John FitzGerald: Dublin’s bus network needs major overhaul

Most commuters in 2040 will depend on buses not the Luas, Dart or Metro

Dublin’s bus network must adapt to reflect the city’s growth. Photograph: Alan Betson

Dublin’s bus network must adapt to reflect the city’s growth. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Almost 150 years ago, Mountifort Longfield, the first professor of economics in Trinity College Dublin, wrote that “there is no reason why the workman should not have a house and garden for himself and for his family 10 or 12 miles distant from the place of his daily work, and an annual railway ticket to take him in and out every day, for a sum less than the difference between the price of his wholesome country house, and his dirty lodgings in the city”.

This recommendation for decentralised development, relying on long-distance commuting, has been the model for Irish planning for 150 years. What Longfield did not anticipate was that, instead of commuting by rail, most people would commute to work by car.

By the time the financial crash occurred in 2008, it was clear this model of development would have to change. The road system could not accommodate the number of commuters, and Ireland’s cities were choking.

The National Planning Framework, published earlier this year, recognised the urgent need for a change in strategy. Under the framework, Dublin will plan for an increase in population of up to a quarter by 2040, and the other major cities are to plan for growth of 50 per cent.

Employment, and hence the number of commuting journeys, is likely to rise even more rapidly. Much of this expansion of our cities is to take place through much denser development, making use of brown-field sites within their existing footprints. It’s still unlikely that most new development will be within walking distance of people’s jobs.

Huge frustration

Dublin and our other main cities will see a massive increase in the numbers needing public transport to get to work. So unless the public transport system evolves to meet this additional demand, there will be huge frustration.

The development of the Luas Green line is a model of how the provision of good public transport can itself influence a city’s development. Research shows that houses close to this Luas line are worth 15 per cent more than houses without good public transport. This shows that the public highly values public transport that is frequent, fast and reliable.

Since the Luas Green line was opened there has been major redevelopment of what was previously the Sandyford Industrial Estate, located just 8km from the city.

Research shows houses close to this Luas line are worth 15 per cent more than houses without good public transport

Today, many people live in apartments within the environs of the industrial estate, and there has also been a huge increase in office employment there, including the new €135 million Microsoft headquarters. Thus, good public transport has driven much denser urban development so that the Luas Green line is now full at peak hour in both directions.

The planned Metro service, to link in with the Luas Green line, is a logical extension of this policy. That line southwards is approaching capacity, and unless there is major change, would not be able to accommodate further anticipated population growth.

The Metro will provide the necessary increase in capacity but, more important, it will drive dense development across the north of the city to Swords.

Expensive route

However, in building the Metro, it will be essential to minimise disruption to the existing service because of the huge social costs, like the disruption to the large numbers of current Luas commuters of a temporary closure.

Minimising the duration of any such break would be critical. A marginally more expensive route in cash terms may come at an overall lower social cost.

The alternative proposal being canvassed, that the Metro should serve Rathgar and Terenure rather than join the Luas Green line, would only be economic if it leads to denser development along its route.

As there are few brownfield sites on that alignment, it would only make sense if much of the existing low-rise housing there were to be demolished to facilitate denser redevelopment.

While the Luas and Dart systems can provide transport for many of those living in Dublin, the great majority of Dublin’s commuters in 2040 will be dependent on the bus system.

Today, with some exceptions, the bus system is slow, infrequent and unreliable. Its route system has its origins in the tramlines of the 1900s. So Dublin’s bus network needs a transformation, which Bus Connects is aiming to achieve.

While some tweaking of the current plan is needed, it is essential that something along these lines is implemented to significantly improve the speed and frequency of buses, provide for networked journeys and introduce more radial routes. Unless Dublin’s bus system adapts to reflect the city’s growth, gridlock will get steadily worse.

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