Buses and cars to stay at heart of city transport

Tue, Nov 13, 2012, 00:00

ANALYSIS:Shortly after taking office as Minister for Transport last year, Leo Varadkar made it clear that only one of the three “big ticket” public transport projects planned for Dublin was likely to go ahead, given the exchequer’s coffers were bare. Almost inevitably, the linking of the two existing Luas lines – the Luas “BXD” project – got the go-ahead.

Metro North, a mainly tunnelled line between St Stephen’s Green and Swords, and Dart Underground, which would link Heuston and Connolly stations and integrate all suburban rail services, were pigeonholed on cost grounds.

The Dart Underground project offered the prospect of integrating Dart and suburban rail services into a real network, through use of a 7.6km tunnel between Inchicore and Spencer Dock, with intermediate stations connecting seamlessly with other services. Dart Underground has been estimated at €1.2 billion, but this doesn’t take all costs into account. It seems impossible that funding on the vast scale required can be found.

Estimated to cost €375 million, the BXD project will not only fill that missing link between the existing Luas lines, extending as far northwest as Broombridge, it will also re-establish the original concept of a largely street-running light rail network for Dublin. But any idea that linking up the two Luas lines will radically improve public transport in Dublin is misplaced. Buses will continue to be the workhorses of the city’s transport services, carrying vastly more passengers every year than Luas, Dart and suburban rail services combined. Yet buses will be hardest hit by Luas BXD.

Installation of the Luas link will require the removal of numerous long-established city centre bus stops from Dawson Street, Lower Grafton Street, College Street, Marlborough Street and Parnell Square.

The National Transport Authority has gone along with the perceived need, on cost grounds, to reduce the Dublin Bus fleet, even though it carries nearly 30 per cent of all commuters to the inner city. Subsidy levels are minimal compared to Brussels (48 per cent of running costs) or Madrid (60 per cent), making fare increases and further service cuts inevitable. And despite some improvements in facilities for cyclists and pedestrians under the Government’s Smarter Travel programme, the bulk of the limited capital investment for transport is still pledged for roads.

Wish list

The National Roads Authority’s wish list still includes an eastern bypass, extending the Dublin Port Tunnel southwards to Sandymount and beyond, as well as an “outer bypass” from Drogheda to Naas.

But traffic levels have fallen as a result of the recession, especially in the city centre. The most recent “canal cordon count” in November 2011 showed that 60,607 cars crossed the canal ring into the inner city, compared with 73,147 in 1999. The number of cyclists, having fallen to a low of 1,704 in 2009, rose spectacularly to 6,870 just two years later.

Many commuters living in Dublin’s inner suburbs seem to have decided that cycling or walking is not only cheaper but also healthier. A continuous cycleway along stretches of the Grand Canal has helped to overcome fears about safety, and the DublinBikes scheme has also made a big difference in perceptions.

Yet Dublin remains a car-dominated city – unlike Copenhagen, where more than a third of all commuters cycle to work. It’s not only that the Danish capital is flat – every possible facility is provided for cyclists and pedestrians.

According to the Department of Transport’s Smarter Travel website, 400,000 people throughout the State travel four kilometres or less to work or school every weekday – “distances that are very amenable to cycling or even walking”. As it says, “if even just these commuters shifted to walking or cycling, urban traffic congestion would be a thing of the past”.

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