a wonderful idea to have more buses, more people getting it to work. And they think Bus Connects is a good idea, particularly the orbital ones which we’re introducing, which will be very effective, I have no doubt it’s going to work.

“And then suddenly you go into a district and they say, yeah, it’s a great idea. But I’m not going to have BusConnects in my area because it causes changes, which I can’t accept or develops changes along the bus routes, or the bus network, which I can’t accept, but it would suit everybody else perfectly. So you do have that difficulty. But, you know, as a government, we have to take decisions sometimes, which are not particularly popular in local areas, even though they’re in the national interest.

“And I’ve absolutely no doubt that what’s happening in Bus Connects.”

The NTA will listen to people in the areas where problems have been raised, he said, “because some of them have legitimate complaints, not just about the corridors, where nobody wants to see an unnecessary number of trees brought down, that’s the worst thing and the last thing I want to see”. 

irish-government Shane Ross alongside his Independent Alliance colleague Finian McGrath Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Cycling 

There were cycle paths either side of us as we drove through Dundrum.

In recent years, cycling campaigners in have been vocal about the city’s cycling network, insisting the infrastructure is not fit for purpose for a modern city. 

“We bought into the cycling story, we bought into it really big time. And so critics will say it’s taken too long, and they are right, it did take too long. But we bought into it,” he said, in response to complaints raised by campaigners. 

“Cycling was neglected for a very, very long time. And we are we are playing catch up,” he admitted, adding that cyclists who complain about cycling lanes disappearing half way along a road have “legitimate complaints”.

I don’t want to make any bones about it. They’ve got legitimate complaints. They haven’t got exactly what they want yet, but we’re trying, We’re absolute determined to accommodate them. Because we recognise the value of cycling, not just to the environment, but as part of the solution.

The minister said some of the cycling critics have been “vociferous” while others have been “really constructive”. 

“And some of them are a little bit over the top. And they want us to immediately introduce something like what they’ve got in Copenhagen, which really isn’t practical, we haven’t got the right size streets, they are not wide enough,” he said, adding that moving to that sort of model cannot be done “overnight”.

In Copenhagen, cycling lanes are wide (1.7 to 2.2 metres), accessible, and easy to use. The cycle track is placed between the footpath and parked cars, minimising the danger that cyclists face. 

He said a huge amount of money is being spent on cycling, stating that the “proof of the pudding is in the eating”. 

There are 230 kilometres of bus corridors being introduced under the Bus Connects plan and of those 230 kilometres, 200 will have segregated cycling lanes adjoining them, said the minister. 

It should really be called Bus and Cycling Connects, because there’s going to be nearly as much new cycling lanes. 

So, has the minister ever cycled in Dublin?

“No not for a long time, no I haven’t” replied Ross, adding:

“But I think I’m going to have to try it. Because I think it’s only fair, just as I did an electric as a trial… It is only right that I should be able to respond to them by drawing on some personal experience, so it’s my intention at some stage to get out a bike, go around and see what the experience is like,” he said. 

We suggested that Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, an avid cyclist, might be able to show him the ropes.

“He’s a very, very amiable,” outside the Dáil, Ross joked.

I’d be absolutely delighted to go sit on the back of his bike and let him take me around Dublin.

When speaking about ideas that might make a difference to Ireland’s transport system, Ross said “mad ideas are welcome”.

One suggestion he ruled out at the Climate Action Plan launch, however, was the idea of free public transport – something some other EU countries have introduced. 

“It’s very easy to spend other people’s money. And for politicians to say – and I said masses of things like it when I was in opposition as well – they were ideas which you throw out and governments usually reject them.

You say, ‘yeah, let’s have free transport’. It sounds great. I’d love to do it. But the cost of it would be absolutely massive. We already subsidise transport to €260 million per annum. 
So, I don’t think it’s going to happen, I’d love to see it, I’m not against it.

shutterstock_183893855 Source: Shutterstock/Tomas K

What the minister would like to see is more experimenting with the fares system by the NTA, particularly during the summer months, to assess whether free or lower prices result in more people using public transport.

“What I would like to see is from time to time, experimental prices, like with the young children going free in the summer. I thought that was a wonderful idea. And I think that should be tried more often, in order to see what the result of free transport is, whether it actually does encourage people to get on it permanently.” 

While he said pricing is a matter for the NTA, he would encourage experimenting with varying prices and incentivised ticketing in order to see if it impacts on people’s travel habits.

If that means varying the fares in certain ways, or reducing the fares or giving them a free passage or free vehicles over a short period of time. I see nothing wrong with that. I mean, any kind of variations is a good idea. Any idea which looks like it’s going to work on a permanent basis, then yeah, let’s take the short term term pain for the Exchequer. But don’t let’s not just say free, free for everybody forever. I think that is probably not going to work.

Can Ireland learn from the transport systems in other countries?

Ross says hopes so, as he plans to visit a number of European cities in the next couple of months, as well as Japan at the end of the year to see how others do it. 

Speaking about Japan in particular, Ross said while Ireland doesn’t have that country’s resources or wealth, lessons can be learned about what he the Japanese have done “in a relatively short period of time”.

We can learn from what’s happening overseas. But you’ve got to remember, we’ve got special problems, we’ve got limited resources, we can’t just go and plant the European solution on Dublin overnight, because we’ve got different problems, we’ve got different populations, we’ve got different movements, different types of commuters, but what we can do is really learn for the future what kind of a model works. And we can learn from their successes and the failures. In some ways, that’s an advantage.

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