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Free Public Transport is a Public Good that can be Cost-Effectively Delivered in Dublin

In contrast to other major European cities, Dublin has few rail- or tram- lines. Instead, public transport users mainly rely on an extensive but complicated bus network. This is, however, slow and unreliable, owing to Dublin’s appalling traffic congestion. Moreover, for several key destinations outside the centre, notably Dublin Airport, buses are the only available public transport option.

Dublin’s traffic congestion suffocates key transport corridors: from Stillorgan to St Stephen’s Green; Blanchardstown to Stoneybatter; Terenure to the Liberties; and Coolock to the Docklands. These arteries are so gummed up that drivers last year spent, on average, two-hundred and fifty hours in traffic – making Dublin the third worst city in the world for time spent sitting in traffic.[i]

The effect of spending the equivalent of more than ten full days in a car each year, can only have negative health, psychological and social impacts, leading to isolation, stress, anger and weight gain. And how do many drivers compensate for time lost in traffic? By using smart phones to ‘connect’ – illegally of course – with the world outside.

Regrettably, however, the authorities seem unwilling to contemplate a gradual retreat of the motor car from the centre. In contrast, across Europe, bicycle (and scooter) rental schemes, allowing residents to beat the traffic, have multiplied. Networks of cycle paths are mushrooming: for example Paris’s cycle lane infrastructure will, by 2020 have been expanded by 50% in the space of just five years.[ii] Elsewhere, city councils are lowering speed limits, introducing car bans and car-free days, pedestrianising streets and replacing car with bike parks.

The ‘slow’ Dublin city centre, in tandem with the legacy of inept and corrupt planning for the suburbs, along with high car insurance and ancillary costs, present Dublin with severe challenges in terms of retaining both Irish and International business.

Indeed, a 2018 study by the Dublin Chamber of Commerce found 73% of companies were finding traffic was having an increasingly negative impact on their businesses.[iii] In addition, heavy car reliance pollutes, causing both smog detrimental to human health, especially from diesel engines, as well as CO2 emissions generating climate chaos.

One obvious way of addressing these problems would be to develop more extensive, comfortable and efficient public transport for Dublin; especially as without implementation of a pragmatic, but innovative, public transport infrastructure, any hope of expanding business and employment in the capital should be set aside.

Dublin’s public transport network can be improved by diminishing distances between stops. Denser public transport can be delivered to the city (and the rest of the country too) swiftly, and without incurring vast additional infrastructure and capital costs. Importantly, adverse environmental and social impacts – such as we are witnessing with the BusConnects ‘mega-project’ – can easily have be avoided by liaising with community groups and other interested parties.

The important question to address is how Dublin’s public transport network will alleviate traffic congestion. And after half a dozen incomplete Bus Network improvement plans (anyone remember the ‘Quality Bus Corridors Network’ and the ‘Swiftway BRT’ plans?) pompously rolled out over the last fifteen years  – all of them expensive and requiring costly compulsory purchase orders – it is high time to think outside the box.

A Public Good

The problem is that all previous bus network improvement plans – with BusConnects only the latest – accept the accommodation of other types of road users as axiomatic, including, of course, motorists. This, unavoidably, demands road-widening: usually requiring land acquisitions to establish minimal widths of twenty metres, i.e. a two-metre-wide footpath, a two-metre-wide cycle track, a three-metre-wide bus lane and a three-metre-wide traffic lane, on both sides of the road.

If brought to fruition, twenty-metre-wide BusConnects corridors will, unavoidably, split neighbourhoods apart. Pedestrians will be channelled into designated ‘safe’ crossing points with communities separated by concrete corridors – what transport planners refer to as ‘pipelines’.

But what if there were less cars on the streets? Would this really reduce the need for additional space and infrastructure, and diminish impacts?

This brings us to the idea of recognising the use of public transport as a Public Good which should become free for passengers, thereby encouraging people out of their cars. Yes free – why not?

Access to public transport might become viewed as a fundamental human right, akin to the provision of healthcare and education. Indeed, in more than a hundred cities in the world it is possible to ride on a tram, metro or bus for free – and without having to evade an inspector!

