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Our Congested Transport System Needs an Era-Defining Reset, Now

A recent EPA Report has highlighted how policy problems are interconnected, and need a whole-of-government response

By Tadhg O’Mahony

Transport and the environment are in the air. Recent weeks have brought debates on CETA and the evolving Climate Bill, and on radical moves by local authorities to facilitate pedestrians and cyclists. Far deeper EU targets have been set for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, 55% by 2030, and a new EU mobility strategy. The EPA produced a report, Ireland’s Environment: An Integrated Assessment 2020. Published every four years, the report is “not optimistic”, and shines a new light on the transport sector in Ireland.

Transport is our second-highest carbon-emitter, and emissions continue to grow, despite the urgent need to rapidly reduce its footprint. Globally, transport is a major carbon emitter. It is associated with significant
death, injury and disease, from air pollution and road traffic accidents, and imposes major costs on economies through traffic congestion. In Ireland, many of these problems are even more pronounced. Our carbon emissions, per capita, are the fourth highest in the EU, while our cities rank amongst the most congested in the world, according to data collected by INRIX and TomTom. Six years on from Ireland’s original Low-Carbon Development Act 2015, and after declaring a ‘climate emergency’ in 2019, Ireland still has no plan to reduce emissions to 2050, and transport is a chief area for concern.

As the pressure for change builds, understanding how Ireland has developed these systemic problems is essential to moving forward.

Our History in Transport, and how we Became ‘Locked-In’

The total number of vehicles on our national roads, squeezing into our towns and cities, is now heading towards three million, and the private car has come to dominate travel in Ireland. According to the latest survey from the CSO, almost 80 per cent of journeys are made by private motorised forms, even dominating the shorter journeys of up to two kilometres.

“National energy and emissions modelling studies have consistently focused on changing vehicles, fuels and behaviour – reinforcing the dominance of the private car and road freight, pushing more beneficial systems change out of policy discussion”

The Irish transport system was very different a century ago, at the time of Independence. Dominated by sustainable modes, an extensive rail network served communities throughout the country, from the Hills of Donegal to the Dingle peninsula. Much of our national rail network was dismantled over the course of the last century. This coincided with the rise of the private car, and glossy industry advertising promising ‘freedom’.
The car was marketed as a potent status symbol, and signifier of ‘success’, and it was adopted in ever greater numbers as the expression of a prosperous lifestyle.

Fast forward to the 1980s, and the vision of successive Irish governments to grow the economy, develop the regions and drawdown European funding, was for major investments in roads, and a new motorway network. In
comparison, public transport largely stagnated, rail freight became almost non-existent, and walking and cycling were reduced to more niche
activities than sensible mobility options. We were diverging substantially from our European neighbours. At the same time, laissez faire spatial
planning allowed proliferation of one-off housing in the countryside, and low-density suburban and commuter developments. This ‘urban sprawl’
renders alternatives to the private car far more difficult to implement. Our towns and cities were increasingly designed, car-first, human-second,
with wide roads and narrow paths making our public realm more unsafe for vulnerable users and less comfortable for everyone.

Our physical settlement and infrastructure were becoming deeply set. From the mid-1990s, policy, investment, market and lifestyle all dictated that we would funnel our growing economy and population into the private car.

When all of these factors line-up it is called ‘lock-in’. Described by global sustainability expert Gregory Unruh, and later platformed by the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ‘carbon lock-in’ becomes both inevitable and difficult to escape, blocking off options for more beneficial outcomes. Successive spatial, transport and emissions policies came and went, and all failed. The focus, largely from
engineering and economics, was on improving technology, through efficiency, and implementing a carbon tax. This narrative, and
the measures it encouraged, were far too weak to overcome lock-in. Throughout the ‘boom years’ transport carbon emissions continued
their inexorable rise. The financial crisis and recession, in the late noughties, were a blip in the long-term trend of increasing vehicle
numbers and burgeoning emissions.

An Appetite for Change, but Deep Structural Problems Block our Progress

In recent years, the Citizens Assembly and an Oireachtas Committee have demonstrated that there is significant public and political appetite
to change course. The main policy response, the government’s 2019 Climate Action Plan, had the laudable goal to bring a new seriousness to tackling emissions, to pursue our 2030 targets, and “put the country on a trajectory to net zero by 2050”.

Yet two critical flaws had already undermined the Plan’s approach to transport, and these were baked-in from its inception.

The plan did not address the long-term, to at least 2050: a key precondition documented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the gold standard of scientific knowledge on the topic.

Even more problematic, the most important decisions had already been taken, in the much heralded ‘Project Ireland 2040’. This established
a settlement plan up to the year 2040, known as the ‘National Planning Framework’, and an infrastructure investment plan to 2030. It aimed
for 40 per cent of new housing development to be “within or close to built-up areas”, and for the addition of 500,000 active and public transport
journeys per day. The targets are at the lower-end of ambition – compromises that could evade political challenges, but insufficient to overcome lock-in and support transition. Project Ireland was not subject to analysis of the long-term emissions implications, of the kind that could
provoke reflection on alternative paths.

As the Climate Action Plan was developed, it became clear that Project Ireland would not help in achieving 2030’s emissions targets, let alone
2050’s. In a sign of desperation, the Plan continually ramped up the number of electric vehicles, finally arriving at a figure of 936,000 by As an approach, beginning with the short rather than long-term, and focusing on improving
technology instead of addressing root systems at their roots, is the exact reverse of a sensible transport and emissions policy.

