There is a generally depressing received narrative when it comes to Ireland and public transport. It goes something like this: in the 1960s we binned all the trams and the regional railway networks and shut down the canals in favour of road haulage and private car use. In the 1980s there was the Dart but little else.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, private car ownership exploded as people started to make money for the first time, and that, combined with at the very least dubious planning decisions, led to gridlock. The Luas arrived, but only in partially-complete form and at a stupidly inflated cost. Since when, public transport has been generally awful, unreliable and overcrowded, and if you don’t live on the 46A route, good luck to you.
There are nuggets of truth in that, but it’s certainly an oversimplification and, according to one global expert at least, misses out on the fact that Ireland is in some ways ahead of the curve when it comes to public transport.
Tony Canavan is global transport leader with EY (formerly Ernst & Young) and an expert on government and public-sector transport investment. A native of Australia, he is currently based in Singapore, and The Irish Times caught up with him on a recent visit to Dublin. What he had to say may be something of a surprise for those caught up in the generally gloomy opinions of Irish public transport.
“I’m not going to comment on the track record of previous projects, because it might not be politic of me to do so,” Canavan says. “But Ireland shouldn’t feel alone in that respect, it’s a well-trodden path and a normal tale wherever you look.
“I guess it’s a case of woe betide someone coming in and thinking that they have a perfect overview of the entire situation, but my feeling is that there’s a lot you’re getting right in Ireland on the public transport side of things. For a start, I can’t think of a single city or country in the world right now where public transport ‘ridership’ is higher than pre-pandemic levels, but that is the case in Dublin and in regional Ireland. Ever other major city has seen a 20-30 per cent decrease in public transport use. So I’ve explored the reasons for that, and those reasons include things that other countries could really learn from.”
So, what are the reasons? What’s putting Ireland ahead of the game when it comes to the post-pandemic take-up of public transport options?
According to Canavan, it’s actually kudos to the Irish Government – during the height of the pandemic, there was a general global discouragement of public transport use (too many people crowded too close together and all that) but Canavan says the Government did what many other governments around the world did not do: it kept public transport plans and investments flowing, at least relatively so.
“You didn’t just keep existing infrastructure projects on the go,” says Canavan. “You actually added more services, and thank goodness you did. In other countries, congestion in major cities is now worse even though there are fewer journeys actually taking place, but you’ve managed to avoid that.”
Canavan uses the phrase ‘poster child’ in relation to Ireland, which may come as a shock to some who’ve tried to use a bus or rail service and been stymied by lateness, overcrowding or simple lack of provision
Does that mean that we’re on the right path? There’s a huge body of work to do between now and 2050, when the country is supposed to be approaching net-zero carbon emissions, which is going to take huge efforts when it comes to public transport planning and provision, as well as converting what remains of the private car fleet to electric power.
Canavan reckons we should ignore the legacies of past political decisions and focus on what we’re doing now, and what we’re doing next because he reckons we’re doing it right. “The future of transport and mobility in Ireland is not a simple road-versus-rail argument,” says Canavan. “It’s about shared mobility versus personalised mobility, and my understanding is that there’s a commitment that for every euro spent on road infrastructure there will be two spent on public transport. As long as you pick the right projects, that’s a watershed moment.”
Canavan allows that Ireland, as with his home in Australia, has a car-friendly culture, with the qualification for a driving licence still seen as a rite of passage as much as a mobility solution. His view is that changing our behaviour around such things is critical, as is the continuing evolution of the physical shape and spaces of our cities, to moderate the demand for car journeys.
“It’s not just about the transition to electric vehicles,” he says. “You need a whole package, and the right elements are there as far as I’m concerned.
“Clearly, there’s a lot of resolve in Ireland to do all this. There’s a strong sense of intention, and that’s not always the case. In other countries, in other cases it’s quite piecemeal. I just don’t think that kind of resolve even exists in large parts of the US. Even where I live in southeast Asia, it’s not that big on the agenda. People in that region are still at the stage of getting their first cars, not to mind getting rid of cars or solving congestion.”
Canavan at one point even uses the phrase ‘poster child’ in relation to Ireland, which may come as a shock to some who’ve tried to use a bus or rail service and been stymied by lateness, overcrowding or simple lack of provision.
But as he points out, the whole world is on the journey, one of reducing the need and the desire for the use of private cars and expanding the reach, the reliability and the usability of public transport in order to bring down carbon emissions. In that, Canavan says, Ireland is ahead of the curve in many respects.
“Every country should look at how they’re doing transport planning and look for room to improve, but in some aspects, you know, when I leave here, I’ll be telling others about what Ireland has done and then suggest to them that they should have a look at what’s happening here.”