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'The returns are huge if we can do this': The need for a world-class public transport system in Ireland

What needs to happen in Ireland to drastically improve our public transport?

File photo of a bus in Dublin city centre.
File photo of a bus in Dublin city centre.

IT’S A FAMILIAR situation for Dublin commuters: stuck on a bus in rush-hour traffic in the city centre, creeping very slowly through the streets. 

A report earlier this year found that Dublin was the slowest city centre in all of Europe. On average drivers in the capital spent around 246 hours in traffic in 2018.

Another report listed the city as the 14th most congested in the world, and sixth worst in Europe. 

For cyclists, things aren’t much better, with regular complaints over a lack of adequate cycle lanes and infrastructure in the city. In June, international delegates attending Velo-City cycling conference in Dublin shared their experiences of “dangerous” cycling conditions in the city. 

“I find it hard to believe that anyone who rides a bike designed the bike path section,” visiting professor Dr Tara Goddard said online

Navigating that roundabout was literally one of the sketchier maneuvers I’ve had to do. Luckily a driver took pity and let us cut in front of her.

Meanwhile, outside of Dublin, public transport options become more limited and have come under increasing criticism in recent years. 

“For too long, infrastructural development has been concentrated in the east,” chairperson of the Oireachtas Rural Community Development Committee Joe Carey said last month. 

This has resulted in a situation where all roads lead to the capital but there is poor connectivity between regional areas.

These issues among others are the focus of this week’s episode our Ireland 2029 podcast, which looks at the whether it’s possible for the country to build a world-class public transport system over the next 10 years. 

“For Ireland to achieve its climate change targets, to build a decent quality of life and to maintain an acceptable standard of living for everyone there’s no doubt that we need to invest in well planned public transport networks,” said David O’Connor, Assistant Head of School in Environment and Planning at TU Dublin.

We need these for our communities, our cities and our regions. 

World-class public transport 

O’Connor said Ireland could achieve the goal of a much improved public transport system “far sooner than people imagine”. 

“I think we’re on a trajectory, but it is a struggle,” he told Ireland 2029. 

“We’ve a problem in this country which is we’ve developed very unsustainable settlement patterns. 

That makes it really hard to kind of supply and to actually get people around very easily, because if people are distributed very far away it’s hard to run public transport services. 

As well as issues in Dublin – which according to a European Environment Agency suffers from some of the worst sprawl of any European city – there are also significant issues when taking into account towns and villages outside of the capital. 

“Most people travelling around Dublin are probably travelling outside the M50 and commuting to or from many, many outlying towns that are growing at a phenomenal rate,” O’Connor said.  

Now we don’t really have a solid plan for those towns in transport terms and that’s probably the single biggest problem that we face.

Solutions

However, O’Connor sees hope in the future of improving connectivity and transport in Dublin as well as other cities and areas in the country. 

Starting with connecting towns, O’Connor pointed towards the example of the S-Bahn in Berlin and other German cities – a rapid transit railway system connecting the cities to satellite towns.

“That kind of saved the core city, because it didn’t sprawl, it sort of stayed compact and it meant that the towns outside the city worked as well,” he said.  

I really think we need a very high quality rapid transit network for our towns around Dublin.

Dublin has recently completed one significant public transport project in recent years with the Luas Cross City – which connected the Luas Red and Green lines. 

The €370 million project took about three years to complete and was quite controversial when it first kicked off – with increased traffic congestion, overcrowding and delays in some areas.

But the tram service has seen significant jumps in passenger numbers of revenues since the cross city completion. 

“I think it was the right thing to do to connect the Luas lines. It didn’t make sense to have these two disconnected things,” O’Connor said.

Bringing the Luas through the city was very difficult and I think it was quite impressive how they did that.  

Following on from the Luas Cross City, two significant public transport projects have been brought forward that have the capability to completely transform the system in Dublin.

BusConnects and MetroLink 

Under BusConnects initiatives aimed at transforming bus services in the greater Dublin area, delivering upon the plans would see the creation of 230km of dedicated bus lanes along the 16 busiest corridors in Dublin as well as the redesign of the bus network along seven central “spines”. 

Following a public consultation, the National Transport Authority received 30,000 submissions on its plans.

