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Buses not Metro for Dublin

By James Leahy and James Nix

“The idea of building metro while letting bus services go to the wall reveals the ‘fur coat and no knickers’ mentality dominating our Department of Transport”. So wrote Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times back in March.

Below, James Leahy and James Nix, two transport experts, have a look at the outer and inner garments.

This spring Dublin Bus axed 120 buses to stem cashflow problems. In one fell swoop 10 per cent of the bus fleet was taken off the road – enough buses to cater for 50,000 passenger journeys a day. At the same time, the Government will shortly decide whether to approve funding for Metro North, a light rail project that’s likely to cost €5 billion and would – in about five or six years time – carry about 100,000 passengers a day.

Because it is so expensive, light rail can’t be built everywhere. Those lucky enough to live close to the rail line get a bonanza. But the overwhelming majority face the prospect of downgraded services: in Dublin there are around 10 bus passengers for someone on Luas, and when the national picture is considered, this ratio grows.

A few prestige light rail lines, serving comparatively few, with a second-class bus service supposedly serving everywhere else – but losing passengers – is a charter for failure. It raises key questions we need to ask ourselves. Are we going to work towards a more just,
rational and effective allocation of public resources? Or are we happy to give a benefit to comparatively few, and spread the burden upon many? After equity, we need to look at fuel cost, employment creation and our environment.

Bus investment is proven, abroad and here, to draw people from their cars. It would cut Ireland’s punishing fuel bill of €6 billion a year on imported oil. Light rail, on the other hand, mainly draws users from walking, cycling and bus, so it won’t reduce fuel use to the same extent and in fact may not do so at all.

Bus investment would create jobs in Ireland for local designers and contractors with the expertise for the relatively straightforward street works required for modern bus systems. Light rail, on the other hand, sees a flight of capital as money goes abroad on imported
expertise and rail vehicles, as well as energy to produce materials for these heavily engineered projects. (Buses are made in Ballymena; light rail vehicles must be shipped from France or further afield.)

Investment in modern buses cuts fuel use and therefore emissions. And so to meet climate protection targets we must improve our bus systems and draw more people to them. Sea levels are increasing faster than expected: if we want to tackle fuel emissions bus is the answer as it will serve more people, and faster, than any other mode.

Metro North is specifically designed to avoid taking road space from cars and allocating it to public transport. So the roads neighbouring the rail corridor will remain full of traffic, while park-and-ride collection points will see new houses spring up in north Dublin, Meath and beyond, contributing to long-distance commuting by car, and creating pressure for re-zonings across north Leinster. In short, emissions will rise rather than fall.

Arguably Ireland needed the step-change in public transport investment that yielded Luas. But the question to ask now is can we replicate that new standard across our cities with a technology that’s more affordable. Modern bus investment – such as the well-established bus rapid transit systems in the French cities of Rouen and Nantes – persuade people to switch from car to bus and cut emissions. To build city-wide modern bus systems takes investment. But it costs €8 – €10 million per kilometre, as the high quality systems running in Rouen and Nantes have shown, but still a fraction of the €33 – €200 million a kilometre, the cost of light rail, based on out-turn and projected costs of projects here.

What Nantes and Rouen have now delivered is exactly what the Government-sponsored Dublin Transport Initiative recommended for Dublin’s Quality Bus Corridors in 1995. Viewed from Ireland, the French have grabbed hold of QBC and taken it four or five steps
forward. Proper priority based on selective and sensitive local interventions. Real time passenger information using GPS to show the number of minutes to the arrival of the next bus. Flush floor boarding to aid the elderly and infirm. And for those who don’t believe advanced QBCs can’t be as speedy consider this: the existing Lucan QBC – without some much-needed improvements – takes 27 to 40 minutes even in the morning peak period; the proposed Lucan Luas line would take 45 min.

Peal back the jargon and all political parties have basically the same transport policy — to provide a bit of everything everywhere. A bogus hope that one day all constituencies would be served is cultivated, but there is no real system, and there never will be. Across our urban
areas, people want a high quality public transport network, not an unviable hodgepodge. The graphic shows how main routes in Limerick could be arranged into a legible network. There is nothing like this at present, not just in Limerick, but in any Irish city.

To the hundreds of thousands left to wait longer at bus stops, the possibility of rail services on some distant corridor in five or ten years time is useless. We have a stack of reports detailing how to improve our bus services, and why it must come first: MVA Consultancy (2006), Oireachtas Transport Committee (2008) and Deloitte (2009). How long will we wait for real leadership to end the current Metro charade?