This weekend a radio talk show in Ireland was lamenting the state of the Irish road network, in particular focusing on the state of her road signs. Anyone that has driven through the country will understand how this seemingly trivial matter could be focus for an entire discussion. The cause of the problem was perceived to be the decentralised system of transport regulation, the result being a wide disparity between different parts of the country, and a generally poor system compared to European standards. The show received numerous SMS messages and emails highlighting more extreme examples, from road signs incorrectly directing traffic, through long stretches of road with nary a road-sign or indication of turnings, to the example of sections of road with conflicting speed limits, no doubt compounded by some complications in the changeover from miles to kilometres per hour.

Yet what was only mentioned in passing was that government initiatives to improve the transport network in the country can only be spent once, and ultimately further improvements to the road network must necessarily mean public transport receives less funding. One of the interesting statistics cited was that in Dublin, the only large urban centre, around 70% of commuters travel to work by private transport. Although unduly unfair, for the sake of comparison just consider the figures for the centre of London, which show the figure to be as low as 10%. Is Ireland’s public transport system underperforming?

Public transport

Let us limit ourselves to a consideration of the public transport services in the Dublin area, and exclude those varieties either non-terrestrial or unshared (i.e. planes, ferries, taxis &c.). If we were being unduly critical, the very constitution of the services in this area could be called into question, but in truth the combined services provided by Dublin Bus, the DART and in recent years the LUAS offer in most cases a decent coverage, reasonably rapid transit and under normal circumstances a regular service. Just where then is there a problem in the government and CIE‘s attitude to public transport.

For this we need only look at the price. If we assume an average car achieves 35 miles per gallon, (it can be conceded here that this figure is not representative of general urban driving conditions) and using a price of 105 cents per litre we get an average price per mile of 13-14 cents. Now taking an average annual mileage of 12,000 miles, if we then add on to this price per mile figures for insurance, tax, NCT and servicing, some sundries and double this figure for vehicle depreciation, we come to a figure of approximately 40 cents per mile travelled. Think you could get that kind of value for money on Dublin Bus? An average 3 mile journey on the bus would cost €1.55 i.e. just over 50 cents per mile; a shorter journey would probably be even less value for money.

Of course comparing the value of public and private transport side-by-side is a difficult task, but as the above little calculation shows, public transport is certainly no cheaper than owning a car, and in fact might be a good deal more expensive. Consider the added convenience of owning a car, being able to nip in to the shops or take a detour, without needing to wait for another bus, and worse, buy another ticket to continue on the same journey. Perhaps most importantly of all, take a passenger on your journey and you virtually double the economy, something you can’t do on a bus. Certainly there are disadvantages as well, such as that the bus often avoids the rush hour traffic to some extent using their dedicated lanes, or that there is a matter of parking space in the city centre, but as soon as you take the car outside of these confines these disadvantages soon evaporate. For example, Dublin Bus has an extensive network, but as soon as you operate outside these limits, cars again show their advantages. Further if you want to travel out of peak hours or on the weekends, you may find the journey by car more direct, comfortable and just as fast, and all this with a saving to boot.

Whilst price might not necessarily be the main reason for the prevalence of private transport in the capital, it certainly illustrates a disregard for the ideal of public transport. The institution of bus lanes and the so-called “Quality Bus Corridors” (QBCs) are obvious physical manifestations of the government’s commitment to quality public transport services. Unlike for instance the London congestion charges, however, this does not necessarily imply a real commitment; in fact Dublin Bus’ own findings in 2004 showed that only in 75% of the QBCs was the average bus journey at rush hour quicker than the same journey untaken by car. At any other time this benefit is negated, and fully a quarter of the time this benefit does not even apply at the busiest time.

Government policy appears to be ignoring the Lewis-Mogridge Position, something like transport’s answer to Parkinson’s Law: that traffic expands to meet the available road space. Take for example the Dublin Port Tunnel, due to be opened in December this year; designed to free up HGV traffic from the city centre, and in particular from the narrow Quays, this long vehicle amnesty will only be replaced by private vehicles in the heart of the city. Whilst the benefits of the tunnel should not be understated, the full ramifications of the government’s policy do not seem to have been considered. The implementation of the LUAS might similarly be criticised, in the nature of its overlapping, not necessarily complementary services with Dublin Bus, and that under separate governing bodies. The results of the Dublin Metro are, of course, yet to be seen.

Student fares

Of course, in terms of offering value for money, the government and associated bodies must always be seen to make concessions to those fringe groups, such as students and the elderly, and public transport is no different. CIE produced an advert in recent years which went along the lines of “You asked for more – and we listened”. Which begs the question – what exactly were they listening to? The playful crash of the euros as they collect in the bottom of the piggy bank? Students represent a significant proportion of public transport users, a fact reflected by the building of the LUAS line in close proximity to Trinity College’s residence buildings at Dartry, the number of Dublin Bus services terminating or servicing UCD’s Belfield campus, and the future extension of the LUAS to Grangegorman, the site of the new DIT campus.

But let’s just consider the economy of a student ticket. For €64 students can enjoy 30 days’ travel on all Dublin Bus and LUAS services, for example. Essentially this benefits heavy users of the service, but given that an average student might make the back-and-forth journey to college during the week and wish to make use of the Nightbus service at the weekends, the fact that this isn’t included in the ticket only adds insult to the injury that paying the fare box rate of €1.35 each way would in fact be cheaper. And we must not forget that in the eyes of Ireland’s transport network, students are not students because they are students but because they hold a €12 card which indicates the holder is in fact a student. Such a system would appear abhorrent on the continent; only the balmy Brits would also consider implementing such an abomination.

Public transport for the public

What, then, does this critic propose? As one of those scary proponents of free public transport, that would be seen as the ultimate goal in an ‘ideal world’. Nevertheless, the more immediate aim should be seen by everyone to institute a fair system of tariffs for the public, and that to mean everyone. The systems in place offer a service which whilst purporting to be a real alternative to the world of private transport actually offer a convenience for those with money to spend. The figures can obviously be twisted to support any viewpoint, but when we consider that the government subsidises public transport by only 25%, one of the lowest rates in Europe, the facts illustrated here are no longer much of a surprise.

The Irish nation is in a strong position to deal with the issue of public transport, particularly in the Dublin area, given its geographical benefits and the lack of significant vested interests in the petroleum or car manufacturing industries. In terms of the Dublin area, the economies are greatest of all; consider that a car with one occupant can average 35 miles per passenger per gallon, whilst a bus carrying just 9 passengers can achieve the same efficiency.

If the government wishes to improve the public transport system therefore, it must penalise those using private transport and simultaneously offer incentives to use the systems in place. No matter how good the service is, if it simply does not offer value for money for the consumers, they will look elsewhere. This can happily be achieved in a number of ways, and the QBCs are at least on the right lines here. Better value tickets covering longer durations would prove an incentive for many more people, and offering greater incentives to younger people can only improve the public perception of the service in the next generation.

So until the Irish government and the CIE holding company can improve upon their act, bring that dusty bike out of the garage and do your health a favour at the same time, or put that loose change for the bus aside for petrol money and take the car to work. Hell, at least that way you can have a smoke on the way.