The creation of corridors that would see continuous bus lanes in and out of Dublin city centre will have an effect on some property owners along these areas. 

The NTA unveiled the plans last year which – if it all goes according to plan – would entirely transform the network, replacing many of the numbers with letters, and adding orbital routes so that people can avoid the city centre if they’re travelling across Dublin.

The theory behind it is that you may have to change your bus on the way into the city, but by prioritising the key “spines”, it should actually get you there faster.

O’Connor believes this is the single most significant investment in Dublin’s public transport future. 

“BusConnects is huge. What we’re putting into it per kilometre is a fraction of what we put into Luas and even a smaller fraction again of what we’re looking to put into MetroLink,” he said.

MetroLink is the other massive public transport investment in the capital – a combined underground and surface light rail service linking beginning in Swords and heading through Dublin Airport to the south side of the city. 

The line is expected to open in 2027, with construction likely to take up to seven years.

“I think we know most of the answers and I think we’re going in the right direction,” said O’Connor when questioned on Ireland’s ability to build a world-class public transport network. 

Outside of Dublin, the NTA also announced a Cork Metropolitan Area Transport Strategy (CMATS) this year for the city, which include plans for a €1 billion light rail system. 

Cycling

A world-class public transport of course doesn’t just mean motorised transport, but cycling and walking too. Louise Williams is a member of the Dublin Cycling Campaign who spoke to TheJournal.ie about the issues facing cyclists in the capital. 

“It’s quite a hostile, aggressive environment sometimes,” Williams said, on being a cyclist in Dublin.

She said that a lack of proper cycle lanes and signage make the city unsafe and difficult for cyclists. 

“On so many profound levels you’ve a lack of joined up thinking in the way that we use the city,” she said. 

“Dublin City Council’s official policy is pedestrians first, then cyclists, then public transport, then cars, but in 10 years’ time are we going to see that manifested through the way we can navigate the city?

I don’t know. I’d love that to happen. But if we keep on going along in this piecemeal way I don’t see that joined up thinking manifested through protection for everybody to be able to use the city.

Williams called for a more connected system that catered for all levels and members of Irish society.

Accessibility 

Another element needed to be taken into account when talking about public transport is accessibility and how safe and convenient transport is for people who may have a disability.

Sean O’Kelly is a wheelchair user, disability advocate the founder of the A Day in My Wheels campaign.

He has been a strong voice for improving accessibility on public transport, particularly the Dart and other Irish Rail services, which he previously use regularly. 

O’Kelly said he regularly experienced issues such as lifts being out-of-order and staff not being on hand to assist with getting on and off the train.

“I refuse to use public transport, and I shouldn’t feel like that. I really, really should not feel like that. Feeling caged, feeling uncertain about public transport in Ireland,” he said. 

“I do hold out hope. But in order for that hope to be maintained, policy needs to change.

I’m not giving a dig at the men on the ground. It’s policy – it’s policymakers that need to have their act together.  

In a statement, a spokesperson for Irish Rail said it was “currently undertaking a programme of preventative maintenance at the moment to address some lifts where we have experienced issues with recurring faults and misuse”.

“We apologise for the issues experienced, particularly in locations where there have been recurring issues, and recognise the impact this has on accessibility of our stations,” the spokesperson said. 

“Lift issues predominantly arise from misuse, which in turn has impacted on ongoing reliability, and we are also rolling out a lift call system which will ensure lifts are monitored to prevent access to those who seek to vandalise or damage equipment.

“Both the current works and lift call will improve reliability of lifts (as they have, for example, at Howth Junction). 

However we do require, and there will be, a more significant programme of investment in lift replacement over the coming years, which will see new and more durable units installed.

Moving towards a world-class public transport system requires funding and proper planning, but according to David O’Connor, with the right will, it could be possible. 

“Looking to 2029, the returns are potentially huge if we can do this,” he said.

Economically, but also a healthier and happier future for everyone. 

You can listen to the 10th episode of Ireland 2029: Shaping Our Future in full below:

Full list of providers here 


Source: Ireland 2029/SoundCloud

Is a world-class public transport system possible for Ireland?

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Cormac Fitzgerald

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