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Friday 24 January 2020

'We have to make the alternatives to cars more attractive for commuters into city'

How green is Dublin? In part two of a five-part series, Caroline O'Doherty looks at the capital's transport infrastructure and what the future holds for the most choked of cities

Travel into city centre (between the canals) during the morning rush hour – average figures from Dublin City Council taken over two days in November 2018 between 7am and 10am - 60,537 in cars, 12,227 cyclists, 13,835 - Luas, 34,471 - rail, 64,206 - bus
Travel into city centre (between the canals) during the morning rush hour – average figures from Dublin City Council taken over two days in November 2018 between 7am and 10am - 60,537 in cars, 12,227 cyclists, 13,835 - Luas, 34,471 - rail, 64,206 - bus

It has been a challenging few days at the traffic control centre in Dublin City Council with the start of the pre-Christmas rush clashing with record rainfall and protesting farmers blocking key routes on tractors.

During another evening rush hour the rain has returned, there's a car on fire on the N7 at Citywest and a truck has demolished the traffic lights at the busy junction of South Circular Road and St John's Road West.

On one of the many control centre monitors, the familiar shape of the Red Cow Roundabout is showing vehicles moving in what looks like slow motion. Only there is no camera trickery.

"It is slow," Damien Cooney concedes, "but it's moving."

In a city such as Dublin, with its medieval centre and modern transport demands, time-poor commuters, under-pressure commercial drivers and inevitable mishaps and malfunctions, keeping things moving is an achievement.

Moving

But today Damien, the council's traffic control officer, is celebrating another accomplishment and it's not about the 1,200km of roads under his command or the 147 bridges or 900 junctions.

It's about one small stretch of Lombard Street where, sooner or later, just about everyone in Dublin ends up thanks to its chief landmark, the register of births, marriages and deaths.

The previous night, during planned resurfacing works, Damien grabbed the chance to have the road markings redrawn so that the cycle lane and parking spaces switched places.

It seems to be working well. Motorists are unaffected and cyclists are now between the parked cars and footpath, protected from traffic. They've been giving the thumbs-up on social media all day.

"I'm ridiculously happy about that," says Damien. "It's not big infrastructure, it didn't cost much, it's just taking what we have and using it better."

Increasingly, he knows, the goal must be not to just keep the city moving, but to keep it flowing in a sustainable way.

Transport and traffic are responsible not only for a considerable proportion of stress in Dublin but also for 25pc of the city's carbon emissions - some 698,000 tonnes a year.

More people choosing cycling for their daily commute is one obvious solution but Dublin, with its dearth of dedicated cycle lanes, can be one long and dangerous obstacle course to anything on two wheels.

Just 7pc of journeys through the city are by bicycle, but the number is growing and cyclists are beginning to get attention from planners and policy makers.

A further 30pc of journeys are made on foot, 20pc by public transport and 43pc by private cars and commercial vehicles.

Given the still very small inroads made by electric vehicles, that means close to 63pc of journeys are powered by fossil fuels.

The country's Climate Action Plan has a target of one million electric vehicles on the road by 2030 but even if every motorist in Dublin has to go electric, it would not be the ideal solution.

Electric vehicles still require infrastructure, space and parking and still create congestion and demands on energy.

The ideal is to get people out of their cars as their primary mode of transport and on to public transport, foot or bike.

Easier said than done. During the recession, the split between public transport and private car use moved even more in favour of cars, presumably as commuters took advantage of the lighter traffic.

The M50 handles on average 145,000 vehicles a day - and at times almost 180,000 - and despite the regular congestion and the absolute gridlock at peak times or following accidents, the numbers keep growing.

"People still want to drive and they're mainly single-occupant cars," says Damien. "We can't tell them not to, but we can try to make changes that make the alternatives more attractive."

However, the biggest changes need to come from the public transport operators and they face constraints.

Irish Rail's current Peaktime.ie campaign, encouraging people to avoid non-essential Dart journeys during the rush hour because of overcrowding, shows the strain the service is under.

There are plans to extend the Dart network and frequency of services with a view to doubling passenger numbers but the target date is 2028.

Dublin Bus is aiming to increase capacity on its services by 22pc by reconfiguring routes under the Bus Connects plan which is currently going through a second round of public consultation, but that might just absorb the demand from population growth rather than grow its share of journeys.

A future phase of the Bus Connects project - the creation of new dedicated bus corridors - includes provision for 200km of accompanying cycle lanes, but that's still some way down the line.

Buses also need to abandon diesel and Dublin Bus has tendered for 600 hybrid buses to be introduced over five years, but the total fleet that needs replacing comprises more than 1,000 vehicles.

Furthermore, hybrids cut emissions by 30pc so longer-term another solution may have to be found.

Irish Rail also has a tender out for up to 600 battery-electric carriages to replace the ageing Dart stock and prepare for the electrification of other commuter lines, but it will be 2024 before they arrive.

MetroLink will add another public transport option but not until 2028 at the earliest.

The Luas is getting longer trams on the Green Line which should increase capacity on that route by 30pc.

In the meantime, the taxi industry questions why it is not considered an integral part of the public transport package.

"We're seen as private individuals out making money," says David McGuinness, chairperson of taxi drivers' representative group, Tiomanai Tacsai na hEireann.

"I drive a PSV (public service vehicle) and I have a PSV licence but we're not seen as part of the public transport system and we're excluded from planning and co-ordination."

Competition

He says there needs to be taxi ranks at Luas stops, multiple electric vehicle charging points at every rank and shelters for waiting passengers, but the sector's pleas have so far not been heeded.

"We can link up the other forms of public transport, but instead we're seen as being in competition with it," he says.

"There was a big announcement about a couple of buses going 24/7. I had to laugh - we've been providing a 24-hour service for years."

Back at the traffic control centre, Damien and his colleagues are checking on some of the car parks.

"At this time of year you have to watch them closely. Cars queuing to get in block the road so cars trying to leave can't get out, so cars waiting to get in can't move and so on," says Damien.

"We get calls from the car parks asking for help because everything's jammed up.

"The lights are something we can control; people still driving their cars, even in the Christmas madness, is a different matter," he added.

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