A further challenge is that the national energy and emissions modelling studies used to support action on carbon emissions and air pollution have consistently focused on changing vehicles, fuels and behaviour. This further
reinforces the dominance of the private car and road freight, pushing more beneficial systems change out of policy discussion. It also distorts the estimated costs of reducing Ireland’s emissions, estimates that the government have used centrally in negotiations with the EU, to
argue for easier emissions targets. As per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it is now standard practice internationally to take
long-term settlement planning, transport planning and emissions policy together, in a ‘systems approach’. Given the limits we have implicitly imposed on ourselves, in how we analyse and make policy, we are in effect
attempting to walk the difficult path of a ‘sustainable low-carbon transition,’ both blindfold and with our legs hobbled. In these circumstances, urban sprawl and car-dominated transport are virtually guaranteed to continue and grow. This will make our emissions targets
more difficult to reach, and block.

The Seeds of Transformation

Yet, the policy gears may have begun to shift In Ireland, the new EPA report, in its transport chapter, draws on decades of global assessments, and on international best practice, to recommend a radical new departure.
It describes a “sustainable mobility transformation”, that must be long-term, to 2050 and beyond, and also seriously consider the potential for systems change.

It details the requirements of what is known internationally as the ‘avoid-shift-improve’ approach, which has yet to find substantial application in Ireland.

First, this involves long-term spatial planning for dense settlements – allowing us to avoid longer journeys.

Second, it involves the integration of settlement planning, with the long-term planning of transport. This can enable major shifts in the modes of how we travel, to prioritise walking, cycling and public transport.

Last in this hierarchy, it involves measures that ‘improve’ our technology, including electric vehicles, as the last link in the chain – the ‘end-of-pipe’. This strategy needs to consider the full range of potential options available, to 2050 and beyond, as it is on this timescale that transformation of systems can emerge.

Spatial planning needs to consider the potential to divert all development into existing footprints, as in Zurich. It must focus attention on the dense redevelopment of the under-utilised zones of our cities and towns, as discussed by Green MEP and planner Ciarán Cuffe.

This strategy has the potential to create ample affordable housing supply, in vibrant and attractive new village communities, if dealt with as an interconnected problem, and also has clear links with addressing the housing and homelessness crises.

The settlement planning process needs to be deeply integrated with long-term transport planning, for sustainable systems, that consider options for major transformation of Irish mobility. This must include the potential for domination by walking and cycling, and by major expansion February-March 2021 75 of an electrified rail network as the backbone of future
mobility in Ireland, for both passengers and freight. The benefits of cheap healthy travel by walking and cycling, in exemplar cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, are now well known. For longer distance transport, electrified rail is typically the most sustainable form.

Akin to the vision of the original rail pioneers, from Europe and the US to China, a transformational expansion of an electrified rail network now demands serious consideration in Ireland.

By definition, the process of transformation requires consideration of big visions, of radical change, and studying the implications of these to support
policymaking. It also needs a surfacing of constructive criticism of where we are, and where we want to go. It is only with real interrogation of the many options available, that we can finally arrive at informed decisions on the weighty challenges we have today.

“The report recommends long-term spatial planning for dense settlements, integration of settlement planning and improvements in technology, including electric vehicles, as the last
link in the chain -the ‘end-of-pipe”

The recent EPA report has highlighted how policy problems are interconnected, and need a whole-of-government response. Much of Ireland’s public policy, in recent decades, has favoured piecemeal, ‘predict
and provide’ and market-led approaches. These are relics of a simpler time, before the priority on long-term transition, and will no longer cut-it in the 21st century. Our transport policy is creaking at the seams.

The problems caused by the separation of Project Ireland and the Climate Action Plan are a clear illustration that the time for a joined-up approach has now come. It necessitates a unified long-term approach across the variety of institutions and agencies responsible. We often tend to over-estimate change in the short-term, but under-estimate it in the long-term.
As our transport history has shown, change is inevitable. But with an appropriate strategy across government, accompanied by political will, It can be actively directed on to desirable paths, empowering the creation of a sustainable future.

Two Visions for the Future, With Very Different Outcomes

Cost has often been invoked as a reason not to consider these options, yet this no longer stands up to scrutiny. Our path is one that provides meagre
private benefits, at major cost to public health, safety, environment and our economy. In truth, we have no estimations of costs of transformation available, because we have not yet begun to seriously consider
transformative options.

We do not have an alternative vision in policy discussion with which to compare our current path, a path that tweaks the status quo, and ensures that the burden of damage will continue to be placed on the general population, and drag on our economy. As this inhibited view frames our energy and emissions modelling, these limitations are further reproduced,
clearly demonstrating how lock-in colonises our thinking, and forecloses options for creating something better.

If we are to change course, something has to give. Concerns of backsliding on the National Planning Framework have also now arisen.

The Planning Framework is a minimum, a floor not a ceiling of ambition, it needs to be protected and built from there to deal with current lock-in and
prevent further sprawl. This process of enhancement can begin with political or institutional vision, with our research communities, or bottom-up with citizens demanding change.

Without even a pause for doubt, it can be stated that current plans will not steer Ireland on to a sustainable path, and we are markedly out-of-step
with the needs of our 2050 net-zero ambitions. Our targets may have changed, but our thinking has remained largely unmoved.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, is a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein. We are currently on course to pass-on ever deepening lock-in, and all of its maladies, on to coming generations. On the flipside, a sustainable mobility transformation offers immense opportunities for ‘win-win’ outcomes, to
empower active creation of a better future for all. Our transport is suffocating us, and the time for transformational vision has now arrived. Let’s hope we finally position ourselves on the right side of history.