From the buses of Porto Real in Portugal, to the Miami Metro in Florida, and from Noyon in France and Chengdu in China, free public transport is a successful urban mobility option for mitigating both the environmental and sociological impacts of transport. The latest place to embrace the concept is Luxembourg  – it will soon be the first country with all public transport free.[iv]

There are a number of powerful arguments for making public transport free – or at least below the cost of operation and maintenance – provided either by government directly or through the private sector.

For starters, private cars impose numerous costs on society that drivers do not pay for. Every time we start our diesel, petrol, hybrid engines – or even electric, as long as fossil fuels power stations – we generate air pollution, and clog up roads for other users. These costs are measurable in environmental damage, health care costs, and wasted time, which non-motorists pay for indirectly, through taxation.

Economists and planners have long advocated that motorists should pay these costs directly, allowing people to make rational choices. Well-designed congestion pricing schemes, such as those found in Singapore, London, Stockholm and Milan, ensure that private vehicle drivers pay more if they choose a congested road – just as Dublin’s Port Tunnel has different rates depending on the time of day.

A variation on a congestion pricing scheme for Dublin would be an additional levy on fossil fuels, which could be dedicated to relieving air pollution thereby raising respiratory health.

In the absence of a congestion pricing plan for Dublin, however, and powerful opposition to it, subsidising public transport, which gets people to drive less than they might otherwise, is an feasible alternative – albeit, the combination of both measures would be optimal.

Everyone benefits when people can travel around more safely and freely

Making public transport freely available for all should create greater labour flexibility, with companies potentially choosing from a larger pool of employees, as well as accessing more suppliers who might not be deterred by high transport costs. Moreover, people would be more inclined to take more impromptu, and safer, outings for shopping, leisure or social purposes. It might save many rural pubs.

Naturally, removing the financial cost of public transport to users would not make it ‘free’, as someone would have to foot the bill. It can be demonstrated, however, that using taxation revenue to pay for public transport would make everyone wealthier, in the wider sense of the word.

Permitting ‘car sprawl’, i.e. unrestricted growth in car sales and road infrastructure with scant regard for urban planning, makes no economic sense, as profits generated by millions of generally single-occupant vehicles come with significant costs. The waste of resources, and other social costs are ‘conveyed’ from the calculation of these profits, and passed on to the taxpayer, future generations, and sometimes other countries.

Implementation Challenges

The concept of free public transport poses several implementation challenges. Amongst the arguments potentially adduced against it are as follows:

  1. It would require more public transport units to accommodate increased demand, which harms the environment, just as cars do.

Indeed, if everyone used public transport, more, polluting buses would be required. In addition, upgrading our public transport infrastructure is energy-intensive, drawing largely on coal and other fossil fuels. But it would take many cars off the road and reduce the overall impact in the short term, while bus manufacturers could be incentivised to produce cleaner, more comfortable, and ‘smarter’ vehicles.

  1. With our level of public debt we cannot afford to spend money on frivolous projects like this.

In fact public transport is the opposite of debt: when carefully and strategically planned it brings tangible rewards, and more importantly reduces carbon emissions; especially important with the Irish state facing hundreds of millions in fines for failure to reduce emissions that are the third highest in the EU.[v]

  1. Car sales would drop significantly.

Indeed they would if public transport was free for everyone to get to work. Families would no longer feel the need for two or more cars. This would likely hurt the (non-indigenous) car industry, but manufacturing resources could be redeployed into making buses, or even bicycles.

  1. Some of our public transport is terrible – this would just increase the pressure.

Regrettably, much of Dublin’s transport network is currently over-crowded and unreliable, and this is precisely why government investment is required to accommodate demand and increase capacity.

  1. Public transport service providers cannot be expected to provide a reliable service without a financial incentive.

This argument rests on the assumption that when we pay nothing, and heaps of people are using the service, we cannot expect top-notch customer service. The ultimate client, however, in this case is the state and a simple clause in each public transport services contract could require all services to achieve a minimum standard of quality, based on the users expectations.

  1. Many people dislike public transport and would never use it.

There are of course people who will stick to their cars whenever possible, but they would at least start bearing the real cost of using them.

