Congestion charges vital to get people out of cars and on to public transport

Road space is a scarce resource that can be used most efficiently by buses, so bus lanes are more valuable than cycle paths

With almost universal car ownership, over the past half century our cities have become increasingly congested. At busy times, cars stuck in jams clog up our scarce street space, adding to travel times and to climate damage. For our cities to function sustainably, major changes need to happen in how we use scarce road space, and how peak-time journeys are accomplished.

Some of the big changes, such as Dublin’s Bus Connects and the planned Metro, will take years of investment, and are preceded by detailed appraisals. A lower-tech development that accelerated during the pandemic, has been a significant reallocation of road space to bikes or buses. While individual schemes of this kind that have been delivered or are in the pipeline are piecemeal, and individually below the threshold for rigorous cost-benefit analysis, taken together they amount to a significant change in the Dublin region and warrant appropriate cost-benefit study.

That means looking at the broader impact across the population, as well as the impact on climate change. It means examining the effects of changing the balance of street space allocated to pedestrians, bikes, buses and private cars, and how this influences behaviour.

A typical Dublin bus measures just under 11m and can carry up to 95 people. It takes up slightly less road length than three standard cars, or about six bikes. But an empty bus carries fewer people than four bikes or a full car, so the real measure of effectiveness is actual journeys per unit of road space for different modes of travel.


In recent years, the Central Statistics Office’s National Travel Surveys have monitored how we travel. While car travel can be expected to dominate in rural Ireland where people live further from everyday destinations, the car is king in Dublin. In 2019, 62 per cent of Dubliners’ trips were by private car, 18 per cent walked, 13 per cent used public transport (twice as many used buses as travelled by rail options), and only 3.5 per cent cycled. These proportions had changed little over the preceding five years.

The corresponding survey taken at the end of 2021 showed an encouraging switch towards more active modes of travel – walking was up to 25 per cent, and cycling to 5 per cent, but public transport was down to 11 per cent, while car journeys fell to 56 per cent. Continuing pandemic restrictions on public transport, and more people working from home were cited as factors that may have affected these results.

Not unexpectedly, the data show that the prevalence of cycling is much higher for young adults, and that it falls off rapidly for the growing demographic aged over 50. An alternative to car transport must cater for all of the population, including the elderly or disabled.

The reallocation of street-space between pedestrians, cycling and public transport should be determined, not on the basis of ideology, but rather using evidence of what works best in reducing car journeys. That is likely to show we need to see significant reallocation of street space away from cars, first to buses, then to pedestrians and cyclists.

Only option

Public transport is the only option that can substitute for most of the journeys currently undertaken by car. And with a Metro still many years off, that means buses will be the main public transport solution for the next decade. While a further increase in cycling should be facilitated and encouraged, it cannot provide an alternative for the bulk of car journeys.

Reducing options for car travel or for parking in the city is one way to drive people out of their cars, by making car journeys more miserable even at off-peak times. A better way is to introduce congestion charges. This would minimise time costs for motorists and ensure that only the most essential car journeys are undertaken. A second best is a big increase in parking charges in the city centre to dramatically reduce commuting by car.

When people switch from buses to bikes, or from walking to bikes, it does little to improve congestion. Dublin City Council’s plan to close a bus lane in Ranelagh to facilitate more bike travel seems like madness. When I lived near there, I travelled by bike into town every day, but using tree-lined side streets for a more pleasant, safer, and only marginally longer journey. Those alternative bike routes are still available.

The experience of London with congestion charging is instructive. It greatly reduced car traffic and sped up bus transit times. It has also made the city much more liveable for pedestrians. For cyclists, pleasant journeys through uncluttered side-streets are now the way to travel. Dublin should learn from London.