There’s a traffic jam up ahead

We must invest in roads and public transport to avoid the unwelcome return of gridlock

Road to nowhere: As the economy recovers and people get back to work, the day that gridlock returns to our roads draws ever nearer. Photograph: David Sleator

Road to nowhere: As the economy recovers and people get back to work, the day that gridlock returns to our roads draws ever nearer. Photograph: David Sleator

Tue, Oct 1, 2013, 18:32

We are sitting on a traffic congestion time-bomb, according to the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT). While traffic flow across the country, and especially in the major metropolitan areas, seems better now than it was, it’s a false positive, created by traffic levels which have fallen along with Ireland’s economy.

In spite of the vast number of calls on the depleted public purse at the moment, the CILT is calling on the Government to rapidly increase the levels of investment in public transport and road infrastructure in order to avoid nationwide gridlock as and when the economy improves.

Difficult position
“We accept that there’s a very difficult position at the moment in terms of public finances, but we have to start thinking about the future when the economy starts to grow again and generate income,” Pat Mangan, chairman of the policy committee at the CILT, told The Irish Times. “Our concern is that during the financial crisis, the level of investment in transport has declined very, very sharply. It’s only about a quarter now of what it was at the peak in 2008, and that’s just too steep a drop, and we need to start planning now before the economy improves. For instance, we’re spending about €800 million a year on capital investment at the moment, and we need to be spending that on just maintaining and renewing the existing network alone.

“The message we want to send out is that you need to start planning now, to get ahead of the next level of congestion, because it’s too late to start planning once the next level of congestion arrives, and it will arrive very, very quickly once the economy grows, and people start getting back to work again.”

We spoke to Mr Mangan at a conference the CILT had organised in Dublin to celebrate the role of women in transport and logistics worldwide. One of the guests and key speakers was Dr Pauline Chan, who is credited with almost single-handedly reviving and revising Hong Kong’s torturous public transport system.

Sustainable transport
“Every city should be looking to the future, and that means greening – how we should develop sustainable transport, and I think Dublin has the same challenge – and that is how we can make the best use of our space and our environment, and how we can put those two together so that mobility is maintained without too many cars on the road, so that the public transport system is strengthened and enhanced, and so that more space is given to pedestrians. That was the challenge that we faced in Hong Kong and I think that also applies here.

“I think connectivity is very important. Every city, as it develops, will spread out. So, how do you bring people to work, how do you bring the economic activities together? The private car is simply not the solution. You build a new road and the next day, it’d fill up. So you have to rely on the public transport system. Of course people will say, ‘oh, you’re penalising the private car owner,’ but the reason behind it is that our human activity creates social cost. To be able to use our road space efficiently is the message. In Hong Kong, we have double-decker buses that can take about 120 passengers, yet it’s equivalent to a road space of two and a half private cars, so you have to think about how you can use your road space more efficiently. All human activities have a role to play, and therefore the city planning is the concept of mobility. How can I go from point A to point B at the cheapest cost in the quickest time?

“We have made use of the railway development as the backbone of the urban transport system, and to revitalise our urban districts. It’s called the R&P model, the Railway and Property model, so you build the railway lines and along that line urban development comes in to support commercial activities, even with residential blocks on top of railway stations, where people can simply leave their flats and go downstairs to get the train.

“Actually, it’s more sustainable because people don’t drive, and while it’s very expensive to build a railway line, you then have more activity around the line which supports and finances the construction of the railway. In Hong Kong we don’t subsidise the bus services; they are supposed to provide break-even services, so there is quite a bit of competition for quality, and people are attracted to use public transport. So in Hong Kong it’s very hot a lot of the time, so many of the buses are air-conditioned, and they have large windows so you almost get the impression that you are a tourist in your own city, not a third-class commuter, packed like sardines in a bus.”

Years of neglect
Even with the recent kite-flying from various Government members that the next Budget may not be as harsh as was forecast, it seems unlikely that five years of neglect in the transport system will be reversed. It’s an investment cost that will likely be seen as simply too high. The real cost, however, may well be that levied on all of our lives and lifestyles in years to come.