Combating Climate Chaos

Introducing free public transport would reduce the number of cars on the road. A moderately loaded bus can carry approximately eighty passengers during a typical commuting hour. Compared to the typical car occupancy of a maximum average of two passengers at peak hour, it is a straightforward calculation that a single bus would remove up to forty cars from the road.

A strategically designed and free bus-based city public transport system with, say, a fleet of five hundred buses could thus potentially take twenty-thousand cars off the road; almost half the number of cars currently dominating Dublin city’s centre.

In all likelihood many of us would choose not to own a private car – perhaps renting where the need arose – thereby reducing the volume on the road. Repeated across dozens of cities in a country and thousands worldwide, free public transport could be a game changer in terms of transport emissions.

Any government’s job is to provide services for the people. Free public transport is an example of a great service available to all. Taxation is already devoted to healthcare, education and road maintenance, so why not make provision for a service conferring such wide-ranging benefits? Moreover, it should go without saying that any government should  be taking care of the environment we pass on to our children.

By making free public transport an aspect of the social contract, the government would be compelled to bring about improvements as required. With more users – especially vocal ones – deficiencies would be exposed. Reducing the number of cars on the road would also yield space for footpath and cycle track improvements.

If public transport were offered for free more people would surely avail of it. Indeed, more of us would already be using public transport if it did not cost so much; ridiculously, driving into town is often ‘cheaper’ once you own a car and paid insurance.

Enhanced Wellbeing

A study conducted by the city of Copenhagen linked regular public transport use to a lower mortality rate, a happier disposition, and greater labour productivity. Public transport users take up to three times the amount of exercise per day compared to drivers, simply from walking between stops and their destinations.[vi]

Public transport also brings financial benefits to communities: not only directly by providing jobs in the industry itself, but also by creating a key component to a healthy business ecosystem, and by increasing mobility options for both commuters and customers.

It can assist in shaping a more active society, where people accept and respect each other, interact more, learning how to live together – the core elements of a healthy polity – all for free!

Such an idea may seem revolutionary for a car-dominated city such as Dublin, but actually it’s more like a reversion to how it operated in the past. The city existed for at least a millennium before the motor car arrived on the scene. Its city centre was built around pedestrian traffic, which had to be forcefully adjusted as car ownership expanded. Cars never made sense in Dublin, but they found a way in and have become part of the urban tissue. Now that must change.

Will we ever have free public transport in Ireland? Not anytime soon I fear. It would take considerable campaigning for this to occur. But we must do something to alleviate the insane traffic congestion in our city, and awaken to the responsibility of addressing the climate chaos afflicting the planet.

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[i] Fergal O’Brien, Dublin third worst city for time spent sitting in traffic – survey, RTÉ, February `13th, 2019, https://www.rte.ie/news/dublin/2019/0213/1029375-dublin-traffic-survey/.

[ii] Sarah Barth, ‘Paris’s 5 year cycling revolution: Twice the cycle lanes and three times the cyclists by 2020’, road.cc – peddled-powered, April 4th, 2015, https://road.cc/content/news/147613-pariss-5-year-cycling-revolution-twice-cycle-lanes-and-three-times-cyclists-2020.

[iii] Untitled, ‘Traffic congestion hitting Dublin companies – Dublin Chamber’, RTÉ, 15th of March, 2018, https://www.rte.ie/news/business/2018/0316/948010-dublin-chamber-traffic/.

[iv] Daniel Boffey, ‘Luxembourg to become first country to make all public transport free’, The Guardian, December 5th, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/05/luxembourg-to-become-first-country-to-make-all-public-transport-free.

[v] Kevin O’Sullivan, ‘Ireland has third highest emissions of greenhouse gas in EU’, Irish Times, 26th of August, 2019, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/environment/ireland-has-third-highest-emissions-of-greenhouse-gas-in-eu-1.3998041.

[vi] Sarah Boseley, ‘How do you build a healthy city? Copenhagen reveals its secrets’ February 11th, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/11/how-build-healthy-city-copenhagen-reveals-its-secrets-happiness

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